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How to write scenes with power and purpose

Once you have the basic structure of the story you can begin writing it. The basic building block of structure is the scene.

A scene is a section of a story made up of a character (or characters) performing an action that drives the plot or develops the theme.

Following this definition, every scene should have some kind of action, and this action must have a purpose in advancing the plot or theme. Action includes physical action, dialogue, or even reflection and taking a decision. Typical scene purposes include:

  • To build suspense
  • To introduce or develop characters
  • To develop the theme or give backstory
  • To introduce or intensify conflict

Another defining point of scenes is that a new scene begins whenever you change character, location, or time period. When the characters change location, say from inside a house to driving in a car, that’s a new scene. If they walk from one room of a house to another while having a conversation, that’s probably just a change of setting rather than a new scene.

Tip: Be careful not to change perspective too rapidly from one character to another without a proper scene break. Rapid perspective changes (as is possible in movies) don’t work in written fiction because the reader needs time and enough setting description to process the change. Rather separate each perspective into a complete scene.

Scene structure

There is no set or formal structure for a scene, other than that it is a passage in which a character performs an action that advances plot or theme. That said, it can be helpful to note that scenes naturally tend to follow patterns of either action or reaction.

  • Action scene: The character has a goal, encounters opposition, and succeeds or fails.
  • Reaction scene: The character feels emotion about the outcome, thinks about it, decides on a new goal, and begins taking action (which becomes the goal of the next scene).

You can simplify it to this:

The character pursues a goal and succeeds or fails (action scene). Then they reflect on the outcome and devise a new plan with a new goal (reaction), leading to a new action scene.

Note: Don’t let this become overwhelming and cause you to sit overthinking your scenes. Use this information as a guideline and as an aid to creating more content. For instance, if you’ve written several successive action scenes, it might be time to write a more reflective scene.

The ability to construct purposeful scenes is one of the top fiction-writing skills that will help you write publishable fiction. For more detail on scenes, together with exercises to help you build your story, see my book and course Write Masterful Fiction (details below).

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