How to write a scene

Make a Scene in a Good Way

Scenes are the building blocks of novel writing. If you master writing scenes, your stories will be unputdownable. Riveting. Engaging. If you are an experienced author, you know these things, but every fiction author must learn how to write a good scene.

A couple on the street seems to be having a tense moment.
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How to Write a Scene

To start off, I will answer a newbie writer’s actual question. In one of the Facebook groups I am in, an author asked this:

“If you have a scene in your book end on one page and a big jump in time on the next page do I need one of those asterisks between them?”

Scene Breaks

First, pay no attention to where one page ends and the next one begins. This is irrelevant in a digital book, and it should not matter in a print book either. The only good reason to indicate a scene change is because you have reached the end of a scene. Period.

Second, know when a scene change most frequently happens:

  • when there is a jump forward in time,
  • when the setting changes, or
  • when there is a change in point of view.

Most importantly, the end of a scene must never happen before a choice is made. So set the scene, create a dilemma, and require a choice to be made before you end the scene. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? 

first chapter of ebook on ereading device
Photo by Spencer on Unsplash

The choice your character makes doesn’t have to be earthshaking, but it must be made. Please remember, though, inaction is a choice too. See the related post:

If your teenage MC is viciously mocked by her arch nemesis and does not respond, her silence is the choice she makes. And her silence can have consequences. Oh, yes, it definitely can.

As J. Thorn states in his book, Writing Scenes (2022):

“A ‘working scene’ is one where something happens. That might sound so simple as to be almost foolish, but scenes with nothing happening are one of the most common obstacles writers face. 

“Choice (capital C) is the most trusted tool for making sure ‘something happens’ in your scene.”

Writing Scenes is a book I highly recommend. It’s straightforward and clear.

From the back cover: “This tight yet comprehensive book teaches you what you absolutely must know about writing snappy scenes, whether you’re a plotter or pantser, short story dynamo or lifelong novelist, rock star indie or a trad pub professional.”
(affiliate link)

Writing Scenes by J. Thorn cover

Most importantly, the end of a scene must never happen before a choice is made. So set the scene, create a dilemma, and require a choice to be made before you end the scene. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? 

What is a scene?

Scenes are mini stories. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. At the end of each scene story, you need to provide a reason for readers to keep reading.

If you visualize your story as if it is a movie, it is usually easy to tell when a scene break needs to happen.

For example, your Regency romance novel “shows” a piece of action, let’s say the whitty byplay at a formal dinner party during the Season in London, then switches to a couple of the ladies riding in a carriage through Hyde Park the next day. Not only have your characters changed location, but many hours have passed.

Both scenes could be in the same chapter because you are trying to communicate a bigger piece of the overall story, namely “Will she or won’t she?”

If you have multiple scenes within a chapter, then each scene/story should support the chapter’s bigger story. Like scenes, chapters are short stories, and each chapter should end in a way that compels the reader to turn the page.

So Miss Smythe is much taken with young Lord Clifford at the dinner party and encourages his attentions. He likes her too, and they tentatively agree to attend a play together.

But the next day, Aunt Delores points out that Lord Clifford hasn’t two feathers to fly with. He is as poor as a church mouse, one step ahead of his creditors. Should Miss Smythe accept his invitation to see the play or send her regrets?

I mean, Lord Clifford is poor, but he is as handsome as a god! What’s a girl to do?

Choices are made in each scene leading to the big question for the chapter. Miss Smythe decides to encourage the gentleman at dinner in Scene One, but in Scene Two, she must make a decision to end his pursuit or follow her heart. Choices, choices.

How to Indicate Scene Breaks

If you have reached the end of your scene, then you need to indicate a scene break with some sort of break and a mark. Traditionally, this is indicated by three asterisks in a row or a hash mark, centered. When you format your book, you can substitute a pretty glyph to mark the end of each scene.

If you have not reached the end of your scene but the action jumps forward by a few hours or even longer, then leave a blank line. Indicate this to your formatter by typing (space) on its own line in your manuscript. The blank line acts as a soft break without interrupting the scene. I only recommend this if you stay in the same point of view.

Another way to indicate a jump forward in time without a break is to spell it out. For example: “Three hours later, she finished sewing Rebecca’s badges onto the Girl Scout sash. She stretched her aching neck and shoulders. No good deed went unpunished.”

Changing POV

What about those books that switch points of view (POVs) multiple times within any given scene? (This is common practice in romance novels.) Then, no, you wouldn’t put in a scene break every time you switched POV.

My caution to you is to make dead certain you are skilled enough to pull this off. “Head hopping” can produce silly results and annoy the reader if done poorly.

If I have multiple main characters, I usually stay in the POV of the main character who is most affected by what happens in the scene because I believe this produces a richer emotional experience for the reader.

Setting the Scene

And, please, ground each scene in its setting, both place and time. Establish the POV too. Your reader needs to know it was the butler in the parlor at midnight with the candlestick.

Setting each scene within the first three or four paragraphs is an important building block authors often overlook, but they miss the opportunity to influence the mood and emotional impact of the action that follows. Without setting, your reader wanders into a white room without context. Don’t do that to your reader.

I would like to leave you with this scene opener:

Lieutenant Joseph Leaphorn spent the afternoon on the ridge that overlooks the village of Zuñi from the south. He had picked the place carefully. It was a relatively comfortable spot, with soft earth under his buttocks and a sandstone slab for a backrest. A growth of chamiso and a gnarled piñon made it unlikely that anyone would see him and wonder what the devil he was doing there. And the view was ideal for his purpose.
(Tony Hillerman, Dance Hall of the Dead [New York: HarperCollins, 1990])

Notice how Hillerman set the scene in Chapter 18 with time and place. I dare anyone to read the beginning of that scene and put the book down.

This is by no means all we could say about writing scenes; however, if you set the scene, and tell a mini story with a beginning, middle, and end, create a dilemma, and force difficult choices to be made, you are well on the way to creating a novel readers will love.

What do you think?

How do you know you have reached the end of a scene?

Leave your answer in the comments below.

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