Anatomy of a Scene

Writing Suspenseful Scenes

As we continue our exploration of using scenes to write our novels, let’s keep in mind that our scenes should be entertaining, dynamic, and purposeful. Your story will benefit from well-written scenes that keep the reader’s interest. Note that not each and every scene should be a suspense scene because the amount of suspense in each genre differs. If you become aware that your story is dragging, think about adding some suspense.

Certain elements will make your scene more suspenseful. The stakes must be high for your character. Increase the risk. Your character must be in trouble or get into trouble and have a hard time getting out. Add some danger. Add emotional intensity to your scene and don’t let up until the end. Your character should be under pressure to change or act by other characters, or by things that occur during the scene.

That said, don’t rush into the suspense. You will need to create a logical series of events which create the suspense. Let your reader see the intensity grow page by page so that the expectation of things to come increases the reader’s anxiety. The key word is anticipation. Let the reader be concerned for your character as you open the scene, and let the uneasy feeling grow as your character moves through the scene.

Think about the possibility of letting our antagonist get the upper hand over your protagonist and let your reader worry over your character. Let your character feel threatened and in danger and show your reader what that looks like, feels like, smells like, tastes like. Those sensory details are important to share with your reader. Make the danger tangible so your reader will have to white-knuckle it. And let your character react to the danger in an unexpected way so that there is even more conflict.

Make things complicated.

When you get to the end of a suspenseful scene, conclude the action and give your character a moment to reflect on what just happened. This will allow your reader to catch their breath before the next suspenseful scene.


Carry the suspense all the way through to the end of the scene and end it on a cliff hanger so that your reader must turn the page.

Mix it up. Worry your reader. Let anticipation rule the day. You will have happy readers. And that is a very good thing.


Anatomy of a Scene


The Opening Scene

We’ve been talking about writing in scenes as a way for authors to complete their novels, and as a way to ensure that every page of our book is compelling and moves the story forward all the way to the end. Our goal is that we would stop wasting our valuable writing time working on pages that are dull or stray from the story line which later ends up being deleted. We want to make every writing minute count.

This week we are going to focus on The Opening Scene.

The opening scene is the first scene in your novel and it is the most important scene you will write. If the scene is boring, or confusing, there is a good chance that your reader will put your book down and not buy it. That’s bad. So we need to be sure that the opening scene contains all the elements necessary to make the reader turn the page. Note that the opening scene is not the prologue.

The opening scene serves a few purposes and contains the following:

  • It contains the hook. The hook is the reason your reader will read the book because they want to know what happens next
  • It implies the story question
  • It brings your reader immediately into your story world
  • It establishes the setting
  • It hints at the overall plot
  • It introduces your protagonist and allows the reader a glimpse of their struggles (both interior and exterior)
  • It sets up the conflict
  • It sets up the pace

The opening scene should open with a hit of a riddle. This riddle is the story question that will be answered by the end of the book, and it is this riddle that will intrigue your reader. There needs to be enough information, enough action, and enough plot information to hook the reader without being overbearing with detail and minutia.

Your inciting incident does not necessarily need to be in your opening scene, but it should be pretty darn close to it. It should definitely be in Act I if you are following a 3 Act Structure or a 4 Act Structure, or it is the catalyst event if you are using a beat sheet. If your inciting incident is not located so early in your story, then I recommend you revise your plot. Note that the inciting incident is the event which begins the story problem that your character must solve by the end of the book. Think about the last movie you watched. What was the thing that made your characters jump into action? That is the inciting incident.

Your main character and your overall plot are intertwined. Plot and character CANNOT be disconnected. Your plot pushes your character, and your character reveals the plot. You must have these two elements in the opening scene, and throughout your book.

The ending to your opening scene (remember that all scenes have a beginning, a middle, and an ending) should leave your reader dangling with tension, crisis, dilemma, or conflict. Leave the significant situation unresolved so that your reader has to find out what happened.

Next time: more on writing that scene.



Anatomy of a Scene

Intentions II

This week, we are continuing our exploration of breaking down the scene with a look at scene intentions.

Remember that there are different kinds of intentions.

Author intention, for example, is what you, the author, intend your book to be about, how you want to present information to the reader, what genre you will write in etc. You are the one who controls all the variables with regard to your book, good, bad, or indifferent. Of course, we all hope for good, so the goal is to go into your writing project with some cognizance of the process.

With regards to your plot, an intention is a specific direction your character takes in the scene. This intention can arise either out of consequence of the last scene or out of some impending situation from the overall plot. If the impending situation is directing your character, you can consider this a plot-based intention. This means that scenes of this ilk are created and written with the specific goal of getting your character to the end of the story. Just be careful to make sure it is not too easy for your character to get to the end.

Sometimes, the scene intention is situational. Your character murdered someone in the last scene and now they must deal with the consequences. Do they run? Do they turn themselves into the police? Do they ask for help to hide the body? The situation of the last scene has determined that your character must stop the main intent of getting to the end of the story (the overall story goal), in order to deal with the current situation. This particular intention is scene-specific. These are short-term character goals and intentions. These kinds of scenes also add tension to your story, because these keep your character from getting to the end.

But what if the intention of the scene is to stop your character from moving forward at all? This is the kind of intention that your villain might have. The villain’s intention is opposition, and it is their goal to make your main character fail. Period. Now your character is not moving forward toward the end of the story. Neither are they dealing with repercussions of past actions. Your character is now having to stop and deal with something completely unexpected. Note that this kind of intention creates a plot twist, and complications for your character and may also create a new intention for your character temporarily as they now have to deal with the villain’s plans.

Think of these different types of intentions as you outline your story. As you think of your author intention, remember that it is your job to create a dynamic story for your reader. You will need to set your intentions for yourself, your characters, plot, villain, and know when and how to keep your character from completing their goal, and if you break these down by scene you will have an easier job of writing your novel.

Next time: The opening scene


Anatomy of a Scene

Setting Intentions

We are continuing our exploration of writing scenes, which includes all the elements that should be in a scene for it to be a successful piece of writing. The ultimate goal of outlining and writing your novel using scenes is that you will complete it with a minimum of wasted time and effort.

This week I thought we would focus on intentions for our scenes. Remember that a scene is a specific place where continuous action occurs in the novel. You can have a scene that encompasses an entire chapter or multiple scenes in each chapter. I prefer the latter option.

A scene should have a beginning, a middle, and an ending which ideally includes some hook to cause the reader to turn the page. Your scene should be set up properly with enough visual clues to allow your reader to see the events of the scene in their mind’s eye. Each scene should include some of the five senses to help your reader become emotionally involved with your characters, and each scene should have enough tension to keep the reader enticed in the story.

Before you write your scene, think about what it is that your protagonist wants. What does your character need? This is important. The character must have an intention when they enter the scene. It could be your character wants to escape from a killer. It could be that your character wants to ask someone for a date. As the author, you should decide whether or not your character will achieve their intention before the end of the scene, or if they will fail. Regardless of failure or success, your character should encounter complications that put a wrinkle in their plans. It is these complications that will build suspense for your reader.

Say for example your character wants to ask someone for a date. They are in a coffee shop and they see the person of their dreams across the room. They get up to approach their dear intended, but they spill their coffee all down their front. Now they must detour to the bathroom and clean themselves up. Your character has failed on the first try. After blotting their shirt with a wad of paper towels they go back to ask their intended for a date. But now, their love interest has a guest at their table. Drats. Oh, wait. It’s your character’s side-kick who always wants to help. Well, that’s good. Except, your side-kick always messes things up for your character. Oh, no. Your character’s love interest jumps up from the table and runs out of the coffee shop. It’s a clear failure.

As the author, it’s your job not to make things too easy for your character. You should know before you write when and where your character will succeed or fail, and when they will encounter complications. Note that you do have to let your character succeed sometimes. Just be sure they don’t succeed all the time.

As you are outlining your new scene you have to make sure that the scene and the scene intention makes sense to your plot. If your story is about monkeys in space, it is unlikely that a scene on dating would be appropriate. Maybe you want to explore what a monkey date would be like. A monkey walks into a bar…but don’t do it unless it truly works for your plot. This tangent would be a waste of your writing time.

When you outline your scene intentions think about who will oppose your character’s goal(s). Is there another person in your character arsenal whose sole motivation is to thwart your protagonist at every opportunity? Should your villain be in the scene? Or is there another person whose sole purpose is to help your character achieve their goals? Yes, this side-kick can help your character, but not so easily, and not too soon. And it may be that this side-kick intends to help your protagonist but their assistance always goes amiss, just as in the coffee date scene above.

Regardless, be sure to make sure that each and every scene in your novel is there for a reason, and the reason is to move the story forward to the end. Don’t waste time.

Remember, there are no dating monkeys in space.

Copyright: Image by StockUnlimited

Anatomy of a Scene


Happy New Year!

For the last few months, I’ve been talking about writing your novel using scenes. Writing your novel one scene at a time will make you a more productive writer and a better writer.

So let’s jump into it.

We want our stories to have enough conflict and tension to keep the reader turning the page. Tension is exciting and the anticipation of the outcome for the reader is what keeps them reading, and keeps you selling books. Tension is good.

Remember that if your scene has no tension then it will be boring and boring is bad. Each of your scenes must have some tension. The tension can be created through multiple channels such as character action, setting, and dialogue. It can also be generated through plot twists and foreshadowing.

So how do you create tension?

  • Make your character fail.
  • Don’t let your characters accomplish their goals.
  • Create a plot twist.
  • Add emotion to the scene.
  • Get your character in trouble.
  • Make things go wrong.
  • Use foreshadowing to let your character feel uneasy about what they think might happen. And then let the worst possible thing happen.
  • Reveal something unexpected to your character.

The main point is that you want to make it hard for your characters to do whatever it is that they want to do. If you review your scene before and after your write it, and you make sure that whatever can possibly go wrong will go wrong, you have succeeded in adding tension to your story.

There are also other ways to increase tension.

Condense time. If nothing happens for three days in your story and you planned to show your characters sitting around eating bon bons, don’t. That would be boring and boring is bad. Condense time.

Condense information. If the narrator tends to drone on with unimportant detail, condense that information to only that which is pertinent to the story. The information may be interesting to you, but if it doesn’t move the story forward why are you writing it? Condense information.

Think up creative ways to add tension to each scene and you will create a thrilling novel for your reader to devour and that is a good thing.

Next wee: More on writing scenes.

Copyright: Image by StockUnlimited

Anatomy of a Scene


Happy Holidays everyone! I’ve taken a few weeks to ensure that I met my editorial deadlines, so I apologize for my sporadic posts. Having caught up this week I’m back to continue our conversation about the use of scenes as a way of writing your novel. Focusing your writing and outlining at the scene level helps to ensure that your writing moves your story forward. This week I thought we would talk about adding theme to your scenes.

What is theme? Theme is the main idea that is proven by the end of the story. It’s the underlying message that you want to share with your reader. It’s the central topic, and it usually can be summed up in a word or two, such as “coming of age,” or “the grieving process.”

Usually theme is implied throughout the novel (or movie) rather than stated but the plot directs the reader to the realization of the theme by the end. Imagery and symbolism are often used to reiterate theme.

It’s easier to see theme in movies than it is in books. Let’s look at Monster’s Inc. One of the themes in the movie is “laughter is stronger than fear.” This theme is not stated in the dialogue, nor is it specified in any particular scene. The (very) basic plot line is that a monster employed by a scare factory finds a human child who he must return home but he discovers that his behavior terrifies the toddler so he must help the child to overcome her fear.

The movie shows the monster’s callous behavior, the child’s terror, and the monster’s new outlook on life, and by the end of the movie it is clear that laughter overcomes fear. The writers incrementally showed the theme throughout the film so that by the end the theme was clear.

Adding a theme to your writing adds dimension to your story and makes it more satisfying because the reader will have some deeper understanding of the human condition. Adding a theme to your story will also help to guide you as you outline and write. You will know what fits and what doesn’t fit in your story based on your theme. For example, if you have some aspect of grief as your theme, then every scene should, on some level, explore the theme. If you find yourself exploring happiness you are off track. The imagery you use, the tone, the voice, each of these should reflect your theme. If you have grief as your theme but all of your imagery is sunshine and butterfly kisses, then you are off track. See how that works?

Take some time to think about the message you want to get across to your readers and consider that message each time you start a new scene. Add something that relates to your theme to the scene, and your reader will subconsciously pick up on your theme, even though you haven’t spelled it out.

Next time we will discuss more on theme and scenes.


Red apple mourning over death

Red apple mourning over death