How to Write a Compelling Scene in a Short Story

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Dec 13, 2019 • 4 min read

Compelling scenes are essential to a great story, but writing scenes is also one of the most difficult parts of writing fiction. A great scene can help establish character, set the tone and advance the plot, not to mention entertain your readers along the way. Learning the fundamentals of how to write a perfect scene can help elevate your writing and improve your narratives.



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What Is a Scene?

A scene is a contained narrative unit that takes place within a larger narrative. Scenes are the building blocks of stories. Most stories are made up of a series of scenes that vary in setting and advance the plot. Occasionally a short story (or even longer narrative) will be made up of a single scene. Crafting a good scene is one of the hardest tasks facing writers, and it takes years of practice to master.

3 Characteristics of a Compelling Scene

Effective scenes accomplish multiple goals. Here are some of the hallmarks of a compelling scene in fiction:

  1. A compelling scene moves the story forward. A good scene moves the narrative along and introduces new information. Scenes are where you reveal exposition and establish conflict. Good scenes are an essential part of plot development.
  2. A compelling scene centers on conflict. Even the most quotidian scenes generally contain conflict. Conflict is an essential part of drama, and compelling scenes generally contain a scene-specific conflict while also advancing the overarching conflict in the larger narrative.
  3. A compelling scene takes a “show, don’t tell” approach to exposition. Good scenes don’t overcommunicate the narrative information that you want to convey. If you’ve written a scene effectively, you can trust that your reader will pick up the necessary information. Focusing on painting a thorough and realistic picture, and trust that your audience. Learn more about how to use “show, don’t tell” in your writing here.
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How to Write a Good Scene in 9 Steps

Writing a good scene is one of the hardest parts of fiction writing. If you’re working on the opening scene of the first draft of your first novel, it can be daunting to dive right in to writing an engaging and entertaining scene.

Here are some steps to help you write effective scenes:

  1. Be clear about the purpose of the scene. Before you begin a scene you should be very aware of how the scene functions in your story. More than likely your scene will correspond to a plot point in your outline. Keep in mind the information that you need to convey at this point in your narrative and the scenes that come before and after.
  2. Establish a scene-specific setting. Part of good writing is taking time to communicate the setting to your audience. Don’t sacrifice texture and world-building by focusing entirely on plot and scene structure. This is especially important if your scene is taking place in a new location. Take some time to establish a sense of place for your readers, so they aren’t left feeling disoriented or confused.
  3. Consider starting in the middle of the action. In order to write dynamic scenes, consider starting en media res. One way to do this is to write a complete scene and see how it reads after you cut out the beginning of the scene. Often, a reader can pick up all the necessary context and exposition if you start in the middle. This also serves to keep up the pace of your narrative, which is particularly useful if you’re writing a thriller or action-adventure novel. Try starting a scene with a first line that immediately thrusts the reader into the middle of your action.
  4. Include conflict. Compelling scenes generally include some sort of conflict. This isn’t to say that every scene you write should be a fight scene, but they should contain dramatic action and tension. Even a mundane or lighthearted scene should move your plot along and relate to the central conflict of your narrative.
  5. Write from a specific POV. Think about the best point of view from which to approach your scene. You may want to alternate POVs depending on who is driving the scene. If your story is mostly told in first person from the perspective of your main character, you may want to deviate for scenes that explore another character’s backstory or contain a flashback. You can even alternate between first-person and third-person. Consider what POV best serves your scene and write the scene accordingly.
  6. Identify the high point. The structure of a scene is similar to the traditional story structure you use in novel-writing. A good scene structure will have an inciting incident, a turning point, a climax, and a resolution. Sometimes, as you wrap up the process of scene-writing, you might want to exit a scene prior to a resolution because the action is still ongoing.
  7. Shake things up. Something should change from the beginning to the end of your scene. Scenes are dynamic and advance your plot, and this can only be accomplished through change. There are a number of things that can change in compelling scenes including character, plot, and tone.
  8. Write scene transitions. It’s important to consider how a scene ends and how it will lead into the next scene. Think about the end of the scene and how it sets up how the next scene starts. Effective scene transitions will keep your reader engaged and help move along your plot in a clear way.
  9. Edit. Don’t skip the rewriting process. Good scenes are almost never finished after the first draft. Take time to reread your work and make adjustments to fine-tune your scenes. The best scenes are almost always found through multiple drafts. Take the time to make sure your scenes are as well-written and compelling as possible.


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