You’ll find many articles on the internet and whole books devoted to advice on how to write a scene. I’m not going to pretend to know everything nor claim that I know better.
What I want to do in this post is to give some basic advice on writing a scene. Always keep in mind that a story is made up of scenes linked together, so each scene must lead into the next.
It doesn’t matter whether the scene is part of a short story or a novel. I’m not going to assume that you have outlined the story that this scene will be a part of. Neither will I make any assumptions about where this scene falls in the story. I’m just going to give you some basic writing tips that are most relevant to scenes but apply to your writing as a whole.
TIP #1: Decide what you want the scene to accomplish.
Even if you’re plotting your story as you go (what we call “pantsing,” as in writing by the seat of your pants instead of outlining it beforehand), you should not start any scene without having a good idea of its purpose in the story. This is where you really need to focus. More importantly, ask yourself how this scene will ADVANCE THE STORY. I’m not talking about merely adding information for the reader. The scene must also move the story forward in some way or else it’s just padding.
It’s okay to use a scene to inform or to introduce characters, but it must do more than those things. Something must HAPPEN in the course of the scene that propels the story forward. Also, those parts of the scene that do move the story forward should occupy a significant part of the scene and not be relegated to the last few lines of the scene as a “surprise.”
Here’s an example I came across recently. The scene (a whole chapter, actually) is 2600 words long. The scene’s purpose is to gather a fairly large number of characters into a meeting to discuss strategy. The primary event that moves the story forward occurs in the last 500 words of the chapter.
While the rest of the chapter contains occasional plot points, most of them are backstory, and most of the scene leading up to those last 500 words simply introduces and describes the various participants as they arrive for the meeting, with some paying rather close attention to others. (It’s a romance novel with several couples involved in the story). Some of the dialogue exchanges are amusing, while others are basic pleasantries or introductions of characters to the rest of the group. In short, the chapter as a whole spends too little time advancing the story and stagnates on the character introductions.
I’m not saying that introducing characters is not important. The author does a good job of that, but too much of the scene does NOT advance the story and focuses on who these people are.
Another purpose of a scene besides advancing the plot is to pose one or more questions for the reader. While these may not advance the story directly (or maybe they will later on), they pull the READER forward.
You, the writer, may not know beforehand how the scene will balance out in terms of advancing the story vs. being purely informational. However, AFTER the scene is written, you should go back over it and determine how that balance plays out. Is there enough story advancement to balance the purely expositional and descriptive parts? Does the scene pose sufficient questions for the reader?
If your sole or primary purpose for a given scene is to introduce one or more characters, then you should find a better way to do the introductions that doesn’t involve a story-stopping scene. The scene I’m discussing here spends roughly 80 percent on character introductions and interactions, and that means the scene is slowing the story more than it should.
Therefore, make sure your scene not only accomplishes its purpose, but be sure that it also moves the story along.
TIP #2: Make sure the scene ends on a high note, one that makes the reader want to turn the page.
You’ve heard this before, I’m sure, and I have mentioned it more than once in the past. It’s even more important if the scene ends a chapter that it have a page-turner ending.
TIP #3: Establish the POV character of the scene first
Unless you’re writing in omniscient POV (true omniscient, not headhopping), then you should determine BEFORE YOU START THE SCENE whose POV the scene is written in and make sure you STAY in that POV.
Just so we’re clear, if you are using an omniscient POV, then you CANNOT have any of the characters’ thoughts or feelings in the scene unless those feelings are evident to an outside observer. The only exception here is if the narrator of the scene is telling it from a past experience where he or she knows how the characters felt at the time.
I’ll close with an article that came out just after I wrote this post. It reinforces some of what I said and adds some other good writing tips.