The Ingredients of Solid Scenes

OK, OK, so I know this isn’t technically from WD mag on WD Mag Wednesday, but it’s from WD, right? After browsing some of the courses, I pulled this intriguing bit from the Novel Writing: Scene Fundamentals course as a nice breakdown for newer scribes (or as a good refresher) of, well, the key fundamentals of scenes. And as always, a prompt shall follow.


(If you’re interested in this WOW course or other ones, a fresh batch starts tomorrow and can be found here; enter the code JAN10 to grab a friend-of-Promptly 15 percent discount from this course or a slew of others.)

There is no magic formula for a scene. Like a recipe, each scene is going to require different quantities of the ingredients that comprise it, depending on the intention of the scene and the goals of the novel you are writing. To this end, scene writing is simply a breaking down of the different craft elements and an understanding of the way in which they intertwine. Many of you might simply rely on your writerly intuition to accomplish this balance, but for those of us who struggle with the “how much is too much” conundrum, it’s important to provide a clear checklist of what a scene should contain:

    * Action: This is perhaps the most fundamental element of a scene. Something has to happen. And that something has to compel the eyeballs, as yours are being compelled now, to scan to the end of each and every sentence. Scenes function a bit as a chain reaction; one scene builds upon another, upon another, upon another until we get a full sense of the world inside your novel—or, as Blake might say, the grains of sand that make up your fictional beach. How is the action of this scene related to the overarching plot of your novel? Are you revealing in this scene that your lawyer, a main character, once considered shy and reclusive by the other characters and your narrator, is really a lecherous cad, making moves on his assistant and astounding the reader with new, unexpected information? Well, you sure can. But how do you do it? Does he call her into his office and make a speech, or does he just act creepy, smell her hair a bit when he thinks she’s not paying attention? Stare at her cleavage when she’s fixing the copier, maybe? Your call. But make it memorable, because this guy is secretive about his creepy activities. His actions might reveal his intentions, whether he wants them to, or not.
    * Characters and their baggage: By characters, I don’t simply mean flat, two-dimensional characters. They must have a complex history, desires, and motivations. And by baggage, I mean that your characters must have histories and desires; they must want something—both in the short-term (the scene) and the long-term (the novel/story). A story about a barber in a hair cutting contest is much more interesting if the barber is blind. What stands in your character’s way? What understanding of the character will the reader take away from the scene that will help them decipher the rest of your novel? What will your characters say (dialogue)? And what are they thinking (indirect speech)?
    * Setting: Each scene must make the physical setting jump off the page for the reader. What does the terrain look like? Feel like? Smell like? Remember, too, that setting is often used to create a mood or a tone of the scene. A story that begins “on a dark and stormy night” will certainly be darker in tone than one that begins on a “bright and fragrant spring morning.” Our lecherous attorney from Bullet Point Number One might be set most convincingly in a cramped, humid office space, dark and dank enough to make everyone hot and bothered, whether or not they share his sweaty desires. If he’s a twisted creep, after all, chances are he’s not a particularly gifted attorney with a spacious, wood-paneled office and expensive art on the walls. He’s an ambulance chaser with a poor record of catching those ambulances; or maybe he’s a divorce lawyer, but one that isn’t so great at keeping his hands off the merchandise. Does a big sign reading “Dewey, Cheatem, and Howe” light up the entryway in blinking neon? If it does, then that decision is part of your setting.
    * Point of View: The POV character functions, in essence, as the reader’s eyes and ears in the fictional world. We see the story through the perspective of that individual character, or, to put in another way, we’re in that character’s “head.” Decide which POV character is the best fit for your scene. Who is going to provide the best perspective, details, and insights? And, importantly, will that character actually be present at your fiction’s critical moments? If you want the climactic courtroom scene to be described, bomb-filled backpack being discovered in the corner and all, your POV detective will need to be in the observer’s gallery of the courtroom. Or maybe the judge should describe the story … you get the picture, but your readers won’t get it if the POV character you’ve created for them can’t be available to them at the right times.
    * Conflict: Have you ever listened to someone tell a story that seemed to go on and on and on with no real point or purpose? My Aunt Kathy recently told a story about her neighbor’s cat Pumpkin and how she’s always doing the darndest things. Pumpkin jumps up on window sills and takes naps in the old dog house in the garden. Pumpkin chases rabbits in the yard, and she likes to play with the other neighborhood cat, Sam, who is black and white. Kathy spent a full twelve minutes describing Pumpkin’s coat, which, would you believe, is orange? Have you fallen asleep yet? If not, keep in mind that this is how your scene will read if you have not thought to include a conflict or a complication in the scene. Maybe Aunt Kathy’s neighbor, Bart, is a dog person. Hates cats, as a matter of fact. And Bart doesn’t find Pumpkin’s intrusions into his rabbit farm to be amusing at all. Did Pumpkin’s owner ever actually sign the paperwork for that restraining order against Bart? If not, Pumpkin might be toast. Now you’ve got a conflict worth exploring.
    * Text/Subtext: Hemingway once said, “I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows.” What he means is that if what you’ve written is written carefully, your reader will be able to read further into your story, beyond what is immediately written. The adage “less is more” is useful when writing your scenes. Don’t give too much away; practice the art of subtlety. Remember, you are learning to trust your readers to read closely, to intuit that your antagonist is evil because of his dark and penetrating eyes or his menacing looks.

Up in the Air

Feel free to take the following prompt home or post your response (500 words or fewer, funny, sad or stirring) in the Comments section below. By posting, you’ll be automatically entered in our occasional around-the-office swag drawings.

A thud.
On the plane, everyone looks around.
Another thud.
And another.
Then, a knocking from below.

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0 thoughts on “The Ingredients of Solid Scenes

  1. Vibram Five Fingers

    I don’t really run barefoot. I wanted to, but the combination of super hot sidewalks and the fear of sharp objects convinced me that Vibram Five Fingers were a good compromise between running shoes and none at all. What I didn’t know was that my reasons were the same as almost everyone else’s and the guys that I looked up to were the same Vibram Fivefingers that everyone else did.
    Though I don’t call myself Barefoot Tyler (mostly because I DON’T RUN BAREFOOT), this video is absolutely hilarious. The insults are far better than the random crap the Vibram Five Fingers guy is spewing.

  2. Dorraine

    Zac, great writing ingredients! For sure a list I’ll keep cooking with for a long time to come.

    And, Martha, I just saw your pink leotards after I posted. We were thinking pink!

    Think Pink

    I’m an unmarried middle-aged woman going to Tahiti. This is my first time out of the states and only my second time on an airplane. Like a cell phone battery- that’s how clicked I’ve been into my own tight world.

    Today I un-clicked myself, but it seems my timing is off, as usual.

    I look delightful, though. My red curly hair is gleaming. Got it done just yesterday at Curly Cues. My nails are a glossy shade of pink. Toenails, too. I think of pink hibiscus, rose-breasted cockatoos, and pink lemonade sunsets. Squeezing my eyes tight, I think of pink kisses. If Lucille Ball could get a Desi Arnaz, then little Dottie Laleene could nab one island kiss. But it’s not looking too good, folks.

    I can’t deny these faces around me, red flushed and petrified. And intermittent thuds, the cabin hazy with fog and smelling of black burnt tires. There is wailing. My ears are ringing. No sir, nothing pink about any of this.

    Oddly enough, it gets quiet. A snappy sharp happening.

    Think of all these folks, sucking in their breath at once, and hope squeaking through that opening. That’s how it feels. Weird how in this moment I’m remembering my pink straw hat, buried in my suitcase, underneath panties and shiny swimsuits and hoping it’s not squashed. Something must be wacky with me. For once, I’m glad.

    Clack, Clack… KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK. As if on cue, everyone weeps and moans again.

    The tiny pillow behind my head crackles like hay when I turn to look. The man next to me grabs my hand. His skin is fair under long gold hair and he’s young enough to be a boy of mine. He mentioned earlier he was a musician, and he has chapped fingertips to vouch for that. He’s wearing a silver cross around his neck.

    “You scared,” he asks.

    Those eyes of his are a tropical sky blue. I squeeze his hand. “Yes.”

    He suddenly rests his chin on my shoulder. His lip is quivering and tears are hanging in his lashes. “We’re going to die.”

    I pat his shiny, shiny hair. “I know.”

    In my head is a pink mansion.

  3. Martha W

    I agree with Mark. This is a great checklist. And man, was this a fun prompt…

    The work was worth it on this one, Mark. This was good.


    I knew this trip was a bad idea. No one would listen though. I was never wrong, didn’t they know that? I tried to explain but still, here I sat on flight 126 bound for Georgia. With my ex.

    John’s head lolled over to rest on my shoulder. His mouth gaped just enough to drool on my favorite Purdue sweatshirt. Dumbass. He’d left his new wife at home to come on this business trip. She wasn’t much better. I always thought they made a matching set, even before I caught them screwing in our hot tub.

    Giving my shoulder a hard shrug, I sent him flopping over on the window with a satisfying crack. He sniffed and kept right on sleeping. I rolled my eyes at the passing flight attendant and she giggled, patting my arm. "It’s okay honey. We lay over in Memphis. I’ll move you up to first class just for dealing with him."

    I smiled. That’s the most the slob had ever gotten me – even in the five years we were married. It was kind of like catching the brass ring on the old carousels. Just enough happy to give a little buzz. "Thanks. I’d appreciate it."

    She winked and moved on to the back of the cabin to start beverages. I relaxed back and flicked on my e-Reader for the new Ava March release. Lost in reading, I didn’t know how long we’d been in flight before we heard it.

    A thud.

    Everyone on the plane looked around. Even the ex.

    Another thud.

    And another.

    Then, a knocking from below.

    It was at this point that a few of the more delicate passengers freaked the hell out. Screaming about hijackers and terrorists. Honestly, I wished someone would just slap the crap out of them to shut them up. It didn’t take much to figure out the knocking was coming from the baggage department.

    The problem became – who checked it out?

    I volunteered the ex. Hey, if someone had to die, why not him? I almost had John convinced it would be like a national honor or something before the U.S. Air Marshal stood up and settled the matter. He was going. The Marshal, that is.

    Vaguely disappointed, I settled back in my seat to resume reading until something more exciting happened. It didn’t take long. Soon the Marshal was back with the stowaway. And it couldn’t possibly have been any better. The small grin on my face grew to a beaming smile as I gave John a shove to get his attention.

    The low keening sound from the seat next to me said he saw her. Dressed in skin-tight, flaming pink leotards and an outdated, black eighties sweater was the last person I expected to see.

    Tina, my ex’s new wife.

    Did I say this trip was a bad idea? Well, everyone can be wrong now and then.

  4. Mark James

    Zac, this is an awesome checklist for writing a scene.

    “You hear that?”

    I looked up from my magazine. Great. A kid with an imaginary friend. “Nope. Didn’t hear anything.”

    “There’s something under the plane,” she said.

    I closed the magazine. “What’s your name?”

    “Becky. What’s down there?”

    Something I hope you never see, kid. “People’s stuff.”

    She leaned further across the aisle. “What are you reading?”

    “Nothing. I’m listening you to interrupt me.”

    Something hit the plane hard, right under my seat, made a loud thud. I reached for Becky without thinking. Then I felt everyone’s eyes on us.

    “See?” she said. “Told you. There’s something down there.”

    I couldn’t believe he’d gotten out. Probably ate most of the family pets by now.

    He pounded the floor under my feet. A thud went through the whole plane. Then he did it again.

    I stomped both feet. “If you don’t stop, I’m coming down there with a stake.”

    I mumbled it under my breath, but I knew he heard me. So did Becky.

    “A steak?” she said. “Who’s hungry?”

    Before I knew it, I was looking at a little tag that said, ‘My name’s Jenn. Enjoy your flight.’

    “Mr. Allen. Is everything alright, sir?”

    Becky said, “His friend’s downstairs and he’s mad cause he wants to come out and eat steak.”

    I saw the word in Jenn’s mind before she said, “You have a friend riding in the baggage compartment, sir?” She might as well have said, ‘Are you a terrorist?’

    “Yeah, he does,” Becky said. “He was talking to him.”

    Jenn’s smile froze. She turned to Becky. “Did you hear his friend talk back, sweetheart?”

    Becky looked down at her little hands in her lap. “No.”

    I had to think fast. “I didn’t want her to be scared.” I gave Jenn a wide, sincere smile. “You know how kids are. Told her it was my special friend.”

    “He said – -”

    I talked right over Becky. “You find out what it is?” I looked around, raised my voice. “It’s not the wheels, is it?”

    That worked. Two rows back a woman said, “What about the wheels?”

    As soon as Jenn turned her back, I leaned over, whispered to Becky, “No more talk about my friend.”

    “How come you won’t give him steak?”

    “It’s complicated.”

    She tilted her head. “Are you one of those men with a gun in your shoe?”

    I glanced around. Nobody heard ‘gun’. Good. “It was a match, and no I’m not.”

    “Then what are you?”

    Outside the window, moonlight filtered through thin clouds. I fell back against my seat. “Bounty Hunter.”

    “What’s boundy?”


    After centuries tracking him, I brought down the biggest bounty in the Supernatural Registry, Vlad the Impaler. But I got careless, forgot about the darkness down there.

    He started knocking the floor under my feet; loud, ringing, clanging.

    I pressed the heel of my shoe into the floor, loosening it. The wooden stake was the size of a match, but it would be enough if I put it through his heart.


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