Questions To Ask When Writing A Scene

Rhett Butler takes his hat and heads to the door. Scarlet O’Hara is right behind him. They’re parting for the last time. She pleads after him, asking in her self-absorbed way about her future. What will she do?

“Frankly my dear,” he says at the threshold. “I don’t give a damn.” And he turns his back on her forever.

This is a classic scene from a classic film, one that may even be all that a viewer can remember from Gone With the Wind. The scene concludes the relationship between Rhett and Scarlet and the film and leaves the viewer satisfied and probably wondering what took him so long.

The longevity of that scene, made famous in film, can be an example of what every scene needs in fiction. To create a memorable scene, you may want to ask yourself several questions, sculpting the parts together so that even if it never makes it to the big screen, it’s well crafted and can be enjoyed by readers.

What to know first:

Who is in this scene? The absolute necessary characters and no more, if you can get away with it? Why? You want your reader to not get confused, the fewer the characters, the better. 

What is the purpose of the scene? Every scene progresses the story and either has a positive impact or a negative one on the objectives of the main character. If this is a neutral scene, and the main character does not face conflict of some sort, then you need to reconsider the importance to the whole book. In the “don’t give a damn” scene, the purpose was to conclude the relationship and the film itself only has a few minutes left.

Where does the scene take place? The best locations for scenes are where maximum amount of tension can be attained, If you’re in a house, then it’s in the crowded kitchen, not on the spacious deck. If you’re in the labraotory, it’s in the place where you have to wear a lot of protective clothing. More potential conflict = more interest.

“She had no tolerance for scenes which were not of her own making.” 
― Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth

What is the emotional barometer of every single person in the scene? Everyone has to react to the results of the scene either positively or negatively, so know where you ‘re going before you write it. Your characters may go from angry to compliant, from curious to horrified, from fearful to relieved. From a positive to a negative, or vice versa. She is more in love with him? He is all the more determined to kill?

What decisions will be made as a result of this scene?  Each scene needs to reveal or gain something for the benefit of the plot. Your protagonist needs to move forward into positive gains or backward into negative ones. These gains/losses should cover all dimensions of their lives.

Example: Let’s say your story is a mystery and this last scene some clues were revealed. Your protagonist, the detective, gains by this revelation, which is obviously central to the progress of the plot. However, this same chapter could have losses that your detective should respond to. Such as, they get a text the tells them of bad news at home, they miss the train to the next appointment, they find out their crush isn’t interested, they accidentally rip their pants. These types of losses aren’t the plot themselves, but they have the potential of affecting how your character responds to the details of the plot. 

What secrets are revealed, or almost revealed?  All plots should have secrets or mysteries. Your reader will be intrigued by the question of them: what is really going on?  Your scenes should tease the reader with little bread crumbs of hints. So ask yourself, in this scene, what can you refer to  that will intrigue your reader so they’ll keep turning the page?

“I can’t read fiction without visualizing every scene. The result is it becomes a series of pictures rather than a book.” 
― Alfred Hitchcock

What lies are reinforced? In the same manner, some character in your book should be varnishing the truth. No matter what the genre, lies are good! Like with the secrets, give hints to your reader regarding the lies that the characters are propagating. 

How is each character’s personality revealed? Each scene is an opportunity to show and not tell. I suggest as you write a scene, list everyone who is going to be “on stage”. Then, as you draft it, demonstrate these characters’ quirks and traits in the course of dialogue and action. Once you draft it, examine each physical motion and line of dialogue carefully and only keep what is consistent with each character. If you find it difficult to write distinct actions or dialogue for the characters in the scenes, then consider developing those characters more specifically first, then drafting the scene. 

What is picked up or discarded in this scene? Are there important props or items that could add or subtract from the action? Are there items that are more symbolic that need to be noticed? Are there weapons that need to be acquired or discarded? Is there evidence to be left behind? The best question: how will the items in this scene add or take away from the objectives of the main character? Additionally, what items do you need in this scene that you haven’t mentioned yet, that you may need to go back and put in? 

What external conflicts can you add here organically?  There should be conflict on every page of your work-in-progress. Every. Single. Page. How do you pack in the conflict? Think layers. The obvious conflict is facing obstacles that keep your protagonist from meeting a specific goal, but the more subtle ones would include arguing with sidekicks, technology fails, weather issues, health problems, misunderstandings, getting physically separated from a team, car trouble, self-doubt and manifestation of fears. If you know your characters well enough, and have developed them thoroughly, then you should have no trouble coming up with conflicts. 

“A man is made of memories. It is all we are. Captured moments, the smell of a place, scenes played out time and again on a small stage.” 
― Mark Lawrence

What are some of the sensory details of this scene that your reader would find interesting and helpful?  The details of your scene are important. Try writing 3-5 sentences in the scene that paint a picture of where your characters are and how the environment affects them. Use all five senses in this description, and use the setting to allow for more conflict. If they’re in a windowless room waiting on an interrogation, then have the AC sputter and make the temperature grow more uncomfortable. 

What details aren’t that important? In the drafting stage, feel free to overwrite. But in the editing stage, make sure only the most necessary descriptions are in your scene.

How does this current scene enhance the previous one? How will future scenes build off this current one? By that I mean, did your protagonist achieve something that they could lose? Did they lose something that they could now gain? 

Scenes are this glorious chain of links that can fasten a story’s points together. Craft your scenes well. Take your time, answer the above questions and you’ll see exactly how they can all come together.

Tomorrow is another day.

Katharine Grubb is an author, poet, homeschooling mother, camping enthusiast, bread-baker, and believer in working in small increments of time. She leads 10 Minute Novelists, an international Facebook group of time-crunched writers. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.