Scenes–what are they in novels, and how do you write them?

16 Feb

by Susan Dennard


Scenes: the building blocks of your novel.  Some people make one chapter equal one scene; others (such as myself) prefer to cram a few scenes into each chapter.

Scenes are the natural breaking points in your story.  A place for your reader to run to the bathroom, take a breather, or (what every author wants) flip anxiously to the next page!

Typically when you’re typing your manuscript, you separate scenes as follows:

end scene 1


begin scene 2

There are, of course, other ways to do it (such as *** or an empty line), but the #-method is the one I follow.

A scene can be as long as you need it, but keep in mind that shorter scenes keep your audience’s attention more easily.


Normally you begin a scene with a transition that describes the time, the place, the characters present and any necessary summary of what happened between scenes.  The transitions is there to ground the reader in the new scene. For example, here’s a transition from The Spirit-Hunters (a scene that was ultimately cut, by the way). In the scene before, which happened in the morning, the main character got into a rather stinky predicament with some walking corpses.


As usual, I had to bribe Mary to help.  But, a lost pair of gloves was easier to explain than a foul walking dress. Fortunately, Mary had been so pleased by her payment, she hadn’t bothered to inquire about how the dress had reached its current state.

That afternoon, when I met Mama in the drawing room for tea, I found that, rather than distress over the prior evening’s failed séance and horrible events, she beamed with delight.  In fact, she was so pleased she failed to notice my disheveled hair or missing parasol.

Now we know how much time has passed since the previous scene, what the main character did between scenes, where she is in the new scene, and what other characters are present in the new scene.

Developing the Plot

For a passage of text to qualify as a scene, something important must happen. And that something must contribute to the plot!

You could have a one sentence scene:


Far from the mess in Atlanta–in fact, directly on the opposite side of the globe–Padmini was diagnosed with the first cases of the zombie flu virus.


Or you could have scenes that extend twenty pages (though, I recommend against this!  Remember reader attention spans–people want natural breaks). Just make sure that every event in the scene is critical to the plot!

One way to test if you have an actual scene is to remove it from the novel.  Does the story work without it?  If so, then you don’t have a scene, and you should just go ahead and cut that text!  But if the story no longer exists without that passage, then you’ve successfully written a scene!

Ending on a Hook

If you finish a scene with something riveting, you compel your reader to instantly turn the page.  You know those books you finish in one sitting because you just CAN’T put them down?  Well, that’s what you want to create, and a key component to un-put-downable-ness is the hook.

Cliffhangers can be effective hooks to end a scene with, but if you write too many cliffhangers, you wind up annoying the reader.

Other hooks include:

  • a funny, witty, or clever sentence
  • funny, witty, or clever dialogue
  • revealing Very Important Information
  • an unexpected twist that takes the story in a new direction
  • a decision or plan

The best way to learn scene mechanics is to READ.  Notice what published writers include in their scenes.  Notice how they reveal the plot, how they use scenes to show character and setting, how they write transitions, and how they hook you to keep reading.

So tell me, is there anything else you consider critical to a scene?  And can you think of any other hooks?


17 Responses to “Scenes–what are they in novels, and how do you write them?”

  1. Holly February 16, 2011 at 11:56 AM #

    You always explain things so clearly! This is an excellent post, I must go share. 😉

    • Susan February 16, 2011 at 12:44 PM #

      Awww, thanks Holly. 😀

      BTW, I realized the word is NOT conspiratory — spell check was right. It’s CONSPIRATORIAL. Duh.


  2. M L Poncelet February 16, 2011 at 2:43 PM #

    Excellent post and so well explained!

    • sdennard February 16, 2011 at 6:02 PM #

      Thanks! It’s pretty straightforward, but not everyone knows (um, I sure didn’t a year ago!).

  3. Ashley February 16, 2011 at 2:57 PM #

    I read this just before jumping in to write a particularly complex scene in my WIP. Thanks Susan, you’re the best! 🙂

    • sdennard February 16, 2011 at 6:03 PM #

      Ahhh, complex scenes. 🙂 GOOD LUCK!

  4. zalijun February 16, 2011 at 4:43 PM #

    Sweet information! I’m in the middle of writing a new chapter and this will definitely help.

    • sdennard February 16, 2011 at 6:04 PM #

      Yay! I’m glad it was helpful! Good luck writing the chapter! 😀

  5. Henya February 16, 2011 at 5:38 PM #

    Thanks Susan. Very informative

    • sdennard February 16, 2011 at 6:04 PM #

      You’re very welcome, Henya! 😀

  6. Mac_V February 17, 2011 at 1:19 PM #

    I love this post, mostly because you have given me one of the best pieces of advice that I never thought of! I’m going into revisions soon and I have no clue how to go about it. (I’ve been reading revision posts and taking notes like crack.) But I think your advice of taking the scene out of the book and seeing if it can work without it is brilliant! I have never thought of that before! I am so taking that to heart.

    Mac 🙂

    • Susan February 17, 2011 at 1:41 PM #

      Fantastic! I’m so glad it was helpful! I ALWAYS do that, and ALWAYS wind up cutting a few scenes from my first draft. 😉 But, it makes the story stronger and faster paced.

      I hope your revisions go well!

  7. Regan Leigh February 20, 2011 at 2:15 PM #

    You seriously do make a great teacher. 😉

    • sdennard February 20, 2011 at 3:01 PM #

      Awww, shucks! Thanks, Regan! 😀


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    […] If you need information on WHAT a scene is, I will direct you to these resources: my own very basic breakdown of scenes, this post by my fave author who talks about writing, and this post by another amazingly helpful […]

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