You can’t write a novel all at once, any more than you can swallow a whale in one gulp. You do have to break it up into smaller chunks. But those smaller chunks aren’t good old familiar short stories. Novels aren’t built out of short stories. They are built out of scenes.
Orson Scott Card  
If you can craft a good scene, you can write a great story.

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Scenes are the basic building blocks of narrative thread. The ability to envision a successful scene and integrate it into a seamless and shapely whole is one of the writer’s most essential tools in any genre or medium.

Any writer who can write one good scene after another, choosing the appropriate scenes to tell the story and ordering and interlacing them well for maximum effect, can produce a good story or novel.

Good scenes utilize all the important aspects of storytelling, including setting, characterization and motivation, action, conflict, point of view, exposition, structure and style. 

Essentials of Scene Structure:  Ask yourself:

  • Where does the scene take place? 
  • ​What elements of setting can/should be selected to engage the reader’s sensory experience?
  • ​Have I made it easy for the reader to visualize this through the characters POV? 
  • ​What happens in the scene? 
  • ​What sort of time-frame does the scene encompass?
  • ​What is the most important piece of information that needs to be revealed in this scene?
  • ​What about this scene is vital and necessary to the overall story?
  • ​Do the characters actions and reactions help to move the story forward or heighten characterization?
  • ​Are the characters and their interactions motivated by specific goals or desires and is this evidenced?
  • ​Is there conflict that will be heightened or resolved, tension, questions that are asked or answered?
  • ​​Are there elements of the scene that serve to bulwark themes or ideas explored in the story?​

Whether or not you are an instinctive outliner or plotter, before you sit down to write your novel, you should have spent some time dedicated to developing your storytelling writing abilities by practicing scenes.

Some of the more successful novels have been composed of as few as 15-20 major scenes (though of course their might easily be up to 100, depending on length and genre). Whether you’re trying to tell a sweeping epic or even a short story, you will be writing your story as a series of scenes.

Once you break a larger project down into its constituent building blocks of scenes, it not only takes pressure off you and your writing by making your story goals more manageable, it also helps you keep your focus on creating compelling, well-crafted scenes.

Writing a novel can be daunting but every writer with a story to tell can apply themselves to writing a scene. By mastering the ability to write powerful scenes you find that the rest of the writing grows easier, for what is your story but a series of scenes, piled one upon the other. Scenes may – and should - have greatly varied and different goals and approaches, some may merely add to what came before or some may challenge or change what came before. Nevertheless, the goal for all good scenes will be to succeed in moving your story inexorably and relentlessly forward, for each of them to come together to form an integral part of the whole.

I. starting with scenes

I like a chapter to have design of tone, as well as of form.
A chapter should be a perfect cell in the whole book...
John Steinbeck

iii. writing scenes with purpose & structure

Good scenes give you an opportunity to portray your character’s goals and desires in an environment of your choosing, to show them dealing with an incident and interacting with their environment. Ideally, the driving motivations of your character will be somehow portrayed in a scene. If the scene and its outcome are not dictated and driven by the main goals of your character, his/her goals and motivation should at least be somehow evidenced or at least exhibited so that somehow each scene serves to heighten characterization and/or as a stepping stone to the rest of the story.

While scenes may focus on small or large desires of your characters, always get some evidence of your characters motivation to drive interactions in a scene.

Scenes and their transitions should have some sort of strong connective tissue to help tie your story together. 


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A scene is of course an event that happens in a specific place and time but great scenes should aspire to be a small story in themselves, containing a narrative arc that includes a beginning, middle, and end.  Good writing demands the ability to produce good scenes and like good stories, scenes should be thought of as having their own narrative structure, almost microcosm of the story.

The stronger your scenes, the more compelling your story.

The scenes are the living moments, incidents and experiences in your story where things happen, characters interact, dialogue occurs and generally some challenge or change is exhibited. The ability to write great scenes that captivate your reader and invite them to inhabit your story, to want to know what will happen or how your characters will react is perhaps the writer’s most important skill-set.


iv. synthesize your scenes to make them part of the whole

Scenes are stories, good scenes contain all the elements of good stories: characterization and motivation, setting, dialogue, narrative arc, theme, conflict, tension, structure and style.

Powerful scenes are their own entities but also always part of a whole. Working together, scenes team up and, connect with one another. Whether they change what came before or add to it, their duty is to draw the reader into the story but also make him want to know what happens next as they move the story forward.

The first goal of writing your story is to have an idea of what scenes will enable you to tell it best. The goal is to get your story – your series of scenes – on paper. Only then can you see how well they integrate and bolster the whole. Write your scenes as well as possible but do not worry about editing and revising them until you know how well they work to tell your story.

A great scene is a part of whole, working together. Scene-work is team work; great scenes work because of how they fit in with what came before and what follows. 

The better your scenes come to life and synthesize with one another, the stronger your story will be.

focus on scenes

Writing Tooltips Series from the Write Away Europe Team

ii. master story by mastering scenes

Once you have the idea for your story, the characters, and the setting, it’s time to begin thinking about how you will tell this story – and essentially that will be through a series of scenes woven together with narrative and exposition helping to structure them and provide addition texture and dimension.

The scene is generally a smaller story of its own, a microcosm or the whole. Whether your scenes starts a story and setting anew, begins in medias res or picks up where others have left off, each scene is a vital opportunity to engage your reader’s attention.

Just as most novels adhere to Aristotle’s basic three-act story-telling structure of beginning, middle and end, so should your scenes have their own structure.

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