How to Write a Scene Like a Pro

What you’re never taught about scenes and how to write them to keep your readers engaged and your stories captivating.

What is A Scene?

Scenes are one of the more complicated and misunderstood elements of writing out there. Simply because so many different writers and educators see scenes differently. There are teachers out there that say there are only 4 types of scenes. Others say there are endless types of scenes and that they need to adhere to an arc. Then there are those that don’t think there are types of scenes but “scene sequences”.

Some writers break down scenes into questions and focus on tackling those. But writing scenes based on questions or arcs isn’t actually how scenes work as driving forces for a story. All these different definitions make nailing down exactly what scenes are and how to craft them damn near impossible.

So, I’m going to simplify scenes by breaking them down into what I’ve noticed are elements of professionally published scenes across the board.

The best definition of a scene is: a building block of story that takes place whenever the narrative stops or pauses on a sequence of action or dialogue that changes its charge(+/-). It hinges on a turning point and can take place across multiple locations and chapters.

Common Misconception About Scenes

My first few creative writing teachers, barely even touched on scene work. It was all about the story and structure. See they saw scenes as simple blocks in the story, causes and effects. This happens and then this happens in a flow of beats toward the end. So that’s how I wrote scenes. In a cause and effect way.

Jack was bad->Jack’s dad punished him->Jack got angry->Jack’s dad punished him again->Jack got revenge. THE END

It seems like a story, but it’s actually not. It’s just a set of events that are all connected. But there is no story, there is no character, there is no experience for the reader. And this is where most writers are. They are writing scenes like vignettes, moments, snapshots throughout the story.

Let’s look back at the definition of scenes so that you too can see where the disconnect is.

Scene definition: a building block of story that takes place whenever the narrative stops or pauses on a sequence of action or dialogue that changes its charge(+/-). It hinges on a turning point and can take place across multiple locations and chapters.

Now let’s look at the cause and effect break down of story:

Jack was bad->Jack’s dad punished him->Jack got angry->Jack’s dad punished him again->Jack got revenge. THE END

That’s only the first part of the definition; the pause to focus in on action or dialogue. There is never a change in tone. A shift only happens at the start of the next scene. Turning points are also absent from these types of scenes because they are only action or event and not actually scenes.

Now, when I talk about shifts in charge from positive to negative or vice versa, I don’t mean happy or positive in the light sense. I mean positive for the character or story. Murder isn’t positive, but in a murder mystery written from the point of view of the killer, it is a positive. While in that same story getting arrested or caught, would be a negative.

If at the end of a scene your charge hasn’t changed, then you only have an event or moment on your hands, not a scene. Those shifts and turning points are what makes a scene worth reading — it’s what keeps the readers turning the page and wondering what’s going to happen next.

A turning point is usually when the charge shifts, but it doesn’t have to be. Turning points are more often than not the beats in the scene that change the trajectory of the story or scene.

Examples of Published Scenes

Now, let’s look at some examples of published scenes and break them down into their definition parts so that you can see how professionally published authors handle scenes. We’ll look at two different scenes so that you can see how varied they can be while still holding to the definition.

Example One

Opening Scene from The Shape of a Teardrop by T. Coraghessan Boyle published in The New Yorker.

Let’s break it up, shall we?

Building block of story: this small opening scene serves as the grounding and introduction to character, story, and problem.

Sequence of action or dialogue: the sequence that takes place is neither dialogue nor action but descriptive exposition, dripping with character and conflict.

Charge change: the charge in this scene goes from negative to double negative, though that only happens for the reader and not for the character who is in the same situation that they started in at the beginning of the story. It is just the reader who is meant to feel and experience the shift.

Turning point: Eviction notice being tapped to the character’s door.

Example Two

First Scene in Cleaning Up After the Blackout Boys by Evan Marcroft published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

And a break up of that scene into its working parts by definition of a scene:

Building block of story: if this were the hero’s journey, we would call this moment in the story the call to adventure. Whatever you call it, this is the moment when the character is presented with the driving conflict of the story.

Sequence of action or dialogue: the dialogue and action that takes place between Ustuus and Mama Peshtodi is the meat of the scene.

Charge change: the change in charge here has a slow build that then becomes very evident. The scene opens positive with Ustuus getting food and comfort and ends negative with him being asked to do a dangerous task that he doesn’t want to do.

Turning point: When Ustuus’ dinner is interrupted by the fellow diner saying that Mama wants to talk to him.

Pushing Past Cause and Effect

A story is more than cause and effect. At its most base, yes, that’s what it is. But if you’re reading this, you don’t want to write base stories—you want to write great stories. To do that, you have to push past the common misconception and handling of a scene to create a story that pulses forward, dragging its reader along.

Remember that a scene isn’t a stacking or sequence of events or moments in characters' lives. Scenes are a building block of story that takes place whenever the narrative stops or pauses on a sequence of action or dialogue that changes its charge(+/-). It hinges on a turning point and can take place across multiple locations and chapters.

Look at the stories you haven’t been able to sell or get published. Are the scenes changing charges? Is there a turning point that reveals or changes the trajectory of the story? Ask yourself and your scenes to do more so that you can deliver well-crafted stories to your readers.

Aigner Loren Wilson is a queer Black SFWA, HWA, and Codex writer. Her work has appeared in Tor Dotcom, Better Humans, The Writing Cooperative, and more. She strives to help writers reach their publishing goals and attain their dreams. Subscribe for access to masterclass courses in writing, editing, and making a living as a writer.

Over 200 published pieces. Thought provoking prose and poetry. Better Humans | Tordotcom | The Startup | Better Marketing. Follow to level up your writing.

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