6 tips for writing tight, compelling scenes

Scenes are the building blocks of stories. No matter how much planning or plotting or character development you do, sooner or later you have to dramatise that story via scenes. We sat down with bestselling author (and creator of our Fiction Essentials: SCENES course) Pamela Freeman to find out more, and she has generously shared her six tips for writing tight, compelling scenes.

1. Make sure each scene pulls its weight
Every scene should do several things. First of all, it must engage and keep the reader’s interest. But what else does it do? Scenes also develop character, advance the plot, set something up for later in the story, mislead the reader (eg. red herrings), increase the tension and so much more. Each scene should do several things, not just one. Make your scenes work for their page space!

2. Focus on the important character
When you have more than one point of view character in a story, how do you choose which one to use in a specific scene? Ask yourself, who feels the most in the scene? Or, to whom is the events of the scene the most important? Unless you’re trying to conceal things from the reader, that person should be the point of view character.

3. Punctuate your scene with dialogue
Dialogue is all about character – and one of the ways you get deeper characterisation is to make sure that each of your characters sounds different. Their word choice, rhythms, attitudes, emotions and other elements of their background (eg. level of education) should shape their speech. This is something you can really improve in a second or third draft.

4. Start when the action starts
A scene should start just before the first significant action. Even if you have to set up the environment of the scene for the reader, it’s best not to have too much description before something happens. Which leads us to…

5. End when the action ends
A scene should finish just after the last significant action. You don’t need to tail off. For example, if there’s an argument, and your point of view character storms off, you don’t have to follow them out of the house, down the path, into the car and home. Just end the scene as they leave, possibly with a thought from them which flags something which might happen later in the story. For example, I will never forgive her. Or, I’ll make him sorry. Or, How can I survive without her?

6. Integrate description and action through your characters
Scenes are focused on characters and their actions. This includes looking around, smelling things, touching things, feeling the heat and cold and wind. So the best way to include description is through your point of view character. What are they seeing, feeling, smelling, touching, hearing? If you tell your description through your character, you not only get a description, you get deeper characterisation, because you are describing the setting in your character’s own words (or you should be!).

There are many more techniques to writing a page-turning scene, we know. But these are some key tips that can transform your writing process.

To find out absolutely everything you need to know about writing tight, compelling scenes, check out our comprehensive online course, Fiction Essentials: SCENES. You’ll have the exact steps to follow for every scene and every story you write!

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