The Skill List Project: Scene Design

This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Last time around, I talked about the flow of plot from scene to scene. This time, we’ll be looking at the skill of designing a single scene, once you know where it fits into your overall plot.

(A side-note: what if you don’t know your overall plot? As I’ve said previously, some writers plan their plots in advance while others just create a starting set-up, then wing it as they go along. If you’re winging it, you may not know what function the current scene serves within the rest of the novel; however, you obviously have a reason why you’re writing this scene now, or else you’d be writing something different. Of course, you may be stuck to come up with any scene you want to write…but we’ll deal with that problem in some future post.)

What Do Scenes Do?

Almost always, a scene should be about one or more characters trying to accomplish something. If no one is pursuing a goal, the scene is an unmoving blob. In the hands of a good writer, a tiny bit of motionlessness can work as a means of pacing—for example, a subdued aftermath scene following many pages of excitement can give the characters and the reader a chance to catch their breaths—but even then, some sense of forward motion is a must.

Why? Because you want the reader to keep reading. On the absolute crudest level, readers should feel that important events are happening and they should be asking, “How will this all turn out?”

We writers love to blather on about art, emotional resonance, social comment, masterful prose, etc., etc., but if we don’t keep readers asking, “How will this all turn out?” they’ll feel no pressure to go on to the next page. No pressure means they can cheerfully set down the book and never pick it up again.

(Another side-note: I’ve lost count of the times when I’ve thought, “Hey, this book is really well-written,” but never finished it. I’ve also lost count of the times when I’ve said, “This is mindless crap,” but I had to keep reading because I needed to know what happened next.)

So a scene should make readers ask, “How will this all turn out?” That means you should be presenting something where there’s a degree of uncertainty. One or more characters should be going through difficulties whose outcome remains to be determined…and they have to have a reason for contending with those difficulties, or else they’d just walk away.

That means your characters must want something; they must want it badly enough to keep going despite significant obstacles; and there must be pressure on the characters to keep going once they’re in the muck. If your characters have no reason to press on, why should your readers do so?


At a workshop a few years ago, I heard Nancy Kress say, “Every story is a war and every scene is a battle.” The battle may be between different characters, between a character and impersonal forces, or between a character and him-or-herself…but one way or another, someone is fighting to achieve some goal in the face of opposition. If you don’t have a fight, you don’t have a scene—you don’t have the reader asking, “How will this all turn out?”

In this context, “fight” can mean physical combat, but usually it doesn’t. Most scenes are mental or social struggles, often played low-key. A detective tries to pry information from a reluctant witness; two teenagers try to figure out what each other is thinking; a parent tries to get a baby to go the f**k to sleep. There is effort to achieve some goal, and there is resistance which prevents that effort from immediately succeeding.

In most scenes, the tide of the battle unfolds in a series of beats where the upper hand passes back and forth between the participants. This builds dramatic tension (“How will this all turn out?”) by extending the length of the battle. It can also raise the stakes by heightening the emotions that accompany the conflict: a conversation turns into a clash of egos, and the next thing you know, Henry the Eighth is chopping off Thomas More’s head. (For some interesting case studies of beat analysis, see Hamlet’s Hit Points by Robin D. Laws.)

One way or another, every scene should be built around a struggle to achieve a goal, against resistance and under pressure. In a now-famous memo to TV writers, David Mamet put it this way—every scene should be built on a foundation of three questions:

Who wants what?
What happens if they don’t get it?
Why now?

When Sailing is Smooth

“But,” you might ask, “what about scenes I know are necessary but don’t have obvious conflicts?” For example, what about a detective talking with a cooperative witness? In a classic whodunit, detectives talk to lots of witnesses, and they can’t all be reluctant—that would be repetitive and unrealistic. So what do you do when a character has a goal (“Get information”) and there are no immediate obstacles?

That’s where skill comes in. (This is the Skill List Project, remember?) There are many ways of handling situations where there’s no dramatic tension screaming to be let out:

  • Tell, don’t show. You don’t need to write an actual scene if a situation lacks dramatic possibilities. You can just say

    I talked to a guy who’d seen the whole thing. He told me the shooter had been wearing the colors of a gang called the Deviants, so I figured I’d give them a visit.

    Instead of playing out the conversation between the detective and the witness, this passage deals with it in two quick sentences. This sets up a real scene with the Deviants, which is guaranteed to have a good juicy conflict.

  • A witness may want to cooperate but be bad at it: muddle-headed, or distracted, or amorous, or tongue-tied. The detective must overcome the difficulty in order to get the desired information.
  • The environment might provide obstacles of its own: crude distractions like noise and danger, or more subtle ones like the risk of being overheard by the wrong people. A whispered conversation in a dark alley is more likely to grip the reader than an unpressured chat over tea and scones. (Unless, of course, the reader has reason to think that the tea may be poisoned…)

The point is to keep throwing obstacles at your character so they have to work hard in pursuit of their goals. I don’t mean you should invent artificial nuisances—I hate it when authors dump on their characters gratuitously—but “How will this all turn out?” demands that your characters sweat.

Before, During, or After

All this being said, when I write the first draft of a scene, I’m often exploring a situation rather than choreographing a fight. I’m getting the feel of the characters and the setting: understanding the motivations and issues. For me, the first draft is a process of discovery, and that means I don’t get hung up on, “I have to make this compelling.”

But in the second draft, “compelling” is the key to a scene’s survival. There must be a struggle, and there must be a chance that the characters will fail to achieve their goals, thereby being set back and risking overall defeat. Lame scenes must be changed or deleted; they’re the O-rings that can make your whole novel crash. If the reader stops asking, “How will this all turn out?” the reader may well stop reading. A roller-coaster can have fast parts and slow parts, but it can’t have a dead patch in the middle where there’s nothing to draw the riders forward.

Done for Now

That’s it for this time, but there’s still a lot more to be said about writing scenes. We’ll get into that next month…but in the meanwhile, it’s your turn. Head for the Comments section and set phasers on RANT.

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There are 4 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Mary

    One thing I have seen with a cooperative witness is for the statement to blow the detective’s theory out of the water. If the detective has deduced on other grounds that no gang had anything to do with it, or just that the Deviants didn’t do it, a straightforward statement that the shooter wore their colors produces conflict.

    Of course, then your previous clues, or your witness, have to mislead somehow. . . .

  2. 2. James Alan Gardner

    Good point, Mary. Obstacles can come in all shapes and sizes, and don’t necessarily have to come from “unhelpful” people.

  3. 3. Elias McClellan

    Mr. Gardner, thanks for another (possibly unintended) lesson. I’ve avoid recaps/summaries like the plague. This is an excellent example of how and when to use a scary tool. Again, thank you.


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Author Information

James Alan Gardner

James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.



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