How to Write a Scene: Pulling Your Reader Through the Emotions


You’ve planned out your plot, handcrafted an amazing cast of characters, and you know your major story beats. Now you just have to put pen to paper and let your magic flow.

Only one problem, the actual writing of it.

Scenes are the building blocks of your book. If you can’t write a good scene, it doesn’t matter how good your plot is, the book will fall apart.

That’s why I’m going to walk you through how to create killer scenes from planning to writing.

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Blueprint of a scene

If you’ve planned out your book enough that you’re worrying about individual scenes, then you already have all the tools you need to be able to craft a compelling scene.

The devil of it, as with many things, is in the details. You have all the tools you need, but the way you apply them to a scene is a little different. 

Every scene is just a miniature story. There is no specific length that your scene has to fill, no set number of scenes that you have to have per chapter or per book. A scene is simply a small story, focused around a specific problem, that moves the larger story along.

All your scene needs is at least one character, conflict, action, and some kind of resolution or change — the same ingredients that any story requires. Your scene may be so long that it spans an entire chapter, or it could be so short that it only fills a paragraph. All that matters is that it is complete and moves the larger story forward. 

Keep in mind, once you start writing a scene, you’re no longer in planning mode. The scene is where pen meets paper and your story starts to come alive, but that means we have to focus on the details. 

Concentrate on the sensory details. Be specific with the actions your characters are taking. Get the words right.

How do you approach creating a scene? 

So let’s focus on the details, and look at how we need to approach a scene.

Robert McKee gives an excellent framework for a scene in his book Story.

I’m going to break his framework down into a few questions that you should ask yourself before going into any scene.

  • What is the conflict? If you don’t have conflict you don’t have a scene.
  • What is the opening value? Is the character happy, sad, angry? Is everything going good, bad, etc. You need to know how things stand at the start so you know how it should change at the end.
  • What is at stake? Why is this important to the character? You may not fully reveal this to the reader yet, but you need to know why the characters are doing what they’re doing, and why it matters.
  • What happens? Break the action into beats. Plan out the major actions and reactions that need to happen in the scene. This will help you keep the pacing interesting and find the turning point, which I’ll describe more in a moment. If you prefer to write by the seat of your pants, you can come back and do this after you’ve roughed out the scene.
  • What is the closing value? Just like earlier we need to know how things stand after the scene is over. Did things change from happy to sad? Good to bad? etc. If nothing changed, then you don’t need the scene. Something important to the story needs to have changed. 
  • What is the turning point? The turning point is the moment when things irreparably changed to the closing value. 

Turning points and change are the most important part of a scene. Without change, the scene doesn’t have a purpose. The change can be in the character’s mind, their circumstances, or something else, but something important needs to change from the beginning to the end of the scene.

How big or life-shattering this change is depends on what the scene is doing — it may be a minor turning point for a minor climax in the middle of the book or the turning point of the scene may be the major turning point of your whole book.

Perhaps more importantly, though, that change needs to be meaningful to the plot. It can be as simple as your character moving a box from one side of the room to another, but that should have an important effect on a future scene. 

The effect of the change doesn’t have to be immediate, but your audience should never be able to look back and say, “what was the point of that? That didn’t lead anywhere?”

For instance, when your character moved the box from one side of the room to another. Maybe in a later scene, we discover that the box actually contained some delicate piece of measuring equipment, and by moving it, they broke a piece. So now, when the owner comes to use it they get an incorrect reading which sends the story down an entirely new path. 

Even if the scene is focused on a minor character or side plot, it should all be moving the story forward toward the overall climax.

If you can’t draw a direct line from the actions in your scene to the end climax of the book, then it probably shouldn’t be a scene you keep, and at the very least you need to work on it some more.

Laying out your scene

Now that we know what our scenes need, and what we need to know about them, we can start laying out the individual scene beats.

Pacing

One of the most important things that you need to get right when laying out your scene is the pacing. You want to shoot for a kind of ping pong pacing. An action-reaction kind of pacing. 

So instead of: 

“He went to the store, bought milk, and went home.” 

We instead want something like: 

“He went to the store, but the owner was already closing. He tries to convince the owner to let him in, the owner says no. He starts to leave depressed, the owner relents and lets him buy his milk. He goes to buy the milk, but he realizes he forgot his wallet. He and the owner fight. He runs away and steals the milk.”

That is a much more interesting scene. It has conflict, and it has a turning point. 

Action-reaction can be between two characters, your character and nature, or even your character and themselves. But the bottom line is that every action should have a reaction that is the catalyst for more action.

You use this to control the pacing and tone of your scene through the speed of the reactions, and the weight of the reactions.

If you want a light, fun tone, you may speed up the pacing, with very little time between each action-reaction pair, and each reaction may have very little weight. 

Whereas for a serious tone, you may slow it down so that the importance of the action and the impending doom of the heavy reaction can be felt by your reader.

Outlining

How deeply you plan out your story beats will depend on the kind of writer you are, whether you’re a pantser or a planner.

If you’re a pantser, and write by the seat of your pants, you may want to just start writing. And that’s ok, but you should still come back to this step afterward. Lay everything out, and make sure the scene is going where you want it to go. You may find that it needs to be reorganized, or that a part of the scene isn’t necessary.

If you’re a planner, you may want to plan out every little detail. That’s excellent, but don’t let yourself get so bogged down that you never actually write the scene.

There are practically infinite methods you can use to layout the scene itself, but most are some variation on a few tried and true methods.

Three tried and true methods are to:

  • Write out the story beats with pen and paper or in a word doc. Write in where your scene starts, and what the ending change is, and try out several methods to get from point A to point B.
  • Storyboarding can be a great method if you’re more visual. You can draw out the major beats as you see them in your head. Even if this is just using stick figures. This can be a great, quick way to picture the scene and fill in the gaps.
  • Index Cards are another fantastic method. Write your scene beats on index cards. Then physically lay them out, reorder them, or remove some. You can try out many different variations quickly without constantly rewriting.

Regardless of your method once you’ve figured out the pacing and laid out the individual story beats, you’re mostly done. You’ve done the hard part. Now you just need to fill in the gaps. 

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How to start a scene

I just said that we were practically done, but that’s not entirely true. There are still two big obstacles standing in our way that lots of people get wrong. The beginning and the end.

There’s no exact way that you have to start a scene, but the general rule of thumb is you want to capture your reader’s interest quickly. 

Just like the first page and first chapter of your book need to get the reader interested enough to read on, every scene in your book needs to do the same.

So let’s look at a couple of ways you can start a scene.

This isn’t a comprehensive list, but probably 90% of your scenes will start one of these ways.

  • You can start en media res. Start with an action. This is one of the easiest ways to hook your reader early on.
  • You can also start with dialogue. Dialogue is very similar to action. It should be compelling or entertaining, and just like physical action, you can start en media res. Jumping into the middle of a conversation, just when it gets juicy can be an extremely compelling way to start a scene.
  • You can also start by setting the stage for the scene. If the setting is very important to what is going to happen, or if it’s particularly interesting, then starting by describing the scene can be very important. 
  • You can start with backstory. Only do this if it’s important to the scene, but backstory can be done with dialogue, or by flashing back to the action as if it were happening now.
  • Lastly, you can begin in the mind of your narrator or main character and let their thoughts begin the scene. If you go this route, it’s recommended that you do so if there is some internal conflict.

The key to all of these is action. Something needs to be happening, or it needs to be clear that something has just or will just happen. Opening a scene where the characters are just talking about the weather isn’t good unless the point is to throw that normality on its head in a sentence or two. 

How to end a scene

Ending a scene, arguably, is much harder and more important than starting a scene.

The biggest thing to remember, like I’ve mentioned a few times by now, is that it must end with change having occurred. There should be a moment where there is no turning back.

However, once you have the change nailed down, the actual ending is very much up to you.

Here is a very incomplete list of several good ways to end a scene.

  • You can end in the middle of the action with a cliffhanger, similarly to how you may have started en medias res. Be careful about doing this too much. It can lose its appeal and become annoying if overdone.
  • You can end in a realization of some kind
  • You can end with a hint of what’s to come
  • You can end with loss.
  • You can also end with a victory or a solution to a problem. However, you should only end with a complete victory if it’s the resolution to the final climax of your book. Otherwise, you should always hint at more trouble to come.

Similarly to beginning a scene you want the end of your scene to compel the reader to keep going. Don’t give them a comfortable place to get off the ride until the final scene of the book. Make sure there is some mystery to be solved, problem to be overcome, or loss to be avenged and you’ll have people tearing through your book to get to the end.

Conclusion

Scenes can be difficult to get right, but we often make them more difficult than they need to be. 

This is where you really begin to write your book. The planning phase is over. The actual writing of it has started. If you can master creating compelling scenes, then you have the building blocks to create any book you can imagine.

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Michael Aragon

Michael Aragon is a writer and marketer who is obsessed with stories and how they affect our world. He believes that everyone has an interesting story to tell, and wants to help other people learn how to tell theirs in a compelling way.

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