Writing Engaging Scenes

© 2007 Daniel Arenson

How do we define a scene? An easy definition would be "a chunk of writing that appears as a subunit within a story or chapter". Blank lines or asterisks often separate such subunits.

But is any such chunk of writing truly a "scene"? I often see writers (myself included, when I'm not careful) create "scenes" that are, in a sense, not scenes at all. Just because a bit of story appears as an individual unit doesn't mean it's a true "scene"--or at least, not a very engaging one.

I recently found myself writing a scene with the following format: The characters walk along a seashore, eat lunch, discuss their quest, and go to sleep. In the next scene, they wake up and continue their journey.

I realized that this scene was pointless. True, it provided some dialogue that enhanced characterization. True, it offered details about the setting and quest. But did it advance the plot? Hardly.

I rewrote the scene. Now the characters never pause for the night. There is no description of them lying down to bed, falling asleep, then waking up in the morning. Instead, they walk along the seashore until they encounter a horrible obstacle--a monster from their past who attacks them. The scene ends with a cliffhanger, leaving the reader uncertain about the heroes’ fate.

The scene now advances the story. It introduces a new obstacle in the plot and hopefully leaves the reader wanting more. It moves quickly and avoids unnecessary details.

I like to think of each scene as serving a purpose. In my example, the scene introduced the monster. Other scenes might introduce other conflicts or new characters, resolve previous conflicts, etc. As an exercise, I sometimes try to describe the scene's purpose in a single sentence. "This is the scene that introduces the princess and lets the hero fall in love with her."

If I find a scene which does not advance the plot, I consider rewriting or omitting it. Sometimes I'll find a scene whose sole purpose is to introduce data ("infodump") about the characters or setting. These scenes do not advance the storyline, so I like to rewrite or omit them. I want each scene to contain drama and emotion, possibly ending with a cliffhanger to keep the reader turning the pages.

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