How to Write a Scene
- 1 hour on-demand video
- 3 downloadable resources
- Full lifetime access
- Access on mobile and TV
- Certificate of Completion
Get your team access to 4,000+ top Udemy courses anytime, anywhere.Try Udemy for Business
- How to write a compelling and engaging scene that will keep readers turning pages.
- A desire to become a better writer.
It doesn't matter if you have the most brilliant story idea in the history of literature. If you can't write a compelling and engaging scene, readers will put it down. In this tight, concise, course, bestselling author and master educator, J. Thorn, walks you through the simple steps to make your scene shine.
- Writers who want to improve their craft at the scene level.
IMPORTANT: Download the worksheet included with this lesson because you'll need it as you move through the course (PDF and Microsoft Word versions provided).
Need a quick review of the three Cs in Three Story Method? Listen to the audiobook excerpt before beginning the lesson using the resource below.
Hey there, I’m J. Thorn, and it is time to write a killer scene. So before we get into this, let’s talk about some of the important aspects of scenes, why they matter, and how you can drastically improve your writing and your storytelling by focusing on scenes. First of all, scenes are definitely the most important aspect of storytelling. If a scene doesn’t work, nothing else matters. You can put together a long string of scenes and have a brilliant plot, but if you can’t execute it, the reader is not going to turn the page to chapter two. When you boil the essence of storytelling down to its most fundamental component, the scene would be the one you want to focus on. Now, it’s not the smallest unit of story—that might technically be a beat, but I think it’s the smallest unit of story that is fundamentally the most important. If you can’t get a scene right, nothing else will matter.
The great thing about writing scenes and getting really good at writing scenes and short stories is that that the skill can then be extrapolated out to longer works. If you are planning on writing a narrative nonfiction or a novel, if you can write a good scene, then you can replicate those skills out to the size of the story that you want to create in the medium that you want to create. But again, it comes down to this idea that you’ve got to nail the scene. Your scenes have to be tight. They have to make sense. They have to work. Something has to happen. And most importantly, as we’re going to see, there must be a choice a character faces in every single scene.
Now, one of the pushbacks I hear a lot when I work with clients is that putting too many parameters or too much structure on any aspect of a creative outlet will do harm to the creativity. In other words, if you put too many strict parameters on it, it’s hard to be creative. I believe it’s the opposite. I think if you put guard rails up on your highway of creativity, it’s going to foster more creativity. And the way that you do that is you become systematic about scenes and how you approach the craft of storytelling. That is not to say that this is a template, or a recipe, or that it’s an algorithm that you can plug into. There’s a lot of nuance in scene writing, a lot of art in scene writing. But at its core, there have to be some very strict parameters that all of us follow as storytellers, otherwise readers won’t understand why. They will disengage from a story if there’s certain core components missing—some that have become hardwired over hundreds, possibly thousands of years of storytelling.
Before we get into it, I’ll also make a recommendation—short stories are great practice. So we’re talking about writing one scene, and that scene can be a short story. You can also write several scenes, string three or four of them together into a very satisfying short story. Again, the idea is that if you can really fine-tune your ability to craft a scene, you can then extrapolate that out to longer works. Before we get into some of the weeds of how to write a killer scene, let’s talk a little bit about what we’re going to do here so that you’re going to know what you need to learn and that you can come back at the end and make sure that you’ve got that.
First of all, I take my storytelling cues from Aristotle, probably the first person in the world to write this stuff down. He might not have been the first person to identify it, but Aristotle believed that storytelling had…stories have three components—no surprise, beginning, middle, and end. That’s it. A story does not have to be any more complicated than that. Certainly there are other story structures that you can follow, 4-act, 5-act, 7-act, 11-act. You can get as crazy as you want, but at its essence, a story must have a beginning, and a middle, and an end. And if it’s missing any one of those components, it’s not a story. I know this sounds highly obvious, but you would be surprised at how many scenes over the years I’ve looked at where one of those three components were missing. And it’s easy to do when you get into it as the author. So that’s good to use that as a framework as we move forward.
Now, a lot of what you’re going to hear was developed into Three Story Method, which was the approach that I developed over years with working with clients. Zach Bohannon helped me out with this when we were doing our own collaborative works and anthologies for other folks. It is tested, time-tested. As I said, hundreds, probably thousands of scenes I’ve analyzed at this point in both my writing and editing career. And I believe that this is a method that works. It’s simple, it’s easy to understand, and after you do this a few times, it’ll become intuitive, and you won’t even have to think about it anymore.
The approach, again, going back to the ancient Greeks—they had a lot of things right. I like the Socratic method. It’s something I used in 25 years as a teacher. It’s a very powerful way of facilitating learning, and the Socratic method is simply asking questions. That is going to be the approach that we’re going take in writing a killer scene, as I’m going be asking a lot of questions. It’ll be upon you as the author to answer this. And the big red flag is if you don’t have an answer for one, that’s usually a problem. Now, your answer may vary, and there’s no such thing as a right answer, and I think that’s important to note as well. But you must have an answer for all of the questions that are going be posed to you. And if you can do that, 99 times out of 100, your scene is going work, and readers will want to keep turning pages.
Another thing that we should mention before we get into this is, well, what if I’m a pantser? I’m a discovery writer. I like to sit down, and I just sort of type as I go, and I like to be surprised by the story. Or at the other end of the spectrum. What if you’re a plotter? You’d like to know exactly what you’re going be writing about in that scene on that particular day at that time. Well, the good news is this method, this system will work no matter what type of writer you are. If you’re a plotter, you can use these before you start to write, and you can plot out the answers to these questions. If you’re a pantser, let it fly, come back when you’re done and see if you can find the answers to these questions in what you’ve written. Either way it works. This works for any type of writer from pantser to plotter and everybody in between.
Here’s what you’re going learn today and what we’re going to come back to at the end and summarize to make sure you got it. These are the key comments and questions you need to know the answers to for every single scene. Number one, in three sentences or less, explain what is happening in this scene. Number two, why is this scene important? Number three, what does the main character want? Number four, what does the main character need? Number five, what does the antagonist or force of antagonism want? Number six, what does the antagonism or force of antagonism need? Number seven, what’s wrong with the protagonist’s personal world? What is the disruption? And numbers 8, 9, and 10 are the three pillars, the Three Story Method of your scene—that is conflict, choice, and consequence. We’re going to go into all of these in detail, and hopefully, by the end, you’ll have a very good understanding of what it’s going to take to write a killer scene. So let’s get started.
The first thing you have to do, whether you are writing the scene from scratch or whether you’ve plotted it out and you are getting ready to write, is we’ve got to know what is going to happen in this scene. The best way to approach this is think about it as if there’s a movie camera inside of your head. The movie camera is moving around. The lens is pointing in different directions, and you are identifying what is physically happening on the stage of this story. Think about it this way. Make it factual, make it concrete, and make it concise. So if you have a scene where it’s going to be a very dramatic argument between a couple in a restaurant, well, what is happening in the scene could be two people sitting at a table in a restaurant. Again, think about it from a cinematic point of view.
What are the characters doing? Who are they? Where are they? What are they physically doing? We’re going to get into the subtext and what’s really happening in the scene a little bit later, but we need this to frame it out. And when you’re writing a novel, this is going to be very helpful, because if you get 60, or 70, or 80, or 100, chapters in, you’re not necessarily going to remember the succinct summary of what happens in every single scene. If you are plotting it out, you might be doing this naturally. If you’re pantsing it, when you’re done writing, you want to have this so that you can look at your entire story from start to finish in a very shortened form, and that will help you in revisions later on. So that’s the first thing you’ve got to do—three sentences or less, explain what’s happening in the scene.
The next thing we’re going to do now is ask one of those first big questions using the Socratic method, and that question is why is the scene important? Might not be something you would naturally think about, because if it weren’t important, why would you be writing it? But you really have to think about it from the reader’s perspective. And if you can’t answer the question of why this scene is important, the reader won’t care. Here are two ways you can sort of use a litmus test to find out if the scene is important. Number one is, does the scene reveal character? In other words, are you showing the reader something essential about one of your primary characters that they need to see to understand the story? If the answer is yes, then that scene is important, and that’s why.
Another way to approach it is does the scene move your plot forward? Now, if this were a single-scene short story, this question is somewhat irrelevant, but if you have more than one scene, you have to think about the progression of scenes that comprise your story, whether that’s 3 or 300, and the question has to be, is it moving the plot forward? A common phrase you might hear in the writing world quite a bit is a “shoe leather” scene. And that comes from this idea that if you write a scene where a character walks from one place to another, they’re using their shoe leather, but it doesn’t move the plot forward. When you’re asking yourself why is this scene important, think about does it reveal character or does it move the plot forward? And bonus points if you can do both.
This next question is more like a series of questions, and you’re going to ask them in four different varieties. So let’s talk about the characters within the scene, because characters are extremely important. The first question you want to ask about your characters specifically is what does the main character want? Who is your protagonist, and what does he or she want? And the best way to think about this is to think about one’s external pursuits. We’re going to talk about the difference between wants and needs. And non-writers might think that’s just a matter of semantics—it’s word choice, but it’s not. There’s a very distinct difference between what we want and what we need. And you as the author need to understand this so that the motivation of your characters ring true and they seem authentic on the page. The question is, what does the main character want as far as an external pursuit? Think about it in terms of being something that is obvious, something that is concrete.
A good example would be something that they desire physically. If a character is trying to get to a location, trying to find an item, trying to escape a situation, those would all be character wants, because they typically look at the external pursuits. Now from the character’s perspective, what they want might be what they think they need. Now we’re getting into the nuance of wants versus needs. In the character’s eyes, what they want is what they need. But as we know, what you want isn’t always what you need, and you can’t always get what you want. So that’s the first series of those questions. What does the main character want? And that needs to be thought about through this lens of an externality, something that is obvious, something that is concrete.
The next question, also having to do with your main character or protagonist, gets to the character’s needs. And hopefully, you’re going to see the difference here. What does the main character need? Here we’re talking, we’re thinking about internal desires. Now we’re getting into the head of the character and thinking about what do they really need. And it might be something the character themselves can’t even identify within the story. And you as the author have to do that. The ways that you can get into this is you start thinking about internal things, subtext, the abstract. So, for example, if a character has a longing for friendship, that would be an internal desire. It might not manifest in that as a want. They might want to go out to dinner with a bunch of people. That’s what they think they want. But what they really need, the subtext, the internal desire they have is companionship.
So you can see how the external pursuit and the internal desire are definitely related, but they’re not necessarily the same thing. And many times, from the character’s perspective, they won’t be the same thing. In really innovative ways you can make these two things contradictory. You can make what the character wants working against what they need as a person. So, again, you can see how these questions are ways to prompt you in the scene to be thinking through some of these ideas that make the scene work. So, again, this is what does the main character need—focusing on internal desires.
To no surprise, you probably realize that we are going to do the same thing for the antagonists. We talk about the main character or the protagonist as the main character. The antagonist is usually the obstacle within the scene. Here’s what’s interesting. The antagonist doesn’t always have to be a character. The antagonist can be a role. When you’re thinking about what does the antagonist or force of antagonism want, what’s their external pursuits, this might be a somewhat vague or fuzzy answer. And that’s okay, because the force of antagonism could be, for example, Mother Nature. If you have a single-character scene, and it’s a woman who’s climbing a mountain, the mountain or gravity is the force of antagonism. If you ask yourself, what does gravity want on a superficial level, you could say, to keep us closer to the earth, and that would be true. But you can see how you’re not going to get into the same level of nuance that you would if the force of antagonism was a character or an antagonist. I think that’s an important distinction that you need to think about, especially when you’re looking at forces of antagonism versus characters who play the role of antagonists.
The approach to what an antagonist wants is the same that we did for the main character or the protagonist. It might be challenging to identify this in a single scene or a short story, because you simply have less real estate. So don’t worry too much if it’s not as specific as it was for the protagonist. If you have a lot of real estate and you have a novel, you can really get into and explore the wants and needs of the antagonist, sometimes at the same level that you do the main character or the protagonist. But in shorter pieces, especially in a scene, that can definitely be more challenging. But as a reminder, just like we did for the main character or the protagonist, you’re thinking about externalities, the obvious, the concrete, and it might be what the antagonists think they need, not necessarily what they really need. And therefore, the antagonist or force of antagonism—they have needs.
What does the antagonist or force of antagonism need as far as internal desires go? Again, same as the protagonist. This can be difficult to identify within a single scene. If you have more space, if you have a full novel to explore it, you can really get into the internal desires of your antagonist or force of antagonism. It’s going to be difficult in a short scene or a short story, but focus on the idea of the need being an internal desire. Think of subtext. Think of it in the abstract, feelings, desires, needs, things that we can’t necessarily hold physically in our hands. That’s a good way of making a distinction between the external pursuit and the internal desire. So, again, with the antagonist, it might be more difficult. If you have a character playing the role of an antagonist, it can be a lot easier if, as we mentioned before, a force of nature. It’s going to be more about a vague force of antagonism, and in that case there might be no needs at all. If we think about our gravity example, gravity wants to keep us bound to the earth, but what does gravity need? It’s probably not a relevant question or one that we can answer easily. In that case you can kind of let yourself off the hook and not worry too much about it.
This next question is a really important one, and sometimes it’s hard to wrap your head around it. I’m trying to phrase this question in a few different ways, and we’ll talk a little bit more about why this question matters and how you can approach it. The question is, what’s wrong with the protagonist’s personal world—or another way to phrase it, what is the disruption? When you think about that, it might seem difficult to identify, but here are some ways that you can dig deeper and answer that question in a way that’s really going to give your scene the tone or the vibe that you’re going for. If the protagonist can keep doing what they’re doing, then you don’t really have a scene or a story. That gets back to this idea of shoe leather. If there’s no obstacle, if there’s no resistance in the scene, then it’s not really a scene. There must be some type of conflict that a character must overcome at any level, and it doesn’t have to be dramatic conflict, as we’ll talk about. If there’s no resistance and a character can move through a scene without any obstacles, it’s not really a scene. It’s a sequence of story bits, and it’s not interesting, and I can guarantee you it’s something a reader will immediately disengage from or put down.
Something must force the protagonist out of their routine or their normal. Think about if the protagonist can’t keep doing what they’re doing, what single specific event or beat within your scene forces that? What’s forcing that character out of the “normal situation?” Another way to think about this question of what’s wrong with the protagonist’s personal world or what is the disruption, is what is the “bigger problem” represented by the one in this scene? This can really come into play when you’re doing things like genre fiction, for example, sci-fi or dystopian. If there’s a major problem with the world, that can be manifested all the way down to the scene level and come out through the character’s actions. It’s good to be thinking about that. But even in a contemporary setting, the bigger problem being represented in the scene could be a social justice issue or it could be a problem that we face in our modern world, and that also can infuse itself down into the scene level. Don’t discount that problem because it seems like it’s bigger than the scene. It can really help.
If you’re really struggling about what’s wrong with the protagonist’s personal world and what the problem is or what the disruption is, you can go back to Abe Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If you don’t know too much about it, don’t worry. I’m going to give you a quick summary.
Maslow identified five basic needs that all humans have, and he believed that we had to start at our most base needs and satisfy those before we satisfied any of the ones above it. You have your physiological needs. These are things like sleep, food, hunger, sex—the things that biologically we have to keep doing. Once you satisfy those needs, then we have a need for safety. We want to be protected, protect ourselves, and the ones we care about from harm, shelter, from the elements. These would all be needs regarding safety. If you satisfy that level of need, then you have a need for love and belonging. You want companionship. You want friends. You want lovers. You want to be part of something. If you satisfy that level of need, you move to esteem. And esteem is where you feel good about yourself. You feel as though you have a purpose, you have a function, and if you satisfy that need, you hit the highest level of according to Maslow, which is self-actualization. This is realizing that there’s going to be existence beyond you, that you serve a greater purpose, that you’ll have a legacy. If you’re starving to death, you’re not really caring too much about your self-actualized needs. And that was Maslow’s theory.
So if you take that on just a very basic level, you can think about those things as far as what is wrong with the protagonist’s personal world or what is the disruption. Is there a problem with the character’s physiological needs, their safety needs, their love and belonging needs, esteem, self-actualization? You can drill down on one of Maslow’s levels and use that as a way to get into the disruption or what is wrong with your protagonist’s personal world.
These last three components of the methodology are definitely the most important. We’re going to talk about the three C’s. This gets into the Three Story Method—conflict, choice, and consequence. Let’s start first with conflict.
The conflict, you may have heard described in movie terms as the inciting incident. This is the specific moment that starts the scene, that pushes the protagonist out of the status quo, out of their normal life. This can often be misinterpreted, and sometimes authors think that this has to be a life or death situation. It does not. But every scene must have a conflict moment that starts the story. It doesn’t have to be physical, it doesn’t have to be dramatic, and it doesn’t even have to have high stakes.
The function of the initial conflict is simply to push the protagonist off center, out of the regular routine, beyond the status quo, so that you can then as the writer set up the choice that must be made. These are the things that are hardwired into our storytelling DNA, that are called a variety of different terms in different story methodologies. They all mean the same thing. I’m not inventing these. I’m simply labeling them in a way that I find useful. But that conflict must be there. If there isn’t conflict, going back to Aristotle, there’s no beginning of your scene.
What does the conflict lead to? Well, ultimately, it has to lead to a choice. This is by far the single most important element of any scene or story you will write. It is the one that all of my clients struggle with the most, the one that I struggle with the most when it comes to identifying important elements of a scene that works. The choice must be the most important choice the protagonist or main character faces in this scene. You must have this. I can’t stress this enough. And a lot of times the choice won’t be clear or it will be easy. And while technically that’s correct, readers want difficult choices. Readers want to put themselves into the situation and think, “What would I do?” So as best as you can, you need to make the options of that choice, that decision for that character, equally difficult or equally beneficial so that the reader is thinking, “Wow, what would I do?”
If you really want to get skilled at it, you want to think about making this choice in a way that cannot be judged as right or wrong so that you would have people arguing, “Well, I think he should do this, or I think she should do that.” And maybe the same person would do a different thing in different circumstances. You want to make that choice as difficult as possible. Make the options, the outcomes, as equally good or bad as possible and go with that as your choice. Then your character can make smaller choices within the scene. But the choice with a capital C is the most important one, and your entire scene hinges on it. And if it’s not sharp and crisp and difficult for the character, then it’s not going to be interesting for the reader.
There are a few things that come up that I find in client work over and over and over again. And one of the things that happens is clients will come to me and they will have two big choices, and they’ll say, “Is it okay if I have two choices in my scene?” And I always chuckle at “is it okay” questions, because it usually means that there isn’t a right answer. And I always answer with, “It depends,” and it drives some of my clients crazy. But in this case, I feel pretty strongly that you really shouldn’t have two major choices. And I’ll tell you why. If you have two major choices in the scene, it probably means you have two scenes. This is another difficult element for writers to get—what constitutes a scene? A scene is something that changes in time or changes in physical location. If you change either of those things for the main character or the protagonist, that’s usually a second scene. That’s a very general way of looking at it. It’s not perfect. It doesn’t work all the time, but those are red flags you can look for. If you think you have multiple scenes and you are trying to write one scene, look to see if you’ve changed the time or if you’ve changed the location.
And then, obviously, if there’s a choice, there must be a consequence. This is very simply the event that occurs as a result of the protagonist or the main character’s choice. What’s great about the consequence is that it should naturally follow from the choice. If you have a very clear set of options for the choice facing that character, then the consequence will be one of those two things. Where you can innovate is the placement of the consequence. So sometimes you can create what’s called a cliffhanger. A cliffhanger is simply taking the consequence from one scene and moving it into the next scene as the conflict. It’s a great way of innovating on a form, and that is technically what a cliffhanger does. A consequence should naturally follow from the choice. And if you want to get innovative and make it a cliffhanger, you can push it into the next scene where it does double-duty as the consequence for the previous scene and the conflict for the next. Word of caution, though, you have to do that sparingly. If you do that for every single scene, you will wear the reader out, and that repetition will become somewhat dull. Don’t overuse it, but you can be a little bit creative when it comes to the placement of the consequence.
So that’s it. That’s how you write a killer scene. It’s not rocket science. It’s pretty straightforward, but it takes a lot of practice, lifelong practice, to get good at it. And I think that’s what I love about writing. Writing at its core—it’s simple, but it’s not easy. It takes a lot of practice.
Let’s summarize what we talked about in How to Write a Scene. Here’s what you’ve learned. You’ve learned that you have to go through a series of Socratic questions to get at the essence of your scene to make sure it works. And you can do this whether you pants or plot. It doesn’t matter.
So here’s what you’ve learned. You need to identify in three sentences or less what’s happening in the scene. You have to ask, “Why is this scene important?” Why does the main character, or what does the main character want? External pursuits. What does the main character need? Internal desires. What does the antagonist or force of antagonism want? External pursuits. What does the antagonist or force of antagonism need? Internal desires. And what’s wrong with the protagonist’s personal world, or what is the disruption?
And once you’ve answered those questions, you have to work really hard to identify the three Cs of the Three Story Method. That is the conflict, which is, as Aristotle would say, the beginning. The choice, which would be the middle. And the end, which would be the consequence.
Remember we talked about that storytelling at its core is quite simple. Aristotle nailed it. A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. You don’t need to make it any more complicated than that. You have to make sure that there’s something wrong in the world of the protagonist, something that is an obstacle. If there isn’t an obstacle, you run the risk of writing shoe leather scenes, which are not interesting. Again, the choice is absolutely critical to a good scene. Make sure it’s only one major choice. If you have more than one choice, you probably have multiple scenes. This method will work for you if you’re a pantser, because you can write your scene and then look at it afterwards. It will work for you as a plotter where you can map these out and then start writing.
But the bottom line is scene work is absolutely crucial to becoming a good writer, because if you can’t write a good scene, nothing else matters. You can write individual scenes, a great way is to practice short stories. Write short stories, analyze them in this way, plan in this way, and you will definitely become a better writer. So hopefully that was helpful. Now it’s time for you to go out and write your killer scene.