Effective Scene Construction

A common structural problem you’ll encounter in fiction development is ineffective scene construction: scenes that start before they should, drag on far too long, and don’t establish key information right away. A good scene includes the meat of a plot event – whether that event is an emotional discussion over coffee, a decision to take a certain action, or a footchase across town – but not a whole lot more.

Writing advice often says that a scene should establish setting or character, or do something to advance the plot, but in fact a good scene should do all three. A scene in which the protagonist looks in the mirror and relays what they see in order for the reader to be able to visualize them is not going to engage the reader. Something needs to happen. It doesn’t have to be the protagonist accidentally witnessing the murder in the reflection of the mirror. It can be something like the protagonist noticing that their gray hair is showing and deciding that something must be done about it.

So, something that happens can be a decision, a conversation, or an action (hiding the murder weapon, eavesdropping on Mom and Dad, punching the bully).

But it isn’t enough to merely have something happen if we don’t know where it’s happening or who’s involved. So, a scene needs to establish early on:

  1. Who the viewpoint character is
  2. Where the scene is taking place
  3. Who is in the scene with the viewpoint character

And then it must go on to convey:

4. The scene event (and little more)

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