7 Steps to Writing a Story in Scenes

StageYou’ll notice I didn’t include the word “easy” in the title of this post. There are not seven “easy” steps to writing a story in scenes. It takes hard work. I suspect that’s why so many writers substitute narrative summary for scenes.

Of course, when you’re not sure of the components that make up a scene, it’s harder to write one. If your writing seems flat or passive and you don’t know why, you may have omitted one or more of the following:

  1. Real Time: Even if you’re writing in third person using past-tense verbs, lay out actions in sequential order. As a rule, especially in the beginning of your novel, don’t jump backward or forward in the story. If you do, you’ll interrupt the flow of time and disconcert your reader. For an unusual perspective on time flow in fiction, read Teach Your Writing Voice to Sing.
  2. Characters: This element may seem like a “no-brainer.” (Of course a scene will have characters.) But hear me out. Let’s say you’re writing about a lynch mob ready to hang an outlaw. You could state the bald fact, or you could pick faces from the crowd. Maybe the outlaw killed Jack’s brother, robbed Otis’s store, and held a gun to Chet’s face just for fun. Having these fellows, even as minor characters, call out their grievances makes the incident personal and, therefore, more immediate. For a unique and efficient perspective on creating characters, read Dianne Christner’s Creating Characters With Personality.
  3. Showing: You experience the world through your senses. Similarly, for readers to enter your written world, you must draw them through their senses. Labeling emotions is telling. It’s also lazy writing. Instead of stating that Mary is sad, show her reasons for sadness, and then have her react physically and perhaps with introspection. Just don’t do this in a clichéd manner. Maybe she doesn’t weep but instead grows quiet or withdraws. David is angry but rather than punch a hole in the wall he exterminates every weed in his yard. For more tips, watch my video: 5 Ways to Show Rather Than Tell in Fiction Writing.
  4. Setting: New writers often neglect this element needed to ground every scene in place and time. Using too much or not enough description is a common mistake. With too few setting details the reader will feel curiously weightless, like an astronaut floating in a zero-gravity chamber. Characters will seem like “talking heads” lost somewhere in space. If you overload your readers with description, you’ll weigh them down so badly they’ll barely make progress through the scene. Finding a happy balance takes practice. It helps to have feedback from great critique partners. Sarah Baughman tackles the topic of How To Balance Dialogue and Description.
  5. Action: Something physical happens, with or without dialogue. Some writers call actions that accompany dialogue “beats.” Using beats instead of tags to identify speakers helps you bring a scene to life. For tips on writing dynamic action scenes, Bryan Thomas Schmidt has you covered. Read his Write Tip: 10 Tips For Writing Good Action Scenes.
  6. Dialogue: Too many writers neglect dialogue, which is a shame. It’s a vital tool for characterization and for imparting information (provided you don’t try to shoehorn it into your reader). You can even use dialogue to give glimpses of back story in a realistic way that doesn’t disrupt your story’s flow. For more on dialogue, read Sharon Lavy’s Do You Hear The Voices?
  7. Purpose: Every scene must further your plot. If a scene exists merely to dump information on the unsuspecting reader, it has no real purpose and will seem aimless. Cut all such scenes and work only the information your reader needs to know into the story when your reader needs to know it. Jody Hedlund offers great advice on strategically selecting scenes in How To Make Your Book Play Out Like a Movie.

Telling a cohesive story through scenes is an art that, once mastered, will breathe life into your writing.

What are your tips for writing scenes?

31 Replies to “7 Steps to Writing a Story in Scenes”

  1. A writing friend of mine said that if possible, every scene should have at least two if not three purposes. Ever since then, I try to see what I can accomplish with a scene besides the obvious. Great tips! I especially like deepening even the minor characters.

    1. That’s a great tip, Melissa. A savvy editor taught me that you want to get what she called “more bang for your buck” in every scene. That advice has stuck.

  2. I just finished the 1001th editing of my debut novel and despite my meritorious effort, I still see the shortcomings in the pampered piece when examined through your literary forensic flashlight. I am plotting my second novel and I intend to apply all I’ve learnt from your peace. I wish this advice had come much earlier!

    1. This reminds me of a popular sayng: a journey of a thousand miles starts with but a single step. Keep putting one foot before the other.

  3. What a great resource you’ve provided here, Janalyn. Now I have to go read/view each of the links. The education of a writer never ends, does it? Thanks so much for the post!

  4. I love being a perpetual student, Jan. I’m glad you find my observations helpful.

  5. Janalyn, thanks for a great post. This is definitely going into my tool box.

  6. Janalyn, this is an awesome post! A writer reads article after article on writing, but only the good ones ‘stick’. This one will definitely stick! 🙂

  7. Reblogged this and commented:
    Fantastic advice for fiction writing and helpful suggestions for advice on specific topics..

    1. I’m glad you like my post, Sherri. It’s fun to share links and resources.

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