Thursday, July 05, 2007

Scene Building 101

Novels are made up of scenes, or segments of the story. The average novel can contain anywhere from twenty to sixty scenes, depending on the author's style and creative choices. Every writer defines and writes scenes in their own way, so the way I put together a scene may not work for you. Feel free to adapt and interpret this information to best suit your writing style.

When I compose a scene, I consider what I think of as the five P's of scene-writing:

1. People: Who needs to be in this scene?

2. Place: Where does the scene happen?

3. Plot: What part of the plot is involved in this scene?

4. Progression: How will this scene move the story along?

5. Point: Does the scene serve the story?

I believe thinking through a scene before you write it helps prepare you for the task at hand. Even if you're an organic writer who hates to plan ahead, you can use these points as a sort of mental checklist while you're composing.

#1 & #2: Most writers do consider which characters to put in a scene and where the scene should take place; these are the most obvious building blocks. You have to know the players and where they are. The most frequent problems I see in novels are too many wall flower characters in a scene (they contribute only housekeeping-type dialogue, or just stand around and do nothing) and settings that are so overblown and overwritten that they eclipse the characters and everything that happens in the scene (aka travelogue writing.)

If you experience these problems, my advice is to 1) remove any character who does not serve a defined purpose in the scene, and 2) write your characters, dialogue and action first and your setting last.

#3: Every scene should tie into the plot in some way. If it doesn't, it's pointless filler, and nine times out of ten it's going to bore the reader. Don't try to save scenes like these -- get them out of your novel.

#4: Advancing the plot or moving the story along or whatever you want to call it has to happen, or the novel falls into the Sargasso Sea of Storytelling and goes nowhere (most often this takes place in the middle of the novel, when it's too soon to wrap things up, but too late to introduce new stuff for the reader.) I think the way to avoid novel lag time is to outline the plot a little more carefully before you write, but not everyone likes that approach. So think about adding a subplot or subplots that are resolved at different times during the story.

#5: There has to be a point to writing the scene, as in it does something for the story. Most often the pointless scenes I read are saturated with technobabble, infodumps or a dumptruckload of backstory that could have been better integrated into the story. A scene without a point is like yelling at the reader As You Know, Bob. . . . for five pages.

One scene-organizing trick I teach to my students is the 911 call. If you're not sure how to tackle what happens during a scene, take a tape recorder and dictate the scene as if you're calling 911, i.e.:

"Hello, operator? A huge fleet of alien ships just surrounded this planet. There's like three hundred of them. They're powering up their weapons. They're firing! Wait, they stopped. This guy in charge of the fleet is sending a signal to the surface. He's threatening to fire on the inhabitants if they don't turn over this doctor chick he's trying to capture. The doctor chick is negotiating her surrender. She won't let the people on the planet die protecting her. It really ticked off her ex, but the guy she loves now doesn't seem to care. What a jerk . . . "

How do you guys tackle scene-writing? Have you come up with or found any techniques that help? Let us know in comments.

Related links:

Writing Scenes That Move Your Story Forward

Writing the Perfect Scene (link swiped from Simon Haynes's excellent page on How to Write a Novel

From a screenwriter's POV: John August's How to Write a Scene

How to Write a Great Combat Scene


  1. I visualise scenes. With luck, they're pretty clear, but often details are blurred. And there's seldom any dialogue in those images, dangit.

    But the images help nevertheless, because sometimes, I only have to work in the dialogue and the rest goes pretty much by itself.

    On another note, there's a fun little meme going round, the Rockin' Girl Blogger awards. I gave you one. :)

  2. You've been nominated for a "Thinking Blogger Award"!!

    Visit and leave a comment to let me know that you have accepted this award!


    Gabrielle S. Faust
    Eternal Vigilance

  3. This is a very useful post, Lynn. I like the structure you use. The other issue I struggle with (and this goes along with 'people') is POV. Which character's POV is this scene told through. I have found myself re-writing scenes because the initial POV character I chose isn't the one the scene needs to highlight.

    Thanks for the links!

  4. For me the litmus test for a scene is asking myself, "What's different now?" If the scene changes nothing it's gone.

  5. I always keep the previous scene in mind as I'm writing the next one. I tackle a question or problem raised earlier, and either solve it with a caveat (they do make it over the bridge without anyone falling to their death BUT Dasterdly Dan is waiting for them on the other side), solve it and add a new problem (they make it over the bridge unscathed only to find the next leg of their journey paved with poisonous snakes), or I'll make the initial problem even worse (Henry plunges through the rotted planks of the bridge, bringing Sally along with him, both of them plunging toward the churling river below).

    Cheezy melodrama, but it serves to make my point. My goal is to never ease the tension, whether it's action packed suspense or emotionally charged drama. None of the characters get to totally relax. As long as I keep the above points in mind, writing each new scene may not be easy (writing never is, IMO), but the goal, motivation and disaster for each will come much more naturally.

  6. I'm new at writing but I write the dialogue first, then I add scene and other details. Thanks for the 911 tip because I do tend to run dry sometimes... it's that whole lack of proper planning.

  7. I tackle scene-writing by bashing my forehead with the palm of my hand and going, "What's my next scene?", repeatedly. You may mock, but it works.


  8. Hey! Thanks for the tips. I was aimlessly searching the net for other writer blogs and I found yours to be helpful. I am currently working on a novel myself. Visit my new blog:!

  9. As always, succinct, well written and invaluable advice for writing. Bless you!

  10. Fantastic post Lynne, thank you.

  11. Anonymous8:13 AM

    I so need this. In terms of my actual writing (not crafty things like sucky plot or weak conflict) this is my biggest problem, I just write flabby.

    A fun link you can add is ... at least, the two latest posts are about scene-writing. ;)

  12. I especially loved that second link.

    "Hmm... this sounds vaguely familiar." (Looks at WIP) "Holy $#*@, I'm doing something right and didn't even realize it!"

    Doing something instinctively is swell, but it helps to have someone articulate the process in a way that makes me aware of it.

  13. I stumbled onto your blog recently and am only now having the chance to leave a comment. This post is absolutely what I need to help with my WIP right now, so thanks for the tips/links.

  14. Thanks for mentioning my article on writing a novel. It's still a work in progress - the more novels I write, the better I hope I'm able to explain the process. Either that or writing a novel will become so easy (hah!) that I'll keep trimming the article until there's hardly anything left.

  15. I just found out about these posts and really enjoyed reading them, found them very useful and interesting.

    I plan out the scenes beforehand and 'see' them as if they are on the big screen. I find this helps me visualize the 'big picture'. And of course, I think it's important to really know your characters well too.


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