The Art of Writing Scenes - Part 2

Part 1 looked at the importance of effective scenes and how they work to enhance elements such as characterisation, plot, moving the story forward and imparting important information to the reader.
But with all those elements in place, how do you start a new scene that seems natural and not forced? How can it appear to be a cohesive part of the story without it stuttering?
There are many ways to begin scenes, and they will largely depend on what has happened in the previous scenes – remember that the story flow must be chronological, so proceeding scenes will follow in a logical way.
Begin With Simple Exposition
Writers sometimes start their scenes with a few narrative lines to get the reader into the next part of the story without A) too much info-dumping or B) jolting the reader, for example:-
He slept better on a full stomach and in the morning he checked himself in the mirror and saw that his complexion had changed completely. He no longer looked like the pale grey creature that stalked the streets at night.
In this example the narrative is primed for the reader; it eases them into the next scene without overdoing it or without the need to spend half a page describing the event.
Begin with Action
Writers love to jump straight into action scenes, especially when the preceding scene hints of the action to come. These scenes have to follow logically from previous scenes for them to work. You can’t jump from a quiet, reflective scene to explosions and mayhem in the next scene without making the reader aware of why or how, otherwise it will just come off as disjointed.
Writers use the cliffhanger device – in the preceding scene they hint as what might happen by leaving the hero in some kind of predicament, then a new scene or chapter begins, for example:
The flash of light rasped across his vision and he instantly grabbed Amy and threw her to the ground to avoid the blast, while debris fell all about him in a thunderous roar...
This example jumps into action and allows the reader to fully immerse in the scene.
Begin With Flashback
You can start a scene with a flashback, if it’s important to the current plot developments. Just remember to hint to the reader so that when you do use the flash back (identified by the past-pluperfect tense), the reader will comprehend. If you don’t, the reader will easily become confused, for example:
Feelings welled within him, and those sensations gave rise to half hidden memories. He remembered the time, back in 1976, when, as a seven year old boy, he had first met the man who would bring terror to his family...
Here the example hints to the reader there is a flashback scene, by introducing the notion through the character’s personal feelings and thoughts. The tense correctly changes from past tense to past-pluperfect, to denote the flashback.
Begin With Dialogue
Scenes that open with dialogue are very common, as a run on from the last scene, or an introduction to other characters in a new scene. These kinds of scene starters are compelling, because the reader hasn’t been given any description or narrative to introduce it; so it makes them want to find out more.
Begin With a Setting Description
Some scenes can start with setting of the scene, especially if the action moves to another place or involves other characters elsewhere in the story. It doesn’t have to be long or lusciously described. A few sentences are more than enough to satisfy the reader, for example:
The light flickered in the distance as John approached the house through the snowdrift. The forest remained eerily quiet, bathed in a full moon...
The simple description sets the scene and creates some intrigue and mood to start the scene. These kinds of scenes don’t need to be overdone; sometimes less is more.
The art of writing scenes is to try to open them at an interesting moment, or to create some atmosphere or tension, or to make it compelling enough to pique the reader’s interest, while moving the story onward.
Most scenes contain a hint of conflict, even if it’s only implied. And that could mean internal and external conflicts that help with the plot. Remember, conflict doesn’t have to take place between two or more people. Conflicts come in many guises.
Do your scenes achieve what you want it to show or say? So they give the reader information and hints, do they push the story forward, bolster the mood or atmosphere, or perhaps slow it down for a more gentle approach? Do your scenes follow on from each other? In other words, are they in logical order? If they’re not, there’s a problem; it means you’ve scene-skipped. This will confuse and frustrate the reader; it will be hard for them to understand what’s going on. It’s like watching a movie that’s been edited in the wrong order.
In essence, scenes rely on a whole host of sensory elements to help the reader visualise.
Summary of what scenes achieve:

  • Provides motivation, conflict and emotion
  • Allows character revelation through dialogue
  • Gives sensory detail – makes the reader visualise
  • Provides important background information
  • Leads the reader and moves the story forward
  • Descriptions set the tone, mood and atmosphere
  • Allows the writer to exercise flourishes to enhance the experience – metaphors, symbolism, foreshadowing, assonance etc

Each scene is a stepping stone to the next, and so on. They must make sense, they must flow, but ultimately, they must tell the story.
Next week: Motivation – What drives your characters?


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