Monday, April 12, 2010

Scene Structure Part X – The Little Things

Part of an ongoing series on Scene Structure.

The Little Things

ponder-the-little-things-thought A couple posts ago, I mentioned all the big things you can do to ruin a scene. Now here are a bunch of little things you can think about to make a scene shine.

  • Mood – What is the mood of the setting? Dark or light, day, night, scary, confusing, quiet, desperate, cool, inside, outside, etc. How does the mood of the setting echo or contrast the mood of the characters? Are they fighting a war in a beautiful glade? Romance in a graveyard? Stealing from an old folk’s home? How does the mood of a place affect them? Do you illustrate the mood in tidy language without boring description?
  • Transitions – Is the user placed in a scene? Are scene changes clear? Does the scene end on a note that leads to the next scene? How have you indicated passage of time? Change of setting? What in the setting has changed since the last time you used that setting? Is it clear who the POV character is?
  • Emotion – It’s important to express the characters’ emotional state in each scene. Is it clear whether they are happy, sad, expectant, depressed, joyous, angry, delighted, jealous, determined, confused, etc? What is the emotional arc of the scene? How do emotions change? Do you illustrate the emotion without just saying, “she was angry” or the like?
  • Subtext – This is the “story within the story.” Hidden attractions, secret liaisons, hidden agendas, moral qualms, secret identities, all the things that are unsaid but still exist. Is there more going on than meets the eye? Usually subtext is evident through the characters’ actions, rather than through inner or explicit dialog. Lingering touches, unexplained phone calls, unusual gestures, subtle things that the astute reader can pick up on.
  • Style – Does the scene have a consistent style throughout? Is is consistent with other scenes written from the same POV? The style should also reflect the mood of the scene, choppy for action, slow and luxurious for more intimate moments. Does the style reflect the thought process of the POV character? Or is there a strong narrator’s voice guiding us through the story?
  • Voice – Speaking of voice, this aspect of style can be critical. Is the scene interesting to read? Are there clichés, obvious similes, and other contrivances that dumb down the prose, or is the voice original, authentic, and unique? Aside from actually figuring out the plot, voice is perhaps the hardest aspect of writing to get right.
  • Tension Level – As you go through your work, think about the tension level of each scene and rate it. Tension should vary, growing at times and relaxing at others. No one likes a rollercoaster that just goes down. Ups and downs, nice calm scenes, heavy terrifying scenes, and everything in the middle. Once you rate each scene, you can plot it in Excel to see the ride you take your readers on and adjust as necessary. Sometimes you need to let your readers breathe, other times you don’t.

And that’s really all I have to say about Scene Structure. I hope you’ve enjoyed the series. I posted my scene structure “cheat sheet” here. I actually started out the cheat sheet with information from this post on Make A Scene, so that site is another great resource for building scenes.

Good luck building scenes, and stay tuned for my next exciting series on….?


  1. Thanks Andrew. I think I've got it all pretty much under control. I like though that you posted it as a 'cheat sheet' just so I can check.

  2. Man, you're fast-becoming one of my favorite blogspots.

    Two things on POV that authors often overlook, but you nailed:

    1) Whose POV is it?
    2) Does the tone match the POV?

    I hope that when I write, you'll see distinct transitions not only between the scenes, but also between the POVs. Different voice, tone, pace, a different view of the world, unique descriptives, cursing or the absence of it, a variance in internalizations and mood, when read together are like bass and lead guitar.

    Such a subtle point, POV, but so critical.

    - Eric

  3. @Piedmont: You should copy the sheet...I may not have it around forever

    @Eric: I did a whole post on POV a while back, but it didn't really address these issues. I own whole books on's a hugely complicated topic that probably deserves it's own series of posts. :)

  4. I sure enjoyed the series and learnt a lot in the process. Thanks for sharing.

  5. You, sir, are made of awesome. Can't wait for the next series!

  6. Good 'un. What you're doing is very cool.

  7. Excellent post. Thanks so much for creating such an elegant description of some fabulous scene elements. I found myself nodding instinctively as I read the post with the sort of "duh, that makes sense...why do I always forget that..."


  8. You have such excellent advice and thanks so much for the cheat sheet!

    The photo is hilarious too. :)

  9. I can't believe I've missed your series. I am made of epic fail. I will go back, because one of the things I struggle most with is setting the scene. My readers often have no idea where my characters are and what's going on because I'm not very good at describing it.


  10. It's been a good series, Andrew. Thanks!

  11. As always, you're full of writerly wisdom! Thanks for sharing! :)

  12. My scenes always end up tense and reek of conversations I wish I had had with my mother.

  13. Thanks everyone! Glad you enjoyed it.

    @Michaele: I say go for it. Eventually you'll get that out of your system and write conversations you wish you had had with your boyfriends. ;)


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