Writing Tips & Advice
The basic elements of a story have been commonly defined as plot, character, setting, theme and conflict.
These elements come together and have meaning through the creation of scenes. Without scenes, the writer
would have to tell the entire story in descriptive narrative rather than show the action and let the reader absorb
and interpret what is happening (see also the 'show, don't tell' article).
The majority of the narrative should be devoted to scenes. Scenes carry the novel. Whether you write romance
or mysteries, fantasies or literary fiction, the key to keeping readers' attention is creating effective scenes. The
emphasis in a novel needs to be on scenes as opposed to descriptive narrative which most readers find boring.
Descriptive narrative is generally a reporting of events.
Rachael woke up close to noon, splashed cold water on her face and walked toward the kitchen. The
smell of the cooking odors was enough to make her turn around and run for the bathroom where she
immediately threw up. She hoped her mother wouldn't find out what she had done the night before.
A scene shows the action and takes place in real time.
The smell of hickory-smoked bacon wafting into her bedroom was enough to wake Rachael, bringing
back sweet memories of when she was a child and her mother making pancakes and bacon Sunday
mornings before church. The cold water she splashed on her face jolted her body out of its groggy state.
She inhaled a deep breath of the odoriferous air, expecting an even more pleasant reaction now that she
was closer to the kitchen. Without warning, she clasped her hand over her mouth and ran into the
bathroom, reaching the toilet just in time, the sour smell of vomit quickly replacing the sweet smell of
bacon. Her stomach lurched even further when she thought about what her mother would think if she
knew what she had done the night before.
Scenes must serve a purpose.
- Drive the plot forward
- Reveal something about the character(s)
- Pique the reader’s curiosity
- Add tension
- Inform the reader of something
Each scene should contain enough information in order to answer the who, what, where, why and when of the
Readers need to know enough about each character in each scene for the scene to make sense. What emotions are running through
her head? What is her mood? How does the scene change her? For other characters, include as much information as is needed,
being careful not to include anything the protagonist doesn't know if you're writing in third person limited (see the 'point of view' article).
Show what is happening in the scene through action. Use more nouns and verbs than adjectives and adverbs. Write the conflict, the
suspense and the tension. And then write the character's reaction to it.
The setting of the scene is important. A fist fight that takes place in a church during a wedding ceremony will have quite a different impact
on the reader than if it takes place in the middle of a secluded wooded lot. If it adds to the story, talk about the atmosphere, the smells
and the sounds, nearby buildings, the weather, flora and fauna. Ask yourself what the protagonist sees while the scene is taking place.
Add enough detail so the reader feels he's actually there, but not so much that he becomes bored and skips over the details.
Most scenes occur due to someone’s motivation. What was their goal? What is it they wanted? What drove him to take the action?
When the action is occurring may be important to the scene. Was it morning, noon or night? Did it happen before, during or after
another event? Was it connected to some other event?
Every scene must have a purpose that relates back to the goal(s) of the protagonist. Scenes should serve one or more of the following
purposes in order to move the story forward:
- Creates atmosphere
- Introduces a character
- Reveals something about a character
- Introduces plot
- Heightens plot
- Develops setting
- Solves a problem
- Informs the reader
- Entices the reader
Beginning, Middle, End
To be complete, each scene should have a beginning, middle and end, even short ones. The beginning of the scene should contain
sufficient background information for the reader to understand what takes place later in the scene. What the character wants should be
clear by the middle of the scene. The scene's middle is also where the conflict occurs--the meat of the scene. And the end should
include resolution, how it caused the character to change or get closer to his goal.
Click here for more about beginning, middle, and end.
Be aware of some of these common scene problems:
- The scene doesn't help to move the story forward.
- The scene is not related closely enough to the plot.
- The character's motive isn't clear.
- The character's goal isn't clear, or it is revealed too late in the scene.
- The scene is weak; not enough conflict, suspense or tension.
- The action in the scene is dragged out for too long.
- The reader doesn’t know what’s going through the character’s mind during the action.
- The timing of the scene is off.
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