Scenes and Chapters
Video/Text

The Components of a Dramatic, Easy-to-Read Scene

Lesson 2 Chapter 1 Module 1

The Problem


How to keep readers content, on board, and clear about what's happening  — as the stakes raise and the drama grows more complex?

In the last lesson, I argued two things:

  1. Writing stories will become a lot easier and more satisfying if you assume that your primary job is to create (and then go on deepening) a relationship between the reader and a main character.
  2. The best way to start writing like that is to plan your chapters in terms of scenes. I also suggested that a normal chapter will contain one to two scenes.

The question then becomes — what is a scene?

What parts does it have? And in what order?

This Lesson Contains

  • Technique: what a scene contains
  • Handout: grandma tells a spooky tale
  • Practice: realisation after driving

The video for this lesson (above) argues that a scene has five main components: 

  • orientation
  • setting
  • forward motion
  • reflection
  • exposition

On the one hand, setting and exposition are probably the easiest to grasp. Yet, in general, many writers introduce these two elements too early in a scene. It's fine to say, at the start of a scene: "The sun was low in the sky," and let that be all the setting info you need; you can return to the setting later, once the action has intrigued the reader, and start talking about the cold on the hero's neck, the mist on the hills.

Orientation is the element I most worry that non-famous writers omit, or skimp on: grounding the reader in the protagonist's point of view, mindset, goals and fears.  

The video for this lesson (above) argues that a scene has five main components: 

  • orientation
  • setting
  • forward motion
  • reflection
  • exposition

On the one hand, setting and exposition are probably the easiest to grasp. Yet, in general, many writers introduce these two elements too early in a scene. It's fine to say, at the start of a scene: "The sun was low in the sky," and let that be all the setting info you need; you can return to the setting later, once the action has intrigued the reader, and start talking about the cold on the hero's neck, the mist on the hills.

Orientation is the element I most worry that non-famous writers omit, or skimp on: grounding the reader in the protagonist's point of view, mindset, goals and fears. Similarly, many writers fail to keep writing reflections and realisations as the scene progresses. They assume that the reader is now on board, that the meaning of the action is clear. 

Worksheet: Grandma Tells a Tale (download)

This worksheet lets your practise alternating forward motion with reflections. 

Reflections keep the scene feeling meaningful, and they also allow you to fill even quiet scenes with dramatic feeling. Small events can cause powerful reactions, after all.

As you'll see, the scene in the worksheet has an obvious ticking clock: Emily must get home eventually, and if she stays too late her parents will call (or come looking for her).

However, there is also a second clock, which Emily doesn't appreciate until later: she will have to walk through the woods to get home, and the night will have fallen, and her grandma's mysterious lover is still walking among the trees, looking not a day older than he did fifty years before.

Get the worksheet here: Grandma tells a spooky tale.

Interactive: Your Protagonist Re-orients

Even when an orientation seems unnecessary, you should still begin the scene with one. After all, you can always remove it later, in editing. 

But you probably won't. 

In fact, an orientation at the start of a scene is a great place to update the reader on how the character's emotions have developed, even if the last scene only ended seconds before.

Here's an example. 

Imagine that Scene 5 of your novel ended with the protagonist, Maurice, deciding he had to tell his friend about his true feelings. He texted that he was coming over and called an Uber.

Scene 6 begins. He is arriving at his friend's place. Only twenty minutes, at most, have passed. You might feel tempted to skip the orientation. Don't. 

Instead, use the orientation to show how Maurice's mood has developed in the car.

Here's how you might use this "instant orientation" in your own story.

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PS Just like in the last class, this activity is interactive, and you can take it as many times as you like to see all the different options.

Just enter your email address to get your answers sent over to you.

  • Elizabeth G. Wilmerding says:

    Grandma tells a spooky story: Emily starts looking at her watch and glancing out the window. She thinks, how could Grandma not see how totally creepy, stalkery this guy was?? Finally, she says, “Grandma, thanks for the story but I really have to go.” Grandma winds down and seems disappointed that her granddaughter doesn’t sympathize more. She finishes by saying, “Well, he walked into the woods one day and didn’t come back. Sometimes I imagine he’s still out there waiting for me.” Oh great, Emily thinks, now I have to think about that all the way home.” Grandma hugs her and says, “You remind me so much of me at your age. He’d have enjoyed meeting you.” And Emily steps into the darkness outside Grandma’s house.

  • Marianne Wilke says:

    Maurice was angry at his parents for not letting him go on a date with his girlfriend. She came to the house looking like a prostitute with a mini skirt, heavy make-up and a skimpy top. His mother didn’t like the new girlfriend and told him to go to his room. She told the girlfriend to go home and to never come back.

    Maurice did not go to his room, but turned to his mother and said, “What right do you have to judge my girlfriend?” He felt so angry he almost hurt his mother.

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