10 Tips for Writing Better Scenes
As an editor and book coach, writers ask me all the time -- Do you have any tips for writing a better first draft? Is there anything I can do to make this whole 'writing a book' thing easier!?
And my answer is YES! Focus your efforts and attention on learning how to write a strong, well-structured scene. This will make all the difference in your ability to write a story that works, and better first drafts, too.
So, in this post, I'm sharing my top ten tips for writing better scenes. If you want to learn how I define a scene, or how to structure a scene, check out this blog post. My hope is that once you master the art of scene-writing, you'll find the whole book-writing process a lot easier and more straightforward. So, without further ado, let's dive in!
Tip #1: Stick to one point-of-view character for each scene.
The very first tip I have for you is to stick to one point-of-view character per scene. And when I say this, I’m not saying don’t use multiple point-of-view characters in your story. I’m just saying stick to one character’s perspective per scene.
And there are a few reasons I recommend you do this.
Reason number one is that it makes the reading experience more immersive for readers. By grounding readers in one point-of-view character per scene, you give readers the time and space to really be in that character’s head, experiencing the events of the story as he or she does. This will also help you avoid head-hopping which can be a jarring experience for readers.
The second reason is that it’s just easier to write a well-structured scene when you stick to one character’s perspective. If you’re in one character’s perspective, tracking that character’s goal throughout the scene, it’s easier to write something that’s cohesive and it will be harder for you to go off on tangents that don’t really matter.
So, that’s tip number one. Stick to one point-of-view character per scene.
Tip #2: Establish where and when the scene is happening.
The second tip I have for you is to make sure the context of the scene is clear. And by that, I mean you need to ground the reader in time and place at the very beginning of each scene -- especially in relation to the scene that came before it.
So, where is this scene happening? Has the location changed? Make that obvious for readers. How much time has passed since the last scene? An hour? Three days? Ten months? Let readers know exactly how long it’s been since we last saw this character.
And the reason this is so important is that if you’re reading a book and you suddenly have no idea where or when the story is happening, you’re very likely going to stop reading, flip back a few pages, and try to figure out what the heck just happened.
If there’s no obvious answer, you’re going to feel confused and you’ll probably have to work pretty hard to get back into the zone of the story. So, you’re either going to take out your phone and try to see if anyone on the internet has had the same experience you did, or you’re going to stop reading because now you don’t really trust what’s going on or suddenly, reading just feels like too much hard work.
So, to avoid doing this to your readers, make sure that you orient the reader to time and place with the start of each new scene. That’s tip number two.
Tip #3: Give your character a specific goal in every scene.
The third tip I have for you is to make sure that your character has a specific goal in each and every scene. So, what does your character want to achieve or accomplish or learn in this particular scene? What are they specifically trying to do?
Their goal could literally be anything -- it could be something simple like your character wanting to go down to the river to fill up a bucket of water so that he can make breakfast for his family. Or it can be as complex as your character wanting to confront and defeat the evil Dark Lord so that humanity can survive.
Regardless of what it is, your character needs to be trying to accomplish something, and their goal needs to be clear in the first few paragraphs. This is how readers relate to and invest in your character throughout the entire story.
This is also how you’ll help or prevent your character from achieving or accomplishing their big picture story goal, too -- one scene at a time.
Now, I should mention that this seems to be something that confuses a lot of writers. Some writers feel like the word “goal” is too big or lofty. So, if you’d like, feel free to just ask yourself what is this character trying to do in this scene?
You’re probably not doing your story justice if your character is sitting on the couch with no goal or ambition, waiting for the plot events to move them into action.
And the reason that doesn’t work is that a) your character doesn’t seem real -- in real life, we all have goals big and small, and b) this doesn’t provide any room for conflict. If your character has no goal, then nothing can get in the way. And if there’s no conflict then you don’t have a story.
So, that’s tip number three. Give your character a specific goal in every scene.
Tip #4: Make sure each scene includes a mini-arc of change.
The next tip I have for you is to make sure that each of your scenes includes a mini-arc of change.
So, once you know what your point-of-view character wants in the scene you’re working on, you can use the ‘5 Commandments’ that I talked about in episode #40 to help you create a mini-arc of change through the conflict that your character faces.
Basically, what it boils down to is, your character needs to have a goal, they will face conflict as they pursue that goal, and then they will face a decision about how to move forward, thus creating a mini-arc of change. All of these mini-arcs of change within your scenes are what add up to create your global arc of change across the entire story.
And this is one of my favorite questions for editing your draft, too. In each scene, you want to look at what has changed for your character. If there is no change, or if the change is rather meaningless in the context of your global story, then you’ll know automatically that that particular scene needs work.
So, that’s tip number four, make sure each scene contains a mini-arc of change.
Tip #5: Make sure your point-of-view character has agency.
The next tip I have for you is to make sure that your point of view character has agency. And this kind of relates to what I said in tip number three about giving your character a goal in each and every scene. Once they have a goal, they need to also have the agency to pursue that goal.
They need to be able to make decisions and take actions that move the story forward. And this is simply because readers will not latch onto a passive character that just sits back waiting for and allowing things to happen to them.
And something I get asked a lot when I talk about character agency is some version of, well what if my character is being held captive? And my answer is still that your character needs agency. If you were being held captive, wouldn’t you try to do something? Whether it be to talk to a guard, escape out the window, get a glass of water, befriend another character who’s also being held captive, or anything like that?
No matter what situation your character is in, they need to take the initiative to do something about their circumstances, even if that something has negative or unforeseen consequences. In fact, more often than not, it’s the negative or unforeseen consequences that make a story interesting, and that forces your character to ultimately grow and change.
So, anyway, that’s tip number five. Make sure your point-of-view character has agency.
Tip #6: Show what your character is thinking and feeling.
The next tip I have for you is to show readers what your character is thinking or feeling throughout the scene. And this is super, super important. You always want to make sure to show readers how the events of the scene are affecting your character.
And to properly do this, you need to understand who your character is, what their worldview is, and what he or she values. You also need to have a sense of what your character is expecting, hoping for, or afraid of in each scene. This will help you frame how they understand, or misunderstand, what’s happening around them.
So, in each scene, in addition to what’s happening, make sure you let readers inside your character’s head. What are they thinking? What are they feeling? How are they processing the events of the scene? What meaning are they taking from these events? How will what happens externally, plus how they feel about what’s happening, push them forward into the next scene?
And that’s tip number six. Show readers what your character is thinking and feeling throughout the scene. Readers want to feel how your characters feel so, let them inside their head!
Tip #7: Try to advance at least one subplot in each scene.
The next tip I have for you is to try and advance at least one of your subplots per scene.
In a great story, subplots develop right alongside the main plot. So, once you’ve chosen your point-of-view character, given them a goal, and built-in the scene structure we talked about, consider how you can layer in something to move one of your subplots forward.
So, for example, if you think about the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, there’s a scene where Madame Hooch teaches the Gryffindors and the Slytherins how to fly on a broom.
In this scene, three story threads move forward. First, it turns out that Harry is a natural on the broom and, because of that, he becomes Gryffindor’s new seeker. Second, Harry stands up for Neville, strengthening their friendship. And third, Harry’s rivalry with and hatred for Malfoy gets even worse.
I like this example, too, because, in theory, JK Rowling could have chosen anything for Draco and Harry to fight over, but she chose to move the Neville subplot forward, and pull that story thread through this scene to a) show Harry’s character, b) give Draco and Harry a point of contention, and c) to help the story feel cohesive and tight.
So, anyway, that’s tip number seven, try to move at least one of your subplots forward in each one of your scenes.
Tip #8: Use the ‘story present’ to trigger backstory and exposition.
The next tip I have for you is to use the story present, or whatever’s happening in the present moment, to trigger backstory and exposition.
And what I mean by this is that descriptions of people, places, history, etc. should be directly related to what’s happening in the moment in the scene. So, let’s say you want to convey some information about your protagonist’s mother in a scene. Instead of just inserting all that information and backstory into the scene, build something into the story present that can trigger that bit of backstory.
For example, let’s say your character’s significant other comes over and sees photos of your protagonist’s mother. That could prompt a conversation about his or her mom. Your character could also be out walking around town and see their mother’s old flower shop. This could also trigger some backstory about his or her mom.
When backstory or worldbuilding information or exposition is relevant to what’s happening in the scene, it’s context, not an info dump. The key is to only include information that readers need to know in order to understand what’s going on in the scene, otherwise, you risk losing their attention.
And that’s tip number eight, use the ‘story present’ to trigger backstory and exposition.
Tip #9: Only include dialogue that is relevant to the scene.
The next tip I have for you is to only include dialogue that’s relevant to what’s happening in the present moment in the scene.
And what I mean by that is that dialogue should only be used to establish context or character goals, cause or worsen conflict, reveal character decisions or changes, and things like that.
If your dialogue doesn’t do one of these things, you probably don’t need it. It’s really that simple.
And that’s tip number nine. Only include dialogue that’s relevant to the scene you’re writing.
10. Make sure the scene contributes to the global story.
The last tip I have for you is to make sure your scene contributes to your global story. There are two ways I like to think about this, too.
First, think in terms of your external plot. Every scene should push the story forward to the main climactic moment where your protagonist either succeeds or fails in accomplishing their main story goal. And yes, this applies to subplots, too. Subplots should be woven into the main plot of every scene, so they don’t distract from the global arc of your story.
Second, think in terms of your character’s internal arc. Every scene should force your character to face conflict, and make decisions that will help him or her grow and change. Each scene should create consequences that must be dealt with or built upon in the next scene until your character learns the lesson of the story and changes. This is how you’ll express your story’s theme.
So, basically, you’ll want to ask yourself -- does this scene contribute to the plot of the global story? And then -- does this scene contribute to my character’s arc or the theme of the global story? If not, it’s time to reconsider if the scene you’re looking at warrants its place in your draft.
Now on that note, let’s say you have a scene that doesn't necessarily contribute to the global story, but that does show an important part of your character's backstory. If I were your coach or your editor, I would suggest finding another place to add that bit of backstory into your story where it’s relevant to what’s happening in a scene instead of creating a whole scene that’s only purpose is to deliver the backstory.
So, anyway, that’s tip number ten, make sure that each of your scenes contributes to the global story both externally and internally.
So, there you have it. My top ten tips for writing better scenes! If you want to learn how to write a well-structured scene, check out this blog post. I hope you find these tips helpful, and that they help you write a stronger, more cohesive story!
👉 Let me know in the comments: Which one of these tips will you work on implementing in your writing first? Were any of the tips surprising or new to you?