Tuesday, January 6, 2015


post by Lynn

flickr: Harborne Happy Brick Holgafied by Stephen Boisvert

When I first took up creative writing (nine years ago—can it be that long?) I was exhilarated by the chance to write scenes, to transform memory or imagination to a single you-are-there moment. I also loved the idea that scenes are the bricks you use to build your wall of story.

Since then I’ve spent a lot of time writing scenes, like the one where I am leading a writing group at a women’s addiction treatment center.

I reached way back in my memory bank and extracted several scenes from my time in the Peace Corps and put them in “Today We Work.”

Nine years later I still love to write these chunks of story. “I will write a scene,” I tell myself, over and over, not “I will write a novel or short story or essay or poem.” Maybe it's because a scene seems so much less intimidating--a brick, not a wall. 

Loving is one thing but, as Adair Lara says, “…writing a scene is a distinct skill,” and I still have a lot of skill-building to do. But I’m motivated because I’ve been told that if I become a better scene-builder, I’ll be a better writer.

I thought I’d share a few of the things I’m learning about scene with you. 

Or let someone else do it for you, like Peter Selgin: “Scenes are capsules in which compelling characters undertake significant actions in a vivid and memorable way that allows the events to feel as though they are happening in real time.”

We can also take a clue from the origin of the word “scene” itself. It comes from the Greek word for a temporary shelter or tent that formed the background for a dramatic performance. In other words, a scene “contains” the story.

Scene is about time and place. Actions, events, and interactions between characters that happen in one place during one uninterrupted period of time equals a scene. It helps to know this, because then you understand that if you move to a new place, it’s a different scene. If you have a break in time, even if you come back to the same place, you’re in a new scene.

Scenes move the story forward, reveal character, create (or build) dramatic tension or conflict, and foreshadow important events. The best scene does as many of these as possible. Things happen in a scene.

Here’s a list of scene types created by Jordan Rosenfeld, author of Make A Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time:
  • Suspense
  • Dramatic  
  • Contemplative
  • Dialogue
  • Action
  • Flashback
  • Epiphany
  • Climactic
“These different types of scenes,” Rosenfeld says, “are like the notes in a symphony: Individually they may be intense or mild, contemplative or dramatic, but when they are used in combination, they form a fantastic narrative that feels rich and complex.”

You are the camera operator for the scene. You show the reader where to look, and whose eyes they are looking through. You decide whether to zoom in, pan the crowd or provide a panoramic view.

“Like a story in miniature,” says Peter Selgin, “a scene has its own miniplot, a buildup to some sort of climax or resolution.” It has a narrative arc that must be bent to the needs of the story.

  • Is the scene grounded in time and space?
  • What does your character feel, right now, in this moment? What does he/she want to have happen?
  • How does the action convey the desires and emotions of each character?
  • What mood am I creating in this scene? 
  • How does setting impact the scene?
  • How does the scene fit into the whole story? 
  • What change takes place? 
  • What happens to move the story forward? 
  • Does it have a beginning, middle and end?
Scene-building is a huge part of learning to write. Before you can even worry about stringing them together to form a larger story, you have to write a lot of scenes. Write and revise, over and over.

Here’s a scene exercise to play with:
Get On Board
Write a scene where your character is getting on:
  • An airplane
  • A float in a parade
  • A sheep wagon
  • A gurney
  • A Harley
Okay, now read what you wrote in light of what we’ve studied. Check Rosenfeld's list and decide what kind of scene you wrote. Go back to the list of questions and quiz yourself about the scene.

Whew, that’s enough for now. This whole scene study thing can make my head spin, but it’s better if I just remember to point and shoot. Because…

Now it's your turn:

What have you learned about scene writing?


By Cunning & Craft: Sound Advice and Practical Wisdom for Fiction Writers, by Peter Selgin. Chapter VI: Scene, Summary and Flashback.

Make A Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time, by Jordan E. Rosenfeld. The whole darn book is about scene. Great resource – Rosenfeld comes at the topic from every imaginable angle.

Naked, Drunk, and Writing: Shed Your Inhibitions and Craft a Compelling Memoir or Personal Essay, by Adair Lara. Chapter 12: How to Write Narration and Scene. See my post on about this book on The Writing Bug here.


  1. You're so right - scenes are the most important part of writing any sort of narrative, fictional or not. I love Selgin's definition so much that I've copied it out and plan to tape it over my desk. Thank you for that little gift! Sometimes just looking at a writing task in a new way can reinvigorate my writing.
    I've taken to making detailed outlines for my novels (after spending far too much time rewriting when my "seat-of-the-pants" writing method takes me down dead end roads). I outline scene by scene, rather than chapter by chapter, and for each scene I jot down the point of view character, the setting, a brief summary (which sometimes includes snippets of dialogue or description that happen to come to me as I'm outlining), and then the primary emotion (as in, how does the reader feel at the end of the scene?), the turning point (what changes in this scene?), and, most important, the question the scene leaves in the reader's mind. That's what makes him turn the page and read the next scene.
    Once I get to writing the actual story, I pay close attention to the first and last sentences of each scene. The first sentence of a scene should be intriguing or even surprising; the last sentence should have a "hook" in it that makes it impossible for the reader to put the story down. That way, you have "page pull" - a strong narrative that pulls the reader inexorably through the story, keeping him up late at night, and giving him such an absorbing escape from reality that he can't wait for your next book!
    (And yes, my outlines are long - as much as 60 pages for a 400-page novel. I know other writers who outline this way, and I thought they were insane until I tried it. It gives you a strong story, but by allowing yourself to write as much or as little as you want in the summary, it keeps the bright, inspirational flow you get from seat-of-the-pants writing. Crazy, but it works for me!)

    1. Thanks for sharing your process, Joanne! It's also good to hear that your process has evolved over time--a caution to us all in say "this is how I do things" because next year it may be different. I'm going to take that first and last sentence idea and work with it.

  2. Great post, Lynn. I've learned that a scene is a miniature story within the larger work and must be complete, having a beginning, middle and end. It must also include tension and conflict, moving the story forward. There must be a reason for the scene in the larger context of the story and it must accomplish some of the things you've listed, Lynn (reveal character, foreshadowing, etc.)

    1. I'm thinking some of this is very reminiscent of your experience in screen and play-writing, is it not? Thanks for chiming in!

  3. Great stuff…how do you apply it to non-fiction? Scenes require so many facts, perceptions, dialogue, etc…that may not be available to you with non-fiction

    1. Ah, but that’s why the term “creative nonfiction” was coined, to describe nonfiction writing that employs all the tools of fiction, including scene-building and dialogue. There’s a good description of CNF here: http://www.creativenonfictioncollective.com/defining-cnf/

      A couple of good resources on creative nonfiction include Keep It Real by Lee Gutkind (he was dubbed the “Godfather of creative nonfiction); and Writing Creative Nonfiction, edited by Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerard.

      Mike and I recently read the nonfiction book, The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon, by Kevin Fedarko, which won a 2013 National Outdoor Book Award in the History/Biography category. (See http://www.noba-web.org/books13.htm)

      The story opens with an in-depth scene of a raft launch and reads like a thriller. We were anxious to know what happens to this raft after the launch, but first had to go through many pages of facts about the people and events associated with the Grand Canyon--including man’s first contact with the area and a detailed history of white water rafting. 529 pages on my Nook. But we never faltered in our reading because Fedarko dances so nimbly back and forth between narration and scene, fact and re-creation of events. He brought the entire history of the Grand Canyon to life.

      Eventually we returned (much better informed) to the story’s starting point and got to learn the whole story of the raft trip.

      Of course there is ongoing controversy about just how “creative” creative nonfiction writers should get, and that idea seems to be evolving. It’s a debate I imagine you would enjoy 

      But then I know you know a lot of this, as evidenced by the opening scene in Dying for Joe McCarthy’s Sins, where the reader follows Lester Hunt around on the morning before he commits suicide.

      That is scene, for sure!

      Thanks for commenting, and for reading our blog.

    2. And I would add any of John McPhee's books about geology, or other worldly phenomena for that matter. He builds scenes about inanimate things using people to draw our interest. A great model for anyone wanting to write creative non-fiction. And for a good read on writing such non-fiction, see William Zinsser's One Writing Well. It's been around for a quarter century as the model for good writing.

    3. I have some John McPhee in my to-read stack (approaching 5 feet tall, now). I have read On Writing Well--always a good resources. Thanks for chiming in.

  4. This post is like a class in scene-writing! Thanks!! I'm going to bookmark it for later use. Awesome information! The only thing I remember hearing about scene-writing previously is that each scene needs to be from only one person's point of view. You can have multiple points of view in the same story or book, but not in the same scene.

    1. That's what I've been told about POV in scene too, Chere. A good point to bring up. Scene reminds me of those little Russian Matryoshka nesting dolls. Everything I learn contains another question, something new, hidden inside. Thanks!


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