Much like the beginning of a jigsaw puzzle — when the pieces are all strewn about the coffee table, and you’re searching endlessly for the flat edges of a corner — a novel begins with scattered ideas and concepts. The longer you work on it, the more those pieces slowly start to fit together until, finally, a complete story emerges.
Scenes are some of the most crucial pieces of that puzzle. They transform a mere outline into a fully fleshed-out narrative. Ideally, one that the reader won’t be able to put down.
Master the art of writing a compelling scene, and you’ll master the story.
What is a Scene?
In essence, a scene is a self-contained moment that moves the plot forward, reveals character development, and propels the narrative toward its climax. Think of it like a mini-story within the larger context of your novel.
While each scene takes place in a specific location and time, they can range from a few paragraphs to several pages to an entire chapter. Scenes need to have action, dialogue, and emotion, as well as a clear objective that contributes to the overall plot of the novel.
Like plotting methods, there are various techniques for structuring a scene. Story Grid urges writers to include the five commandments of storytelling — an inciting incident, a turning point, a crisis, a climax, and a resolution — in every scene. Another popular method (as highlighted best by the blog Helping Writers Become Authors) breaks down all the moving pieces of a scene into three building blocks:
As you can see, effective scenes have mini-arcs similar to that of the larger story. The hook captures the reader’s attention and sets up the stakes for the rest of the scene. The development builds upon that initial hook, creating tension and moving the story forward. And finally, the climax is where all that built-up tension comes to a head.
Learning how to create these building blocks and weave them together seamlessly is what makes a scene work.
Building Blocks of a Scene
For the purpose of this piece, we’re going to dive a little deeper into those three elements. Just note that no matter what scene writing methodology you choose, the key belief they share is that something has to happen in each scene to shift the character’s direction or perspective.
So, let’s take a closer look at each building block and how it contributes to the overall structure of a scene.
Every scene needs to have a goal — something that the character wants, needs or must overcome. While the objective is on a much smaller scale than the overall goal of the novel, it still needs to be significant enough to the character to garner attention from the reader. Without a goal, the scene has no point.
To avoid a flat start, establish the goal of your scene as quickly as possible. Here are a few questions to help you get started:
- What is the character trying to achieve?
- What is at stake if they don’t reach their goal?
- How does this goal fit into the larger story?
Once the hook has been established, it’s time to develop the scene. Remember: every scene needs a conflict. This can manifest in multiple ways — whether it’s a physical obstacle, an emotional hurdle, or an internal struggle. This conflict will create tension, and that tension will be the meat of your scene.
But don’t create conflict just for conflict’s sake. A seemingly random argument will only confuse the reader and detract from the larger narrative. Make sure the obstacle your character faces is relevant to both the goal of the scene and to the overall plot of the novel.
This is where everything you’ve built up comes together in either a satisfying or disastrous way. The protagonists definitely deserve some wins, but a perfect track record can make for a dull read. However, not every scene needs to have a Hollywood-style climax. Sometimes, it can be as simple as the character realizing they were wrong about something or making a difficult decision.
It’s important for novels to have a mix of both good and bad outcomes to keep things interesting. But whatever the outcome, it needs to be titillating enough to build into the next scene and motivate the reader to keep turning the page.
Better Scenes Make Better Stories
Writing a scene is like writing a mini-story. It has all the elements of plot structure compressed into a smaller, more immediate narrative. By understanding the building blocks and techniques for crafting an effective scene, you’ll be able to elevate your novel from a mere gathering of ideas and concepts to a fully realized, compelling story.
But if you’re feeling stuck or overwhelmed by the whole novel-writing process, consider hiring a book coach. The 1:1 customized guidance from a professional like PDHines can help you navigate the intricacies of scene writing and bring your novel to its full potential.
More scene-writing resources: