One of the biggest problems a writer encounters when writing a novel is misunderstanding the definition of a scene. I was once in the same boat. I have a slew of books on writing a novel – they’re all over the place in my home: in my office, living room, on the bedroom floor, in my computer bag, everywhere, a few are even on the bookshelves.
To write this piece of the novel writing puzzle, I dug through each of these rooms in search of the books with the best descriptions for writing scenes. And guess what? I found very little that talked about scenes – defining them, creating them. Novel writing books discuss plot, subplot, characters, motivation, emotion, dialogue, settings, descriptions, and publication – even how to write the blockbuster and breakout novels, but very little print space was allotted for describing how to write scenes.
No wonder writers have a hard time figuring out how to construct a scene when writing a novel. For many writers, the idea of writing a scene seems like a big mystery, something difficult to do that only the best writers know about. But that’s not true. If you’re writing a novel, you can learn to create scenes for it that move your story along and reveal the traits of your character. And that’s why I’m going to address what a scene is and how to go about constructing one.
Writing a Novel Requires Knowing the Definition of a Scene
The word “scene” as it relates to writing a novel (and movies, plays, the opera) can be defined in 3 ways:
- A scene is a continuous action set in one place
- A scene is a short section that presents a single event
- Scenes are the building blocks of a story’s plot.
When writing a novel, a writer must pull all of those definitions together so that the definition of a scene looks like this:
A scene is a short section (in comparison to the whole story) presenting a single event at a single location. A story is a series of scenes that when strung together make up the plot and ultimately the whole story.
Learn the Elements of Writing a Scene
So now that we know what the term “scene” means, let’s look at how a scene is constructed. Yes, there is a proper way to write a scene. When writing a scene, a writer follows the same elements of construction they use when creating a plot. So if you know how to develop a plot, you know how to write a scene. Let’s look:
- A plot has a beginning, middle and an end.
- A scene has a beginning, middle and an end, or at least a closing.
A Plot has:
- Conflict (where the protagonist and antagonist meet and clash)
- A resolution of the conflict by the lead character
A Scene has:
- A plot of its own with characters, conflict, and a resolution of the conflict or a closing to the scene.
Learn How to Construct Scenes
To construct a good scene, you must:
- Describe the singular setting in a way that gives the reader a sense of “being there”
- Clearly present the actions and dialogue of your characters
- Have a beginning, middle, and an end or closing
- Have characters, conflict, and resolution (similar to closing)
- Have an event taking place.
That might seem like a tall order when writing a novel, but let’s break it down:
#1 Describe the Setting
When writing a novel, describing the setting of a scene means pulling the reader into the story and giving them a sense of “being there”. Setting descriptions can be brief as is typical of smaller scenes or in more detail for larger scenes.
Scenes have both narrative and character involvement – dialogue. It’s rare that a scene will have only dialogue. Dialogue can’t do everything for a story. A narrative is used to set the stage for a scene and connect one scene to another by letting the reader know where the story left off in the last chapter and/or an explanation of why this scene is occurring; i.e., what event occurred that led to this event?
The key is to not over-burden the story with too much narrative at once. Perhaps give a brief description of setting at the start of the scene, but then also intersperse references to the setting throughout the scene or through the story’s characters.
Instead of writing: “The sky was dark and cloudy.”
Write: “James stared up at the sky, thinking about how to answer Julie’s question. He knew he was stalling. He wondered if those dark clouds rolling in meant he could dash off to put the top up on his convertible. He didn’t think she’d buy it.”
For more information about how to write settings, see: How to Write A Story Setting Readers Can Relate To
#2 Clearly Present the Action and Dialogue of Characters
This means that we want to keep the reader oriented to whose Point of View (POV) the story is being told from and who is speaking at all times.
Identify the POV character early in the scene. You can do this by saying things like “Jeff wondered what Thea’s next move was going to be.” That clearly states that we are in the head of Jeff and are getting his POV. It’s typically less confusing to the reader if we stick with one person’s POV for the entire scene. Experienced writers may make exceptions, but it’s best for beginning writers and most writers of all levels of experience to stick with that rule of thumb.
In establishing “just who’s talking now”, writers can always use “he said” or “she said” (or “Jeff said” and “Thea said”). However, using that method too often when writing a novel shows a lack of writing experience. It’s better to identify whom the dialogue is coming from by working in some character action. Take the example of James and Julie above, rewritten below for an illustration of how to write dialogue in a way that identifies the speaker without saying, “James said”.
James stared up at the sky, thinking about how to answer Julie’s question. He knew he was stalling. He wondered if those dark clouds rolling in meant he could dash off to put the top up on his convertible. He didn’t think she’d buy it. “Okay, look, what do you want from me? We spent the night together, that’s all. I thought you knew it was nothing more than that.”
James is kind of a jerk, and we didn’t have to remind the reader that it was him talking.
#s 3 thru 5 – The Remaining “Must Haves” of a Scene
The remaining “must haves” are best described through an example:
A good example of this is in the great opening scene in Dick Francis’ thriller, Knockdown. (I often reference this book because I think it really shows how to open a story). The opening scene constitutes the first chapter of the book. The setting is at a run-down horse racing track where there is an auction (the event) going on. A belligerent, wealthy Mrs. Sanders wants ex-prize-winning jockey, Jonah Dereham, to broker a steeplechaser for her. This is the construction of the first scene:
The scene begins with lead character Jonah Dereham and Mrs. Sanders (a significant character in the story) meeting at the worn out race track. There are a few other minor characters mixed into the scene. Near the end of the scene, we are introduced to 3 thugs.
There are many conflicts – many things that aren’t going well for either Dereham or Sanders:
- It’s raining and everyone is getting soaked (Mrs. Sanders is wearing a mink coat).
- The snobby Mrs. Sanders makes no bones about telling Dereham (continually, and in lots of different ways) that his place of business (the dilapidated horse track) is not up to her standards.
- Sanders has kept a secret from Dereham about whom she is buying the horse for, and when he discovers who it is, he isn’t happy.
- When Dereham purchases the horse, he is attacked by 3 men who want the horse he bought for Mrs. Sanders. And they’re intent on getting it one way or another.
At the end of the chapter, the 3 men are suggesting what they are going to do to Dereham if he doesn’t cooperate with them. So it’s not so much a resolution of a problem as much as a push off into the next chapter (and scene). At the beginning of the second chapter, the issue (as it relates to the nasty men) is resolved by Mrs. Sanders giving in to their demands, and Dereham, barely conscious in the passenger seat of her car, is trying to figure out a way to get the horse back. The first scene moved the story forward. The actions of the antagonistic three-some call for a response from our lead character.
The first scene in Knockout also has a beginning, middle, and end. We know about the end from what’s described above. But, backtracking to the start of the scene and the first few paragraphs, Francis uses narrative and dialogue to set the “stage”. He gives readers a feel for the setting (place and time) of the scene and to show Mrs. Sander’s true colors, which aren’t pretty. The middle of the scene continues on showing one problem after another (mostly created by Mrs. Sanders herself) until we get to the end when the men enter the “stage”. A very key element in all of this is that this scene is a launching pad for what has to happen next. It sets up new problems to solve and propels the story forward. Readers will want to know what happens next.
Writing a Novel – Constructing Scenes Wrap-up
Writing a novel has everything to do with the characters and the scenes a writer creates for them. Every scene should show the struggles or conflict facing a lead character along his or her path of solving their biggest problem (or attaining their goal). All the scenes are connected by a common thread of solving the problem but are individual in that each event, setting, and conflict is different.
I hope that these tips will get you closer to writing a novel, the one you’ve had bubbling inside of you for years – it’s time to write, and now that you know what a scene is and how to write a proper one, get typing!
The following articles expand more on some of the concepts of writing a novel that have been discussed here:
3 Phases of Writing a Novel – Beginnings, Middles, and Ends (Coming Soon!)
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Also, leave me a comment and tell me about your experience writing scenes. There is more to be written on this topic (like, how to keep track of scenes), but I hope this gets you started thinking about writing those scenes. Let’s talk!