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SCENES: 16 Reasons That Your Fiction NEEDS Action to Keep Readers Reading

two masks depicting drama for scenes in a novel
Drama masks

Scenes are about action. They are about dialogue. They are the sections of your novel that are critical to moving the story along, and they keep the reader interested. They are the “Show” in the most important of writing rules, "Show don’t tell," and they pick the pace of your novel up whenever they're introduced in the narrative.

“When you are suffering from sexual starvation, a spank or even a hug seems like a porn scene.”

Mokokoma Mokhonoana

Scenes break up summary, and allow the reader to watch the show as it’s happening. It's what gets the reader's heart pumping, and it's where the reader's brain creates the visual imagery you've given them the ability to see. Scenes are that, and they're also all of the below:

  1. Scenes are the here and now. It’s what’s taking place before your eyes while you’re reading it.

  2. We need to know where scenes take place—or we’re not grounded.

  3. You need to be able to verbalize why you need the scene before you write it. This will inform what needs to happen, between who, and what the result needs to be at the end.

  4. Scenes show the action that define or reveal who the characters are, and give us insight into why characters do what they do, meaning their motivations, their feelings, and so on. We need to have a strong POV to understand the reason for the scene—why are they doing what they’re doing, and what do they hope to accomplish by doing it?

  5. Scene is where characters act and react.

  6. Scenes are critical to the plot of the story, because they provide clarity and rationale to the causality piece of plot.

  7. Scenes create tension; tension interests the reader.

  8. Scenes are where a reader’s interest is most piqued—they want to know what’s about to transpire.

  9. Scenes provide an image for the reader to grasp, just like in a movie.

  10. Scenes have to have meaning; they aren’t just people doing things without purpose.

  11. If something is important enough in your novel to the plot, it should be shown in scene. Critical plot points shouldn’t play out off the page or delivered in summary--doing that is cheating the reader out of the experience you want them to have.

  12. Scenes should, ideally, use the five senses, or at least some of them. We should smell the setting. See the colors of the room. Feel the Formica under our feet.

  13. Opening lines and opening scenes are what pull readers in. They’re the hook, so make them count. Don't make the rookie mistakes beginning writers make.

  14. You, the author, must ask yourself WHY the scene is important to the plot of your novel. Is a relationship changed or altered in some way? Is it fortified? Weakened? If it achieves nothing, you may want to consider taking it out.

  15. Some writers, while they’re writing their chapter outlines, write the scenes for each chapter first, because they are what’s important to the plot; and then they write the exposition/summary and transitions around the scenes.

  16. Sandra Scofield, who wrote “The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer,” says there are 4 basic elements a scene should have:

    • Event and Emotion (something happens and someone feels something)

    • A Function (advances the plot, reveals character, etc.)

    • A Structure (just like your novel, there needs to be a beginning, a middle, and an end)

    • A Pulse (“the thing that makes a scene matter to the reader”)—I have used quotation marks here because I quote Scofield word for word.

grief in a war scene
A mother hugging a soldier

I love scenes. Scenes get a reader’s blood going, and if done well, they’re what they remember long after they’ve finished reading. So, write memorable scenes. Work at them. Rewrite them. Ask yourself if the scene you’ve written is the best scene you can write. If it isn’t, or if it lacks in any way, rewrite it again. Scenes are that important.

Here's a scene from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”

""What do you want?" the old woman said severely, coming into the room and, as before, standing in front of him so as to look him straight in the face.

"I've brought something to pawn here," and he drew out of his pocket an old-fashioned flat silver watch, on the back of which was engraved a globe; the chain was of steel.

"But the time is up for your last pledge. The month was up the day before yesterday."

"I will bring you the interest for another month; wait a little."

"But that's for me to do as I please, my good sir, to wait or to sell your pledge at once."

"How much will you give me for the watch, Alyona Ivanovna?"

"You come with such trifles, my good sir, it's scarcely worth anything. I gave you two roubles last time for your ring and one could buy it quite new at a jeweller's for a rouble and a half."

"Give me four roubles for it, I shall redeem it, it was my father's. I shall be getting some money soon."

"A rouble and a half, and interest in advance, if you like!"

"A rouble and a half!" cried the young man.

"Please yourself"—and the old woman handed him back the watch. The young man took it, and was so angry that he was on the point of going away; but checked himself at once, remembering that there was nowhere else he could go, and that he had had another object also in coming.

"Hand it over," he said roughly.

The old woman fumbled in her pocket for her keys, and disappeared behind the curtain into the other room. The young man, left standing alone in the middle of the room, listened inquisitively, thinking. He could hear her unlocking the chest of drawers.""

crime scene tape do not cross
Crime Scene Tape - Does Your Scene Require it?

Dostoevsky packs a lot into the scene, much of it passed to the reader via dialogue. The description between the dialogue adds to what is being said, and the reader can see pretty much everything that’s going on, including the watch, the chain, and how the interaction has affected the old woman.

Your job is to create scenes that resonate with your readers. It is to keep the reader's interest by having your characters say and do things that not only propel the plot forward but that reveal character. For example, if your character is a misogynist, is that misogyny apparent in what he says and does? Is he dismissive to the female characters he interacts with in scene in some way? What about the psychopath being interrogated by your detective down at the station? They just found five bodies buried in his basement. Is he stoic during the interview? Does he remain calm under the extreme pressure inflicted upon him by the burly detectives interviewing him? Does he flick a cigarette at them? Kick his heels up on the table? Maybe he should.

a man and woman embracing
I Love You, but I'm Promised to Someone Else

Write and rewrite your scenes until you get the best bang out of each scene. Make your scenes memorable. Make them interesting. Make them important. Accomplish that, and you'll hook your readers like Hemingway's old man hooks his fish--only you'll get the whole thing to shore.

Need an editor to edit your novel prior to sending it out to literary agents and/or publishers? Contact us at to get started.


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