There is no escaping it – every book needs great scenes in order to convey the story in such a way that the reader becomes fully immersed in the book and is unable to put it down.
But is there a specific way writers should approach writing scenes? How do they know what to put into a scene and what to leave out?
Every book is constructed in such a way that they rely on pivotal scenes that propel the story forward. It’s important that all scenes keep some kind of momentum and don’t allow the pace to grind to a halt. This is why many writers find constructing scenes a little overwhelming, especially when they’re not always sure what kind of scenes they need.
We use scenes in various ways:
- To show the reader what’s going on
- To move the story forward
- To show characterisation
- To impart important or relevant information
- To help the plot
Writing scenes might sound very straightforward, but there are a few things to think about when considering the elements that are required, and the first thing to consider is the reason the scene needs to be there in the first place. What does it need to say? Who is involved? What is the point you want to make?
Scenes need to have purpose because they show the reader what is happening in a logical order. If they don’t have a point to make, they are not really helping to tell the story.
Another other thing to think about is, what do you want the scene achieve? What should happen to facilitate this and does it move the story forward?
Writers have to know when and where scenes will start. Often it’s better to start in the middle of something, for dramatic effect, rather than spending a page and a half setting up the scene and boring the reader in the process. Avoid info dumping and waffle and just get right to the heart of the scene.
Elements for Writing Scenes
As already mentioned, scenes need to have a point, they need to have a reason to be there in the first place, so whether it’s introductory scene (where the main character(s) are introduced), an action scene, a revelatory scene, a reflective scene, an emotional scene, a light-hearted scene or a dread-filled, atmospheric scene – these scenes need to lead the reader and the story.
Scenes also need to get to the point, so a scene between the protagonist and another character might lead to a revelation, so it’s best to start the scene with the immediate lead up to that revelation, or open right in the middle of it. Don’t make the mistake of writing half a page about the weather or what’s in the background as the main character goes for a walk to meet the other character. Here’s an example, followed by the same scene that gets to the point – compare the two for effectiveness:
John walked the path next to the canal, his mind of the meeting ahead with Diane. It looked as though it might rain and he pulled his collar up as he rounded the corner and made his way across the street to the café.
‘This better be good, John. You made me come out in this weather and I’m soaking wet.’
‘I know, and I’m sorry for making you come out in the rain,’ he said. But here’s something I need to tell you.’
Now compare the long winded scene above – which doesn’t have much purpose or point – to one that doesn’t get bogged down with irrelevant description and instead gets right to the point.
John stood in the doorway, out of the rain.
Diane turned to face him. ‘This better be good, John.’
‘Save the anger. There’s something I need to tell you,’ John said.
This example gets right to the point. It doesn’t need all the extraneous waffle. With the average novel running from 80K – 95K words, writers can’t afford to have scenes that are full with irrelevant information. Don’t let scenes drag on. If they do, you’ll lose the reader’s interest.
It’s also no good having a thrilling action scene followed by a scene with the two main characters in a garden, talking about the flowers and the lovely weather, because it does nothing for the story. It doesn’t impart important information or clues and it doesn’t lead the reader or the story. It doesn’t show the reader anything; it doesn’t have a point to make and doesn’t move the story forward.
If you have these kinds of scenes, get rid of them.
Another element to scene writing is that writers have to provide information, hints or clues via narrative or dialogue to help readers visualise the story in their minds. That’s why scenes are an effective way of delivering such information.
Another thing to bear in mind is that you should always establish the POV character and stay in that POV through the scene or chapter. This makes it much easier for the reader to follow. Never change POV in the middle of a scene. This will confuse the reader and will weaken the entire story. Every time the POV needs to shift to another character, start a new scene or a new chapter.
Every good scene should establish the setting so that the reader knows where the action is taking place. If you have multiple POV characters within the same place, you won’t have to establish the setting every time you change scenes. But if the next scene moves from a ballroom, for instance, into the garden, then you need to point this out so that the reader can easily follow what is going on, otherwise they will think the action is still in the ballroom.
When establishing a scene, a few simple lines of description are all that is necessary without overloading the narrative with scene-setting info dumps and irrelevant exposition.
No story can be told without effective scenes. The story is a chronological order of scenes from start to finish.
Remember that scenes do more than tell the reader where the characters are or what they’re doing.
Next week: The Art of Writing Scenes – Part 2