Article of The Month

Scenes on Fire!
15 Tips to Fire Up Your Scenes

Copyright 2001 by Alicia Rasley


    What is a scene?
A scene is a unit of action and interaction taking place more or less in real-time and centering on some event of plot development.

Let's take that apart.  The important elements are:

         Action– Something is happening!  There is movement and progress and change during this time.  Where there is action, there is danger of some kind.

         Interaction– The viewpoint character is interacting with other characters and/or the environment.  This will cause sparks.  The interaction will force more action on the viewpoint character.

         Real-time– A scene usually takes place in a continuous span of time, with a starting time point and an ending time point.  (For instance, "This scene begins when she starts looking for her father, and ends when she learns from the cop that he has been arrested.") This sounds basic, but it's essential.  Unless the reader sees the action unfolding (that is, not in retrospect or summary), she will lose that important sense that this event is really happening.

         Event– Every scene should center on an actual event, something that happens– not a dream, not a flashback, not a passage of introspection.  A character is doing something, experiencing something, not just in her own mind, but in the external reality of the story.
     That can mean she's taking an action, discovering a secret, encountering another character, having a conversation, creating something new, enduring a trauma– but you should be able to identify what event has taken place in this scene.

         Plot development– Events are important because they are concrete and real and have consequences.  Most important, they have consequences on the plot.  This event, this scene, should cause a development in the story.

All this adds up to CHANGE.



1. What is going to change in this scene?  How will the world of the story be different when it's done?
In a romance, also, how will the relationship be different?  Think about  the state of this character, this situation, this relationship is in the beginning of the scene.  How are the events of the scene going to change that state?  If they're allies at the beginning of the scene, for example, scene events might lead them to become at odds by the end.  Remember, change is all-important-- otherwise the scene might as well not happen.

2. What is the central event of this scene?  How does it affect the overall plot?
Every scene should be built around a concrete event which somehow changes the course of the plot.  If you make sure that you have a real event in each scene, you'll find that your pacing picks up, because there's little "downtime"-- the characters and the readers are constantly facing change.

3.  Who is the protagonist of this scene?
That might not be the protagonist of the entire book. Who drives this scene?  Whose viewpoint does the reader share?  Who has the overriding goal and encounters the conflict?

4.  Think of the overall external plot conflict. How does it manifest in this scene? (For example, the external conflict is the murder, and she's trying to trap the murderer.)  You can improve your pacing by making sure that the external conflict causes some problem in nearly every scene.

5. Think of the overall internal conflict.  How does it manifest in this scene?  (For example, she is obsessed with the past, so she is prejudiced against Wanda who injured her in the past.)  You can deepen your story by making sure that the internal conflict that this character is grappling with develops in nearly every scene.

6.  When the scene opens, what is this character's goal?  What does he/she hope to accomplish during this period of time?  What's the agenda?
Example: "I want to trap Wanda into confessing to the murder.  So I'm going to meet her in a public place so she can't murder me, and I'm going to ask her a bunch of leading questions, and confront her with my evidence, and then she's going to break down and confess-- on my hidden tape recorder."

7.  What external obstacles can character encounter in trying to fulfill this agenda?
Look for obstacles in the setting, in the antagonist, in allies who won't cooperate, cars that won't start, etc.  These usually don't qualify as conflicts, but they're certainly complications, and that can make the scene much more fun, by testing the character's resolve and resourcefulness.

8.  What internal obstacles is this character likely to encounter in trying to fulfill this agenda?
For example, she's a terrible liar, and she's going to have to lie during this scene.  Use the internal obstacles to individualize the character's response to the scene events.

9. What goes wrong with the agenda?  What happens that he/she doesn't anticipate?
Think of the scene as building towards some surprise, something the viewpoint character doesn't expect.

10.  Does he/she achieve the goal?  Bickham's answers:
Yes, but....  (but something else happens, something unanticipated)
No...  (so they have to try something else)
No and furthermore... (no, and something even worse happens!)

11. What is the setting of the scene?  Can you strengthen that?
For example, a face-to-face confrontation is likely to be stronger than a phone conversation.  An encounter in the middle of the state fair as a storm is building might be more powerful than one in a nice restaurant.
How can you use the setting to increase the tension/conflict of the scene?

12.  Assemble the basic events of the scene into the most powerful sequence.
Think of "greater risk"-- the events should require the character to take greater and greater risks.
(For example, Meggie has to say more and more inflammatory things to get Wanda to confess; she has to surreptitiously fiddle with the tape recorder to keep it running; she has to enlist Mike in her mission even though he's a dangerous ally....)

13.  Plot the emotional arc of the scene.
Where does the character start emotionally?  (Example: nervous but hopeful.)
How does that manifest in her actions? (She checks the tape recorder three times; she starts to imagine the police dragging Wanda away. She speaks cockily when Wanda appears.)
How does her emotional state change in response to the events of the scene?  Any emotional change should be preceded by some event or action or realization that happens within the scene.
How does this character end up emotionally?  It should be different than how she started.  (Now she feels deflated and foolish.)

14. When you finish the draft, how can you revise for greater power?
Try reorganizing the events for ascending risk.  Find new ways to use the setting to increase the danger.  Make things harder on the character– try the "near-miss" disaster to create more tension (that is, she almost gets caught; he almost knocks over the Ming vase but catches it just in time).

15. At the end of the scene, what has changed:
 – in the plot?
 – in the character?
 – in the relationships?


Alicia Rasley is a 13-year member of Romance Writers of America, a writing teacher, and a RITA-award winning Regency author. She teaches at Painted Rock Writers Colony.

If you like my articles, check out my interactive writing booklets and plot guidebook:

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The Story Within Guidebook

Go to previous articles:

 Beginnings, Middles, and Ends: The Purposes

 Character Motivation

 On the Brink: Turbocharge Your Opening

Tightening the Sagging Middle

Sharks in the Water: Old Scams in the New Millennium

The Publishing Journey

Lest Ye Be Judged: Contest Judging for Writers

Setting and Character Interactions

Developing the Dark Moment

The Promise of the Hot Premise

Outline Your Novel in Thirty Minutes

Subtle and Sensual

Plotting Without Fears

Structuring the Story

End Thoughts

Details, Details

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