Scene Writing in Fiction & Nonfiction
A scene unfolds in the moment, dropping readers into the thick of a critical interaction or experience. Something important takes place and if there’s dialogue, it reveals characters’ strengths, weaknesses, and goals. There’s sure to be conflict, and something changes, perhaps irrevocably.
Scenes Rely on ‘Showing’
The old writerly adage “show, don’t tell” is vital here. Let readers see, hear, taste, touch and smell things. Paint the setting vividly, to provide context; and reveal characters’ personalities and dynamics through their actions, as well as their words.
There’s usually tension, which escalates as the scene unfolds, and it builds from one scene to the next. Everything that happens was caused by something triggered in earlier drama and this scene’s outcome will likewise have bearing on events to follow.
If nothing is altered—you don’t have a scene. If things are resolved without a setback the piece lacks story drama.
Each scene should end in a way that’s unexpected and yet satisfying. It should also be logical and, in retrospect, the only possible conclusion.
The sooner you start the action the more momentum the scene will have. If you start explaining…you’ve dropped into exposition or summary, which may be necessary in nonfiction but deadens fiction. Try starting with no backstory. If you must explain, make it short.
Summary Versus Scene (see examples below)
Scenes are like a movie. A summary is more like listening to someone explain how something happened, providing a quick overview of important details or background cues.
Nonfiction writers traditionally rely heavily on summary. Can you liven it up with sensory and concrete details? Maybe use reported dialogue or a quote to insert a voice from that moment?
Check favourite books for examples of scenes and summary. How do these writers make a seamless transition from one form into the other?
Scene Writing Pitfalls:
- there’s more “telling” than “showing” (more summary than action unfolding);
- there are too many random details that don’t serve the story;
- dialogue is used to present background details (why, readers wonder, are these characters stating the obvious?);
- overuse of drama, as in an action movie plot.
Test a Scene with These Questions:
- have a beginning, middle and end?
- launch vividly, with rich subtext, texture and imagery?
- offer action that advances the story’s themes; and insights into character dynamics?
- include complications that up the ante for the main characters?
- make readers want more?
- end logically, leaving room for an upcoming scene?
John Butler looked to be in his late thirties and was one of the more casually dressed people in the office, wearing jeans and an old Hawkwind T-shirt. His shaved head gleamed under the strip lighting. …
“It’s about Nick Barber,” said Banks. “I understand he was working on an assignment for you?”
“Yes, that’s right. Poor Nick.” Butler’s brow crinkled. “One of the best. Nobody, and I mean nobody, knew more about late-sixties and early-seventies music than Nick, especially the Mad Hatters. He’s a great loss to the entire music community.”
“It’s my job to find out who killed him,” said Banks.
From Piece of My Heart, crime fiction by Peter Robinson
Detective Inspector Stanley Chadwick was at his desk in Brotherston House before eight o’clock Monday morning, as usual, with every intention of finishing off the paperwork that had piled up during his two weeks’ annual leave. The caravan at Primrose Valley, with Janet and Yvonne, had made a nice haven for a while, but Yvonne was obviously restless…
From Piece of My Heart, by Peter Robinson
Half-Scene Example (a common form for memoir and nonfiction, in which micro-pieces of scenes are interspersed with summary or exposition)
I was on fire.
It’s my earliest memory. I was three years old, and we were living in a trailer park in a southern Arizona town whose name I never knew. I was standing on a chair in front of the stove, wearing a pink dress my grandmother had bought for me. Pink was my favorite color. The dress’s skirt stuck out like a tutu, and I liked to spin around in front of the mirror, thinking I looked like a ballerina. …
I could hear Mom in the next room singing while she worked on one of her paintings. Juju, our black mutt, was watching me. I stabbed one of the hot dogs with a fork and bent over and offered it to him. The wiener was hot, so Juju licked at it tentatively, but when I stood up and started stirring the hot dogs again, I felt a blaze of heat on my right side. …
I screamed. I smelled the burning and heard a horrible crackling as the fire singed my hair and eyelashes. Juju was barking. I screamed again.
Mom ran into the room. …
From the memoir The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls