How To Write Fiction Without The Fuss: how to write a scene


Welcome to Part Eighteen of this popular series – this week, Lucy looks at how to write a “scene.” For all the articles in the series check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss.” Click on <<<— this link or go to the sidebar on the right —>>>

How to write fiction without the fuss

How to write a scene

We’ve talked about the need to keep a balance between ‘showing’ and ‘telling’ in fiction writing, with an emphasis on showing the reader what is happening to your characters, linked by sections of telling. Most of the showing you do will be in scenes, while the telling is often described as summary.

I said previously that creating scenes in fiction is similar to doing so in a screenplay. However, in my opinion a fiction writer has more work to do: while a script writer creates the dialogue for actors to interpret, and offers stage directions for a designer and director to realise, a novelist or short story writer has to provide the whole experience themselves, in words which make the reader feel entirely immersed in the action and emotion.

What defines a scene?

A scene portrays a point of tension within the story. It has to include at least one character and usually covers a single event that occurs during a defined length of time in a specific place. When you want to change time, place or point of view, a new scene is required.

Scenes take place in ‘real time’, whether they are told in the past, present or even future tense, and take the reader through the action sequentially. Most scenes contain a blend of action, dialogue and description, sometimes even some ‘telling’.

Like your overall plot structure, each scene should have a beginning, a middle and an ending, even the very shortest. Scenes can vary in size from a few sentences or exchanges of dialogue, to several pages or even a whole chapter. The reader’s interest is best maintained by alternating scenes of different lengths, with very short ones – just like short paragraphs – used to shock or bring a sense of speed and urgency, and longer ones developing your characters, taking them through more complex action or interaction, and addressing your theme in more depth.

What should a scene do?

medium_9679619A scene has to drive your plot forward. You may have written the most entertaining or poignant scene possible, but if it does not progress your story, it will have to go – or needs to be re-written. Each scene should also have something to say about, or some relationship to, your theme. Even if the reader isn’t consciously aware of this link, they will feel a lack of coherence if it’s not there.

Similarly, every scene should reveal something or develop our understanding of one or more of the characters. If you find your characters themselves haven’t progressed, or the reader has learned nothing new about them, by the end of a scene, it’s back to the drawing board to introduce this element.

Most of all, a scene should be used to build tension. This means that, much like a plot line, each scene must start out with a character’s goal; one or more characters want or need to achieve something, whether it’s to get information from a witness, get to work on time or get their beloved into bed. The tension results from their failure to meet their aim, either temporarily – but then the achievement of one goal only leads to another, equally vital goal – or repeatedly.

The middle section of a scene embodies the conflict between the character’s aim and whatever or whoever is preventing them from achieving it. That conflict doesn’t have to be obvious – an argument, a fight, a physical impossibility – it can be a subtle personality clash, an inability to say aloud what he is thinking, not enough or the wrong information to get her to the right conclusion.

And the ending of a scene is always the cliff hanger of failure, which leads the reader on to the next scene or summary.

Creating a scene

Just as you need to hook a reader at the opening of your story, so you do at the beginning of every scene. Start with some action – which can be dialogue – rather than ‘telling’ back story about how the characters got there. New fiction writers often feel a reader needs to know the details of how their characters arrive at the key points, such as what time they got up that day, what they decided to wear, what the weather was like and what kind of transport they used to get there.

small__4792335142Readers are quite capable of either filling in, or simply not needing, that sort of information. If, on re-reading a scene, you find you have written a long winded introduction to the main action, be ruthless and cut it. Start at a high point of tension and, if necessary, weave in the other information later.

Whether you are narrating in the first or third person, a scene should remain consistent in its point of view. If you are writing as an omniscient narrator, you can potentially describe the reactions of everyone involved, but it can make for tauter prose and greater tension to stick with the view of one or two characters, leaving the reaction of others to another scene. When writing from multiple first person perspectives, stick with a single character’s point of view in each individual scene.

Always keep in mind the screen analogy when writing a scene, and create for your reader as full an experience as if they were watching a movie. Your characters are constantly experiencing the setting, reacting to other characters, feeling emotions and thinking thoughts, as well as speaking and acting themselves and your scenes will come alive if you describe all these aspects, remembering to write with and about all the senses – sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste, emotion and rational response.

Alternating scenes

By definition, one scene cannot be followed by another that starts exactly where the first ended. The gap between scenes should always represent a passage of time, and this can sometimes be usefully be covered by a ‘summary’, or passage of ‘telling’ before the next ‘showing’ scene.

To maintain your reader’s interest, use scenes for contrast: long scenes should alternate with shorter scenes, action scenes with those of interior thought or dialogue, indoor scenes with outdoor scenes, and so on.

Manage scenes to keep your main plot and subplots moving forward at a good and even pace. Check that there is a varied pattern in the progression of your scenes, which might go something like: Main plot, Subplot 1, Main plot, Subplot 2, Main plot, Subplot 1, Subplot 2, Main plot, Subplot 2, Main Plot, Subplot 1… Your main plot should have a greater number of scenes than any of the subplots

The various plotlines may take place in different settings or from the point of view of different characters, so scheduling their appearances in regular, alternating scenes allows you to keep track of them and ensure they come together smoothly towards the end.

Next week we will talk about research in fiction.

For all the articles in this series check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss.” Click on <<<— this link or go to the sidebar up a way on the right —>>>

Lucy McCarraher

Lucy McCarraher


Managing Editor, Rethink Press.


Meanwhile, let’s perfect your non-fiction, too…

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”...over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English … INSTANT DOWNLOAD now available!
“How To Write Winning Non-fiction”…all you need to know to write a good non-fiction book and get it published
…plus take a look at Lucy’s novels here
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  1. Hi Lucy,
    Just dropping a note to let you know I enjoy the Rethink posts on FB. Have a wonderful day.

    Warm Regards, John C. Daly

  2. Hi John,
    Thanks for that – I appreciate it. Let me know if there’s anything you’d like covered in Fiction Without The Fuss, or more of on Facebook.
    Best wishes

  3. Lucy, love your blog. Great information. Do you have information or suggestions on developing a strong protagonist? I seem to have a problem setting up the protagonist’s problem, issue or aim early in the story. What am I missing? Thanks.

    • Hi Patricia – thanks for your comment! I’m sure Lucy will be along a bit later and will be able to advise you.

      • Hi Patricia,
        So glad you’re finding the posts useful.
        I’ve purposely stayed away from suggesting what content anyone should write about, as it is so individual and without a strong idea of what you want to write about it is hard to get going at all.
        The protagonist and your plot usually go hand in hand – so if you have a storyline in mind, it should centre on one or more main characters. The key to strong protagonists are that they should be active – they need to think, feel and – above all – act. Someone who sits at home wondering whether they should be worried about something happening outside and deciding probably not, is not going to make a good fictional hero/ine.
        Four questions to ask yourself are: who is your story about; what do they want; what is stopping them getting what they want; and what are they going to do about it? (All these questions fit into the structure I have suggested for your plot.)
        Paul Zimmerman’s article on protagonists in movies
        is as relevant to fiction. In it he says: “The protagonist is our guide through the movie, and if the guide is bad company, we are probably not going to stay on board for the entire trip. So there needs to be a reason why these characters deserve our attention, why we bond with them or at least stick with them for the duration of the story. A protagonist must appeal to us in some way, deeply so, but you have a great latitude in what that way might be…. It’s nice if we like protagonists, but if we don’t like them we should at least respect or identify or sympathize with them, and barring that, we should at least find them fascinating or great fun.”
        If you can’t get your own protagonist up and running, try the exercise of taking one you love from another novel and changing their name, age, circumstances, even gender… and letting them loose in your story. Just as I suggest about finding a character’s voice, if you work a little with an existing one, you will soon find they have become their own person and no one need ever know that the original model for your middle-aged male detective was actually Elizabeth Bennett.
        Hope this is helpful.