Wednesday, April 27, 2016

#WeWriteBooks, Post 13: How to Write a Scene

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). She's currently writing a post-apocalyptic book with all of you called THIRST in conjunction with the #WeWriteBooks series. 

Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website, where you can read THIRST. You can also try two of her fantasy novels for free here and here.

Welcome to week eight of #WeWriteBooks Wednesdays, where we are writing books together. I am writing a book called THIRST and have been posting it one chapter a week over on my author blog. I posted Chapter 6 of THIRST yesterday. Click here to read it.



Week one was genre (THIRST is post-apocalyptic YA). Week two was premise. Here's mine:
A waterborne disease has sprung up in every corner of the globe, decimating the human race. Young survivors Eli McShane and his friends journey toward Colorado and the rumored location of a safe water source.

Week three was storyworld.
Week four: maps and floorplans.
Week five: protagonists and main characters.
Week six: side characters.
Week seven: prewriting.
Week eight: plot structures. 
Week nine: theme.
Week ten: creating a plot outline or list of key scenes.
Week eleven: point of view.
Week twelve: narrative modes.

Today's Topic: How to Write a Scene

A book is comprised of a sequence of scenes. A scene is a unit of action. Every scene in a book should have a reason for being there. It should either characterize or advance the plot. The best scenes do both. There have been many times in my career as I work with editors, that I've had to cut out scenes that I loved because the scenes had no point to them. These were often scenes that characterized but didn't move the story forward. And what little they did to characterize could be worked into another stronger scene. Always try to make each scene do several things.

A good example of this is my first chapter of King's Folly. We are in Wilek's point of view in a disturbing location: the scene of a human sacrifice to the god Barthos. We learn that Wilek is a prince, that he is hoping to be declared Heir, and that he hates these sacrifices. We also learn about the worst memory of his life. And we get to see his practical side as he talks about this with his men afterwards. That scene shows the reader a glimpse of the world Wilek lives in. It sets up the conflict between Wilek and his father--the very conflict that will drive the series forward (good kings vs. evil kings). It foreshadows events that will happen toward the end of the book. And it also gives the reader a glimpse as to the kind of man Wilek is. (You can read that scene free in Darkness Reigns.)

So how do you write a scene?

As I mentioned, you need to have a reason for the scene: something you want to happen that will move the story forward. I try to look at each scene like a mini story. It needs its own beginning, middle, and end. The author should have a goal for that scene. The scene also needs a point of view character, who has his own goal with a logical motivation. It needs an emotional tone. (Is this a romantic scene, a scary one? Intense? Relaxed? Mysterious?) The scene also needs conflict. And it sometimes helps to have a major reveal or a disaster before the end of the scene. And don't forget the logistics:

The players: Who is in this scene?
The location: Where is this scene taking place
The time: When is this scene taking place, both in time of day and time of week/month/year. Even if this isn't mentioned, it's a good idea for you, the author, to know (and maybe even keep a calendar).

Here is a little scene breakdown list I like to use when dissecting a scene:

Author's scene goal:
The players:
POV character:
POV character's goal:
POV character's motivation:
Scene Beginning:
Scene Middle:
Scene End:
Emotional tone:
Major reveal, disaster, etc:

Another powerful way to write or rewrite scenes is to write scenes and sequels. This is something I learned from Dwight Swain in his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. According to Mr. Swain, a scene is made up of three things that should happen in this, logical order:

1. Goal: This is what your character wants at the start of the scene...
2. Conflict: ...but something starts to thwart that goal...
3. Disaster: ...until something kills the goal altogether.

A sequel is really just the second half of a scene or a subsequent scene. A sequel encompasses the:

1. Reaction: Your character responds (shock, fear, tears, disbelief) then realizes he can’t stay like that forever.
2. Dilemma: So your character looks at the options before him...
3. Decision: ...and makes a choice about what to do next.

And then you’re ready to go back to the top with a new scene, starting with a new 1. Goal and move through the process again.

Below is part of a scene from THIRST. To set this up for you, Eli and his friends have survived a disease that killed over 90% of people on earth. Hannah just joined their group. They are trying to gather supplies and head north, where they are hoping to find a clean water source. The story is written in first person from Eli's point of view. Here is my scene breakdown:

Author's scene goal: I want Eli and Hannah to talk so the reader can learn more about Hannah. I also want to start setting up the obvious: that Logan and Hannah would never be a good romantic match. And I want to continue to characterize Eli. I want Hannah to see how smart he is and how well he knows his friends.
The players: Eli and Hannah are in the front seat. Logan, Shyla, and Davis are in the back seat.
Location: Riding in an army green 2010 Suzuki Equator extended cab truck on Highway 89 north out of Flagstaff, Arizona.
Time: Early morning in mid-July.
POV character: Eli
Character's goal: Get out of town ASAP. To try and keep up a conversation with new girl Hannah.
Character's motivation: Eli is trying to be a leader--to act more mature than he feels. He wants to get to the mountains where he believes it will be safer.
Scene Beginning: Eli gets everyone into the two vehicles and they drive north out of Flagstaff.
Scene Middle: With Logan immersed in a video game, Hannah and Eli start to have a nice conversation.
Scene End: Hannah screams that there is a child standing in the road.
Emotional tone: Tense. Eli feels nervous about being the leader, and he's just had a shock that his sister is dating his best friend.
Conflict: Eli has never been confident talking to girls---especially girls he doesn't know. Plus, Logan interjects several comments that add tension to their conversation.
Major reveal, disaster, etc: Nothing major in this scene besides a child standing in the road.

And here is the start of the scene:

I told everyone to take one last bathroom break and went out and syphoned gas with my new shake syphon and gas cans. Once both vehicles were full and the gas cans re-filled and loaded into the back of the truck, I locked it up and climbed into the cab. 
I was surprised to see Hannah sitting shotgun. 
“Hey,” I said.  
She had her feet up on the dashboard and her hands resting on her knees. She had a fancy manicure job with the glossy with white tips and that ring with the massive diamond gleamed at me. I wanted to ask about her husband or fiancĂ© or whatever, but I didn’t want to risk making her cry.
“They’re fighting over who gets to sit where,” she said. “Lizzie is riding with Zaq, and Jaylee wants to ride with Lizzie but doesn’t want to ride with Logan. But Logan wants to talk to Zaq and said he was there first. Krista says she’s sick of the kids and wants to ride in the van and have the kids ride over here…” She sighed. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been around teenage drama.”
“Sorry,” I said, wincing. “I’d rather not be around it myself. But I’ll tell you right now, Jaylee will win and Logan will be riding with us.”
“Jaylee always wins?”
She raised her eyebrows. “Not with the shaving cream, though.” [FYI, while they were in the store, Eli told Jaylee she could not waste a whole tub packing shaving cream for shaving her legs. Essentials only.] 
Oh. Right. “I guess.”
She smiled and her eyes shifted as they studied my face. “How old are you, Eli?”
Her question made me nervous, though I had no idea why. “Seventeen.” 
“When is your birthday?” 
“March 22.” 
“So you’re closer to sixteen than to eighteen.” 
“Yep. You joined up with a band of teenage crazies. Sorry ’bout that.”
“You act older than most seventeen-year-old boys.”
“I try.” 
The back door on my side opened and Davis climbed up. “Krista said you wanted us to ride with you.” 
“I sure did,” I said, wondering who would parent these two kids since Krista didn’t seem to want the job. 
“I like the new truck,” Davis said from behind me. “It feels bigger in here than in the van.”
“Not much room in there with all the egos,” I mumbled. 
“Waffles?” Davis asked. 
Hannah chuckled. 
Shyla climbed in beside her brother, and Logan got in behind Hannah.  
“I’ve decided to ride in the truck,” Logan said. 
“Sweet. We’re glad to have you.” I grinned at Hannah. “Let’s roll!”

This isn't the end of the scene. (You can read the rest of that scene free here.) It goes on with Eli and Hannah making small talk while the others play video games in the back seat. Before the scene transitions into the next, we learn a little about Hannah---that she was a med student and traveled to Guatemala with Doctors Without Borders. The scene ends when Hannah screams , "Stop!" because there is a child standing in the road. That brings me to the start of a new scene.

We've talked about scenes on Go Teen Writers a lot. Check out some of these posts if you're looking to dig deeper into this topic:

Archived posts on writing and editing scenes:
Writing in Scenes
Arriving Fashionably Late
Arrive Late, Then Leave Early
Scene Breaks v. Section Breaks
Weeding Out Weak Scenes
Writing Scenes and Sequels
Questions to Ask When Editing Scenes
The Internal and the External of Scenes
Editing in Layers: The Big Picture of Your Scene

And for fun:
Writing the Action/Fight Scene
Editing the Action Scene

Assignment Time

Choose one scene in your book and break it down using either my scene breakdown or Dwight Swain's scene and sequel order. Share your breakdown in the comments.

Jill's Scene Breakdown
Author's scene goal:
The players:
POV character:
Character's goal:
Character's motivation:
Scene Beginning:
Scene Middle:
Scene End:
Emotional tone:
Major reveal, disaster, etc:

Dwight Swain's Scene and Sequel

1. Goal:
2. Conflict:
3. Disaster:

1. Reaction:
2. Dilemma:
3. Decision:



  1. I love your scene breakdown, Mrs. Williamson! I'll give it a go with a scene I'm currently writing.

    Author's scene goal: To get to know Wyatt (a side character) better and show that he doesn't know much about the outdoors.

    The players: Tess and Wyatt

    Location: In a Jeep heading into town for groceries

    Time: about 6 a.m.

    POV character: Tess (first person)

    Character's goal: To survive the drive into town while Wyatt freaks out about eyes on the side of the road, which are deer.

    Character's motivation: She wants her eggs and sausage.

    Scene Beginning: Tess and Wyatt get in the Jeep and head out into the early morning.

    Scene Middle: In the middle of conversation, Wyatt shrieks about eyes. It's a deer grazing by the road.

    Scene End: Tess and Wyatt arrive at the store, albeit a little frazzled.

    Emotional tone: Lighthearted & humorous

    Conflict: Tess is an outdoorsy girl and doesn't get why Wyatt, a more bookish guy, is freaked out by driving on a small country road while it's dark out.

    Major reveal, disaster, etc: Nothing major.

    1. Haha! I really like your character motivation here. Good food is life:) The scene seems like a great opportunity for characterization.

  2. Cool! Here's the breakdown of my very first scene in my book.

    Author's scene goal: To introduce Dorlin Hull as the royal assassin of Imperia, to show his powers and his fear of them, and to start the conflict with the Nair, all in a fast paced action scene.

    The players: Dorlin, the undead shape-shifting creatures called the Nair, and the asleep elf he's supposed to assassinate.

    Location: The Vostol Forest.

    Time: Late night.

    POV character: Dorlin.

    Character's goal: To defeat the Nair and to assassinate his target.

    Character's motivation: To save his own skin and to try to complete his mission as the Emperor is often harsh on failures.

    Scene Beginning: Dorlin finds out the Nair is after him.

    Scene Middle: Dorlin fights the Nair, but it's somehow healing itself and has a major advantage.

    Scene End: Dorlin hides in a tree, and blows up the gunpowder storage to take the Nair down.

    Emotional tone: Slightly dark.

    Conflict: With the Nair.

    Major reveal, disaster, etc: To defeat the Nair Dorlin shots a flaming arrow at the local storage of gunpowder, starting a forest fire and killing both the Nair and his target. This creates some conflict within him due to his fear of fire and the fact that his parents died in an arson.

    1. It's cool that you decided to share your opening scene. The action here sounds pretty good, and I'm intrigued by how the Nair is somehow healing itself (it implies the Nair doesn't normally do so, which implies future relevance). It seems like a good way to introduce your character's skill.

    2. Nice, Jason. I love that you're doing a lot of things in your opening scene and that you're starting with action. Good stuff. :-)

  3. I should really get back to my homework, so I won't do the exercise right now, but I will do it later for every single scene in the 50,000-word WIP I'm editing. Thanks so much for posting this today! I've been floundering through my edits up to now, and I think this will help a lot. :)


    1. Edits are difficult, but it'll be worth it:) I hope the best for you!

    2. Thanks! :) I've never had a successful edit (I've mostly done first drafts), so I'm kind of winging it. But since I'm back, here's my scene exercise thing for the beginning scene of my book.

      Author's scene goal: To introduce Crow, the main character, and get the main conflict going
      The players: Crow and the men chasing him
      Location: The Salaki Kevenar forest and a little fishing village
      Time: Early morning, New Year/first day of spring
      POV character: Crow
      Character's goal: Steal supplies from the villagers (he lives alone in the forest); leave the furs he's accumulated over the winter as "payment"
      Character's motivation: This is something he does every spring to help him survive.
      Scene beginning: Crow awakens from a nightmare about a past traumatic experience.
      Scene middle: Crow goes into town for supplies (before anyone else is up).
      Scene end: Crow is interrupted in his supply-hunting by men chasing him; specifically, he hears the voice that haunts his nightmares, and flees in fear.
      Emotional tone: Goes from wary to fearful
      Conflict: The nightmare, then the man from Crow's nightmare chasing him.
      Major reveal, disaster, etc.: They're after him! The nightmare goes on. . . . (cue dramatic music)

    3. Ooh, I like this, Anna. I like how you show his character in how he leaves furs to pay for the supplies he takes. And that you start with a nightmare, but by the end his nightmare is coming to life... that is cool. Good luck with your edits!

    4. Thank you so much! I'm so glad you like it. :)

  4. A Deturmined WriterApril 27, 2016 at 2:25 PM

    Thanks for the info! At the moment, I'm writing a historical romance. This is more helpful than you can imagine. Thanks so much!! I love "A King's Folly" by the way!

    1. I'm so glad it's helpful. And thanks for reading King's Folly. :-)

  5. Thanks for this post Jill, I've always had a hard time structuring scenes.

    (At this point in the story the villain hasn't found my main characters yet, but has offered a reward for their capture/demise)
    Author's scene goal: To make the characters realize that they re going to have to fight back, and to show how they react to high stress situations.
    The players: Apryl(Protagonist), Chris(her brother), James(her dad), Rachel(her mom), and three or four men seeking to fill a bounty
    Location: outskirts of San Antonio, TX
    Time: 7:00 am, early spring, 1870s
    POV character: Apryl
    Character's goal: Survive; make sure her family survives
    Character's motivation: Survival; love
    Scene Beginning: Apryl and her family try to leave town quietly, but they run into several bounty hunters.
    Scene Middle: Gunfire is exchanged, Apryl is shot in the arm.
    Scene End: The battle is won, but Apryl is in immense pain and needs to see a doctor (but they also need to get out of town)
    Emotional tone: high stress
    Conflict: Apryl and her family vs the bounty hunters
    Major reveal, disaster, etc: The main characters are forced to stop running and figure out a way to confront the problem

    1. Oooh ... This is rather intriguing! Why is there a reward out for her?

    2. Fun, Abi. I love Old West stories. Seems like a really intense action scene too. :-)

    3. Thanks :-) There is a reward for her because there was a defense shooting that involved the son of a vigilante leader, who now seeks revenge.

  6. Author's scene goal: To set up the conflict.
    The players: Halvard, Gustav, Queen Gunilla, the audience at the Thing.
    Location: The arena in the village.
    Time: 6:00pm, late winter
    POV character: Halvard
    POV character's goal: To attend the Thing and find out what's going on.
    POV character's motivation: To find out about his father.
    Scene Beginning: Halvard is sitting on one of the outskirt benches.
    Scene Middle: The announcement that the latest quest to fetch help has failed.
    Scene End: Halvard decides that he has to volunteer.
    Emotional tone: Tense, fearful
    Conflict: Not so much conflict with anyone in the scene itself, but there's references to the overall conflict and the characters are all feeling the strain.
    Major reveal, disaster, etc: That there will be only one more quest to fetch the Dragon Guides and that if whoever goes fails, then the rest of the Skadi will attack anyway, likely getting themselves killed.

    1. OOOOOHHHHH!!! Sorry, I have a Nordic culture in my WIP, so I get rather over-excited when I see mention of such:) Very intriguing!

    2. Sounds great, Esther. Good job. Such a crowd is a great place for tension, too.

  7. Did you intend to post chapter six and not chapter twelve?

  8. Author's scene goal: Provide more backstory and a key piece of evidence.
    Players: Russet Hunter and Arya Widow.
    Location: Restraunt known as Garden of Eden.
    Time: 8pm-9pm
    POV: Russet Hunter.
    POV characters goal: Make it through this date he has been forced to go on without being seduced by Arya.
    POV motivation: To gather evidence to prove his sister's innocence.
    Scene beginning: Russet is sitting at a table waiting for Arya.
    Scene middle: Arya asks Russet if he has ever loved anyone.
    Scene end: Russet informs Arya that he knows what love feels like and what she is offering him is not it and then turns his back on her.
    Emotional tone: Tense.
    Coflict: Russet vs. Arya.
    Major reveal disaster: Russet admits that he was once in love.

  9. My chapters are usually so short that they are only one scene.
    Chapter One, scene one:
    Author's goal: Introduce Rosamond and show her on her journey to Riverdell.
    Players: Rosamond; Millicent, her handmaiden; her four guards; some fairies.
    Location: An inn at the beginning, then the road to Kirnvale.
    Time: Night, close to dawn.
    POV: Rosamond, 3rd person.
    Character's goal: Get to Kirnvale before the fairies find them.
    Motivation: The fairies want to kill/capture Rosamond (though she doesn't really know why).
    Beginning: An inn.
    Middle: On a road in the countryside.
    End: the forest near Kirnvale.
    Emotional tone: Foreboding in the beginning, frantic in the middle.
    Conflict: the fairies catch up to Rosamond and her companions.
    Major disaster: Millicent, Arcel, Emery, Joras, and Frederic (the guards) are killed.

  10. Here's the third(?) scene in my book:

    Author's scene goal: Introduce Flint and his best friend Liam
    The players: Flint and Liam, also an army captain
    Location: The prince's tent
    Time: About 2:30 in the afternoon
    POV character: Flint's point of view
    Character's goal: Decide on whether to accept giants' terms of surrender
    Character's motivation: He wants to be done with this and get home
    Scene Beginning: Flint and Liam playing chess
    Scene Middle: Discussion of terms
    Scene End: Decision to accept
    Emotional tone: Playful
    Conflict: Accept ridiculous terms or not
    Major reveal, disaster, etc: They decide to accept. The prince is coming home!