Scenes are the building blocks of novels. A scene is a unit of a story that progresses the narrative in a meaningful way. A key piece of information must be revealed. For example, we might see a new character with hints of how this character will be impactful in the future. The scene may offer some emotional depth that we didn’t understand previously, or it might plant foreshadowing for a key moment to come in the story.
Something must happen in the scene for it to be meaningful, and therefore included in the book.
If a scene does not achieve this, it may need to be cut from the story - what writers have often referred to as “killing your darlings.” But we are getting ahead of ourselves. If you can make a scene work hard for your story, it can stay. That’s a better choice than cutting a scene you love!
Tasks of a Scene
For a scene to be impactful, and therefore included in a novel, it should achieve two goals:
- The scene must propel the story forward in some way. The movement forward could feature any combination of action, character development, dialogue, world building, etc. The key is that the characters are closer to the resolution of the story than they were in the previous scene.
- The scene must cause a change. The characters must not leave a scene exactly how they entered it. The “movement,” as mentioned above, causes a change that the characters cannot ignore.
Some writers advocate for an action-reaction-process-decision model when developing scenes for their stories. Essentially that means an action occurs in a story. As a result of that action, the characters react. After everything settles from the reaction, the character mentally processes what has occurred and makes a decision about how to act from there. Then, the next action occurs, there is a reaction, processing, and a new decision.
As characters work through this sequence, they change. They are moving forward in their story goal. It is this kind of movement forward and changing for the characters that drives scenes and therefore stories.
Additionally, scenes escalate a story. As your plot builds, the stakes for the characters should be raised. With each scene, the situation becomes more dire for the characters. Escalating the story through scenes that are building more and more tension increases the stakes. Yet, the process of escalating tension scene after scene is not an easy task.
Common Scene Problems
Now that you have some basic knowledge about scenes, let’s discuss some common issues new writers face while writing them:
- Showing every moment: While we live chronologically, not skipping over chunks of time, that is actually rather boring in a novel. Readers only need to see what is relevant to the story goal. As a result, it is not necessary to show a character waking up, brushing their teeth, eating breakfast, etc. unless those moments are absolutely critical to the story goal - such as the character is working to wake up every day rather than sleep through the day and only be awake at night. Readers expect that time is passing and they are not seeing every moment of it.
- Including details that don't belong: Readers expect that when a writer shares something, they do so because that detail is relevant to the story goal. For instance, in a mystery, all details matter. They are either clues or red herrings. If writers share details that do not matter, readers that pride themselves on solving the mysteries may become exceedingly frustrated and find the experience of reading your novel unsatisfying. If you include a scene, it must matter.
- Scene length negatively affects pacing: As a writer, you must develop an eye for what matters in a scene and what can be cut. If you include too much description or unnecessary dialogue, you may drag down the pace of a scene. On the contrary, if you don’t give enough details, then the reader may feel they are not rooted in the time or place of the scene. Some banter is good in the dialogue, but too much is problematic. The best way to gain a sense of the best scene length is to read - a lot.
It’s important to also note that scenes are not necessarily chapters. Writers use chapter breaks to create cliffhangers for readers, so they will want to read the next chapter, which ends with another cliffhanger to compel them to read further, and so on. That said, all three of those hypothetical chapters may have featured the same scene.
Or perhaps an author writes longer chapters, so there are two scenes within the same chapter. What you might notice in novels you’re reading are scene breaks. These occur within chapters and might look something like:
Publishers I've worked with have differing styles for how to signify scene breaks. Sometimes, they even get cute with some sort of symbol or emoji-styled break. In any case, the takeaway is that scenes and chapters are not necessarily the same units within a novel.
While this book is meant to offer you an introduction to novel writing, the reality is you will learn so much from reading many novels and from writing your own! As you write your own scenes, work to achieve the points discussed in this chapter. Keep this one last tip in mind: understand the purpose of each scene you write.
Avoid writing scenes because you are not sure what direction your character should take. Write scenes with purpose. Understand the goal of the scene, whether that be to reveal character, advance the plot, create tension, or provide other necessary information - and here’s a hint: each good scene should achieve a combination of those tasks, rather than simply one per scene!
- Choose two of the tasks scenes should achieve: reveal character, advance the plot, create tension, or provide other necessary information. Observe people around you, either in your home or in a public venue. Write a fictional scene inspired by what you observe that achieves two of the tasks. If you are feeling brave, add a third task to the scene. If you’re really up for a challenge, can you incorporate all four tasks in your scene? Remember pacing as well! Keep the scene brief and on task.
- Tension and conflict are at the heart of a good story, so let’s practice writing them! Create a scene where two characters with conflicting goals or beliefs are forced to work together. Explore the tension, dialogue, and actions arising from their clash of interests.
- Practice building suspense and escalating tension by writing a suspenseful scene where a character is in imminent danger. Focus on building tension through pacing, sensory details, and character reactions. Experiment with cliffhangers and unexpected twists. Have fun!
8 Steps to Writing a Perfect Scene - Every Time
10 Tips for Writing Better Scenes
Manage Your Novel Scenes with Checklists
"Chapter 7: Scenes as Building Blocks" was created by Tamara Girardi and was licensed as CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 in October of 2023.