Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Writing in Scenes

Presented by David J Normoyle

What is a scene?
It generally takes place in a single setting and has one viewpoint character. Commonly a scene will advance the story, show conflict and develop the characters.

Why write in scenes?
Older books are more likely to have an omniscient narrator telling the story to the reader. These days, readers are used to movies. They want to be shown not told. They want more immediacy, more action. Writing in scenes forces this. It takes place now. Every story will have some scenes but you can write your story wholly as a series of scenes.

How to write in scenes?
Ideally, each scene is a mini story with its own hook to get the reader involved, then it has some conflict to drive the scene and it finishes with a resolution or cliffhanger.

Don't begin with: "Vampires have lived amoung us for thousands of years." Start with: "Anna caressed his cool pale cheek."

You don't have to get up, eat breakfast and brush you teeth before meeting the neighbour with the interesting information. Just start the scene talking to him. Transition to the next scene by just jumping into it.

There will be things that happen between scenes. In that case, let the information be revealed in one of the later scenes, through thoughts or dialogue. If several plot points are revealed in one place, that'll add to the strength of the scene.

Exercise on writing scenes
So, in the course of my latest novel, I have been transforming the narrative of ancient myths into scenes. Here's an exercise for workshopees.

Imagine the below narrative of Persephone and Hades as a series of short scenes. (No more than four)
What's the location of each scene?
Who's the POV character in each scene?
What happens in each scene?
How do you get across the action/information (if any) that is between scenes?

Persephone was innocently picking flowers with some nymphs in a field when Hades abducted her in his chariot.
Persephone's mother, Demeter, the Goddess of the Earth searched desperately for her lost daughter all over the world. She neglected the earth, and in the depth of her despair, she caused nothing to grow.
Finally, Zeus, pressed by the cries of the starving people, forced Hades to return Persephone. However, it was a rule of the Fates that whoever consumed food or drink in the Underworld was doomed to spend eternity there. Before Persephone was released to Hermes, Hades tricked her into eating pomegranate seeds, which forced her to return to the underworld for a period each year.
Thus, every year when Demeter and her daughter are reunited, the Earth flourishes with vegetation and color, but when Persephone returns to the underworld, Demeter mourns and the earth once again becomes a barren realm. This explains the seasons.

I'll put my own breakdown of the above scene in a comment later and I'll continue with a checklist for writing and reviewing your scenes.


Unknown said...

Great topic, David and post. You've captured the essence in how to keep a reader engaged. I read a lot and there are many times I can skip an entire paragraph because these rules aren't followed. Since I'm spending a significant part of my day writing today, this is a wonderful reminder as well as education on what to remain focused on. Thank you.

Christopher Hoare said...

Hi David. Is there a problem with calling everything a scene whether focussed on action or internalisation? The important difference between the movie and the book is that in the movie we see only the outside of the story while the book can show the inside of the characters.

Are we not being impoverished if we lose this in the rush for excitement and overlook the 'scenes' where the substance of the story is told?

Jenna Storm said...

Hi David,

Great topic. I'm getting ready to dive into my WIP so this is a helpful reminder of what I need to accomplish. I always refer to my story in scenes and the need for a hook at the beginning of each. I have to admit that I need to work harder to have that cliffhanger at the end.

David J Normoyle said...

Jenna and Karen,

Glad you enjoyed the topic.

I don't believe you should take out the internalisation. Like you said, that's the great power of books. However, I'd put the internalisation into a scene, so you get to interpose it with external action.

Just because it's a scene, doesn't mean there has to be action. A scene can be two people talking. There can still be excitement and drama and conflict if it's done well.

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

Great post. Makes me so happy to live in this day and age where information like yours is available. I remember a time before computers and the internet when life as a writer was lonely and often frustrating because any search for knowledge meant a trip to the library.

Thanks for sharing this, David. Great stuff.

David J Normoyle said...

How I broke down the Persephone narrative into scenes.

Scene 1 Location: meadow, POV: Hades
Hades kidnaps Persephone.
Scene 2 Location: village, POV: Hermes
Hermes, on his way to bring Persephone from the underworld stops and watches the starving people pray to Zeus for deliverance
(In Hermes thoughts, we learn that Demeter is the cause of the famine)
Scene 3 Location: underworld, POV: Hades
Hades persuades Persephone to eat the seeds before Hermes takes her back to her mother.

There are many ways to tell the story through scenes, depending on what you want to accomplish. This is just one way. It could all be told in the POV of Persephone, for example.

Lawna Mackie said...

I enjoyed your post David. When I'm writing tonight I'll remember what you've said about each peice being a scene. I can forget some much once my fingers start typing! It's awesome to have these great reminders about what we are doing when we right. Thanks.


Charlie said...

Very nice workshop. Thanks! Here is my meager attempt at setting the scenes. didn't have as much time as I'd like to finish it but going to be busy this afternoon. Thanks for everything!
C.K. Volnek
Imagine the below narrative of Persephone and Hades as a series of short scenes. (No more than four)
What's the location of each scene?
Who's the POV character in each scene?
What happens in each scene?
How do you get across the action/information (if any) that is between scenes?

Scene 1 –
Location - beautiful flowered valley.
POV: Hades.
Action: Persephone picking flowers. Nymphs skipping around her. Hades stalks Persephone, waiting for the opportune moment to strike, thrusting a strong hand over her mouth and hauling her away through a dark cavern in the earth to the bowels of the underworld.

Scene 2
Location: Demeter’s bedroom – can see cold and dead valley from her window.
POV: Zeus
Action: Zeus is trying to comfort Demeter, but continues to watch with sorrow at the desolate valley outside her window. Humans are struggling to pull wagon through deep snow. People crying as they bury starved children. Zeus tells Demeter he will command Hades to return Persephone. Demeter looks hopeful.

Between scenes – Hermes headed to see Hades

Scene 3:
Location: the dark underworld. Demons and devils dancing around. Fires burning everywhere. In the middle of it all, a table filled with food and wines with Hades sitting at the head of it.
POV: Hades
Action: Hades explaining his plan to the demons preparing the table. He sits at the head of the table, luring Persephone to it, tempting her with the delicious sights and smells of the food on the table. Persephone trying extremely hard to avoid the temptation but finally giving in with her favorite of pomegranate seeds. Hades smiling wickedly as the demons behind howl at the cunning of Hades.

Scene 4:
Location: the same beautiful flowered valley.
POV: Zeus
Action: Zeus and Hermes are talking and watch Persephone running to the open arms of her mother, Demeter. Green grass grows and flowers start to bloom as the scene unfolds. Hermes shares the fact that Persephone has eaten from the table and will be forced to return to the underworld for a period of three months each year. Zeus watches the humans, happy with the new growth, discussing how they must prepare the people for the coming seasons that will now affect their world.

Kyla said...

I enjoyed your post. I know I have a wicked hard time resisting my urge to tell. Does that mean I can't take any time just telling a portion of the story if I make it short and sweet.

David J Normoyle said...

It's often hard to remember this stuff when writing and often better to let your fingers go to work. Afterwards you can look at the scene and see what points need improving. Have a look at my checklist in my follow on post.

There's generally not much room for telling when you write in scenes. However, everyone has their own style. If it works for you, go for it.

David J Normoyle said...


Excellent. You really filled out the narrative into a cool and exciting story. You have lovely visuals in each scene. Also, you've developed the characters nicely. By using scenes to tell the story, you needed to give different personalities to the various Gods. At every point you are showing rather than telling the story. Great work.

Arlene said...

Your excellent advice on breaking into scenes like this would certainly help when writing the dreaded synopsis, also. Interesting post.

John B. Rosenman said...

Good workshop and good advice. Scenes are crucial in stories and novels, and as you say, the character's internalization or thoughts constitute a big advantage over movies. Of course, some movies do use internalization, but viewers are only likely to tolerate them for so long. Hmm . . . for some reason I'm flashing on just about the last scene in Psycho, where we focus on Tony Perkins's face and thoughts.

One of the scenes in my Muser novel DARK WIZARD is a psychodrama and takes place entirely within the hero's mind after he has descended into it in order to do battle with his arch-enemy. Whatever the case, with a scene, it helps if you bring the five senses in.

Joan said...

This is awesome. Thank you. Question: How many scenes should be in a chapter? I'm writing a middle grade in which its one scene per chapter. Now I have a thriller. It used to be in adult novels; 3 scenes per chapter, but I'm having a hard time with it.


Joan said...

Where are you all uploading pics of yourselves? I'm coming in from FB, but where can I download when I comment?

Wendy said...

Hi David,
You have a wonderful workshop, here. I like the way you used the myth to make us look at breaking it into scenes.
Scenes keep us in the Now of the story where the reader stays involved and can react make assumptions etc. I believe in this method.
However, I have an old story which is one character worrying, remembering, misinterpreting the action around her. The story needs to be fleshed out so with your myth breakdown, I now have a place to stat. Thank you.

Rosalie Skinner said...

Terrific explanation David. This is another keeper. Great to have as a reference guide.

David J Normoyle said...

As to how many scenes, it totally depends on your story. Often there'll be more than one. You don't have to keep the same number of scenes per chapter. In my latest novel, I've maybe ten scenes in some of my chapters.

David J Normoyle said...

For the picture when commenting you need to create a profile and upload your picture to that profile. I think you can do it from

Cheryl B. Dale said...

Nice workshop. Good reminders for all of us.

J.Q. Rose said...

Thank you for the pointers on scenes. You explained this clearly and vividly.