Story scenes convey to readers essential characters, settings, and events. While there are no strict rules for writing scenes, you can adopt proven practices that satisfy readers’ expectations. Here are effective tips for writing scenes that hook audiences and keep readers turning pages.
What Is a Scene?
Scenes are like pearls—string one with others to form a beautiful narrative necklace.
You’ll find various definitions, some simple and others complex. The content and style depend on where the scene falls within the story. Your chosen genre influences the word selections and sentence structures.
Each scene serves to move the story forward, revealing something essential to the audience’s understanding of the overall narrative.
It matters where you place a scene because how you link one to the next influences the story’s emotional impact.
Also, each scene is like a bikini: what’s revealed is suggestive, but what’s concealed is crucial to the story’s climax.
In Super Structure and Plot and Structure, James Scott Bell shared four questions, which he referred to as the LOCK system:
- Lead: Who drives the scene (i.e., the point of view character)?
- Objective: What does the POV character want to accomplish?
- Confrontation: Who or what blocks the POV character’s objective?
- Knockout: What outcome will surprise and delight your readers?
Tips for Writing Scenes Using Six Beats
Please keep in mind the Global Story Beats represent general patterns, and authors are free to vary the locations and percentages. As principles, these beats are useful for interpreting and writing stories, but not as rules.
Each scene tells a specific part of the overall story. I think of scene construction as a subset of the Global Story Beats.
Using a subset of six beats, here are my tips for writing scenes:
- HOOK: Begin with something new or reference a foreshadowing established in a prior scene. For example, the scene can:
- Show action
- Foreshadow trouble
- Grab attention with dialogue
- Raise a question
- SETUP: Provide brief information regarding the character, current location, and time.
- TRIGGER: Interject conflict to force the scene’s problem to the surface.
- WRANGLE: Show the POV character’s brief reflection on the choices and actions required to deal with the problem.
- ACTION: Shift the POV character’s focus from the scene problem to the scene goal (or want) based on prior choices and actions.
- CLIMAX: Show the outcome of the POV character trying to achieve goal (or want) and set up the drive to next scene. For example:
- End with a cliffhanger.
- Redirect story with a revelation.
- Present hero or villain with a setback.
- Reveal a secret or a lie.
- Tease readers with a question.
- Interject an unexpected plot twist.
In Michael Welles Schock’s book, Screenwriting Down to the Atom, he describes five components of a story:
- The protagonist’s main story problem.
- The protagonist’s main story goal that, once achieved, will overcome that problem.
- The path of action the protagonist takes to reach that goal.
- The main conflict is a force that opposes the protagonist’s actions.
- The stakes that push the protagonist onward despite the conflict’s opposition.
In his book, Schock made the case these components influence one scene after another, which inspired me to add a conflict illustration to the Story Scene Beats.
Although each scene has a purpose, they work together in sequences to fulfill the Global Story Beats. Here’s an example of the SETUP Scene Sequence:
A sequence of scenes comprise these Global Story Beats:
- HOOK + SETUP
- BATTLE 1
- BATTLE 2 + CLIMAX
Note: The HOOK and SETUP work together as a sequence, and BATTLE 2 and CLIMAX work together as a sequence.
Wrapping Up the Effective Tips for Writing Scenes
Here’s a list of common scene elements:
- Prior Scene Linkage (e.g., Foreshadow Fulfillment)
- Scene Purpose
- POV Character
- Other Characters
- Setting and Time
- Conflict (Inner and Outer)
- Move Story Forward (i.e., Change)
- Outcome (i.e., Climax)
- Next Scene Linkage (e.g., Narrative Drive)
The six beats plus this list are effective tips for writing scenes that hook audiences and keep them turning pages. Have fun!
Good article. Lots of excellent suggestions. I’m proud of myself for finally finding the ‘comment’ button!