Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Give the Gift of Good Scenes

by Dina Sleiman

Monday I was reading a book submitted to WhiteFire Publishing. Awesome voice, compelling subject, talented author. But I had to give it a "not yet" because the scenes still need work. I've turned down a number of books for this reason, although I asked this specific author to resubmit due to her skill in other areas. This made me think that perhaps for the New Year/Christmas combo, I should give us all the gift of good scenes. Here is an excerpt from my online writing class, "The Inspiration and the Perspiration."

Next, let’s discuss scenes. In our video based society we are used to stories coming to us in scenes. In classic books you will often find characters meandering from one time and place to another with no clear break and the narrator jumping around from one mind to another.

In contemporary fiction, a simple “***” takes us effortlessly from one time and place to another, and requires little or no explanation of how we got there. The reader understands that we are cutting to the vital information that moves the story forward. This allows the author to keep the tension high and the pages turning by eliminating a lot of fluff. In your own mind, you will want to figure out what happened in between and how the transitions occurred, but your reader needs only the briefest explanation and does not care about irrelevant details.

As you edit, make sure that each scene is doing its job in advancing the plot and/or deepening characterization. Something vital should happen in each scene. If not, cut it. If you have a scene where nothing happens but reflection, weave the relevant reflection into a different scene. If you have a scene where nothing is happening but description of an important setting, weave it into a different scene. If you have a dialogue scene that’s interesting but nothing really happens, weave the conversation into a different scene. Every scene should have tension and conflict and end with something to thrust the reader forward into the next scene.

Are you getting the point? Of course, not every single scene requires every element. Certainly stories and examples in your nonfiction will not always need every element. However, check every scene and story for places you could strengthen it by weaving in characterization, action, dialogue, inner dialogue, and description.

First when editing your scenes, decide if they’re pulling their weight, and if they earn staying in the book. Second, look for a nice balance of elements above. Also, look at the progression of your scenes. In a story, it is good to be continually moving in a cause and effect progression. You don’t want to say. “She entered the room and turned on the lights because it was dark.” Say, “She entered the dark room shrouded in nighttime terrors. Her hand scraped across rough stucco, searching the wall for the switch. Light flooded the room, chasing away the shadows…”

In the first version, “because it was dark” stops the flow of action. In the second version, it’s actually hard to find a stopping place. One sentence flows into the next, and there’s a feeling that we must keep going. Notice how I also wove characterization and description into these simple action sentences. I even created a tone.

The fourth thing you want to look for in a scene, is a clear and consistent point of view. In a first person story or limited third person point of view, this will stay consistent throughout the book. However, still check to make sure that what they see and think is true to that character and is not your author’s voice intruding with things that they wouldn’t know or contemplate.

For example, if you’re character is standing behind someone, remember that they can’t see their facial expressions. You can move them to a different vantage point, or they can comment on general body language. Likewise, a character will not comment on their own facial expressions, unless they are aware of the face they are making. You wouldn’t say, “Confusion flashed through my eyes.” You would instead describe how confusion felt in their body, or give of a glimpse into their confusing thoughts. A male POV character will not describe another guy as "cute" or "sweet."

The most popular point of view being used these days is multiple third person point of view. In this POV, each scene should take place from the perspective of a specific character. Since we’re using scenes anyway, think of this as the cameraman for the scene. We can only see what they see and hear what they hear. If we are in “close” third person point of view, we can even hear their thoughts.

So perhaps this is a cameraman whispering commentary to the audience. If you are writing in multiple third person, give thought to who will be most changed or effected by a given scene, and put the scene in their POV. If during a specific time and place you want to switch point of view, that’s fine, but it still constitutes a scene change and requires a  “***” break. If you aren’t sure if you are firmly in one head, try rewriting the scene in first person, then change it back when you’re finished.

As each scene opens, drop us firmly into the head, even the body, of the point of view character. Set up the scene by letting us know where and when they are. Twang at least one of our five senses so that we can see, hear, feel, smell, taste, or touch what they are experiencing. Then we will be ready to join the character in the fictional world of the scene.

And one last thought to connect this back to my tension post from a few weeks ago. Be sure to end your scene with a hook to drive the reader forward into the next scene to keep them going. Don't want them putting that book down, you know.

So there are a few tips on writing good scenes. Writers, what tips would you add? Readers, what do you look for in a good scene? What authors use scenes to great effect?


Dina Sleiman writes lyrical stories that dance with light. Most of the time you will find this Virginia Beach resident reading, biking, dancing, or hanging out with her husband and three children, preferably at the oceanfront. Since finishing her Professional Writing MA in 1994, she has enjoyed many opportunities to teach literature, writing, and the arts. She was the Overall Winner in the 2009 Touched by Love contest for unpublished authors. Her first novel, Dance of the Dandelion with Whitefire Publishing has just released. She has recently become an acquisitions editor for WhiteFire as well. Join her as she discovers the unforced rhythms of grace. For more info visit her at


  1. I like how you explained the stoppage of action with the 'because it was dark' example.

    I hope your writer can polish those chapters. Thanks Dina.

  2. Deb, credit for that little nugget of wisdom goes directly to multi-award-winning author Steven James.

    As I wrote my newest book, I noticed that I do all of this in first draft now without even thinking. That was pretty cool.

  3. Dina, this is great! I think that developing good scenes is something that we grown into as writers. It takes work and thought. Great post! Thank you for the reminders!

  4. Great post, Dina. I liked your explanation of when to cut scenes or integrate two of them together.

  5. Dina, thank you for this! I love scene building, and the timing of your post is perfect since I'm plotting out my new wip. I intend to use your tips as I get deeper into my book.

  6. Timely post, Dina, since I'm in the midst of writing my Christmas novella for next year. What has helped me with scenes is learning to include a goal for the POV character to strive toward so the scene doesn't feel episodic.

    I have some contest entries to judge. One scene is nothing but a lead walking along and getting asked to dinner by another character. That invite doesn't conflict with any long- or short-term goal. Thus I wonder why include the scene at all. Why not begin with the lead arriving at the dinner party wondering why the invite. Or something else that works the info in a natural manner.

    great post!

  7. An element that makes a scene spring to life for me is something I call "telling details." These are little actions of characters that show their character. One of my favorite examples of this was a Tom Clancy novel that opened with three soldiers getting ready to parachute out of a helicopter into enemy territory in a few minutes. They checked and rechecked their gear. Then, all got cigarettes out, one struck a match, but only shared it with one of the others before blowing it out. The author didn't say any of them were nervous, or superstitious (3 on a match is bad luck). But it showed so well in what he chose for their actions at that moment, that the reader was immediately worried for these three when it was suddenly time to jump. It was an opening scene, and you simply had to read on to see what happened to them.

    I read this many years ago, and can't remember if he even mentioned their names. And that book was not the type I generally read, but I wanted to see what the draw was for all these bestselling books Clancy was putting out. Well, the author gripped me instantly, and I jumped right into the story after those guys, even though I wouldn't dream of doing anything like that in my right mind. Heavens, what storytelling.

    I'm sure there was much more that went into crafting that scene than the "telling details" but that is what struck me at the time. Since then, I have endeavored to use more of those instead of describing characters so much, myself. I have also really learned a lot from the book MAKE A SCENE: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time by Jordan E. Rosenfeld.

    Really enjoyed this post, Dina... thank you!

  8. Susie, I can attest that you have a great handle on writing scenes.

  9. Naomi, thinking of it like a movie really helps in that area.

  10. Glad to help, Suzie. These are things that took me a while to learn. My crit partner, Christine Lindsay, really helped me to get a grip on much of this.

  11. Great example of characterization, Lilly. I love when authors do things like that.

  12. Great rule of writing:

    RUE = Resist the Urge to Explain (like the "three on a match" example). Just show what's happening and let readers get it for themselves. They'll feel clever and like you for making them feel that way. :D

  13. Great post, and very helpful :) Thanks :)

  14. This is really good, Dina. I got 30% through it when I realized I wanted to spend much more time with it, but I'm on a deadline - 2 actually. Ugh!

    So I've copied and pasted it into my craft folder because already, I can see how it will better my writing.

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge. :)


  15. Happy to, Anita. We're all here to support each other.

  16. Great post, Dina. Thank you for taking the time to share such important information with us!

  17. You're welcome, Sandi. Although I'm sure you're an old pro by now.


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