Write Compelling Scenes

A compelling scene has several specific elements. Include them all, and you have a scene. Without them, you have … perhaps an anecdote or slice of life. The passage might or might not be amusing or interesting, but it’s not a scene.

Like a recipe for cake, if vital ingredients are missing, the pastry falls flat. Also like a recipe for cake, however, you can create a tremendous variety of flavors as long as you include flour, liquid, sweetener and something to make the dessert rise.

Elements of a Scene

A successful scene starts with a goal—the protagonist’s goal. You must make this clear to the reader.

What does the main character want?

You then add an opponent—either a force of nature such as a hurricane or wildfire or, more usually, a person whose goal runs counter to your protagonist.

What does the opponent want?
If there’s more than one opponent, what do the rest of them want?

These opposing goals set the stage for conflict, the most vital ingredient of your scene. I cannot emphasize the next point enough: If you don’t have conflict, you don’t have a scene!

Next, your protagonist must struggle to attain his or her goal, despite the opponent’s efforts to stop your hero. This struggle is the body of your scene. The actions flow from your characters’ efforts to get what they want.

What does the hero do to achieve his or her goal?
What does the opponent do, either to prevent the hero from succeeding or to reach their own goals?

Some struggles are more interesting than others. To raise the tension, make sure your reader knows what’s at stake in this scene. The risk may seem obvious to you, but it has to get down on paper because it won’t be obvious to your reader.

What disaster will occur if the protagonist fails to obtain his or her goal?

Scenes are more absorbing when we experience your protagonist’s thoughts and feelings (emotional, visceral and kinesthetic). This keeps us “inside the hero’s skin” instead of watching from a distance like a fly on the wall.

How does the protagonist react to key moments of this tussle with the opponent?

Scenes don’t take place in a vacuum. (If they do, we call this “white room syndrome”.) Make sure your reader is grounded in the setting: Include sensory details of sight plus at least one more of sound, texture, smell and taste.

What does the protagonist see, hear, smell, taste and feel (tactile)?

Sooner or later, the scene ends in one of three ways: your protagonist wins, loses or quits with respect to his or her goal in that scene.

If the protagonist wins, include either a price paid for that success or a reminder that problems still lurk ahead. In other words, it shouldn’t be a clean and simple win or a breezy walk in the park for your hero. Those are B-O-R-I-N-G.

If the protagonist loses, that’s more interesting for the reader, especially if some kind of disaster looms closer.

If the protagonist quits, show how quitting on the scene goal affects the hero’s core struggle to achieve his or her main story goal.

With this outcome (having won, lost or quit), how are things now better or worse for the protagonist?

Technically, your scene is now complete, but it needs some “glue” to connect it to your next scene. It’s like a two-layer cake that needs icing to hold both tiers in place. This glue is called a sequel.

Elements of a Sequel

Your protagonist reacts to the scene’s outcome with feelings, thoughts, and a decision that launches the next scene.

How does the protagonist feel about the scene’s outcome? Possibly also, how does the protagonist now feel about him-or-herself?

Your protagonist now faces a dilemma—a choice among options of what to do next. That dilemma becomes more compelling when the options are less than ideal and/or challenging in some way.

What does the protagonist think as he or she considers what to do next?

Your protagonist cannot agonize forever. He or she must choose a new goal and course of action that launches the next scene.

What does the protagonist decide to do next?
(What goal does the hero take on in the next scene?)

Your sequels can be as long as a few pages or as short as one sentence—but you must be sure to include them!

Last but not Least

Show, don’t tell!

The more you stay in the moment, the more absorbed the reader will be. Summary sentences are exposition and B-O-R-I-N-G.

Thanks to …

These ideas are not original with me. They are gleaned from many years of reading books and articles about fiction writing. In particular, the scene-and-sequel ideas are from:

Dwight Swain: Techniques of the Selling Writer. (Highly recommended by many writers; I haven’t read this myself, but the ideas people have quoted are crystal clear.)

Jack Bickham: Scene and Structure. (Highly recommended.)

John Gallishaw: The Only Two Ways to Write a Story, Twenty Problems of the Fiction Writer, Advanced Problems of the Fiction Writer. (Highly recommended ideas but his prose is dense, not easily grasped.)

Randy Ingermanson: “Writing the Perfect Scene”. (Highly recommended; article available at advancedfictionwriting.com.)

Got a scene you need help with?

Send your scene to me (not more than 10 pages, see guidelines). Time permitting, I’ll see what I can recommend. (By sending me your scene, you give me permission to publish the scene and my thoughts about it in my blog.)


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