How do you go about setting up each of your story’s scenes? Is there a specific template out there that can guide one in their journey to writing a scene? Well, probably not a one size fits all model but there are certain guidelines you can follow in writing that perfect scene every time. There are a few things to consider when writing a scene and you need to address each one if you want your scenes to resonate with your readers. Below is an article on writing the perfect scene and after that is an article on crafting the flawless opening scene for your novel. These should get you ready to write all your scenes and feel confident in doing so.
Before the reading though, there is a video on scene structure that will get you in the mindset of creating well-stylized scenes. I hope you enjoy and use what you learn to sell more books😉
8 Steps to Writing a Perfect Scene—Every Time
by C.S. Lakin
You know how complex writing a novel can be.
You not only have to come up with a great premise, engaging characters, high stakes, and conflict that pushes the protagonist toward his goal, but you must also learn how write a scene that compels readers—and fill your book with them.
That is a lot harder than some think. Many writers spend a moment thinking up a vignette but give little regard to the scene’s purpose.
While a checklist can help analyze the structure, it doesn’t address the process.
Need help writing your novel? Click here to download Jerry’s ultimate 12-step guide.
First: scene types vary depending on where each is placed over the span of a novel.
- Opening Scenes should be loaded with character and set up your premise. That’s where you want to slip in important bits of backstory.
- Middle Scenes carry complications, twists, and raise the stakes.
- Climactic Scenes should build to a riveting climax, so they might be shorter and packed with action and emotion.
Second: there’s no “one size fits all” template for a perfect scene. The kind of novel you’re writing also dictates the style, length, and structure of a scene, so study novels in your genre.
How to Write a Scene Using My 8-Step Process
Progressive steps to help you write that perfect scene:
- Identify Its Purpose
Here’s where too many writers flounder.
You’ve likely heard that a scene should either advance the plot, reveal character, or both. Good advice but vague. You want strong pacing, showing rather than telling, and to create empathy for your protagonist. Plus, you want mystery and conflict in every scene to keep readers turning the pages.
So, the purpose of the scene is key.
In life, things happen, we react, process what happened, and decide on new action. So it’s action-reaction-process-decide-new action.
Write one sentence that encapsulates that for each scene. For instance, a scene I’m working on for my new historical Western romance marks the midpoint of my novel. Its purpose is to show my hero, Buck, losing control and scaring the heroine, Angela.
I fix that in my mind and make sure every element of my scene serves that purpose.
If you can’t identify the purpose for your scene, throw it out and come up with one that works.
- Identify the High Moment
This occurs near the end of a scene, maybe even in the last line. Why?
Because most of your scenes should mimic overall novel structure, with a beginning, middle, climax, and ending. Of course, a scene could effectively “hang” at the end, to add tension and propel the reader into the next scene.
The high moment in my midpoint scene comes when Buck goes crazy in an attempt to keep Angela safe. I had established that she is terrified of snakes, and the scene begins just before they run into a mess of rattlers. The high moment is Angela screaming as the snakes strike. Buck shoots his rifle, then slashes in fury at the critters with his knife.
I end the scene with Buck a man possessed and Angela more frightened of his behavior than she is of the snakes.
This crucial step in the process reveals the ultimate purpose of your scene.
- Emphasize Conflict: Inner and Outer
A great novel will have conflict on every page, sometimes inner, other times outer. Or both. But you don’t want meaningless conflict, such as two people arguing over what type of coffee to order—unless that specific argument reveals something important that advances the plot or exposes a key bit of character.
Think of ways to ramp up conflict to the highest stakes possible. Too few writers do this.
Every scene—even thoughtful, “processing” ones—should convey tension, inner conflict, and high stakes. You don’t need explosive action to have conflict.
My rattlesnake scene carries obvious outer conflict: man against snakes. But if that were all, the scene would be lacking.
The deeper conflict is Angela’s inner angst over Buck’s violent streak. She has resisted falling for him, so this incident creates super-high conflict between them, as Buck’s behavior pushes her away. He intends to show courage and his desire to protect her, but it backfires.
- Accentuate Character Change
Writing instructor James Scott Bell says, “Every scene should have a death”—of a dream, a relationship, or a plan.
Literary agent Donald Maass encourages writers to consider how a point-of-view (POV) character feels before a scene starts and how she feels when the scene ends.
Your character should be changed by what happens. That change can be subtle or huge. It can involve a change of opinion, or it could be a monumental personality shift.
But change must occur. Why? Because, for the story to advance, decisions must be made and action instigated. Every event in your novel should impact your characters and foment change. But it must be significant and serve the plot.
How will Angela change by the end of the snake scene? Before the scene, she was falling in love. Now, her feelings have been squashed. She wants to flee back to NY.
Buck drastically changes too. He’s also shocked at the violent streak he fears he’s inherited from his father (who murdered Buck’s ma). Though he loves Angela, he believes he can never let himself get close to any woman because he will hurt her.
- Determine POV
Who is the best character through whom the reader should experience this scene? With novels solely in the protagonist’s POV, this isn’t an issue. But for novels in shifting third person, with more than one perspective character, you need to decide whose POV you’ll portray in each scene.
You may find it easier to choose your POV character when you determine the purpose of your scene.
Or the POV choice may become obvious.
In romance novels it’s common to alternate between hero and heroine, so each gets a turn filtering the scene through their POV.
To decide whose POV to choose, ask yourself:
- Who has the most to lose or gain in the scene?
- Who will react strongest emotionally?
- Who will change the most?
- Whose reaction would most impact the plot?
- Leave Out Boring Stuff
And the on-the-nose stuff no one wants to read.
Start your scene in the middle of the action, a bit before you build to the high moment, and you’ll avoid pages of unimportant narrative.
Inject important backstory but not at the expense of the present action. Cut anything that doesn’t serve your scene’s purpose. Make every word count.
- Perfect Beginnings and Endings
It’s not just your novel’s first line that has to hook readers. Every scene promises to entertain your reader, to enthrall, to evoke emotion. You must make good on those promises.
Study best-selling novels in your genre to see how adept authors create strong scene openings and riveting scene endings. A scene’s last paragraph and closing line should ratchet up the conflict and underscore character transformation.
What about symbolism or motif? In my scene, by the end, the snakes become to Angela a symbol or image of Buck. One minute they’re silent, unmoving, and the next, they erupt in a violent attack. Beneath that calm exterior, Buck is poised to strike.
- Inject Texture and Sensory Details
While some writers stuff scenes with too much detail, most tend to underwrite sensory specifics. This step in this scene-crafting process involves combing through your draft and bringing scenes to life with vivid detail that engages your reader’s senses.
Your goal is to paint enough of a picture to help your reader see the scene as if on the big screen. Too much detail is boring, as are details that don’t reveal anything important.
Scenes serve as the framework of your novel and shouldn’t be thrown together. Use this 8-step method every time, and you’re sure to succeed.
To help, I’ve created a worksheet you can download and print.
Your Novel’s First Scene: How to Start Right
by Paula Munier
There are a number of tricks to making sure that you get your story off to a hot, hotter, hottest start, no matter what your genre. I know, I know, all of you people out there who are writing literary fiction are thinking, “I don’t need a hot start to my story.” Well, think again. Even beginnings for literary stories must aim for, at minimum, a slow burn.
I live in the Northeast, where winters can be brutal. (As I’m writing this, New York City is digging out of some two feet of snow.) When I moved here a dozen years ago after nearly twenty years in balmy California, I learned that the secret to staying warm as the thermometer plunges is to keep the fires burning on all fronts. I discovered the cozy beauty of cashmere sweaters, fingerless gloves, and glowing woodstoves.
But I also learned that sometimes you have to break down and leave the house. Go begin a journey, even if it’s only to the grocery store—which means venturing out into sub-zero temperatures to a frigid vehicle that may or may not start. It was a cold prospect I dreaded, until I happened upon two spectacular tools: remote car starters and heated car seats.
With a remote car starter, you can start your car from inside your warm house, wait until your automobile is revved up and ready to go, and then slip into a warm seat in a warm vehicle with a warm engine and hit the road. This is a beautiful thing.
You want to do the same thing with your story. Every reader starts a story cold, and you want to warm the reader up to your story as quickly as possible. You want the reader to slip into a warm seat in a hot story with a blazing beginning and take off for parts known only to you, the writer.
The good news: There are literary equivalents to remote car starters and heated car seats. Let’s take a look at these, one by one.
Start With the Scene That Introduces Your Story Idea
This is the easiest and most efficient way to get your story off to its hottest start. So if it’s at all possible to begin this way, you should, just as Peter Benchley did in the first scene of his classic horror novel, Jaws. Yes, the terrifying film was based on the equally terrifying New York Times bestseller by Benchley. The details of the novel’s opening scene and the film’s opening scene differ—the couple in the book are a man and a woman sharing a beach house rather than a couple of teenagers at a beach party—but the action is the same: The woman goes for her last swim in the sea while her drunken companion passes out. And there we have it, the big story idea of Jaws: a monster great white shark terrorizes a seaside resort town.
Start With the Scene That Foreshadows the Story Idea
If you believe that it is not possible to start your story by introducing the story idea, then you can do the next best thing: Start with a scene that foreshadows the story idea. For our purposes, a foreshadowing is an opening scene that prefigures your story idea.
The most famous example of this might be the opening of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, in which the three witches appear as a bad omen, especially for Macbeth. Many fairy tales begin this way as well. In Charles Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty, a king and queen who’d waited years for a child celebrate their new baby princess’s christening with a celebration. They invite the seven fairies of the kingdom to the feast. But an eighth fairy shows up, one long thought dead, and she curses the baby. This is the scene that foreshadows the day when, years later, the princess pricks her finger and falls into a long sleep … and, well, you know the rest.
To use a more contemporary example, consider the tender and funny New York Times bestseller The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. In the opening scene, thirty-one-year-old book saleswoman Amelia Loman is stepping off the ferry to Alice Island, on her way to her first meeting with A.J. Fikry, owner of Island Books. She takes a call from Boyd, her latest “online dating failure,” determined to let him down gently, only he’s insulting, apologetic, and finally, weepy. Finally, she tells him that it would never work out because he’s “not much of a reader.” She hangs up and remembers her mother’s warning that “novels have ruined Amelia for real men.” And as she nearly walks right past the purple Victorian cottage that is Island Books, Amelia worries that her mother might be right.
In this scene, the foreshadowing is subtle but clear: Amelia needs a man who reads, and she’s about to meet one who may seem unsuitable in nearly every other way save that one … but still, the possibility for romance is there.
Start With the Scene That Sets Up the Story Idea
We’ve seen this one a million times. Think of the opening scene of the original Star Wars, in which Princess Leia hides the plans for the Death Star in R2-D2, setting up the story idea.
In Jeannette Walls’s shattering memoir The Glass Castle, she opens with a scene that begins with the unforgettable line, “I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a dumpster.” She goes on to describe this encounter with her mother, setting up the rest of the novel, which tells the unsettling story of her harrowing childhood, beginning at the age of three.
Beware of Too Much, Too Soon
Even when you’ve got an opening scene that either sets up, foreshadows, or introduces your big story idea, that scene can still fail to capture the reader’s attention. One of the main reasons so many opening scenes fail is because the writer tries to tell too much about the story too soon.
Tell is the critical word here. The writer is telling—rather than showing—us the story. Many scenes are overburdened with backstory, description, and the characters’ inner monologue, which leaves little room for the action that should be driving the story forward.
Remember: What the readers need to know to read the story is not what you needed to know to write it. Because the beginning is usually the first part of the story that you commit to paper, you are just getting to know your characters, setting, plot, and themes. You’re exploring your characters’ voices and histories, your setting’s idiosyncrasies, your plot’s twists and turns and detours and dead ends, your themes’ nuances and expressions. You’re thinking on paper, stretching your way into your story, and that stretching is a critical part of the writing process, but just as stretching before you run is paramount, it’s not part of the run itself. It’s preparation.
So you need to go through and trim the parts of your opening that are obscuring the action so you can get to your big story idea sooner. You need to prune back your writing so that the inherent drama of your story idea is highlighted.
If you’re finding it difficult to edit your work, then try this trick. Print out your opening pages, and go through them, marking up the text in different colors to distinguish between backstory, description, and inner monologue.
- Backstory: This is wherever you talk about what happened in the past, before the present action of your opening scene began—childhood memories, past relationships, etc. Mark these lines/paragraphs/sections in blue.
- Description: These are the lines/paragraphs/sections where you describe your setting, expound on theme, detail backstory, etc. Mark these lines in pink.
- Inner monologue: These are the parts where you record your character’s thoughts and feelings. Mark them in yellow, and underline the sections in which your character is alone as well.
I know that you’re tempted to skip this exercise. But don’t. You only have to flip or scroll through it to know where you should edit your opening scene. This is one of the most useful exercises you’ll ever do and the one my students, clients, and writing friends always most applaud me for.
Turn to Page 50
For many writers, their story’s warm up lasts about fifty pages (or around the 15,000-word mark). That’s why I say to writers whose openings are slow, boring, obtuse, or otherwise unengaging: What happens on page fifty of your story?
Page fifty is where many stories truly begin. Turn to page fifty in your story, and see what’s happening there. What’s your protagonist up to? How does that relate to your story idea? Don’t be surprised if this is where your story really begins. And don’t be reluctant to toss out those first forty-nine pages of stretching if that’s what it takes to get your run off to a good start.