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Scenes Are Your Stepping Stones – Part I

By: Ramiro Ramirez

Several years ago, I signed up for a “Writer’s On-Line Workshop” from Writer’s Digest – Novel Writing: Scene Fundamentals. The course used Make a Scene by Jordan E. Rosenfeld for the reading assignments. I had reviewed this book for an issue of Creative Writer’s Notebook that year. Coincidence? No, I love this book!

In this series, I’m not going to give you the whole of what I learned, you can buy the book for that. I am going to share with you some of the most clarifying parts of the course or “the good bones”. These are Functions of Scenes; Scene Beginnings/Middles/Endings; and Types of Scenes and how they transition one into another to make your short story or novel work. Let’s get started.

Functions of Scenes:

“Scenes are capsules in which compelling characters undertake significant actions in a vivid and memorable way that allows events to fall as though they are happening in real time.”¹

To talk about the functions of scenes we need to know what elements should be found in a scene.

The following may appear in varying degrees, but they are all important in each scene to move your story along.

  • Characters—complex and layered; undergoing change throughout narrative;
  • Point of View (POV)—through which scenes are seen;
  • Action—memorable and significant and unfolding in real time;
  • Dialogue—meaningful and revealing, and used when appropriate;
  • New Plot Info—which advances story and deepens characters;
  • Conflict/Drama—which tests your characters and reveals personalities;
  • Setting—a rich, physical setting calling on all the senses; reader needs to see and enter your created world;
  • Narrative—A SPARE AMOUNT for summary or exposition.²

Some scenes will be more action oriented—significant action which moves the plot. Others will be more interaction, using more dialogue to show reaction to what has happened, depth of character, etc. Others may have little dialogue or small actions, but still are needed to reveal new information. Finally, you may have some scenes in which the characters interact not with each other so much as with the setting.

The object is to make a complete scene, with a beginning, a middle, and an ending that moves into a following scene and builds tension, suspense, drama. For this purpose your scenes must also have:

  • Dramatic Tension—creates potential for conflict in a scene;
  • Subtext—deepens and enriches scenes;
  • Scene Intentions—ensuring that your characters’ actions have purpose;
  • Pacing and Appropriate Length—some scenes will be short, others long, but they will all influence the mood and tone you want in your story.³

Does this seem like a lot? Well, yes, but without these the MC (Main Character) can’t change and the purpose of your story will get lost along with your readers. You want your readers to make the journey with your MC, become engaged in every part of the story. If they don’t, then what’s the point?

Exercise: Re-read a favorite novel and pick any scene. Analyze this scene for the above ingredients. Note: a scene begins with the entrance of a new character, a change of location, or a change of time. It will end when one of these factors changes again.

Scene Length

You want neither too many long scenes in a row (drags the story), nor too many short scenes in a row (feels choppy). It is up to you, the writer, to choose the sequence in which your scenes will appear.

Long Scenes: 11-15 pages (+/-) – that’s simple enough on the surface, but too long will tire your reader. Long scenes are good for:

  • Slowing down the pace after a fast-action scene or an intense-dialogue scene. This should allow the reader to digest what’s just happened, and reflect on it as the MC does.
  • Including a lot of BIG action—fights, chases, explosions for action stories; argument, drastic decision, crisis scenes, love scenes for other fiction.
  • Creating dialogue scenes showing interaction between characters.

Short Scenes: 2 – 10 pages. Short scenes should:

  • Show difference between one character and another—a shy, secretive, or withdrawn character might just need a short scene, while an outspoken one may need a longer scene.
  • Pick up the pace after a long scene.
  • Leave reader “hungry for more or breathless with suspense”.
  • Include multiple scenes within a chapter.
  • Create a sense of urgency by dropping bits of information one by one, forcing the reader to keep reading!4

In the same favorite novel pick 2 or 3 series of scenes from different locations within the story. Analyze these scenes for length and purpose, then ask yourself these questions:

  • What is the length of each scene?
  • What is the purpose of each scene?
  • How do the scenes in each group vary in length and purpose?
  • If all of the scenes are of one type—short or long; action, dialogue, or contemplation, etc.—do you think they work well in furthering the story/plot/character development, etc.?

Note: Remember that a scene begins with the entrance of a new character, a change of location,or a change of time. It will end when one of these factors changes again.


Next Month: Stepping Stones – Part II: The Beginnings

1 Rosenfeld, Jordan E. Make a Scene. Writer’s Digest Books: Cincinnati, OH, 2008, page 5-6.

2 Ibid., p. 6.

3 Ibid., p. 6-7.

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Follow Mary Lois Sanders:

Mary Lois Sanders holds a Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) in Church Music and Vocal Performance. A former teacher, minister of music, and author of academic articles, she entered the secular markets with nonfiction articles in such periodicals as Cobblestone and Calliopes and short stories in Boy’s Life and several anthologies. A winner of several RPLAs, she has published a historical novel and a middle-grade novel and co-written four chapter books. She is a member of SCBWI and Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) as well as owner of Court Jester Publications and publisher/managing editor of Creative Writer’s Notebook, a monthly newsletter for writers.

One Response

  1. Carol Baldwin
    | Reply

    Great post. Another writing friend recommended this book. I just may need to break down and buy it!

Leave a Reply to Carol Baldwin Cancel reply