Scenes. I love ’em. I love reading them, and I love writing them. My favorite thing to do is sit down and write out a random scene from one of the many story ideas kicking around in my head. It’s almost like a stress reliever, and it’s a surefire way for me to push past any writer’s block I might have. However, during my time at Columbia College Chicago, I learned that, for some people, scenes are difficult to write. It shocked me to learn that some people actually prefer summary to scene. I mean, don’t get me wrong, summary can be a great tool. We all know that not every moment in a story needs to be a scene. The last thing I want is a step-by-step account of how a character gets ready in the morning. But to write a story entirely in summary? Well, I’d argue that’s not really a story at all.
So that’s what we’re going to be discussing today. What is a scene? Why is it so important to include scenes in your story? And how do you actually write a scene (and make it good)?
Let’s start with the basics. What even is a scene in the first place, and what makes it different from summary? Simply put, a scene is the point where a story slows down to focus in on a specific moment in time. So rather than summarizing an event–“They raced to the mines, where they then fought for their lives and won”–we get to explore the event in detail. For a scene to actually be a scene, it must have these three things:
- A moment playing out in real time.
- This means that a reader should feel like they’re actually there, in the moment. The events have to play out linearly, which means no jumping around through time and space.
- At least one character.
- There has to be at least one character in the scene, because otherwise nothing could actually happen. Now, this character doesn’t have to be human. It could be a personified pet or tree or object. Just so long as there’s a subject. Something for the reader to watch.
- Action (something must be happening).
- There has to be something happening, because… Well, a character staring at their big toe does not a scene make.
But that’s just the skeleton. The bones you have to have for a moment to be considered a scene. To make a scene enjoyable for a reader, you need much more than that. Before we get into that, though, I’m sure you’re wondering why it’s so important to incorporate scenes into your story at all. So let me explain.
In my opinion, scenes are important for two distinct reasons. First, they work to develop plot and character in an interesting way. I mean, which would you rather read? A paragraph telling you about a character’s tragic backstory, or a scene where the character’s backstory is revealed through dialogue and gesture? And second, they invest a reader in the action. Rather than feeling like a bystander, or like they’re being told a story, they feel like they’re in the moment. And, I mean, as writers, we all want our readers to be interested and invested in our stories, right?
So, then, how do you write a scene? And, more importantly, how do you write a good scene?
Well, let’s start with what a good scene has to do. Above all else, a good scene has to either move the plot along, develop characters, or, for bonus points, do both of these at the same time. This is because a scene that does neither is basically empty. It’s… fluff. And most readers don’t want fluff in the stories they read. In fan fiction, maybe. But in an original novel or short story? No. Every scene needs to have a purpose. And making this happen really isn’t as hard as you may think. To move the plot along, you just have to make sure your characters are working toward that final goal you’ve set for them. Maybe they could discover the next big plot twist, or get themselves into some kind of trouble that causes a chain of plot-related events to occur. And to develop your characters, all you have to do is drop hints about their appearances, personalities, backstories, etc. during conversations or actions.
Now, with all that in mind, we can talk about how to actually sit down and write out a scene. For some, this could be the easy part. Now that you know what a scene is, why scenes are important, and what a scene must do, you might just be able to open up a blank document and bang out a scene in less than an hour. Which is great! Go you. However, I know from experience that this isn’t the case for everybody. And if you’re in that camp, worry not. I’ve got some tips and tricks for you.
First, you have to build the scene in your head. Come up with the major details first, like the location the scene is taking place in, what characters will be in the scene, and what objects the characters will be interacting with. If it helps, write down these details. This could help you to remember these elements later, while you’re writing, and it could also help you to come up with even more details. Trust me, once you start getting something on paper, ideas tend to flow much easier.
Second, make sure there’s at least two characters in the scene. Obviously, not every scene has to have more than one character in it. But when you’re a novice writer with very little (or no) experience writing scenes, this really helps. It gives you something to bounce off of. Instead of writing about one character walking around their apartment and trying to make that exciting, you get to make multiple characters interact. And, yeah, you need to make them interact. Even if you want them to ignore each other, you need to actively make them ignore each other. Make them recognize that the other is there, and make them choose to ignore that character. Give them a reason to ignore the character. Create intrigue with them ignoring the character. Whatever interaction you choose, build on it and make it interesting for the reader.
Third, start in the action. I mean, you can always go back later and write the buildup. But when you’re first trying to get a scene down on paper, the words will flow quicker if you hop right into the exciting part. It doesn’t matter if it’s an important conversation, or a fight, or a meet-cute. What maters is that there’s interaction between your characters, and that it’s something you find interesting.
Fourth, utilize the senses. This will make your scene richer, and make the reader feel even more invested. For sight, use imagery and gesture. For sound, write dialogue and describe sounds that are close and far away. For taste, if your character is eating something, make the reader taste it, too. For touch, texture and temperature are always great go-to’s. And for smell, consider scents that are opposites of each other, or that are very distinct. Also, during my time at Columbia, I had a teacher who was obsessed with having us describe the quality of light in our scene’s location. And, while I rolled my eyes at the time, I now find that it actually adds a nice layer of detail to my stories and like to incorporate it when I can, and I recommend you do, too. Obviously, you don’t have to use every sense in every single scene. But when it feels right, go for it.
Finally, build your scenes from the ground up. By this, I mean you shouldn’t try and juggle all of these balls from the get-go. That’s a lot of balls, and it can get really overwhelming for novice writers. Hell, I’ve been writing for years, and I still drop a lot of balls. So, instead, start with one ball and work your way up. Here’s the order that I find most helpful (and that I used for my tutee when I was a creative writing tutor):
- Dialogue. Nothing but pure, undiluted dialogue. Color code it, if you want to keep straight who’s saying what. Or, you could use the initials of whatever character is speaking before or after their dialogue. But that’s it.
- Gestures and actions. If a character walks across the room, or if they shrug, or if they do a little jig, describe it.
- Senses. Incorporate these one by one, starting with sight, then sound, then smell, then touch, then taste.
- Miscellaneous narration. This means anything you feel is missing from the narration. Maybe your main character has thoughts or opinions on something that’s happening, or maybe there’s some foreshadowing or a memory you want to slip in. Whatever it is, go ahead and add it now.
- Dialogue tags. Yeah, that’s right, these are last. That’s because, as you’ll find, you don’t need nearly as many of these as you might think. Only incorporate dialogue tags that are necessary for clarification on which character is speaking or how that character’s speaking.
And that’s it! That’s how to write a scene! It may not be easy to get the hang of at first, but trust me, your readers will thank you for incorporating scenes into your writing. And, with a little practice, you might even start to enjoy writing scenes. Trust me, they’re honestly a lot of fun. Exploring your characters and making them interact is one of the best things about being a writer–in my opinion, at least.
Let me know in the comments if you’ve ever struggled with writing scenes, and if my advice has helped you at all. Or, if you’re also a scene lover, feel free to share any of your own writing advice in the comments! I’d love to hear any other tips and tricks you might have!