Guest post by C.S. Lakin
You know how complex writing a novel can be.
You not only have to come up with a great premise, engaging characters, high stakes, and conflict that pushes the protagonist toward his goal, but you must also learn how write a scene that compels readers—and fill your book with them.
That is a lot harder than some think. Many writers spend a moment thinking up a vignette but give little regard to the scene’s purpose.
While a checklist can help analyze the structure, it doesn’t address the process.
First: scene types vary depending on where each is placed over the span of a novel.
- Opening Scenes should be loaded with character and set up your premise. That’s where you want to slip in important bits of backstory.
- Middle Scenes carry complications, twists, and raise the stakes.
- Climactic Scenes should build to a riveting climax, so they might be shorter and packed with action and emotion.
Second: there’s no “one size fits all” template for a perfect scene. The kind of novel you’re writing also dictates the style, length, and structure of a scene, so study novels in your genre.
How to Write a Scene Using My 8-Step Process
Progressive steps to help you write that perfect scene:
1. Identify Its Purpose
Here’s where too many writers flounder.
You’ve likely heard that a scene should either advance the plot, reveal character, or both. Good advice but vague. You want strong pacing, showing rather than telling, and to create empathy for your protagonist. Plus, you want mystery and conflict in every scene to keep readers turning the pages.
So, the purpose of the scene is key.
In life, things happen, we react, process what happened, and decide on new action. So it’s action-reaction-process-decide-new action.
Write one sentence that encapsulates that for each scene. For instance, a scene I’m working on for my new historical Western romance marks the midpoint of my novel. Its purpose is to show my hero, Buck, losing control and scaring the heroine, Angela.
I fix that in my mind and make sure every element of my scene serves that purpose.
If you can’t identify the purpose for your scene, throw it out and come up with one that works.
2. Identify the High Moment
This occurs near the end of a scene, maybe even in the last line. Why?
Because most of your scenes should mimic overall novel structure, with a beginning, middle, climax, and ending. Of course, a scene could effectively “hang” at the end, to add tension and propel the reader into the next scene.
The high moment in my midpoint scene comes when Buck goes crazy in an attempt to keep Angela safe. I had established that she is terrified of snakes, and the scene begins just before they run into a mess of rattlers. The high moment is Angela screaming as the snakes strike. Buck shoots his rifle, then slashes in fury at the critters with his knife.
I end the scene with Buck a man possessed and Angela more frightened of his behavior than she is of the snakes.
This crucial step in the process reveals the ultimate purpose of your scene.
3. Emphasize Conflict: Inner and Outer
A great novel will have conflict on every page, sometimes inner, other times outer. Or both. But you don’t want meaningless conflict, such as two people arguing over what type of coffee to order—unless that specific argument reveals something important that advances the plot or exposes a key bit of character.
Think of ways to ramp up conflict to the highest stakes possible. Too few writers do this.
Every scene—even thoughtful, “processing” ones—should convey tension, inner conflict, and high stakes. You don’t need explosive action to have conflict.
My rattlesnake scene carries obvious outer conflict: man against snakes. But if that were all, the scene would be lacking.
The deeper conflict is Angela’s inner angst over Buck’s violent streak. She has resisted falling for him, so this incident creates super-high conflict between them, as Buck’s behavior pushes her away. He intends to show courage and his desire to protect her, but it backfires.
4. Accentuate Character Change
Writing instructor James Scott Bell says, “Every scene should have a death”—of a dream, a relationship, or a plan.
Literary agent Donald Maass encourages writers to consider how a point-of-view (POV) character feels before a scene starts and how she feels when the scene ends.
Your character should be changed by what happens. That change can be subtle or huge. It can involve a change of opinion, or it could be a monumental personality shift.
But change must occur. Why? Because, for the story to advance, decisions must be made and action instigated. Every event in your novel should impact your characters and foment change. But it must be significant and serve the plot.
How will Angela change by the end of the snake scene? Before the scene, she was falling in love. Now, her feelings have been squashed. She wants to flee back to NY.
Buck drastically changes too. He’s also shocked at the violent streak he fears he’s inherited from his father (who murdered Buck’s ma). Though he loves Angela, he believes he can never let himself get close to any woman because he will hurt her.
5. Determine POV
Who is the best character through whom the reader should experience this scene? With novels solely in the protagonist’s POV, this isn’t an issue. But for novels in shifting third person, with more than one perspective character, you need to decide whose POV you’ll portray in each scene.
You may find it easier to choose your POV character when you determine the purpose of your scene.
Or the POV choice may become obvious.
In romance novels it’s common to alternate between hero and heroine, so each gets a turn filtering the scene through their POV.
To decide whose POV to choose, ask yourself:
- Who has the most to lose or gain in the scene?
- Who will react strongest emotionally?
- Who will change the most?
- Whose reaction would most impact the plot?
6. Leave Out Boring Stuff
And the on-the-nose stuff no one wants to read.
Start your scene in the middle of the action, a bit before you build to the high moment, and you’ll avoid pages of unimportant narrative.
Inject important backstory but not at the expense of the present action. Cut anything that doesn’t serve your scene’s purpose. Make every word count.
7. Perfect Beginnings and Endings
It’s not just your novel’s first line that has to hook readers. Every scene promises to entertain your reader, to enthrall, to evoke emotion. You must make good on those promises.
Study best-selling novels in your genre to see how adept authors create strong scene openings and riveting scene endings. A scene’s last paragraph and closing line should ratchet up the conflict and underscore character transformation.
What about symbolism or motif? In my scene, by the end, the snakes become to Angela a symbol or image of Buck. One minute they’re silent, unmoving, and the next, they erupt in a violent attack. Beneath that calm exterior, Buck is poised to strike.
8. Inject Texture and Sensory Details
While some writers stuff scenes with too much detail, most tend to underwrite sensory specifics. This step in this scene-crafting process involves combing through your draft and bringing scenes to life with vivid detail that engages your reader’s senses.
Your goal is to paint enough of a picture to help your reader see the scene as if on the big screen. Too much detail is boring, as are details that don’t reveal anything important.
Scenes serve as the framework of your novel and shouldn’t be thrown together. Use this 8-step method every time, and you’re sure to succeed.
To help, I’ve created a worksheet you can download and print.
C. S. Lakin is a novelist, copyeditor, writing coach, mom, and backpacker. She blogs about writing at Live Write Thrive, and specializes in manuscript critiques. Get a free copy of her book Writing the Heart of Your Story when you join her novel-writing fast track mailing list here.