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Making a Scene

Making a Scene – Every scene has to earn its space on the page. How to ensure yours sell. (Mid to Expert)

From the first sentence to the last, every word you put on the page has to count. We’re going to look at how to hook your audience and hold them captivated to the very end with action, emotion and forward momentum.

Dissecting a Scene

What makes up a scene? What must a scene have to earn its space on the page? What is even the point of a scene? Well, it’s a chunk of story. Obviously. It’s an important part of the journey your readers are taking with you. But how do you tell if your scene is working? A scene needs to keep readers hooked while, and through, developing the overall story arc, the character growth including motivations, it needs to move the relationship between the hero and heroine, or whatever gender your characters identify as, it needs to move them forward.

What goes into a scene? Talking, action, internal dialogue, description, and they all need to be balanced with each represented on the page. But one of the best ways to understand what a scene needs is to look at what will ruin it.

Info Dumps

They’re lazy. But you know what else is lazy? *put up hand* Readers. They don’t want to wade through an eight page summary of your main characters lives up this point just to get to the story. But no, you say. They can’t possibly understand the story unless they know up front that the death of the heroine’s pet goldfish when she was only five years old formed her whole outlook on life. I understand, I love my words too. But we need to be writing with the reader in mind.

You know when you open a book and there’s wall to wall words, no blank space at all. And your brain is already going, oh man, this is big. This is going to be a lot of work. And as nice as it is to get stuck into a big juicy epic book sometimes, it is not a good idea to fill every bit of your page with ink. Readers need white space on the page. It breaks up the story into bite size pieces and shows that things happen and that the story progresses. It makes your brain not cry with tiredness. Because let’s remember, readers are here for escapism. Life is hard, but books rock. Let’s keep it that way.

Write down all of the information you want to impart to your reader. Now weed out what needs to be known right now and what can wait until a little later in the book. Take all of that important information that’s necessary now for your reader to understand the story and your characters and try to weave it into the scene. How much can be told in conversation? How much can be dropped in here and there as a thought? How much can be shown as action?

Nothing Happens

Who has ever started reading a book and the heroine like meets her friend for lunch and they have a chat about what a jerk her boss is. Then she goes home and pets her cat and cooks a stir-fry, maybe watches a little TV. And all of this is showing us the heroine’s life and what’s currently affecting her and everything. But it’s boring as all hell because nothing is actually happening. That a DNF for me. That book is gone.

The golden rule of scenes: It’s good to establish things. Something needs to be established in each scene. But more importantly, something needs to change.

Opening Scenes

Pride and Prejudice: Netherfield Hall has been let! Something is happening in the county, something new and exciting. People with money and status are coming into the rather limited social sphere of this world. And maybe we can marry off one of the girls! YES.

Why does this scene work? Because it’s the point of change. The household’s rather quiet life is disrupted and we get to see how all of the various character react. Mrs Bennet immediately gets onto Mr Bennet’s case about going over there and introducing himself as a way to start the intermingling going. She needs to get her five daughters futures settled because women’s rights suck. Mr Bennet strings her along for a while, because that’s how he gets his kicks. But it turns out, he’s not completely ignorant of his duties as a parent and husband, since he’s already gone over and met the new neighbours. The younger daughters, Kitty and Lydia, are excited. Mary is doing her emo thing. And Elizabeth and Jane are interested but keeping their cool. They’re the real brains and decorum in this family.

All of this scene gives us the opportunity to see all of our characters personalities in action. Therefore, an information dump isn’t required to spoon feed us details.

Middle Scenes

Dirty Dancing: The scene where they’re practicing the dance, but they’re both cranky and over it. Johnny keeps snapping at her errors and Baby eventually cracks and tells him that what she really wants to do is drop the whole idea of her filling in for Penny. So Johnny suggests they take a break and get out of there, going for a drive, and take to the woods. They practice balance on a log then give the lift a go in the water.

This scene is really the first time that we see the couple alone and having fun. Getting along together despite all of the stresses involved in getting Baby up to date with the dance routine. All of a sudden, she’s not just a naive kid. She’s funny and warm and open and he likes it. Things are definitely happening between them, especially in the water with the whole wet top and everything. Basically, they break out of their normal routine and things happen.

This is a great example of a “Getting Along” scene. It is crucial in romance to show your characters doing a job together. Display team work. It can be as simple as doing the dishes together, because couples need to bond in big and small ways. This accomplishing stuff together scene is important in romance novels because it proves to the reader that these people belong together, that there’s some kind of mutual respect there, and that they could make it long term.

When Harry Met Sally: After many years or bumping into each other and rubbing each other the wrong way, Harry and Sally have decided to be friends. They’re having lunch in a typical New York deli, discussing relationships and sex, as you do. When Harry proclaims that no woman has ever faked it with him. Impossible. Get real. He’s a stud. Sally knows better and puts on a very loud and physical display as to how good some woman can be a faking an orgasm.

Why does this scene work? Well, it’s hysterical. And why is it so funny? Because when we started out, two friends having a nice lunch, no one saw this coming. Sally takes things in a whole crazy new direction. This is probably the best, and one of the most far out there, demonstrations of how the change in a scene can make it memorable or meh. Because the change in this scene, from a pleasant lunch to loud fake orgasm, is completely unexpected. This is the difference between what the audience or reader anticipates happening, and the surprising, remarkable, yet consistent to the story and its characters, change can unleash. This scene is a classic.

This change can happen in lots of different ways.

For a better description of this process, please read “Story” by Robert McKee. In that book he goes into detail via the work of various screenplays, as to how this works. To sum it up briefly, there’s a gulf between what the audience and anticipates and what you’re going to deliver. This change is the gulf. And the wider the gulf is, the more your surprise your readers, the more you draw them in. But remember, the change must make sense and work within the bounds of your tale. Your story must remain cohesive as a whole.

Scene Number: 1
Basic Outline: Evelyn wakes up hung-over on the bathroom floor with a handsome stranger. She admits to remembering little of the night before and the man angrily tells her they got married. She throws up.
Date/Time/Setting: The day after her 21st birthday in the morning. Cheap motel bathroom in Las Vegas.
What is established? She’s a nice normal girl who went to Las Vegas to celebrate her 21st. She partied too hard the night before and can’t remember what she did.
Backstory with regards to her home life and previous sexual experience are woven in.
What changes? Evelyn goes from single to married.
Scene Number: 2
Basic Outline: They decide to get divorced. Her mysterious new husband leaves, slamming the door on his way out. Evelyn realises she has the name “David” tattooed on her butt and throws up again.
Date/Time/Setting: The day after her 21st birthday in the morning. Cheap motel room in Las Vegas.
What is established? Her new husband resents her forgetting everything. He may also be rich as he has “people” that can handle the divorce.
What changes? Evelyn goes from floundering to having a plan for handling the situation – divorce.
Scene Number: 3
Basic Outline: Evelyn has decided not to tell anyone about her marriage. She returns to her normal life as a college student in Portland. But when she gets off the plane (she’s with by her best friend Lauren who accompanied her on the trip) there’s a hoard of paparazzi waiting for her. They get in a cab and flee to her parent’s house. Care of the shouted questions from the journalists, Lauren deduces that Evelyn married rock star, David Ferris.
Date/Time/Setting: The day after her 21st birthday. Portland, Oregon.
What is established? The identity of Evelyn’s husband is revealed.
What changes? Evelyn realises she can’t pretend the wedding never happened because everyone now knows about it.

Final Scenes

Pretty Woman: He’s hanging out of the limousine’s sun roof, waving a bunch of flowers around, loudly declaring his love for her. Then, despite his great fear of heights, he starts climbing the fire escape to get to her top floor apartment. She meets him half way and they kiss.

This scene still gives me the bloom of warmth in my chest. It works because it shows great compromise on the part of somewhat stodgy Edward. He’s buying into the fairy-tale that Vivian is after. He’s making a bit of a fool of himself with all of the yodelling declarations of love and climbing buildings, but he doesn’t care. He’s cast off any concerns about their very different status’s in life and reached our favourite ever conclusion. Love triumphs over all. Then Vivian climbs out onto the fire escape too and meets him half way, because that’s our relationships work. Through compromise. This couple is right on track for a happy ever after.

Does it tie up every loose end? No. There are inevitably going to be bumps on the way to their bright future, but that’s life. Maybe people will be bitchy to Vivian when they find out that she used to be a sex worker. But Edward has shown us that he doesn’t care and he’s willing to do what it takes to make her happy. He’s got her back. And our dapper Edward, say he has financial woes in his future. Doesn’t matter. Vivian climbed out on that fire escape to spare him the worst of his fear of height and we know she’ll continue to watch out for him in future. She’s got her man’s back.

Sex Scenes:
If you’re not comfortable with the idea of writing sex, then don’t.

Skip to post-coital cuddling if you like. Show a big tongue wrangling smooch and then move on. You know how they say you should challenge yourself? Paddle out to deeper waters to expand your horizons or some such? Yeah, well, no. Fact is, if you get squeamish as opposed to hot and squirmy at the idea of putting penis into vagina onto the page then don’t go there. If you are not comfortable it will show.

Great Aunt Mavis may read what you’re writing.

Can you live with that? Or will you spend more time censoring yourself for the sake of Aunty Mavis then giving your characters the good time they deserve? Think about it.

If you’re trying to write sex because that 50 Shades chick made money then you’re an idiot.


His heat seeking missile honed in on her hot, wet, garden of delights.

Ah, the old plunge and thrust. When you get right down to it, the range of words to describe what goes on between the sheets can at times feel a bit limited. Still, it’s no excuse to go purple prose. No helmeted warriors or velvet gloves, please. But penis and vagina aren’t necessarily sexy either. What would your character refer to that act or body bit as, hmm?


On the other hand, if a certain word seems to you to reflect your genre and the feel of your book, go there. Maybe it will take you a few goes to get it right. Maybe you’ll need to stand in front of the mirror reciting said word until you can rattle it off without blushing brighter than a baboon’s butt. If you feel it’s applicable, give it a go. But don’t overdo it. Contradictory much?

It’s an action scene, dummy.

No, seriously. It is. She did this. He did that. Action and response. Watch your pacing. Brief sentences keep it moving.

The five senses.

They matter. Include them. Again, let your own comfort level dictate just how gritty things get. If delving into all the minute details of sticky, salty male ejaculate doesn’t work for you, then don’t do it. But sex has sights, sounds, scents, tastes and textures unique to the situation. When in doubt as to how much detail to put in, I always go with ‘less is more’. People are surprisingly filthy minded and will fill in the blanks just fine on their own.

It’s in your pants.

If your scene doesn’t turn you on it probably won’t work for anyone else either. Have a glass of wine and put on some Barry White. Get yourself in the mood if you think it will help. Go on.

Does the sex further the plot?

Well? Does it? Like any other scene, a sex scene needs to develop the story. It needs to reveal something about your characters beside the fact that Trevor is uncut and Maureen waxes.

Exactly what sort of sex is this?

There’s all sorts of sex. Happy sex. Sad sex. Angry sex. Kinky sex. Shouty sex. Silent sex. Every time your characters hit the sheets it needs to be different. Make it so.

“We found out this really simple rule… we can take… the beats of your outline, and if the words “and then’ belong between those beats, you’re f**ked, basically. You’ve got something pretty boring. What should happen between every beat you’ve written down is the word ‘therefore’ or ‘but.’ So you come up with an idea and it’s like ‘this happens… and then, this happens.’ No, no, no! It should be ‘this happens… and therefore, this happens.’ [or] ‘this happens… but this happens.’”

South Park creators – Matt Parker and Trey Stone