Anatomy of a Scene

Writing Suspenseful Scenes

As we continue our exploration of using scenes to write our novels, let’s keep in mind that our scenes should be entertaining, dynamic, and purposeful. Your story will benefit from well-written scenes that keep the reader’s interest. Note that not each and every scene should be a suspense scene because the amount of suspense in each genre differs. If you become aware that your story is dragging, think about adding some suspense.

Certain elements will make your scene more suspenseful. The stakes must be high for your character. Increase the risk. Your character must be in trouble or get into trouble and have a hard time getting out. Add some danger. Add emotional intensity to your scene and don’t let up until the end. Your character should be under pressure to change or act by other characters, or by things that occur during the scene.

That said, don’t rush into the suspense. You will need to create a logical series of events which create the suspense. Let your reader see the intensity grow page by page so that the expectation of things to come increases the reader’s anxiety. The key word is anticipation. Let the reader be concerned for your character as you open the scene, and let the uneasy feeling grow as your character moves through the scene.

Think about the possibility of letting our antagonist get the upper hand over your protagonist and let your reader worry over your character. Let your character feel threatened and in danger and show your reader what that looks like, feels like, smells like, tastes like. Those sensory details are important to share with your reader. Make the danger tangible so your reader will have to white-knuckle it. And let your character react to the danger in an unexpected way so that there is even more conflict.

Make things complicated.

When you get to the end of a suspenseful scene, conclude the action and give your character a moment to reflect on what just happened. This will allow your reader to catch their breath before the next suspenseful scene.


Carry the suspense all the way through to the end of the scene and end it on a cliff hanger so that your reader must turn the page.

Mix it up. Worry your reader. Let anticipation rule the day. You will have happy readers. And that is a very good thing.


Anatomy of a Scene


The Opening Scene

We’ve been talking about writing in scenes as a way for authors to complete their novels, and as a way to ensure that every page of our book is compelling and moves the story forward all the way to the end. Our goal is that we would stop wasting our valuable writing time working on pages that are dull or stray from the story line which later ends up being deleted. We want to make every writing minute count.

This week we are going to focus on The Opening Scene.

The opening scene is the first scene in your novel and it is the most important scene you will write. If the scene is boring, or confusing, there is a good chance that your reader will put your book down and not buy it. That’s bad. So we need to be sure that the opening scene contains all the elements necessary to make the reader turn the page. Note that the opening scene is not the prologue.

The opening scene serves a few purposes and contains the following:

  • It contains the hook. The hook is the reason your reader will read the book because they want to know what happens next
  • It implies the story question
  • It brings your reader immediately into your story world
  • It establishes the setting
  • It hints at the overall plot
  • It introduces your protagonist and allows the reader a glimpse of their struggles (both interior and exterior)
  • It sets up the conflict
  • It sets up the pace

The opening scene should open with a hit of a riddle. This riddle is the story question that will be answered by the end of the book, and it is this riddle that will intrigue your reader. There needs to be enough information, enough action, and enough plot information to hook the reader without being overbearing with detail and minutia.

Your inciting incident does not necessarily need to be in your opening scene, but it should be pretty darn close to it. It should definitely be in Act I if you are following a 3 Act Structure or a 4 Act Structure, or it is the catalyst event if you are using a beat sheet. If your inciting incident is not located so early in your story, then I recommend you revise your plot. Note that the inciting incident is the event which begins the story problem that your character must solve by the end of the book. Think about the last movie you watched. What was the thing that made your characters jump into action? That is the inciting incident.

Your main character and your overall plot are intertwined. Plot and character CANNOT be disconnected. Your plot pushes your character, and your character reveals the plot. You must have these two elements in the opening scene, and throughout your book.

The ending to your opening scene (remember that all scenes have a beginning, a middle, and an ending) should leave your reader dangling with tension, crisis, dilemma, or conflict. Leave the significant situation unresolved so that your reader has to find out what happened.

Next time: more on writing that scene.