How to Write Strong Scenes: 4 Key Questions to Evaluate Your Scene

Author:
Publish date:

The following is excerpted from the online course The Art of Storytelling 101: Story Mapping and Pacing by Terri Valentine, which explores style, concepts, characters, and how to write strong scenes. Learn more about the course and register at Writer's Digest University.

Practically speaking, scenes are the irreducible matter of novels. The success or failure of a novel often depends on each scene doing its share of the heavy lifting. Scenes are not the same as chapters: A chapter may contain one or many scenes.

Beginning writers often focus their attention on a few “important” scenes that they think are the heart of the novel and will wow the readers. The remaining scenes are treated as information dumps (passive talking-head scenes delivering necessary information), transition scenes (moving characters to different settings), or establishing scenes (introducing us to minor characters, settings, and secondary plot lines). In reality, these scenes are more plentiful and do more foundation-building work than the flashier “important” scenes.

The video above describes three types of scenes you can use, and the tips below provide questions you can ask when you're looking to hone those scenes in the revision process.

How to Write Strong Scenes: 4 Key Questions to Evaluate Your Scene

It helps to think of each scene as a separate short story, able to stand on its own. As such, it should have a dynamic opening which thrusts the reader right into the scene. It should have a middle that delivers something essential to the novel as a whole. It should have an ending that generates enough suspense to compel the reader into the next scene. And all this needs to be done in an entertaining way.

One technique that helps writers polish scenes is to copy and paste individual scenes into separate documents when you want to edit them. Once you physically remove a scene from the context of the rest of the novel, it’s much easier to focus on all the necessary elements. This slows your editing process because you’re not thinking about the next scene.

Another technique is to examine the scene to make sure it is necessary. Sometimes writers spend a lot of time polishing a scene that they know doesn’t quite work in the story.

They think the problem is with the technique, when in fact it’s with justifying the existence of the scene in the first place. Maybe it isn’t needed at all. To determine whether or not your scene has fulfilled a key function, consider the following:

1. The Plot Focus:

The purpose of this scene is to ________________________________________.

(example: The purpose of this scene is to reveal the protagonist’s childhood abuses in order to provide motivation for her current actions.)

2. The Character Focus:

When the audience finishes this scene, they should feel ____________________.

(example: When the audience finishes this scene, they should feel sympathy for the protagonist, yet be skeptical of her reliability as a narrator.)


3. The Theme Focus:

When the audience finishes this scene, they should think____________________.

(example: When the audience finishes this scene, they should think that the protagonist has been using these abuses as an excuse for many other self-destructive actions.)


4. The Suspense Focus:

When the audience finishes this scene, they should wonder _________________.

(example: When the audience finishes this scene, they should wonder if the protagonist will be able to overcome the horror of her childhood in order to reunite with her estranged mother.)

Learn more in this upcoming online course:

Image placeholder title
Poetry Prompt

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 576

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write a back to blank poem.

Where Are the Toxic Families in Children's Books?

Where Are the Toxic Families in Children's Books?

Christina Wyman discusses how for children who suffer difficult family dynamics, seeing their experiences reflected in books is few and far between.

the island

The Island

Every writer needs a little inspiration once in a while. For today's prompt, build yourself an island.

Nawaaz Ahmed: On Personal Identity in Literary Fiction

Nawaaz Ahmed: On Personal Identity in Literary Fiction

Nawaaz Ahmed discusses how his personal experiences acted as the impetus for his new book, Radiant Fugitives, and how it went from novella to novel.

Comedy vs. Comity (Grammar Rules)

Comedy vs. Comity (Grammar Rules)

There's nothing funny about learning when to use comedy and comity (OK, maybe a little humor) with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.

Shugri Said Salh: On Writing the Coming-Of-Age Story

Shugri Said Salh: On Writing the Coming-Of-Age Story

Debut author Shugri Said Salh discusses how wanting to know her mother lead her to writing her coming-of-age novel, The Last Nomad.

100 Ways to Buff Your Book

100 Ways to Buff Your Book

Does your manuscript need a little more definition, but you’re not sure where to begin? Try these 100 tips to give your words more power.

Kaia Alderson: On Internal Roadblocks and Not Giving Up

Kaia Alderson: On Internal Roadblocks and Not Giving Up

Kaia Alderson discusses how she never gave up on her story, how she worked through internal doubts, and how research lead her out of romance and into historical fiction.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: Seven New Courses, Writing Prompts, and More!

This week, we’re excited to announce seven new courses, our Editorial Calendar, and more!