Anatomy of a Scene

Scene Beginnings

We are focusing on scenes for the next few weeks, and this week our focus is on the beginning of a scene. Each scene should have a purpose which moves the story forward, or gives the reader information on the characters, or shows new action and conflict.

As a reminder, a scene is small part of the continuous action of your novel, which is set in a specific moment in time, and is in a specific location.

When you consider your scene, be thinking of the scene’s purpose. Which of your characters is the scene about? Should you write that scene from that character’s point of view? What is that character’s objective? What does your character want? Think about the conflict. What happens that keeps your character from achieving their goal? Think about the scene’s ending. What happens that will move the story forward? What will keep your audience reading as the scene ends?

Before you plot out your scene, make sure you know exactly where you last left your character in time and space. Your readers should be able to understand where your character is. If your character was in Istanbul and suddenly they show up in Des Moines, be sure to include that motivation for moving locations either in your last scene, or at the beginning of your new scene, especially if you have multiple point of view characters.

Where is your character in the plot? What were they doing when you left them last? Knowing where your characters have been will help you focus on where your character should be now, and where your character needs to go next.

What is the most important information that the reader needs to know at this moment in the story? Plot your action around that information and remember that action and movement are what move the story forward.

Each and every scene should have a purpose. Why is this scene necessary? What is your intention for writing the scene? Set your scene intentions. Set your character’s intention. Does that intention make sense to the plot? Does that intention make sense for your character? Will your character achieve their intentions? Will your character achieve disappointment? Should there be supporting characters in the scene? What is the purpose of the supporting characters? Do they provide information? Do they give your character someone to bounce ideas off of? Do they create conflict?

Once you have the basic idea of your scene worked out, whether you use an outline or not, think about the action of the scene. The action should begin as soon as possible because it is action that creates momentum. How will you demonstrate the action? How will you use action to show how your character feels? If you can include some surprise action, you will propel your reader through your story. Let your character act first, and think later.

If you plan to use a long narrative, it probably will slow the pace and action of the scene. Long narrative interrupts the story, so if you do plan to use narrative, the scene opening is the best place to include it. You can use narrative to place your character in space and time so your reader can visualize the scene in their mind’s eye. Narration can also save time, if the action described would take up too much time. Think about what and how information needs to be communicated to your reader, especially if your character’s thoughts and intentions can’t be revealed in the action of the scene.

To help set your scene, use specific visual cues. What does your character see? What do they hear? Use your character’s senses to help establish your scene. You can also use scenery to set the tone, and use language to convey the mood of your character. How does the setting impact the character’s mood?

When you set out to write a new scene, ponder the above and work out how you can best relate this to the reader in a compelling way and you will have a good scene beginning.

Next time: Scene middles.


You’ve Been Writing That Novel for How Long?

How long?

I expect that some of you will be pissed off at me by the end of this post. I am okay with that. Not because I want you to be pissed off at me, but because I want you to be the best writer you can be. I thought this topic important enough to interrupt our current series on The Anatomy of a Scene. I expect to get back to regularly scheduled programming next week.

Why the interruption?

Last week I had breakfast with the spectacular Susan Span. Susan is a literary attorney (read her #Publaw), and author of the very well-received Shinobi Mystery Series. Over coffee we chatted about various topics, as we always do. We talked about old manuscripts that may or may not be in a box under Susan’s bed, never to see the light of day. And we talked about how long an author should work on any given manuscript.

Here’s why.

I know a good handful of authors who have been working on the same manuscript for five years, ten years, thirty years. Yes. Thirty years. Thirty. 3-0.

The thirty-year author loves the story idea and wants to see it through. They wrote their manuscript a long, long time ago, and since that time, they’ve been reworking it, workshopping it, editing it, revising it, fixing the little problems that come up. Some of the fixing causes problems elsewhere so they end up fixing the new problem which causes newer problems. It’s a mean cycle. This has been going on for thirty years. Thirty. 3-0. For some of you it has been going on for twenty years, or fifteen years, of ten years, or five years.

Yeah. I’m talking to you.

Let’s be clear. Writing is hard work, and to continue writing something after a few years takes grit and determination. To continue writing it for five years, ten years, thirty years, is indescribable.

But here’s the problem. When this author first started writing their story, they were a novice author. They knew very little if anything about craft. They didn’t know much of anything about plot and structure, or genre tropes, or goal and motivation, or tension and conflict, or tone, or any of the other deeply important craft elements that writers of fiction absolutely should learn to become successful authors.

Learning the craft of writing fiction takes time and work. It’s just like learning any other craft and skill. If you want to be good, you practice, your try things by trial and error, you make mistakes, you read how-to books, you take classes, and you study, study, study. You do whatever you can to get better at your craft. You wouldn’t expect to paint like Velazquez your first time out, would you? No. You would paint a very badly rendered tea cup, or tree, and practice your techniques to become the best painter you could be. And it would take years of work.

As the years pass, the author has learned much about craft. They know what should go into a scene, and where the climax should come in the story. They are not the same author they were all those years ago when they started that manuscript. They are better. Significantly better.

But their manuscript is not. Their manuscript is based on their writing skills when they first wrote that story down, and fixing it is nearly impossible. Ultimately, they are wasting their time working on something that will never be publishable.

So, what am I saying? I am saying a few of things.

First off, you are a better author than you were ten years ago. You are a better author than you were five years ago. It doesn’t matter if you are published or pre-published. If you’ve been working to learn your craft, you are a better author. Are you listening?

Secondly, sometimes a story is not meant to be published. Sometimes a story serves the purpose of making you a better author because it teaches you some craft element that you didn’t know before. Sometimes a story should be put in a box and hidden under the bed, never to see the light of day because you are done with it, or maybe it is done with you. Either way. This does not mean that you are a failure as a writer. It just means that you have learned all you can about whatever you needed to learn from that manuscript. Take your new skills and move on.

Thirdly, if you really want to tell the story you’ve been working on for thirty years, or ten years, or five years, and you can’t possibly put it down, then don’t. But try something, okay? Take that five-year old manuscript, or thirty-year old manuscript, and put it in a box under the bed. Save it to a flash drive and put it in a drawer. Do whatever works with your personal writing style. But don’t pick it up again. Then, when it is tucked away safe, start writing that story again. From scratch. Make a new outline. Write new scenes. Create new character sketches. Write your story as if you were writing it for the first time.


Because you are a better writer now than you were five years ago, and if you start your story off as if you haven’t written it yet, chances are you will not make the same novice writing mistakes that you made five years ago. You are a better author now. Are you listening?

Or maybe you just need to work on something else. Come up with a new story idea, and write that other story first, before you go back and write your last story from scratch. I guarantee that the new story will be better than the other one sitting in a box, hiding under the bed. You are a better writer now.

Yeah. It’s a lot of work. Yeah, it sucks that you haven’t managed to fix that manuscript after a dozen years, or two dozen years. Yeah, that means you have to admit that what you’ve written to date has problems and your manuscript is not publishable.

Yeah. But it’s time.

Do it.

Trust me on this.

Next week we continue with Anatomy of a Scene: Beginnings.



Anatomy of a Scene


Scenes are the visual building blocks of the novel in which your characters live (very much like theater productions and movies). Scenes placed one after another make chapters. Multiple chapters tied together make novels. You might consider writing your novel using the scene and sequel technique (see Scene and Sequel posted September 2, 2015) but some writers include the information of the sequel within the scene. There is no set number of scenes that should be in each chapter, but I tend to write three scenes per chapter, and I find that many authors write in this similar way. But as in writing everything else, each writer has their own process.

The purpose of the scene is to move the story forward and each scene should be there for that reason. If the scene does not move the story forward, cut it. If the scene doesn’t move the story forward then it is dragging your story down with useless fluff, or backstory, or some other thing. Seriously. Just cut it. Your story will be better off.

Each scene should build upon the last scene, but also be strong enough to stand on its own, with a beginning, and middle, and an ending.

Successful scenes include a POV character, action that advances the story, revealing dialogue, conflict and tension, a rich setting, and minimal narrative (see Show V Tell posted November 11, 2015).

The end of a scene allows your reader to take a break but you may want to write a hook at the end of each (most) scenes so your reader can’t put your book down. Blockbuster novels use that technique.

How long are scenes?

Long scenes run 15 pages or more (very long scenes), and I recommend that you use long scenes sparingly. Too many long scenes in a row will drag down the pace of your story, and that makes for boring reading. Don’t be boring.

Short scenes are usually ten or fewer pages. Vary your scene length for variety and to adjust the pacing of your story. Be careful not to use too many very short scenes (a few pages or less) because they upset the flow of the novel, and if your reader is upset by the flow they might put your book down, and that is a bad thing.

Next week we begin discussing the craft of writing great scenes.

Video Still.