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

Anatomy of a Scene

It’s all about bits of information.

Authors write scenes in order to make the events in the fictional world seem real to the reader. You want your readers to be emotionally engaged in the drama. You want your readers to feel as if your characters are real. You want your readers to applaud your character’s successes, and bewail your character’s failures. This is the power of writing in scenes.

Each scene must have a purpose in the overall structure of the novel. Each scene should also have at least one piece of new information. Think of journalism’s 5 W’s and an H. Who. What. Why. Where. When. How. Which of these will you give your reader? If the scene you are writing does not move the story forward and provide any new information to your reader, why are you writing the scene?

Stop boring your readers.

Don’t stop writing your scene until you’ve provided at least one piece of new information for your reader. It doesn’t matter if that information is the why, or the how, or the where, or when, or what.

Which bit of information do you provide your reader at what point in your novel?

It might help to think of your novel in sections.

The first section of your novel is where you introduce your reader to your story world. This is where you set up your world. This is where you show your reader a bit about who your characters are. This is where you show your reader what your character’s main dilemma is. This is where you show your reader what it is your character really wants.

In the second section of your novel you tease your reader with surprises which lead to conflicts which force your character to change. Your character can change their mind, their plans, or the direction they travel. The second section is where you mislead your characters and your readers with false leads and red herrings to keep everyone on their toes.

The third section of your novel ties up all of those misleads, and red herrings, and any bit of information that you provided your reader in the first two sections. The third section is where you answer all the questions. Note that this third section is not for introducing new information. Don’t do it. Things should be wrapping up. The third section if for leading your reader toward the story conclusion.

The third section is where writers discover if there are plot holes in their story. If you can’t tie up all of your loose ends, you have a plot hole. This means you have missing information in your scenes, and you will have to revisit your scenes to find out where you forgot to provide your reader with information.

By writing in scenes, you will have an easier time of revision to ensure all the information your reader needs is available to them. By making sure you write your scenes with beginnings, middles, and endings you will ensure that your story moves forward.

Next time: More on scenes.

Note: I apologize if my blog is a bit sporadic through the end of the year. Deadlines are looming and sometimes the blog is the easiest thing to push aside.

Blue thread going through needle eye, close-up

Anatomy of a Scene


It’s been a few weeks but we are back!

We are continuing our discussion of the topic of scene writing as a way to break down your novel into manageable chunks, and to consider each scene as an individual piece of the whole, but to also incorporate all the necessary elements into each scene as you write them. We’ve talked about the necessary elements in scene beginnings, scene middles, and scene endings. We’ve talked about how to set up your scene so your reader can visualize your story world. And we’ve talked about incorporating your character’s five senses to convey information to your reader about the character and the environment your character moves through.

Remember that each scene should be in your novel for a reason, and should move your story forward. Each scene should have an intention and a purpose. Each character in that scene should also have an intention and a purpose. It is important to note that your scene may have a different intention than your character, and the trick is to write the scene so that each intention is visible to your reader.

So this week, let’s talk about specifics about what your characters need in the scene.

Each scene should provide your character with some information necessary to move the story forward. Your character needs to respond to this information, or react to this information. If no information is provided to your character, or your reader, then why is that scene in your novel? It’s a bit of a test. If nothing is happening for your character on the page, delete the page.

In each scene, your character needs to interact with someone else or something. These other characters or things promote your character’s response or reaction, and it is these responses and reactions that help you to create a complex character for your readers.

Think about what your character’s motivation is in each scene. Your scene intention is generally related to your plot, but what is your character’s intention? What does your character want? Are they in the scene to discover who killed the preacher? Are they trying to discover who their spouse’s lover is? Are they trying to find a way to save the world? Note that your character has, or should have, an overarching motivation for the plot. They may also have smaller motivations as they get detoured from achieving their goals and confront conflict. But, then need a reason to be in the scene, and both you and your readers need to know why they are in the scene. You can also consider your character’s backstory as motivation. What happened in the past that is pushing them forward? What are they trying to overcome? How does your character change from the first scene to the last scene of your novel? How do they grow? Are their beliefs changed? Do these changes alter their motivations over time?

As you build your scenes toward your climax, each scene should also complicate your character’s life in some way. Raise the stakes a little higher. Don’t make it easy for your character to find that pearl necklace. Don’t give them the easy way out. Nothing should be too convenient. Make it hard for your character.

As you work through your last scenes, consider all of the problems, and hardships that your character has encountered, and resolve those. If your character lost their keys in chapter five, they should find them again toward the end of your novel. After the climax, your scenes should be easier for your character to move through. Your character finds answers and solves problems, and saves the world.

Writing scenes seems simple sometimes, but good scenes provide your reader with needed information, and writing the scene with all the elements necessary to provide your reader with a satisfying experience can be complicated at times. Keep at it.


On another topic, I am hosting RMFW’s annual writer’s retreat in Colorado Springs  April 6-9 and I’d like to invite you to attend. Registration opens October 1st and space is limited. You can find more information about the retreat and register at:

I hope to see you there.



I will be out this week as I prepare for Colorado Gold in Denver. It’s one of the best writer’s conferences in the United States and I love going. If you are attending, please find me there. You can go to the registration desk and ask someone to text me and I will come meet you.

The Writer’s Bag of Tricks will resume next week.




Scene Senses

We’ve been discussing scene writing over the last several weeks, including the expectations for what constitutes a scene, what belongs in scene beginnings, middles, and endings, and setting up your scene for your reader. This week we will discuss scene senses.

I like writing in scenes because using scenes breaks the writing process down into small chunks. For some, the prospect of writing a 100,000 word novel is overwhelming, but if you can break that novel down to scenes, and concentrate on writing a single scene of a few or several pages to the best of your ability, then there is much less pressure on the writer. Scenes are also easier to focus on to allow the author to make sure all the writing elements needed are present.

Regardless of which part of the scene you are working on, make effort to infuse your writing with sensory perception details wherever appropriate. If adding sensory information to your writing is not your strength, make a note, or checklist, to remind yourself to review your work after you’ve written your scene. Does your character seem flat? Are there some details missing but you can’t quite put your finger on what it is?

Sight is the most important sense to use in scene writing because the reader must be able to visualize your story world in their mind’s eye. Show important objects that your reader needs to see. Do they need to see the single pearl on the floor next to the body in a mystery novel, for example, or perhaps they need to see the apple with a worm in it? Can your character see the sunlight streaming through the forest that highlights the path of escape? Sight details bring your character’s environment to life and is a requirement is you want to provide your reader a good experience.

Touch is a detail which can be as simple as your character touching the trigger of a gun, or not touching a doorknob because they have a germ phobia. But touch is also represents a full spectrum of information about your character and how they interact with other characters and the world around them. Touch includes your character touching other characters, or touching themselves. Whatever it is that you need to convey to your reader, consider touch as a way to provide some of that information.

Smell can be an intimate or a distant sense. There are good smells and bad smells. You can even use smell to help identify your characters. Does your heroine always smell like roses? Does your villain always smell like stale cigarettes? Do those smells proceed them into the room? Scent and smell can create mood, and show your reader much about your characters. You may want to consider that memories can be triggered by smells, too. How does that affect your character?

Sometimes sound can provide almost as much information about a physical setting as a general description and sight clues. Sounds enhance your scene’s mood, and help to create atmosphere, as well as provides interest to scene setting, where appropriate. Sound also imparts knowledge about your character. What is the quality and timbre of their voice? What about your character’s accent, or intonation?  What about silence? Think about how to incorporate sound into your scenes as a way to add depth for your readers.

Taste is an underused sense (with the exception of erotica and some romance) in most writing. Is food important to your character? What does that food taste like and what does that favorite flavor say about your character? Does the taste of things affect your character’s mood? Does it create conflict if your character does not like the coffee? How can you use your character’s love of a certain taste to give the reader information about that character?

You can look at the senses individually as your work your way through your scene or consider them as a while, and over time the combination of the senses will provide your reader with a in-depth and detailed story world that is irresistible.

Next time: More scene details