How to build a scene for your story

When penning a story, concentrating on its smallest chunk – the scene – marks a good approach. Rather than be overwhelmed by the complexity and multiple layers of the entire story, focusing on this basic dramatic unit makes writing more manageable.

Begin building a scene by focusing on a single character taking action aimed at solving the story’s central problem. For example, if a sheriff in the Old West is tracking a criminal who broke out of jail, a scene might involve him setting an ambush for the fugitive. That scene then centers on whether or not the ambush will be successful.

Scenes follow the same general structure as the overall story – a problem is introduced and a character tries to overcome that problem – but is much shorter. Rather than run 6000 words as would a short story or a novel chapter, it may be a mere 1000-1200 words. As developing the scene, think of its parts in terms of opening-rising action-climax.

Each scene usually includes, in its opening, a description of the character’s surroundings. Often a scene is set in a different location and stretch of time than the previous one. Establishing the setting, if only with a phrase, can help the reader infer that a new scene is underway while creating a stage for a new set of actions to occur.

As the scene unfolds, rising tension is vital. For example, in our Old West story, perhaps the ambush doesn’t go as planned. As aiming, a startled bird takes off in front the sheriff, causing him to flinch and miss the fugitive, who then fires back. That shot hits the sheriff’s arm, so while he is not knocked unconscious, his ability to capture the fugitive is greatly hampered. The fugitive gets away, and so we must begin a new scene in which the sheriff’s chances of making the capture is less likely.

Hence, the scene moves the overall story forward. Rarely can any scene be a self-contained story (indeed, often a problem at best is only partially solved in a scene), but it is a building block that with other scenes form a single, whole structure. If one of those blocks is out of place, the entire building tumbles down.

Because the scene raises the tension of the overall story, it needs a strong ending. Don’t allow the scene to peter out like so many mumbled words. Having our sheriff clutch his blood-soaked arm and seeing the red cover his fingers would be a strong closing, as it leaves the reader wanting to know if he will survive.

This ending also should contain a link to the next scene. The link can be directly stated, in which the character tells exactly what he’s going to do next; our injured sheriff, for example, might decide he needs to get to his horse near the river so he can treat his wound. Or the link might be subtle, in which what happens next is hinted at; the scene might end with drops of the sheriff’s blood forming tiny red splotches on the sand, and the next scene begins with the fugitive noticing them and deciding to make the wounded sheriff the hunted.

In addition, a scene almost always should indicate some change in a protagonist’s outlook or understanding in the way the overall problem is addressed. This change might be slight, but when combined with the other changes the protagonist goes through, it ultimately leads to resolving the story’s main conflict. For our sheriff, this might be a realization that he shouldn’t underestimate the fugitive, who was able to instantly target him just from the sound of his rifle. Underestimating his foe – or dumb luck for that matter – will get him killed. This knowledge then should be accounted for in the story’s climax so the sheriff can be victorious.