At some point in your writing journey, you’ve probably sat down to write or edit a scene only to draw a blank. You want to write a scene, but how do you make it a good one?
This post will help you whether you’ve just started writing your novel and don’t know where to start, are in the middle of writing and have become discouraged, or have finished your novel but are worried your scenes are uninteresting.
What Is a Scene in Writing?
You can’t write a good scene or fix a bad one if you don’t know where it begins and ends. So before we get started, let’s establish what a scene is.
A scene is a section of your novel where a character (or characters) engage in actions or dialogue centered around a main focus.
For example, if you’ve read Harry Potter, you probably remember the scene in which Harry accidentally sets a Boa constrictor free at the zoo. In that scene, the characters’ actions and dialogue take place either at the zoo or are related to what happened there, more specifically with the Boa constrictor.
There’s a common misconception that a chapter is a single scene, which it can be, but this is by no means a rule.
Scenes, as you will learn in this post, have their own rules and requirements. They are structured with a beginning, middle, and end, acting as mini stories that link together to create your overall story.
Chapters, however, are up to your own creative decision. They are arbitrary dividers that mainly exist to control your reader’s experience. Their endings can coincide with the ending of a scene, or in the middle of the conflict to ramp up the tension with a cliffhanger.
While you’re writing, I suggest you put chapters aside and focus on your scenes. Scenes can be organized into chapters later once you’ve written them out and understand your story better. But this is just a suggestion—if you want to figure out the chapters around your scenes now, you can. Scenes and chapters can always be adjusted later if needed.
What Is an Example of a Scene?
Here’s a summary of that scene, which we’ll refer to throughout this post as an example to help you better understand key concepts:
The scene starts with a narration of activities the family does after arriving at the zoo: getting ice cream; seeing the animals; and eating lunch where Harry, to his surprised luck, gets to finish Dudley’s extra knickerbocker glory.
In the previous scene, Uncle Vernon told Harry, “I’m warning you now, boy—any funny business, anything at all—and you’ll be in that cupboard from now until Christmas.” This “funny business” refers to Harry’s subconscious use of magic he doesn’t know about yet.
Because of this warning, Harry is trying his best not to cause any trouble, so he goes out of his way to avoid Piers and Dudley, since he knows they’ll fall back to hitting him when they get bored. This narration of their day is followed by a short foreshadowing from Harry that it was all too good to last.
They head to the reptile house, and more specifically, to the Boa constrictor’s exhibit. Uncle Vernon tries waking the snake at Dudley’s behest, but when it doesn’t respond, they get bored and move on.
Harry feels bad for the snake and talks to it, finding its poor conditions relatable. To Harry’s surprise, the Boa constrictor raises its head and responds to him. However, this doesn’t last for long, as Piers sees the interaction and rushes over with Dudley. Dudley punches Harry out of the way, knocking him to the floor.
Because of this, Harry’s young, untrained magic lashes out and makes the glass of the exhibit vanish. He doesn’t know about his magic at this point; he only notices that strange things happen around him. The Boa constrictor is set free, causing a panic in the reptile house as it escapes.
As things calm down, Piers and Dudley exaggerate what the Boa constrictor had done to them, claiming it nearly bit off a leg and squeezed them to death.
The group heads home soon after. In the car, Piers says, “Harry was talking to it, weren’t you, Harry?” getting Harry in trouble. Once they return home, Uncle Vernon grounds Harry to his cupboard under the stairs with no dinner.
The scene ends with Harry lying in the cupboard, gloomily pondering the past ten years of his life, wondering about his parents, and thinking about how he used to wish for someone to take him away.
How to Write a Scene
By the end of this post, you’ll be able to identify your own scenes, structure your scenes with a goal and conflict, and improve your scenes through revisions.
1. Decide Where to Start and End the Scene
Generally, a new scene will start with a new focus, and that usually happens with a change in either the location, time, or point-of-view character.
A location change often signals the start of a new scene, but this isn’t always the case. If you change locations and don’t know whether or not to start a new scene, here are a few things to ask yourself:
Does the focus (what the action and/or dialogue centers around) from the previous location continue smoothly into the new location?
If so, it’s likely the same scene.
Does the new location start a new focus?
Or, if the new location continues a previous focus, does it feel cut off, like it’s being brought up again instead of continuing smoothly?
If so, it’s likely a new scene.
Sometimes traveling to a new location can constitute a scene on its own, like a long argument during a car ride or a back and forth between characters during a hike.
If that’s the case, just keep in mind what the focus is, and once that changes, change the scene.
For most of the Harry Potter scene, the location is the zoo, and the characters only move around inside. But toward the end, their location jumps to the car, and even more quickly, back to the house.
This is all one scene because the focus—what happened at the zoo—continues smoothly between the changes.
In the car, Piers mentions Harry talking to the Boa constrictor.
At the house, Uncle Vernon is furious and blames Harry for what happened at the zoo and punishes him.
Authors often use the natural break between scenes to add a time-skip, such as, “The next morning,” “Two weeks later,” and so on. But you can also use time-skips inside a scene to jump past a monotonous action that would otherwise drag the scene down.
There are two main types of time-skips:
- A true “skip”, in which the actions skipped during that time aren’t narrated and are left up to the reader’s imagination.
“She woke up the next morning.”
“She arrived at the store twenty minutes later.”
We don’t see the character sleeping or driving, nor does the narration describe what happened during that time.
2. A fast-forward, meaning the story needs to jump ahead but the reader needs to know what happened in that time. The actions are narrated and summed up, and like a movie on fast-forward, we see what’s happening, but don’t stop to take in the scene.
“He trained hard for two weeks, getting up each morning before dawn…”
“He spent the rest of his afternoon at the market, going from stall to stall…”
These are both time-skips, but we skim along them on fast-forward as it is narrated to us.
If you want to use a time-skip but don’t know if it starts a new scene, here are a few things to ask yourself about the scene:
Does the focus continue through the time-skip? If that time-skip hadn’t happened and the actions were shown, would they fit the focus?
If so, it’s likely the same scene.
Does the time-skip lead into a new focus?
Is the focus the same, but the actions in the time-skip aren’t related to the focus?
Is the time-skip an entire day or longer?
If you answered yes to any of these, it’s likely a new scene.
The Harry Potter example scene contains four main time-skips:
- Time passes as the family wanders the zoo and eats lunch. This is the second type of time-skip, a fast-forward. We are taken quickly through the events of their afternoon.
- There’s a time-skip between the Boa constrictor’s escape and the aftermath, though the aftermath is mostly told in summary itself.
- There’s a time-skip between them leaving the zoo and arriving home. The only mention of what happens in the car is Piers claiming that Harry was talking to the Boa constrictor. The purpose of this time-skip is to jump past the monotonous drive home. After all, Uncle Vernon can’t yell at Harry in the car with Piers present.
- There’s a time-skip between Harry being grounded and him lying in his cupboard later that night. This time-skip moves the scene from Harry being told he’s grounded, to showing him experiencing that punishment, along with his low mood resulting from all that happened that day.
Because of this, the focus is carried, but this late in the scene, it’s petering out.
If more happened with Harry in his cupboard and there was a strong new focus, this could be counted as a new scene. But instead, he’s only reflecting on his life.
In addition, there’s a time-skip after his reflecting that spans several months, which is a clear indicator that this is where the scene ends.
In all these instances, the time-skips stay within the scene because they are all relevant to the focus.
Point of View (POV)
You should understand the intended point of view, or POV, before trying to write a scene.
The three most common POVs are:
A POV character is the one whose eyes we’re seeing the story through.
In first person and third person limited, we only see through one character’s eyes, so the narration is biased because we only know their thoughts and feelings.
Third person omniscient narrators see everything, so there is no POV character, but an all-knowing narrator who remains constant.
In most novels, a POV character change coincides with a chapter change, but at the very least it should require a scene change.
Harry Potter is written in 3rd person limited, with Harry as the POV character (the first chapter is an exception since it’s a prologue of sorts, and written from an omniscient POV).
J. K. Rowling keeps Harry as the POV character from then on, but if she had changed it to another character, like Ron, for example, that would have called for a new scene or chapter.
2. Enter Late and Exit Early
Once you know for sure where your scene begins and ends, it’s a good idea to see if you can cut off anything from either end. Let me explain.
There’s a classic piece of screenwriting advice that applies very well to any kind of storytelling:
“Enter late and exit early.”
Entering a scene:
A reader will get bored if they enter a scene and have to wait around for something to happen. Because of this, you should try to enter a scene “late” so you’re closer to the focus (but you’re not actually late, since, if you do it right, the reader won’t miss anything).
Ask yourself: Without excluding any important information, what is the latest possible moment in the action I can enter the scene?
“Late” is usually later than you think, so test how late you can enter the scene and still make it work.
In the Harry Potter example scene, readers fully enter the action when the family arrives at the reptile house. Everything beforehand is summarized to get you to this point faster.
Authors often use summary at the beginning of a scene for this very purpose. However, you don’t want to make the summary too long and risk boring your reader by telling them everything instead of showing. Keep it concise, and just focus on the important parts.
While we need to see Harry and the Dursleys spending time at the zoo outside of the reptile house, J. K. Rowling doesn’t make us stand there in line with them. The focus of the scene is inside with the Boa constrictor, so she gets us there quickly.
Exiting the scene:
Once the focus has passed, the purpose of your scene has been fulfilled and the reader’s interest will drop if you don’t get out of there fast.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you should leave before the scene has finished, as that will just confuse your readers. You want to leave the movie theater when the credits start rolling, not before the movie is over.
Ask yourself: Without excluding any important information, what is the earliest possible moment I can exit the scene?”
In the Harry Potter example scene, once the Boa constrictor escapes, J. K. Rowling moves us quickly through the aftermath and home to where Harry gets grounded. But even though it’s quick, nothing is left out, and the reader isn’t confused.
3. Structure Your Scene
Without proper structure, even the most beautiful bridge will collapse under the slightest weight. The same is true of your novel. It may have a great starting idea, but without structure, it will fall apart once the reader takes a step into it.
Luckily, you don’t need to figure out how to build that strong bridge all on your own—there’s already a blueprint.
It’s called the “AND, BUT, THEREFORE” structure.
- AND – A status update and the character’s goal.
- BUT – The conflict or obstacle in the way of that goal.
- THEREFORE – The outcome of that conflict, and a setup for the goal or conflict in the next scene.
Don’t worry if that’s confusing now—we’ll dive into the details in a moment.
Why should you use this method?
Scenes require two things to keep a reader engaged: a goal they care about, and a conflict that stands in the way of that goal.
The “AND, BUT, THEREFORE” method has both of those requirements built in, and helps you connect each scene to the next.
If you use this method throughout your novel, your scenes will flow better, and it’ll ensure you have that key combination of a goal and conflict in each scene.
Now let’s look at each piece in more detail, and examine how the Harry Potter scene fits into this structure:
AND: A status update and the character’s goal.
The AND is the setup of your scene. It contains the following:
- Status update: Narration connecting this scene to the previous one, and a description of the setting.
- Character goal: Your main character’s scene goal, established as close to the beginning of the scene as possible.
In the Harry Potter scene, the family arrives at the zoo AND Harry wants to stay out of trouble to enjoy the outing.
If there’s been a time-skip since the previous scene, sum up what’s happened. What progress or lack thereof has your protagonist made since the previous scene? What’s changed?
For example, the status update in our Harry Potter scene is the narration of the family’s activities in the zoo up until the reptile house.
If you’ve changed locations, this is where you can describe the new one. Where are your characters and who are they with?
And remember, give the reader the information they need to know, but don’t drag it out so long that you bore them.
Without a goal or motivation driving their actions, your characters will come across as directionless and passive. Without that goal to root for, readers won’t care what happens to your characters.
Because of that, in each scene, you want a goal to hook the readers as soon as possible. Introduce that goal right at the beginning. You can, and often should, establish your character’s goal within the status update.
- If you can’t establish your character’s goal until later in the scene, do you have a strong reason for not starting the scene closer to that goal? Did you really start this scene as ‘late’ as you should have?
- If you can’t start your scene any later, then maybe your character needs a different goal that can be established earlier.
I’ve talked about your main character so far, but they’re most likely not the only character in your novel. You should know the goal of even the minor and supporting characters in each scene; what are they trying to do, get, or find out?
Your story will have a greater impact on your reader if all your characters feel like real people, with real motivations that direct their actions.
For example , in the Harry Potter example, Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon want Dudley to have the perfect birthday. Having Harry there hampers that.
Dudley and Piers want to be entertained, and that includes ruining Harry’s day. Piers is only too happy to mention that Harry was talking to the Boa constrictor because he knows it will get Harry into trouble.
Your scene might be more interesting if another character’s goals oppose those of the protagonist, even if they’re on the same side. It’s a great source of conflict for the BUT, and keeps the tension high, which in turn keeps the reader engaged.
BUT: The conflict or obstacle in the way of that goal.
The BUT is the meat of your scene, where all the interesting stuff happens, like when the Boa constrictor escapes after Harry was talking to it.
The BUT will always include the biggest conflict, but there should be smaller ones as well. You can’t rely on just the one.
While the biggest problem for Harry in our example scene is the Boa constrictor’s escape, he also knows that if he catches the attention of Piers and Dudley, they might start hitting him for their own entertainment. Then, Dudley punches Harry out of the way and to the floor.
Uncle Vernon’s warning from before ramps up the tension for the Boa constrictor escaping since the reader and Harry know he’ll be in for it when he gets home.
But why do you need conflict anyway? Why can’t things just happen?
The average person doesn’t like conflict in their daily life and will avoid it as much as they can. Confrontations, tough changes, loss—no one wants to struggle or fail.
Because of this, writers tend to be too soft on their characters; they don’t want to hurt them. Sure, a character might get into a sword fight, but they’ll still win in the end and look really cool doing it. No harm done.
But characters who don’t face conflict—true conflict that puts them to the test—have no reason to change. And a story without change is an uninteresting one.
Readers will only care about what happens in your story if they care about your characters and what they’re fighting for.
Your most important goal as a writer is to make your readers care, and you do that by giving your characters compelling goals, then making them struggle to achieve those goals. That tension will keep the reader turning page after page.
In the Harry Potter scene, the reader isn’t relaxed, even though Harry starts out the zoo trip enjoying himself for the most part. This is because of Uncle Vernon’s warning from before, and the tension set up between Harry and the Dursleys, who don’t want him there.
We as the readers are pretty sure the day won’t end well, and this is even foreshadowed by Harry.
The tension is ramped up when things really do go south, and it keeps us reading as we wonder what will happen next.
Stories need a constant turnover of success and failure, which is achieved through the conflict your character faces in every scene. But whether they succeed or fail, the change should be meaningful.
With this in mind, you need to create that fine balance between your characters being continuously challenged, and them growing as people and making progress toward their goals.
THEREFORE: The outcome of that conflict, and a setup for the goal or conflict in the next scene.
The THEREFORE is the closure of your scene. It contains the following:
- Outcome of the change: The conflict should have caused a change in the character or story-world that can’t easily be undone. Show or hint at the outcome of that change here.
- Future setup: Because of the conflict and change, there should be a feeling that something is about to happen. This feeling should be in the mind of your reader, character, or both.
For Harry, the outcome is that Uncle Vernon grounds him to his cupboard.
Outcome of change
If a scene doesn’t change the story-world and move the plot forward in some way, why does it exist? Stories are all about change; who the character was to who they’ve become.
No one would’ve read Harry Potter if Harry had just stayed with the Dursleys and led a dull existence at a normal private school. It was his journey—his change—from a shy young boy into a powerful wizard that kept readers coming back.
Your novel should be full of changes, each pushing the story forward.
Often, authors see the word ‘change’ and think it means big things like discovering a murder, finding a treasure map, or two characters breaking up. And while these are each great changes to the story-world, not all changes need or should be that big.
Whatever its length, a scene should lead to an external story-world change, or an internal change of character or relationships.
In the Harry Potter scene, Uncle Vernon grounds Harry, and this punishment lasts for several months. This is an external story-world change.
The conflict in this scene has reinforced Harry’s desire to leave the Dursleys, and also the Dursleys’ dislike of Harry. This represents an internal change and a slight relationship change.
In the end, whether big or small, all scenes should change the course of your story in some way. If all your characters leave the scene unchanged, then something is wrong with the scene.
If the reader doesn’t have any questions about what’s going to happen next, or anticipations about the effects of what has happened, they might put your book down. Keep them reading by planting questions in your scenes that you’ll answer later.
For the Harry Potter scene:
In a previous scene, Harry mentioned several “strange things” that had happened around him growing up, and now, we as the readers get to see a “strange thing” firsthand when his magic sets the Boa constrictor free.
Then, in his contemplation at the end of the scene, he mentions that strangers seemed to know him growing up, but they’d always vanish when he tried to look at them.
This all sets up an anticipation in the reader that something is going to happen, and that something isn’t normal about Harry.
4. Revise Your Scene
Once you’ve finished the first draft of your novel, take a break. Do something to refresh your creative juices and come back when your thoughts have had some time to settle. You’ll never get your best revisions done immediately after finishing the draft. You’re too close to your story.
After you’ve taken a break, it’s time to analyze each scene and perfect them.
When revising a scene, you want to clearly identify and strengthen the following points:
1. Your Characters’ Goals
You wrote your characters to have goals in every scene, but their goals might not have come across as clearly as you thought. Take another look and ask yourself these questions:
- What is my character’s goal?
- Is this goal a logical one for my character to have?
- Is it easy to tell what the goal is?
- Could I make the goal more compelling?
- Can I answer these questions for every character in the scene?
Again, if your characters’ goals aren’t clear, your scene will suffer for it by losing reader interest.
2. Obstacles Creating Conflict
Conflict is one of the most important parts of a story, so you want to make sure it’s doing its job of creating tension and engaging the reader.
- What is the specific obstacle that causes conflict in the scene?
- Does this obstacle directly inhibit my character’s goal?
- Does my character actually struggle, or do they overcome it too easily?
- Can I make the conflict more inhibiting? Can I make the negative consequences for my character worse?
If there isn’t a conflict, you can’t clearly say what the conflict is, or the conflict is too easily overcome, then you have a problem. Remember, as much as you may love your characters, bad stuff needs to happen to them, and often. Really make them struggle, get hurt, and fail just as often, if not more often, than they succeed.
3. Character Actions
Your character had a goal and strove for it. They wanted something in the scene and took action to get it. But could you make those actions more interesting?
- What actions does my character take?
- Are those actions centered around the scene’s focus?
- Could they take an even stronger action to get what they want? How would that new action change the scene and story?
- Can I answer these questions for every character in the scene?
You want your character to be making decisions and taking actions; a proactive character will always be more interesting than a passive one.
But this doesn’t mean your character can’t be a cowardly or passive person. An action or decision to run away is still an action.
You just want to make sure that for most of your story, the character is making and acting on their own decisions. No one wants to read about a character who spends the entire story letting other people or circumstances push them around with no purposeful action of their own.
4. Creating Change
If you’ve written a compelling goal with tense conflict and strong character actions, your scene is sure to have a change. But let’s check up on it.
- Did the conflict change something in the external story-world, something internal in your character, and/or shift a relationship?
- What are the specific changes?
- Are the changes made in my scene easy to come back from? How can I make the change more permanent?
Change is how your story moves forward and your characters progress. Make sure each scene changes the course of your story in some permanent way.
5. Character and Plot
Every scene should progress the character arc and plot in some way, even if it’s small. Check your scenes against your character arc and plot, and see if each scene is pulling its weight.
- Does my character progress or regress in this scene? (The character arc won’t be an entirely upward journey; your character will make a lot of wrong choices that will set them back.)
- This might be a good scene, but does it move my plot forward? (Even a good scene might need to be cut if it isn’t adding to your plot.)
Your scene will be the strongest when you can answer each one of the questions in each point confidently. If you’re unsure about any of them, keep working on it or ask for advice in our online writers’ group.
Writing a Great Scene
By understanding the anatomy of a scene, you’ll be able to structure your plot and move your story along in a way that keeps your readers engaged and yearning for more.
Did you find this post helpful? Let us know in the comments below!
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