Explore how to shape a scene, identify its central purpose, involve readers, and keep your plot on track
At a glance
Identify the essential elements of a good scene and apply them to your draft immediately
- Goal. Start with a character with a goal. Sounds simple, right? Yet it’s easy to let characters meander into memories and backstory as they gaze passively at purple hills. Good scenes have a mini-plot: a character who wants something, strives to get it, but must cope with opposition. Tap into that desire and readers will root for your character as she strives to achieve what she wants—only to face an even tougher dilemma.
- Conflict. What trouble is your character in? If the answer’s none then your scene’s in trouble. If the scene tracks a satisfied character listening to birds singing in a cloudless sky, something better get in the way fast, or there’s no story anymore. Even if the conflict is mom yelling, “Time to put those curlers in your hair.”
- Change. The best way to focus a scene is to pinpoint moments of change. Identify the change that occurs, when it occurs, and how the point-of-view character is changed as a result. Effective change is two-pronged: something changes within your character, and externally in the scene. We’ll discuss how to find these turning points and make them matter.
- Grounding and orienting with setting. If readers don’t know where the scene’s taking place, who’s in it, what’s happening, or why they should care, things get stalled fast. But how do you ground without overstating; orient without describing every detail in the room? How much scenery do you need in a scene? Is setting more than just place? We’ll look at examples in established writers' work to find a balance.
- Showing rather than telling. Showing means you involve your reader in the scene—help them visualize what’s happening with concrete detail. It also means showing emotion (“he slammed his fist on the table”) rather than telling (“he was angry”). “Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it's raining but the feeling of being rained upon.” (E. L. Doctorow) We’ll analyze excerpts that don’t skimp on the senses—smell, taste, touch, sound, sight—but don’t go overboard.
- Good dialogue. When is dialogue at its best? How does it enhance a scene? Does yours intensify conflict, urgency, characterization, a character’s goal, your novel’s themes? We’ll discuss common pitfalls and effective fixes.
- Hooking. What does it mean to open with a hook? Is it just about grabbing attention? Hooks help you tease with intrigue, questions, an irresistible voice, humor, playfulness, enticing language, and more. How about ending with one, too?
By the end of the day you’ll have a scene outline and tips for writing a scene that’s taut, tangible, and full of page-turning tension. Writers of fiction and creative nonfiction are welcome.