Sunday, September 7, 2014

Scenes: show, don’t tell

Instead of beginning a scene with omniscient narration, which is like voiceover in a movie, begin with a framed scene, allowing your characters to interact. In other words, SHOW your story instead of TELLING it. To show your story, you need to write dramatic scenes. Then your readers can sit back and watch the action and listen to the dialogue and the other “sound effects” as if they were watching a play being presented on a stage. That’s how you should think about writing fiction: You are presenting a stage play in novel form. When you do that, your readers will experience an emotional response. That’s the only way to engage your audience. People read novels for emotion, not information.

What do I mean by "framing" a scene? You must settle your readers quickly into each scene by doing the following:


  • Identify the setting and give the reader a sense of where we are.
  • Let the reader know how much time has passed since the previous scene.
  • Indicate who your point-of-view character is and describe his/her frame of mind.
  • Mention everyone who is present so that a character doesn’t suddenly pop up out of nowhere or so that character’s dialogue doesn’t come as a surprise to the reader.
  • Subtly place any props your characters need, so when they reach for a briefcase or gun or chair, the reader will already have that object in their vision of the setting.


Offer these required elements in a different order each time for variety.

Remember that you must plan a scene before you write it. I have read too many first novels that have scenes that have obviously not been planned. To plan a scene you must first ask yourself, "What is the purpose of this scene" and "What do I want to accomplish in this scene?"

Every scene should serve a purpose. To keep this in mind, tape this list to your monitor:

The SCENE’S PURPOSE is to:

• Move the main plot line ahead

• Present necessary information

• Introduce or develop characters

• Create atmosphere or develop setting

• Introduce or worsen a problem

• Solve a problem

• Set up a later scene


The scene should serve at least one of these purposes. Also be sure to note the primary action that will occur in the scene.


Paul Thayer