Essentials of Scene (#IWSG)

To round out my Essentials series, I thought I’d get into the Essentials of Scene. And, just like a plot structure needs to have a beginning, middle, and end, so does a scene. And a scene sequence (at least for me) is what constitutes a chapter. But there are three elements to a scene, as well, and that’s what we’ll go into here

(On a personal note, when I’m really REALLY stuck, I spend about ten-fifteen minutes brainstorming each section before actually writing the scene, and it’s never let me down.)



The thing about writing is that no matter how much material we end up gathering, we don’t end up using all of what we found. Hardly at all, sometimes. But what we discover during our pre-production phase still informs what we’re writing, whether we end up actually using it or not.

The same can be said for setting. The idea is to identify the five senses that will ground your reader in the scene, but in order to not overwhelm them we’re not going to use ALL of sense–only that worth noting. For example, if I’m in the cubical maze of my day job, my sense of smell is working at all times (unless allergies are in play), but I may not be consciously aware of what I’m smelling–until someone burns popcorn in the microwave. Oof.

Same thing here–write it all down, and then only use what you need, letting the rest inform your scene.

  • Time/Place
  • Temperature/Season
  • Lighting/Sounds/Smells

Now, finally, is there anything in setting that could be used or developed as a symbol for the theme of your story? Are there any images you want to try to nail down?


There are two things to consider when writing dialogue: what characters are saying, and what they’re actually thinking. In other words, context and subtext. (Because there isn’t enough to think about when writing, right?)

Sometimes the subtext will come out in tone. Other times, it will leak out in action. “Fine” could mean they really are fine, feeling under the weather but don’t want to go into detail during a polite exchange, to being downright not fine, but trying to hide it.

  • Context: What is the conversation about? (i.e. What is being said?)
  • Subtext: What is being felt? And how are underlying emotions being hinted at, or subconsciously presenting themselves?


There are large and small actions in a scene, though there don’t always have to be both.

Large actions, though, are generally where the focus of motion comes from. Think of a TV show or movie where someone is driving car. Driving the car, the scene whizzing by the windows, is the large action. But what else is going on? Is someone fiddling with the radio? Reading a map? Sleeping? Those are small actions, contained within the larger one.

Say your characters are in a stationary place, though, like an office. Maybe the major action is a phone call. What is the character doing with their hands? Their feet? Maybe there’s something potentially symbolic happening out the window. Or maybe a plane is crashing, that that becomes the large action of the scene–how important is the phone call in the scope of the scene? Is it still a large action, or is it relegation to small? In other words, how pertinent is that phone call to the scene. Is it just filler dialogue while bigger things are happening? Or is it a character dealing with a spouse demanding a divorce? In the latter, the phone call is still the large action, and the plane crashing becomes a rather on the nose symbol.

Or, maybe, they’re both large actions. Maybe the crashing plane contains the spouse’s lover of the past year, who is now on their way to be with them forever. For a given value of “forever”, of course, given the crashing.

  • Large: What action is the focus of the scene?
  • Small: What’s going on in the background? Is it pertinent to the story or scene, or is it ancillary?

In the draft I’m working on now the small action is the act of driving, as my main character engages in a one-sided dialogue with her violin. (Because some people talk to their instruments, okay? Don’t judge.) The large action, however, is that her jeep breaks down, forcing her to stop in a small town where she then meets the hero for the first time. The driving, while being the focus of motion, is relegated to small action because her vehicle blows out and this is the action most pertinent to the story.

So that’s it–the Essentials of Scene. Hopefully, this helps my fellow scribes when it comes to breaking a scene down into its component bits (as this can often help identify where is scene is going wrong).

Check out my other posts in this series:

Essentials of Character
Essentials of Plot


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