How to Write a Scene

How to Set Up a Scene

Novel: A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

The cliche in writing is ‘show, don’t tell,’ but in a series with hundreds of characters, a map full of countries and armies, and countless scheming factions within factions, showing everything would take a thousand books. Even the most dedicated reader would give up out of boredom. As it is, the novel’s compression of certain facts—the way it tells the reader what is happening—actually heightens the tension.

How to Move Through Time in a Scene

Story: “Contrapasso” by Roxane Gay, published in Artifice Magazine and Mixed Fruit

But Gay skips all that unnecessary connecting tissue. Here, the theme doesn’t matter as much. Instead, the paragraph headings force each paragraph to have a point: what the narrator saw, what the cops said, what the narrator did next. As a result, the narrative moves more quickly because the reader doesn’t need to slog through needless detail.

How to Write a Fight Scene (Action Sequence)

Story: “Bullies” by Kevin Grauke, published at FiveChapters

One of the hardest things to write is a fight scene. The blow-by-blow description often ends up sounding like a choreographer’s notes: hit here, kick there. The most commonly proposed solution to this problem is to condense the action into a line or two (He hit me, and I kicked him, and then we fell to the ground, fighting.) But a terse summary is not the only way to write an action sequence.

How to Write a Dream Sequence

Novel: Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon

Some writing teachers make a rule for stories submitted in workshop: No dreams. No dream sequences. They make this rule because badly written dreams are all the same. They “show” a character’s inner torments/thoughts rather than artfully imbedding them into the narrative. But if fiction is, in any way, supposed to imitate life, then dreams are fair game. The question is how to write them well.

How to Write a Scene that Can’t Be Avoided

Story: “King of the Apes” by Benjamin Reed, published in Arcadia Magazine

Some stories have been told so often that, if you try to write one, certain scenes become inevitable. For instance, every sports movie will have its “Rocky Balboa at the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art” scene. Every teacher/student movie will contain a version of the scene in Dead Poets Society when Robin Williams’ literature students stand on their desks and recite poetry as he exits the room after being fired. If you’re writing these stories, the problem is not finding a way to avoid the scene but figuring out how to reinvent it.

How to Let Characters Reveal Their Feelings

Screenplay: Philadelphia by Ron Nyswaner

Some of the most powerful moments in any story come when a character unexpectedly reveals his or her innermost feelings. In film, these are often the scenes that become famous: Jack Nicholson shouting, “You can’t handle the truth,” in A Few Good Men; in The Wizard of Oz, Judy Garland standing beside a pig pen and singing, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” So, as a writer, how do you capture such intension emotion?

How to Write a Sex Scene

Story Collection: White Tiger on Snow Mountain by David Gordon, published by New Harvest

The work necessary to make a sex scene believable often begins before the scene takes place. One way to set up the scene is by setting up the possibility of sex. Sometimes this can be literal; for instance, Mary Gaitskill’s story “A Romantic Weekend” establishes very early on that the characters are taking a weekend getaway to have sex (and a particular kind of sex). Other times, the setup is more subtle.

How to Write Understated Violence

Novel: The Same Sky by Amanda Eyre Ward, published by Ballantine Books

In stories, violence has a way of dominating the scene, elbowing out character and setting so that the violence is all that you can see or remember. This is fine for some stories—sometimes violence does take over—but for other stories, it distracts from more important things. So how do you keep violence in the background?

How to Know What’s Worth Showing

Novel: Balm by Dolen Perkins-Valdez, published by Amistad

When I was a writing student, a teacher in my program was famous for leaning back after a workshop discussion and saying, “Just tell me a story.” As a piece of advice, it’s almost absurdly on point. “Just tell me a story” is what readers across the country are thinking when they pick up a book. They are rarely interested in matters of craft and language. The problem for writers is that short stories and novels are far different from the stories we tell at bars: they’re much longer. Even if you transcribed the tale of that person you know who goes on and on, the result would be much less than 4000 words, the length of a medium-sized story. So what are all those words doing? That’s probably the biggest question that beginning writers ask. The answer is found in learning what information advances the story and what does not.

How to Create Friction Between Character and Scene

Novel: What Burns Away by Melissa Falcon Field, published by Sourcebooks Landmark

In life, people tend to work together. At weddings, when the crazy uncle is drinking too much and telling offensive jokes, the rest of the family negotiates this behavior gently, distracting the uncle and muting him. Everyone is on the same page. If life didn’t work this way, we’d spend all of our time screaming at each other. In fiction, however, characters shouldn’twork together, at least not all of them. When a scene gathers momentum and begins to take on rules for how to act, a character needs to refuse or fail to play along. That friction between character and scene can be a great source of tension.

How to Defy Reader’s Expectations with Paragraph Structure

Memoir: Trunky: Transgender Junky by Samuel Peterson

There are probably more personal essays published today than at any other point in history—in part because we’re hungry for authenticity, which we believe we find in “real” stories, as opposed to “reality” programming, but also because it’s easier than ever to publish them. Seneca and Montaigne, the great inventors of the personal essay, didn’t have the luxury of a thousand websites seeking essays or social media opportunities to simply publish whatever you want. It’s difficult to separate the modern personal essay from the medium where we most often find it: online. We read essays the way that we read anything online—with short attention spans and itchy mouse pointers poised over the back button. As always, writers are consciously or unconsciously shaping their essays for their readers, which means that successful essayists are building a kind of constant surprise into their form. Move in any one direction for too long, and readers are likely to get bored. This might seem frustrating (can’t people just pay attention longer?), but there is actually a way to seem to change subjects while also making a larger point.

How to Turn Information into Scene

Novel: Good as Gone by Amy Gentry

When I was a MFA student, one of my professors liked to hold up a story and rip out the first three pages. “This is where it ought to begin,” he’d say, and he was almost always right. Our openings tended to be general information and backstory. The story started when the first scene arrived. If this is true, though, it poses a challenge to writers. How can you start in scene andintroduce the basics of setting, character, and situation?

How to Create a Window of Opportunity

Novel: An American in Scotland by Karen Ranney

When I was a kid, my dad liked to joke that the devil came out after midnight, which is actually good advice for writers. Crucial moments (positive and negative) in life and in writing often require a window of opportunity. Under normal circumstances, we simply go about our lives; drama occurs only when our routine has been upended. After midnight, in other words, we have the opportunity to make decisions that aren’t open to us at other times. In stories, whether they’re fiction or nonfiction, we need to find those windows of opportunity when the devil can show his face, when characters can act in ways they otherwise wouldn’t.


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