A roll of movie film to illustrate writing scenes.

Struggling to Write Scenes? Use These 3 Elements

Recently, a client asked me where and how to slow down when writing scenes.

If you’re new to writing scenes, here’s a quick primer.

Scenes consist of four parts:

  • The Setup: This is where you ground us in time and place and introduce characters.
  • The Inciting Incident: An event takes place that prevents your main character from meeting their goal.
  • The Emotional Beat: This is where your character wrestles with what to do.
  • The Resolution: A decision is made that resolves the conflict and sets up the trouble to come in the scene to follow.

Most of your scene’s words should appear in your emotional beat. To see what this looks like, read my post for the Jane Friedman blog.

What to include will depend on your character’s motivation going into the scene and how their worldview impacts their decision—something I’ll talk about on June 19, 2024, during The Psychology of Character Development.

Once you’ve identified your character’s motivation and decision, you must figure out how to craft the unfolding drama.

In writing, we use three elements to show what’s happening when writing scenes: action, dialogue, and your character’s thoughts, or their interior monologue.

If something big happens in the plot, focus on your character’s actions by showing them working through the problem.

Think of it as your “MacGyver moment.” For those of you unfamiliar with this 1980s action series, Angus MacGyver was a character who stopped criminals in every episode using common household items. 

In this example from the show, he diffuses a bomb with a paperclip. When watching, ignore the cheesy voiceover narration. Instead, notice what he’s doing.

If the emotional beat involves a conflict between two characters, dialogue and what happens around the conversation will matter most.

Sticking with my 1980s theme, here’s an argument between Andie Walsh and Blane McDonnaugh from the movie Pretty in Pink. Note not just what’s said, but how it’s said, how close the characters are, and what body language they use to communicate their feelings.

But let’s say the change happens within the narrator. When that’s the case, focus on your character’s interiority and the interplay between the character and their surroundings.

Because videos don’t allow us inside a character’s head, here’s an example from Justin Torres’s semi-autobiographical novel We The Animals. In this scene, Justin lies in a trench dug by his father.

“It was a grave. It was my grave. Paps had dug my grave. Those were my first thoughts, and when I was fully horizontal, half submerged in puddle muck, stories about people being buried alive rushed into my mind—avalanches, mudslides, suffocation—but I had a wish, and so I stayed to wish it. I could see a squarish patch of sky, framed by the walls of the hole, and that sky calmed me some, the clouds, the blue; it would not rain again today. I felt a great distance from the house, from Ma on the couch and my brothers and Paps. The clouds seemed to move faster than I had ever known them to, and if I concentrated, if I let go enough, an understanding would blur inside me, and the clouds were still—and then I was certain that I was moving, and the hole was magic. I closed my eyes and stayed quiet and motionless but felt movement, sometimes sinking, sometimes floating away, or stretching, or shrinking. I lowered myself to lose all bearings, and a long, long time passed before I wished my wish.”

When writing your next scene, consider which element matters most, then capitalize on it.

To figure out how, re-read a scene from your favorite novel, memoir, short story, or essay. Highlight the character’s interiority in blue, action in pink, and dialogue in orange (or use whatever colors you have on hand), then pay attention to what this writer has done.

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