A scene is one of the smallest units of story, and yet it can be one of the most difficult things to get right. A good scene will keep the reader yearning for more. A bad scene will cause them to give up on your story.
Producing a great scene brings together elements from all over the writer's craft.
Sense of Place
A scene is, as Josip Novakovich puts it in Fiction Writer's Workshop, "a continuous action set in one place." Letting readers know where the scene is happening is therefore vital.
This can be done subtly by evoking aspects of the environment, describing the sunlight through the trees to show a forest or the sounds in a busy office. It can happen more directly, with a sentence that says "They sat around the kitchen table" or "we waited at the edge of the battlefield."
However you do it, make sure to do it quickly. To picture the scene in their heads, readers must imagine it happening somewhere. If you don't make that place clear then readers will feel confused or tricked when their assumptions are proven wrong later.
This doesn't mean you stop featuring description of the place after the first few lines, just that you should make sure to feature it early on.
Sense of Character
Equally important is conveying who is present in the scene, and whose point of view we are seeing it from. The latter point may be obvious after a while if you never shift viewpoint, but is vital if you have several points of view.
Like describing the scene, explaining who is present allows readers to picture the scene, and avoids jarring surprises. Characters' presence can be shown through their actions, their speech, or simply a description of who is there.
Action and Change
Every scene you write should move the story forwards. That means something should change in every scene. You may have described a dinner party beautifully, but if everything is the same at the end of it as it was at the start then it's slowing your story down, not moving it forwards.
For change to happen there needs to be some action. This could be physical action, verbal sparring or even a character grappling with their emotions, though too many scenes purely of this last sort will leave readers bored.
So that readers understand what has changed, the action should be clear. Set up how things are at the start, lead them through each step of the way, and show them where you have moved to by the end of the scene. Is someone dead, humiliated or impoverished? Are the heroes better or worse off than they were? Make sure the reader knows, and saw how it happened.
The Need for Conflict
Each scene is therefore a story in miniature, with an arc from one point to another. It needs conflict to drive that change and create the tension that keeps readers interested.
It doesn't have to be a big conflict – it could be something as simple as debating what to do next. It doesn't have to be between people –a human struggling to survive in a hostile environment is a classic conflict. But without conflict there is no doubt about the outcome, no stakes and no tension.
A story is an emotional journey. When we read we engage with our hearts as much as our heads. Each scene therefore needs to have an emotional value. Is it a romantic scene, a horrifying scene, an exhilarating scene? If you don't create the emotional value then you will be left with the worst possible one – boredom.
Make sure to vary the emotional values of your scenes. Like action and conflict, the emotional tone shouldn't be the same for scene after scene. Know what other scenes this one will sit between, and plan for the contrast you will create.
Place, character, action and conflict are all important in a scene, but without a strong emotional value, everything will fall flat. So plan that emotional value, plan the conflict that shape it, and write from there.
A Story in Miniature
Remember that, when you're writing a scene, in many ways you're writing a story in miniature. Try to:
Evoke the setting.
Show who's present and remind readers of what those characters are like.
Make something change, through action and conflict.
Know the scene's emotional value, and vary this from scene to scene.
If you can do all that then you can build a great scene, one that will keep readers coming back for more.
More about: Plot & Structure