Scenes are the building blocks of your novel. If you were building a wall, you wouldn’t settle for a poorly made brick or one that didn’t fit in well with the others. Likewise, when it comes to writing a scene, it needs to be well-structured and serve your plot.

This article will cover:

What goes into a successful scene

How to make sure that your scene fits into the wider picture of your manuscript

The essential elements of a well-written scene

Before you start writing your scene, take some time to consider the following list. It might be helpful to jot down your ideas for each of the points below so that you can refer back to them as the scene develops.

Structure: Think of your scene as a mini story. As with any story, your scene needs a beginning, middle and end.

The beginning, or “scene launch”, should grab your reader’s attention and orientate them.

The middle of the scene should feature some sort of change or “turn” of events. This is the place for action or reaction, where characters either get into conflict or deal with the consequences of conflict.

The ending rounds off the immediate action and sets things up for the next scene, for example by leaving the reader with a question about what will happen next. 

Orientation: When an author launches into a scene without giving the reader any context to orientate themselves, it can be very confusing; at worst, it can frustrate readers and lead them to put the book down. At the beginning of the scene, be sure to signpost the following:

Where the scene is taking place

When the scene is taking place in relation to events in the previous scene

Who is in the scene

From whose perspective the scene is being told

There may be some scenes in your book that focus on what a character is thinking. If this is the case, make sure that they are not thinking in a vacuum. Use the orientation information to anchor the scene in the fictional world of the story, and ensure that there is at least some action happening at the same time.

Change: Each scene in your novel should have its own goal: “by the end of this scene, X will have happened”. This should be a change that influences the subsequent sequence of events, thereby driving the plot forwards. The change can take the form of an action by a character(s), or it could be a change in a character’s thoughts, such as a realisation or decision.

Conflict: Conflict gives rise to action and change. It forces characters to make choices, and their choices influence their actions, in turn moving the plot onwards. Every scene should contain some level of conflict. This could be external conflict or internal conflict.

Crafting a scene that serves your plot

Drafting a scene centred on a clear goal, with a beginning, middle and end, and with a turn of events that drives the plot forwards, is only one part of the process. It’s also important to consider how the scene fits into the wider picture of your manuscript and its impact on pacing. Read back over your scene and consider the following:

 

    • Does the scene flow on smoothly from the previous one?
    • Does the ending set things up for the next scene?
    • Read the scene out loud. Does it feel like it drags?
    • Is there any material in the scene that is not relevant to the unfolding plot events or character development?
    • Does the scene end too quickly or abruptly?
    • Do you need to add more detail to flesh the scene out?
    • Does the scene have a clear goal, distinct from the goal of the previous and subsequent scene?
    • If the scene was deleted, would it have any impact on the reader’s understanding of the plot?

A note on scene length

Scene breaks give readers a chance to pause their reading and put the kettle on, feed the cat or whatever it is they need to do. Ideally, a scene shouldn’t go on for so long that the reader can’t finish it in one go. The length of a scene influences the pacing: a longer scene can slow the pace while a shorter scene can speed it up. Varying your scene length helps to moderate pacing and keep your reader engaged.

Summing up

Writing a scene is like writing a novel on a smaller scale: structure, conflict and reader orientation are key. Using the list and questions in this article will help you to create a well-structured scene that keeps the reader grounded in your fictional world and intrigued to see what happens next.

Have you written a scene that you would like feedback on? Why not try my sample scene edit service.

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