How to let a scene write itself

Ever look at a scene you've written and realise it's as dull as ditch? Or worse, sat down to write a scene and don't know what the hell to write?

Me too. Sometimes you get so mixed up with what you've written, or what you haven't written, that you forget what it is you need to write.

But if the scene has the right elements it should pretty much write itself – but what are those elements, and how can you ensure your scene has them?

Let your characters make the drama

It's all too easy to write a scene that all about the lead character; a scene that show's off her loveable side; that reveals a dark truth about her past, a scene that allows her to rant on while all the other characters sit there and nod lifelessly. Sure, it's her story, but that doesn't mean that the characters she interacts with haven't got their own life journey to deal with. How many conversations have you been in where anyone actually cares what anyone else is saying? Most times people are just waiting for their turn to speak. The point being, every character is the lead in their own story.

If you put two or three fully formed characters together, with their own goals, frustrations, unrealised ambitions and unspoken hatreds, something will happen – those characters will react to each other and chances are they'll make a scene all by themselves.

Try and see the scene form every character's point of view. If you're still discovering your characters while writing your scene, a good short-hand technique for making a more realistic exchange is to imagine what you would say, think or do, if you were that character in that scene – and make sure you do it for each character.

Invent a dramatic situation

Yep, fully formed and complex characters will be interesting enough to watch, but why not turn up the heat by also putting them in a dramatic situation? Let the car break down on the way to the wedding, the child get lost in the park, the toast get burnt. Character is revealed by what people do much more so than what they say, particularly when they act under stress. The late, great Kurt Vonnegut said, a scene should do one of two things - advance the story or reveal character – and I'm not going to argue with that.

Scenes are about what's happening, not what's being said

You might think it's all about dialogue but it isn't. Dialogue is what's being said while the real stuff is going on – which may be either action or sub-text. There's a scene in the first series of The Wire where McNulty and Bunk are visiting an old and stale crime-scene. They say nothing but 'fuck' to each other throughout the whole scene, but what is actually happening is that they slowly come to realise through a number of stages exactly what happened at that crime-scene while they're saying it. One of the best scenes ever written, and all they say is 'fuck'.

So always ask yourself, what's actually happening in this scene? If you can't answer that question, that will be why it isn't working.

In summary

A scene is all about what's happening, and who it's happening to – if you know those two things intimately, the scene will write itself.


  1. I agree. Some scenes I know beforehand will write themselves. Others, I know will be hard. Action and subtext while dialoging is where it's at. :)

  2. And some scenes that you think are going to be really hard and keep putting off end up being really great. I think a lot of fledging writers get quite scared of the big climactic scenes and often stop before pursuing the dramatic potential they've set up to the bitter end. I say that because I used to do it myself. Or was it just me??

  3. This is fantastic advice! I'm in revisions and have been discovering a few scenes along the way that are made of nothing. I don't quite know what I was thinking when I wrote them--I think I was just thinking aloud! I'll be applying these ideas as I go, thanks.

  4. I'm revising the first draft of my first novel and have noticed some of the dialogue is hideously boring!

    As a fledgling writer, I am terrified of the climactic scene. I wrote it though. Sort of. Definitely needs work.

  5. I love that scene from The Wire, it's brilliant. Great post.

  6. @Amie - thanks for the comment, Amie, and nice to hear from you again. Always love your blog, by the way.

    @Cold As Heaven, @SharonHolly, @Pk Hrezo & @Girl Friday - thank you all so much for reading and commenting. Glad you appreciated the post.


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