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June 30, 2024 12:00
novel writing techniques

How to Structure a Scene

Amanda Reynolds. Author and The Novelry Team Member
Amanda Reynolds
September 18, 2022
September 18, 2022

Have you ever felt overwhelmed by the enormity of a task – for instance, writing a book? Well here’s your handy guide to breaking it down into manageable chunks that you’ll enjoy writing and your readers will love reading. Also known as… scenes.

In this blog post, bestselling author and book writing coach Amanda Reynolds shares how to write a scene that fits the overall story structure and moves the novel forward.

If you’re interested in creating chapters with a strong scene structure, this one’s for you!

What is a scene?

Before we delve into how to write a scene, let’s think about what a scene actually is.

A bit like the episodes of a continuing drama, scenes are the building blocks upon which each chapter of your book is built. They are self-contained mini-dramas but also work as a part of the whole, driving the story forward and connecting to the next scene – whether thematically, stylistically, symbolically or very straightforwardly in terms of plot.

They may or may not involve your main character. They could, but need not, include dialogue. What all good scenes do share is that they always contribute something to your story. Readers should never feel they’re passively waiting for a pointless scene to finish.

Strong scenes allude to what’s to come and define what’s been before. They encapsulate a mood, a moment, a happening. They reveal clues and move the plot along at pace, contribute to character development and further the readers’ understanding of the story.

Like the scenes of a drama, compelling scenes in novels are perfectly formed and distinct whilst adhering to the overarching story and theme. Tasty morsels readers cannot help but consume, one greedily after another.

But many writers feel uncertain when it comes to scene structure. How do you decide on the length of the scenes in your book? Are they chapter length? Longer? Or shorter? How do you know when one scene ends and the next scene starts, for maximum impact and coherence?

Strong scenes allude to what’s to come and define what’s been before. They encapsulate a mood, a moment, a happening. They reveal clues and move the plot along at pace, contribute to character development and further the readers’ understanding of the story.

Is there an ideal scene structure and length?

The answer is – much like the length of your story – scenes can be as long or short as they need to be.

A chapter can contain one or many scenes. The beauty is, you decide. And it’s a great idea to mix it up when you’re writing scenes. Keep the readers on their toes!

A short snappy scene can be as impactful as one that takes the reader on a longer journey of discovery. It’s all in your power as the creator of this fictional world.

Think of yourself as a stage manager, shifting scenery and cast. You are the director, not only of the component parts of each scene, but of the order you present them to your readers. You determine when characters enter and exit, when a new character should be introduced for the first time, when the high points happen, when the point of view might switch or swivel.

Those decisions will influence everything, from setting, to characters, to plot. What you choose to include or leave out will inform the tone as well as the narrative.

Each time something changes, from a minor mood shift to a leap in time or location to a change in our POV character, a new scene is born.

Question everything when you’re writing scenes

Let’s get practical now and do a bit of planning…

Choose a potential scene in your book. Any you like. Maybe the first scene in chronological order, maybe not. Possibly one you’ve written already, or are yet to write. Doesn’t matter.

For instance, you could look at one you’ve been itching to edit/write. Maybe it’s a pivotal scene that will unlock the whole book. Or maybe it’s one that appeals because it feels like it would be a fun one to begin with – an action-packed fight scene or one with a crucial turning point.

Whatever you choose, this writing exercise should help you write effective scenes.

Which characters are in the scene and whose point of view do we see?

Start by carefully considering which characters need to be in this scene, and where it takes place.

If you’ve already written it, ask yourself whether you have made the best choices of cast and setting. If you’re writing in the first or third person, are you happy with the narration and point of view character?

Where does the scene take place and how does it affect mood?

When you start scenes, consider their mood. Think, too, about what happens before the scene starts and after it ends. Then think about the scene’s purpose: how do you want the reader to feel during the scene, and by the end of it – uplifted? Downcast? Inspired? Bereft? Is that also how you want your characters to feel?

Is the kitchen sink or a wild moor the most appropriate backdrop to that tone? Setting is a great mood-builder in a novel.

That doesn’t mean the setting has to reflect or symbolise what’s happening in the scene. Drama feeds off drama, but it can be fun to contrast the quiet desolation of a funeral with a character receiving the best news, or a roaring party for the tragic ending of a love affair. Sometimes the perfect scene has a very dissonant setting.

Think surprise, but not shock. It’s easy to shock, just clap your hands loudly in a quiet room. Surprise is nuanced, clever, thoughtful.

How do you want the reader to feel during the scene, and by the end of it – uplifted? Downcast? Inspired? Bereft? Is that also how you want your characters to feel?

Remember to include change when you’re writing a scene

Next consider what will change from the start to the scene ending. Subtle or seismic, there must be a difference or why have the scene at all? It has to earn its place. So have you achieved that? What has changed during the course of it?

At the end of the scene also ask yourself if the reader will be hooked by your story and desperate to read on. One more page, one more chapter, late into the night or missing their stop on the bus.

What have they learned, but still desperately need to know? Where have you left the scene, too late, or too early? Can you begin part way through the action, would that be more exciting or enticing?

Get in late and leave early is often a good mantra.

scenes are integral to stories

An example of an effective opening scene

Before you run off to write a scene, it can be helpful to look at an example of a writer nailing it. Take for example the opening scene of Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, which begins after the events that have brought our two protagonists together. Why is this scene so powerful?

Well for a start, it hints at some pretty heinous crimes right from the beginning.

The other night at dinner, Sheba talked about the first time that she and the Connolly boy kissed.
— Zoe Heller, Notes on a Scandal

A killer line, no doubt, but aside from drawing the reader straight in, it conveys so much: tone, genre, theme, plot.

Perhaps most importantly we hear a voice, that of our narrator, Barbara Covett – surely one of the most sublime character names ever? – who is looking after Sheba and invites us to hear her version of the story. Barbara’s account offers chilling glimpses of the relationship between these two characters. Their differences in class, status, age.

As an opening scene it covers a lot of ground in terms of what has happened, but most importantly it establishes the here and now of the two protagonists’ perilous situation, holed up in a tiny flat, the press beating at the door, terrible events barely behind Sheba, talking over dinner each night as Barbara allows her to bare her soul.

We get a deep understanding of the shifting power play between Barbara and Sheba. A wonderful masterclass in Show Don’t Tell.

There is no one else to whom Sheba can say these things.
— Zoe Heller, Notes on a Scandal

How to write a scene that drives the story forward

A great example, but what about a scene deeper in, which tackles a pivotal moment the reader has been anticipating? Like in The Great Gatsby, when Daisy and Gatsby finally reunite at a neighbour’s house after years apart.

Fitzgerald uses dialogue heavy with subtext to imbue their meeting in this scene with repressed longing. So much space left for the reader to fill in.

Gatsby focusing on an old clock for want of saying all the things that he’s desperate to say now he is with Daisy again, at last. Nick, their host and our narrator, the awkward third wheel.

My own face had now assumed a deep tropical burn. I couldn’t muster up a single commonplace out of the thousand in my head

‘It’s an old clock,’ I told them idiotically.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

As the scene moves on Gatsby loses his nerve and storms out. Nick tries to juggle his two guests, but even he reaches breaking point. The shifting power falls to Nick, usually the underdog, as he takes control.

‘You’re acting like a little boy,’ I broke out impatiently. ‘Not only that, but you’re rude. Daisy’s sitting in there all alone.’
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

As Gatsby returns to Daisy’s side, Nick leaves them to it. The outsider, once again.

When he returns they are seated on either end of the same couch.

…looking at each other as if some question had been asked, or was in the air, and every vestige of embarrassment was gone.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Change makes for a great scene

Consider what makes these scenes so powerful and see if you can use it in your own writing.

Despite their overt differences (in terms of genre, setting, one taking place right at the beginning of the novel and one in the middle, the role of the protagonist and the narrator, to name but a few), there are key similarities in the two scenes.

In Notes on a Scandal and The Great Gatsby, there are shifts in status between the characters in these scenes. The writers work hard to create conflict and change during the course of both. Remember: there doesn’t need to be an actual fight scene, or even a scene with multiple characters, for there to be conflict built in.

The characters in both move around physically, but also in terms of understanding and emotion, and we learn from them too. There has been change. We understand the characters’ motivations and their goals, their destinies unravelling as they move towards them.

Barbara wants Sheba’s reliance and companionship, but she also exercises control over her.

Nick wants Gatsby and Daisy in his life, but there’s a limit to his tolerance. Daisy wants attention but is risk-averse, and Gatsby wants Daisy at all costs. We will read on to find out if that’s what happens, fearing the worst.

Tips for writing a great scene

So, here are my top tips for constructing a well-rounded scene, beginning, middle and end…

  • Get into the scene right from the first sentence: location, cast, action – GO!!!
  • Something must happen as the scene unfolds. Without change there’s no scene.
  • Leave early, with questions left to answer; make the reader work, even for that ending!

Scenes are our friend. They are the dividers of a novel into manageable chunks. They contribute to the whole story and develop different characters. They unravel different plot points and can vary from an action scene with multiple characters and a huge car chase, to a poignant scene built on unspoken emotions and subtle sensory details as one character contemplates their choices.

But as a writer, whether you’re working on a novel or short stories, you should be able to pick any one of your scenes and hold it up to the light, admiring its construction and the gems it contains, knowing it has led the reader to a destination that you, the author, controlled.

Someone writing in a notebook
Amanda Reynolds. Author and The Novelry Team Member
Amanda Reynolds

Amanda Reynolds is the bestselling author of six novels. Her number one ebook bestseller, Close To Me, was adapted into a major TV series.

Members of The Novelry team