I’ll lay the key components of a scene out for you in a second, but before I do, I have to say that I don’t like to write to a formula.
The joy I get from my writing comes in letting the words jump out of my head onto the page. I don’t usually plan what I’m going to write in a session in any great detail, I just get on with it. That being said, there is a way to write a scene that means it will get your reader from A to B in a way that feels natural to them and keeps them in the story.
So, I write how I write, I read it back a day or two later, if it works I move on.
But…if the scene doesn’t read right for me, if it jars with me – that is when I dig out the rules. I think about any points in my scene that do not follow the conventions and consider what a change might look like.
Here are the components of a scene (according to convention)
Convention states that a scene should begin with a set-up. This could be one sentence up to a couple of paragraphs. It should establish
- where we are
- who is there
- where are we in time with respect to the previous scene
So – it might be something like;
The next morning Terri could barely open her eyes. Her arm flayed around chasing her phone across the bedside table until it hit the floor and scuttled away to sing to itself under the bed.
…so you know where, who and when.
Once you’ve established the set-up you (according to received wisdom), need to get the conflict going. This is the ‘meat and potatoes’ (I’m not sure I should say that given that I’m a vegetarian), its the ‘main course’, its what your scene is really all about and can be anything from a few paragraphs to a few pages. Perhaps something like this;
She swung her head down to the floor and looked for the blue light of the phone. Reaching out her hand she scooped it up and hit the green button
‘Shit,’ she said as she slid onto the floor.
‘Sorry?’ The voice on the phone was made tin-thin by the speaker.
‘Sorry, not you, I mean I dropped my phone.’
‘Are you still in bed?’
Terri swivelled her body to a more or less upright position, leaning her back against the side of the bed, the wooden frame pressing into her kidneys and making her feel less than happy.
‘No. Been up for hours. I was just. I dropped the phone, it made me jump.’
‘OK, if you say so.’
‘What do you want anyway, Alex?’
There was a silence for a moment or two before he replied.
‘I need an answer, Tee. I need to know if you’re going to lend me the money.’
Terri pulled the phone from her ear and rested it on her thigh. She stared up at the ceiling but stopped short of rolling her eyes, figuring that would only make her hangover move from ‘dull’ to ‘technicolor’. She took a breath and put the phone back to her ear.
‘I don’t think so, Alex.’
‘Tee, please you’ve got to. I really need your help.’
‘We went over this yesterday, Alex. If I bail you out again, you’ll only be back where you are now in a months time. You’ve got to get a grip of this.’
Again a silence and then, ‘please, Tee, please, I really need you to help me. This will be the last time, I promise it will. I can’t say no to these guys, Tee.’
Another silence. ‘Tee.’
…so…some conflict. No idea what this scene is all about, just dumping it onto the page, but because I’ve used the convention, it is (I hope you agree), starting to feel like a real scene from an actual, real story.
Resolution and hook
The final part of a scene should then provide two things for your reader; you guessed it, some resultion of the conflict and a hook that makes them want to read the next scene. This need only be a couple of sentences. For example;
‘OK, OK. Don’t give me all that again.’
‘You’ll lend it me?’
‘OK. But on one condition.’
Terri could hear, Alex holding his breath.’
‘I want to meet them. I want to be there when they come round for it.’
So Alex gets the money but now you should want to know what happens when Terri meets the heavies….did I succeed?
How to use the scene template
So here it is – the template for a scene is this;
- where, who and when.
- a few paragraphs to a few pages.
Resolution and hook
- move the conflict toward closure but dangle a carrot.
As I say at the top of the page, I don’t worry about the shape of a scene when I’m writing it for the first time. It’s only if I don’t like it when I read it back that I compare what I’ve written with the scene template.
Usually, if the first draft doesn’t work, there’ll be something in the scene I’ve written that goes against one of these conventions. Typically I’ll change it and the scene will work much better.
I hope you find this useful. Please let me know what you think.