Writing Powerful Scenes in Fiction and Nonfiction

Master essential elements of a good scene –- goal, conflict, action-reaction, and character change. In each unit you'll apply scene-building techniques to a short scene from your work-in-progress or a scene inspired by the unit prompt. Fiction and nonfiction writers of all levels welcome. Option 1 writers submit five short scene exercises for individualized instructor critique; Option 2 writers submit eight.

At a glance

What: Writing Powerful Scenes in Fiction and Nonfiction

When: Start anytime, complete within 1 year

Where: Online

Cost: Option 1: 1.0 CEU, $150 | Option 2: 2.0 CEUs, $175

Instructor: Angela Rydell

Register Online
or register by phone at
Register anytime

For additional information, contact Angela Rydell: 608-262-3982

Scenes are the building blocks of all good stories. Yet many writers build scenes without giving structure a second thought. Sometimes those scenes come out right, sometimes they fall flat. Why rely on instinct alone? Once you have a blueprint, you’ll construct a well-formed scene every time.

Who this course is for

  • Fiction or nonfiction writers looking to improve their skill writing stories, personal essays, novels, or memoirs 
  • All writers ready to take their craft to the next level by mastering scene structure
  • Intermediate and advanced writers who want to shape key moments of a story’s plot into memorable scenes
  • Writers who want to write efficiently and finish what they start

Course syllabus

Learn how to use power tools for writing powerful scenes.

Unit 1: Goal & hook. Start your scene by introducing a character with a goal. Sounds simple, right? Yet it’s easy to let characters meander into memories while gazing passively at purple hills. Good scenes have a mini-plot: a character who wants something, strives to get it but must cope with opposition. A good opening also hooks readers, from captivating characters to immediate conflict. Topics include: story goal and story question; scene goal and scene question; clarifying goals; opening hooks.

Unit 2: Conflict & stakes. What trouble is your character in? If the answer’s none then your scene’s in trouble. Make the protagonist’s goal hard to get, fast. To keep readers glued to the page, writers need to keep enticing with conflict and complication—whether with other characters, environment, or themselves. Topics include: external and internal conflicts; complications; raising stakes.

Unit 3: Action & reaction. To dramatize conflict, a scene needs tangible action. In this unit you’ll examine how action leads to character reaction via sensory cues, body language, and inner reflection. Discover how to pinpoint ideal moments of exposition and backstory while grounding scenes in immediacy, and help readers visualize scenes that unspool like film. Topics include: action-reaction sequence; showing versus telling; exposition; backstory.

Unit 4: Turning points & character change. The best way to focus a scene is to pinpoint moments of change. Identify the significant 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. Topics include: delineating turning points; story values; ending with a twist.

Each lesson culminates in an exercise or two, so you’ll put the unit techniques directly into practice and receive prompt, individualized feedback from a professional writing coach. You can write at your own pace and submit each lesson whenever you like.

With standard Option 1 registration, you’ll receive each lesson and one-to-one feedback on five written exercises over four units. With Option 2 registration you’ll receive feedback on eight written exercises.

How the course works

You can start this course anytime, and there are no required hours to log on. It’s all done with one-on-one correspondence with the instructor using email. You can read and print course materials in the course website, which you can access at your leisure with a password that we provide. We have writers from around the world participating in our workshops. A lot of great writing gets accomplished via email. Because of the one-on-one nature of this online course, you’ll find it an excellent coaching/mentoring situation that will keep you going. And if you want to just work on your own—hey, that’s fine too. Of course you can do the suggested exercises on your own without the feedback if you’d rather do that. We’re also here throughout the year if you have questions.

Review the current technical requirements for students in Learn@UW online courses.