How I Write: Building Interesting Scenes

How I Write: Building Interesting Scenes
Category: Writing

I first started writing stories for children and teens nearly five years ago – and right from the off, creating characters and settings came easily to me. Writing meaningful scenes, however, was another matter entirely.

I’d spend hours polishing dialogue and narration, focusing on the rhythms of a paragraph – and neglect the content. Occasionally, scenes would burst into life and things would actually happen. All too often, characters simply meandered about. Scene one, my heroine would maybe eat some breakfast. Scene two, she’d get the bus to school. Scene three – you get the idea. I’d read stuff out to my husband and feel my own eyes glazing over.

Occasionally, scenes would burst into life and things would actually happen. 

I needed to find a way of cutting the waffle and building in clear conflict. What every scene needed – and what my boring scenes lacked – was to show what the point-of-view character wanted, and who or what was trying to stop them from getting it. The conflict between these two opposing forces could then lead to a moment of change (e.g., a heroine wrestles priceless treasure out of a villain’s hands, and the villain falls into a volcano), and when the change had occurred, that scene was over and you were onto the next.

One of the most useful tools I found came from American author and online writing tutor, Holly Lisle. She calls it ‘The Sentence’. To use this technique, you write one sentence (preferably under 30 words) that includes:-

1. Protagonist 

Your scene’s point-of-view character. They must want/need something, although it doesn’t have to be big.

2. Antagonist

The character (or situation, or force of nature) that stands in the protagonist’s way. If the antagonist is a character, they must have their own wants/needs. However, the antagonist doesn’t have to be a character: a collapsed bridge can act as a scene’s antagonist if it stops your POV character from achieving their need of reaching home. The antagonist of a given scene doesn’t have to be an enemy, either. Perhaps your POV character wants to join the after-school choir, but her apologetic mother needs her to stay at home and look after her little sister instead.

3. Conflict

The protagonist’s want/need puts them in opposition with the antagonist’s want/need. They can both want the same thing, as with the example of the treasure on the volcano. Or they can have separate wants/needs that happen to be mutually exclusive.

4. Setting

Where your scene is taking place. On a moon base in the year 2080? In the kitchen of a contemporary urban home?

5. Twist

The twist is the element of the unexpected. In the after-school choir example, perhaps we expect the POV character to obey her mother and stay at home. But what if instead, she sneaks her little sister into school and sits her in an empty music practice room, while she goes off to choir? And what if, when our POV character returns to the practice room, her little sister is nowhere to be seen? The twist keeps your reader asking questions, keeps them hooked.

So what might an example scene ‘Sentence’ look like? Here are two, from our after-school choir story.

‘Frederica Bloggs (protag.) disobeys (conflict) her mother (antag.) and sneaks her little sister (twist – we don’t expect younger siblings to be snuck into school) in to the school practice rooms (setting) whilst she attends choir practice.’

Frederica (P) returns to the practice room (S) after choir to find that her little sister has disappeared. (C, T and A rolled into one).’

For me personally, these two sentences provide a much more helpful starting point than: ‘Um, ok, so this is the bit where Frederica takes her sister somewhere for some reason and then somehow loses her…?’.

Pre-thinking these five elements keeps my scenes less aimless.  Of course, I still struggle with pacing, with waffle, and with clunky writing. But that’s what the second draft is for.

If you're still working on developing your protagonist, Orla Broderick's blog takes a closer look at how she creates characters and offers a quick game to help your characters grow.

Helen Godfrey

Helen Godfrey received a New Writers Award in 2012. She is working on a novel for 10 – 12 year olds about a girl thief and a menagerie full of magical animals, set in an alternative Restoration London.