How to write a scene

Several of my friends have lately been talking about underwriting. How you have a nice outline and you start writing, but when it’s done somehow you have half the words you meant to have. That was my initial problem when I first started trying to write novels. Now I have no trouble hitting 80,000 words or more. The trick, I think, is learning to pace a scene.

The first step is to break down your outline (or the part of it you’re working on at the moment) into scenes and assign each one a word count. So for instance, my outline might say “Chapter 7: Monica finds out Bob’s cheating.” To break that down, I might want one scene where she finds the evidence he’s cheating, and another one where she confronts him about it. To make a nice 4,000-word chapter, I should aim for about 2,000 words per scene.

Next, it’s time to work out more details for each scene. I don’t write this down, generally; I’ll picture it in my head and then work out the rest as I’m writing the scene. A scene will always contain three things:

  • Events
  • Feelings
  • Descriptions

These must be balanced out. If you’ve written several short paragraphs of stuff happening, one right after another, it might be time for a paragraph of the protagonist’s reaction. But if you notice yourself going into a third or fourth paragraph of ruminating, it might be time to make your protagonist get up and at least pace or something.

So let’s take our imaginary scene where Monica confronts Bob about his cheating. We’ll start with a segue or summary, where we tell what happened since the last scene. You don’t always need one at the start of a scene, but it’s often better than actually detailing everything that happened. When do events merit their own scene, and when should they be summarized? My basic rule is that scenes have tension. If there’s no tension at all in a set of events–if it’s people going grocery shopping or driving 500 miles or eating lunch–it should be summarized unless it’s already very short. There should probably be something on each page that demands a payoff of some kind, so that people want to turn to the next page. It doesn’t have to be physical tension; it could be a point of emotional growth, or the tension where we know there’s some important backstory and are waiting to have it revealed.

In this story, Monica doesn’t do anything important between when she finds her husband’s emails to his mistress and when he gets home, so we’ll summarize in a few sentences:

The day crawled like molasses as Monica waited for Bob to come home. She reread the emails she had found a dozen times, but they only made her angrier . . .

Now come the events of the chapter. We’re going to have to find a way to pace them. No matter how long it takes you to write them, people are going to read your 2,000 words in about ten minutes. We need to create tension at the beginning of the scene–making readers ask, what’s going to happen? Are things going to be okay? And then lead them through a series of steps until they reach the conclusion of the scene–things were okay, or they weren’t.

At last she heard his key in the door. “Hello darling,” she said quietly. He must have heard something in her tone, because . . .

Now we’ve got something happening. What is she going to say? How is Bob going to react? Why not s t r e t c h that tension out by a little digression? You can’t do dramatic pauses in print. Instead you slow down your pace so that the reader has time to get excited for what comes next. With what? FEELINGS AND VISTAS, as my writing group likes to say. You tell us what the protagonist is feeling, or you describe things. Preferably both at once, because nothing reveals mental state like what they see in the things around them.

“Oh.” Bob’s face was unreadable. “You saw the emails.”

Monica’s eyes dropped to the carpet, tracing its faded floral pattern. That had been new when they had gotten married and bought this house, and now it was more gray than pink. It wasn’t only the carpet that had been worn down by the years . . .

One paragraph of this is plenty. Now back to the action.

“I can’t believe I never saw it coming,” she said. “All these years, I figured you were just too busy to love me, and now I know it’s her . . .”

“Calm down,” he said. “I don’t know what you thought it meant but I promise . . . “

Notice the conversation is a little derailed. Not horribly, not like real conversations often go, when you find you’re talking past each other and somehow a fight you had six months ago gets brought up and then somebody gets a nosebleed and the whole thing’s put on hold, and by the time you get back to it you realize nobody actually cares about what the original conversation was supposed to be about. But derailed enough to feel real. Make it take several back-and-forths to get anywhere. Otherwise it’ll read more like a court transcript, where someone’s always there to object if it gets off the rails. More importantly, you won’t meet your word goal.

Speaking of, now’s a good time to check it. Are you on pace for where you are in the scene, or not? What could you add? A small digression, an interruption while they both fume, a brief flashback to the last time she felt like he loved her?

By now the tension has risen, words are flying, and hopefully you’re excited. But don’t let that excitement make you rush. In the past, I would be in such a hurry to get to the fighting and/or kissing that I shortened everything to get there, only to find there was little emotional weight because I’d failed to build it up earlier. The closer you get to the “good parts,” the more emotion you need to be putting in.

Rookie writers often spend the first chapters of a book droning on and on with feelings and backstory and description, and then when they get to the climax, they finally have enough events to make a story so they skip all that. Experienced writers don’t just add action to the beginning, they add reaction to the tense middle. Take a paragraph now and again in the middle of the boss fight to let us know how our character is feeling. Do a scene where the characters talk things over and realize what the stakes are. Don’t rush this stuff. It’s the same at the climax of your scene. Maybe they’re throwing dishes by now, but don’t forget to add a sentence describing the china pattern and how she feels as it shatters on the floor. Otherwise it’s just mindless smashing.

Last of all, you want to end the scene on a slight hook. Imagine your reader, finishing that scene, glancing at the clock, picking up her bookmark. Write a sentence that will make her say, “Oh, well, just one more.” Drop a little hint that there’s more going on than meets the eye, or that a twist is coming up.

The door slammed behind him, and Monica was left in the empty house, listening to its echo.

Let him leave. It didn’t matter. He couldn’t go far. And when she caught up to him, she’d make him sorry he had ever lied to her.

Dun dun dun!!! What’s she going to do? The reader will have to keep going now!

Or you can go for sarcastic, making your reader wonder if you’re serious:

This was the worst thing that had ever happened in her entire life. “Well,” she thought to herself, “at least I’ve now hit bottom.”

Say that, and your reader will instantly know that of course she hasn’t.

If you’re an underwriter, try some of these tips and see if they help! And never forget:




will spread your writing out, give your pages heft and your story emotional weight. Never skimp on them!