Scene Writing Guidelines

compiled by Larry Danielson

“Oh, for crying out loud, don’t make a scene!”

“But, dear…”

“No ‘buts’ about it. Not here. Not now!”

Ah, the moment of conflict. We all know it, and most of us avoid it if we can. Yet when angry voices rise at an adjacent table in a restaurant where we are dining, we listen discreetly, intently.  We don’t want to miss the action. Truth told, we are fascinated and, hours later, we may find ourselves retelling the event. “He was such a bully. He wouldn’t listen to anything she tried to say.”

For most of our lives we have been admonished not to make a scene, to avoid conflict. Yet, when writing a story, even a story from our lives, a scene is needed, one filled with conflict and action. We may not have any altercations at restaurants to recall, but our lives are filled with various kinds of conflict and action and those aspects are vital to meaningful recollections.

These guidelines focus on foundational tools in narrative writing. Many of us, during our early years of schooling, learned that “paragraphs” and “topic sentences” were fundamental to writing essays. Similarly, when we write stories scenes are fundamental, complemented by summaries and sequels. Apart from Creative Writing classes, these tools are seldom taught at school, but they are as easy to learn and as important as the paragraphs and topic sentences of essays. We have the good fortune that most of us are natural storytellers and have a lifelong experience with “summaries” and “sequels,” even if we never use those terms. 

THE SCENE: Think of a movie or a play you have viewed. You will recall seeing, in a particular setting, one or more characters and hearing their conversation, their dialogue

Consciously or not, you also will have observed the action—what the characters are doing. And you will have sensed some form of conflict. The main character in the story has a goal, a need, or a desire and someone or something stands in the way. Welcome to life. We all know that experience. 

The Rolling Stones sang “You can’t always get what you want,” but that doesn’t stop us from trying. In fact, that is what most stories are about: trying to achieve a goal, to meet a need, or to fulfill a desire. After significant effort, we might succeed. Often that’s the story’s conclusion, the proverbial “happy ending.” On the other hand, we might fail, a less happy but more interesting outcome, where we must decide whether to give up or to “try, try again,” using the knowledge we have acquired and perhaps a new approach.

So, we have the main aspects of a scene: a main character (who has a particular goal, need or desire) doing something (action) in a given setting (a time and place) and encountering conflict. The scene also has the sense of being close-up and in the present moment. It is showing us rather than telling us. We see the events unfold before our eyes.

Conflict: As the events unfold, we see the main character trying to get what he or she wants and then reacting when those efforts are thwarted. The conflict in the scene might be a direct contest with an opponent, called the “villain” in melodrama and the “antagonist” in more literary stories. Yet the conflict may be more complex: it also might be a problem to be solved, an obstacle to be overcome, a tension to be faced, or even a negotiation to be conducted. 

Functions of the Scene: Though most scenes perform a number of functions, each one tends to have a primary purpose. Often that purpose is to advance the action of the story—raising or solving a problem or adding a complication. It also reveals something about a character and the character’s relationships. It may express the story’s theme. It may establish the story’s setting or create a particular mood or atmosphere. As you write and develop each scene, think about what you intend for it to do.

Scene and Summary: Many writers advise that there are two ways of developing a story: scene and summary. Note that it is not “scene or summary,” but rather “scene and summary.” The two ways work together and each serves an important role.

THE SUMMARY: Typically when we tell a story—perhaps relating what we have seen or experienced earlier in the day—we use the summary approach. We tell what has happened rather than show what is happening. Because this form is so familiar from our conversations, it tends to be our comfort zone. However, Summary is most effective if it is partnered with Scene and if it is used more intentionally.

In its simplest form, Summary provides a transition from one Scene to another. In a long story we may need to change locations—e.g. “By the time we reached Winnipeg, she had told me all about that argument overheard in the restaurant and how the bullying man reminded her of her oldest brother.” 

Or, we may need to condense the time—e.g. “The next week, she brought up that restaurant story again, and the man’s bullying obviously had touched a raw nerve from her past.”

Unlike the close-up, present action of a Scene, a Summary offers a long-shot or a panoramic view. It affords us more distance, perhaps even a perspective on what has happened. Though it lacks both the give-and-take conflict and the intense interest of a Scene, like a bridge it can provide information that connects one scene to the next. It also may include explanation, commentary, and important background details that help us to understand the larger story.

THE SEQUEL: The Sequel is a more complex form of Summary, so much so that some writers speak of it as a distinct aspect of story. As its name implies, the sequel comes after the action and conflict of a scene and tends to deal with the main character’s emotional state and thought process. 

In Scene & Structure, writer and writing teacher Jack Bickham recommends a use of four-fold pattern in the Sequel: emotion, thought, decision and action. 

  • Emotion: At the end of a scene the main character reacts emotionally to the set back he or she has encountered: e.g. anger, fear, disappointment, guilt, confusion.
  • Thought: Eventually, the character begins to think things through, recalling the motivating goal and considering potential options. 
  • Decision: The character formulates a plan, one that he or she hopes or expects will lead to success. 
  • Action: The character acts on the decision and moves on into the next scene.

Scene, Summary, Sequel: Each of these three is a foundational tool in narrative writing. While they work together, each has its particular strengths. 

  • A scene is a basic building block in a story. Filled with action and conflict, it brings to the story vividness and immediacy. It shows how something happens. With a sense of the event-in-progress, the reader is immersed in the present. 
  • A summary is a unifying transition that connects one scene to another. It may shift the time forward or back; it may re-locate the scene of the action. Providing further information, description, or commentary, it adds greater depth or broader scope to the story.
  • A sequel is a more complex form of summary. Arising out of the scene, it reveals the main character’s thoughts and feelings. Essentially, it shows that the action outside the character also sparks an inside reaction.

Scene Writing Guidelines

Sample Scene 1

Sample Scene 2

Sample Scene 3

Showing and Telling

Incident and Phase