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Good Scenes: How to Make Your Fiction Sizzle

How to draw your readers into your characters’ world — and always leave them wanting more.

Image of a theater for story on how to write a good scene
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What are the ingredients of good fiction? Among them are surely compelling characters, a spirited prose style, and good scenes that are riveting.

Scenes bring your reader in close. Good scenes enable your reader to experience firsthand your characters and their world. Dull, dry-as-dust scenes will surely dim down your fiction and kill reader interest.

But how do you avoid flat scenes? What fictional elements should you rely on? Should you go for short scenes or long ones? Should your scenes end with a bang?

We asked six well-published writers, both short story writers and novelists, for their take on these questions.

A Good Scene & Handling the Elements

Before we get into the makeup of a good scene, let’s first think about the various goals you as a fiction writer might have for a scene. Must you have a goal?

According to Connie Berry, author of the Edgar Award-nominated Kate Hamilton mysteries, “every scene in a novel should have a specific goal — more than simply moving the plot forward.” Naturally, this forward movement calls for conflict, which creates suspense and what Berry terms “emotional tension.”


What else can you accomplish in a scene? You can reveal character through dialogue, plant clues or red herrings, foreshadow later developments, and explore or develop themes, says Berry. “Before writing or revising a scene, write down your specific purposes. A goal-rich scene will keep the reader’s interest.”

Let’s focus on character. A key question to ask yourself, says Sophie Sullivan, a Canadian writer who recently published the rom-com A Guide to Being Just Friends, is what your character wants. Once you know that, “supply an action that moves them a tiny step toward their goal.” This is a process, says Sullivan, not a one-time thing: “By keeping their wants in the forefront of your mind (while also accepting that these wants change with the character growth), whether drafting or editing, you can decide if the scene is leading toward that final objective.”

Scenes dramatize. They don’t tell or explain, though they might, in some cases, have a narrative purpose. When this is the case, it’s tempting to rely on exposition, says Berry, but use it sparingly because exposition will quickly “pull your readers out of the scene.”


“Unless you’re writing a play, you’re going to need both showing and telling,” says Barbara DeMarco-Barrett, author of Pen on Fire and editor of Palm Springs Noir. “Telling is not a bad thing; too much of it is.” She’s discovered that a dull, draggy scene is often due to “too much telling and not enough showing.” To dramatize, use dialogue: “Dialogue is a great cure for scenes that drag. Dialogue can deliver readers to where you want them to go much faster and more interestingly than narrative that slogs along,” she says. But a notable exception: “Too much dialogue and not enough narrative can drag down a scene, and when this happens, writing a bit of a character’s interiority can help.”

When writing dialogue, it’s important to go for each character’s unique voice, says Lisa Peers, a romantic comedy author and former actor. Drawing on her acting career, “working from a script, I’d create characters based on what they say and why.” She allows her characters to enter into dialogue with each other, meanwhile taking notes. For Peers, this strategy “illuminates their personalities and what’s important to them based on what they’re willing to express and what words they choose.”

How do you make your dialogue interesting, catchy, and compelling? According to Robert Garner McBrearty, award-winning author of four short story collections, make sure it’s loaded with tension. Scenes need what he calls resistance. “Evocative dialogue delivers a twist, a turn, something revelatory. The revelation surprises the characters. We hope it also surprises the reader. Sometimes the tension is subtle, but we sense trouble brewing beneath the surface.” One thing to keep in mind, says McBrearty, is that “it’s difficult to write or revise one component in isolation, so as we sharpen dialogue, we also develop characters.”


One problem with scenes, according to Anthony Varallo, author of The Lines, is that of repeated gestures: “Avoiding dullness usually means avoiding repetition, especially repeated actions and speech patterns.” To energize a dull scene in either a short story or novel, says Varallo, you should pare out repeated actions such as exhaling a plume of cigarette smoke, smiling broadly, or rolling one’s eyes; it’s much better, he believes, to replace gestures like these with “surprising lines of dialogue.”

Dialogue won’t be surprising, though, states Varallo, if it follows a predictable Q&A format, “where one character asks another character a question, and the other character dutifully responds, over and over again. The effect is like watching two tennis players gently lobbing the ball to each other’s sweet spot, neither player needing to move.”

But how do you avoid what Varallo calls a “Q&A exchange?” You can break with this predictable, formulaic back and forth by “having one character refuse to answer the question by not saying anything — or, even better, have them broach a new, unexpected topic that suddenly shifts the scene in a new direction.”


Shortening or Extending a Good Scene

To be effective, does a good scene need to be a specific length? Is there a standard to follow?

As Peers points out, “There isn’t a standard length for scenes or chapters, even within the same book. Instead, scene length is a matter of pacing, which often depends on the type of story you’re writing.” For instance, certain genres, like historical novels or science fiction, tend to call for longer and more developed scenes to help ground readers in the “characters’ reality,” states Peers.

On the other hand, she says, “Rom-coms like the ones I write benefit from a light touch and shorter, faster-paced scenes. That means trimming anything that bogs down the action, no matter how much you’re in love with it: an inner monologue that’s clever for its own sake or beautifully written descriptions that have no intrinsic value to the story.”

According to Berry, “short scenes tend to focus on plot and action. Longer scenes tend to focus on setting and character.” How do you determine the right length for any given scene? Scene length, she says, depends on three main factors: style, voice, and pacing. In terms of the latter, “short scenes tend to increase the pace of the novel. Longer scenes tend to slow the pace down. You need both.”


You can increase tension and suspense by stringing a series of short scenes together, says Berry. But this goes only so far. “Keeping a fast pace going too long is a little like sprinting uphill. Eventually, the reader — and your POV character — needs time to catch his or her breath. Varying the length of scenes in a novel is a way to intentionally control your pacing.”

But how do you shorten a scene? What exactly do you trim or cut? What are the nuts and bolts?

According to DeMarco-Barrett, “If a scene is overwritten, look for exposition, throat clearing at the start. Have you started the scene as close to the action as possible?” Omit backstory, she says, and leave out what happens to your protagonist once a particular problem, whatever it is, is resolved.


You can also trim a scene, says Sullivan, by substituting body language for dialogue. “In the piece I’m editing right now, one of my editor’s comments referred to the fact that she knew what I was going for but wondered how I could really drive it home.” Body language such as “a raised brow, clenched hands, or an audible gasp can cut down an elongated scene and still leave an impact.”

Sullivan says this rings especially true for a short story. “In a short story, actions and body language are especially important because you need all of those key plot points/beats to happen in a timely, condensed manner. Being able to convey emotion through a look or a touch really amps up the tension while helping the reader connect.”

With short scenes, “the action is immediate,” says McBrearty. “There’s usually no backstory, or very limited backstory.” Yet sometimes, he says, “they may be too sparse. We may want to reflect, to elaborate, to provide more setting details.”


“There are virtues to both shortening or extending a dull scene to give it a bit more energy,” says Varallo. His favorite is to shorten a scene, especially the closing scenes of a short story, “where, in my first attempt, I may have tried too hard to round the last lines off into capital-M Meaning and overstayed the reader’s welcome.”

If you’re thinking about trimming a scene, says Varallo, consider these two questions: “When did the scene stop being interesting? When did the last truly surprising moment occur?” The answers to both questions, he says, usually end up the same: “So often the last interesting moment turns out to be a line of dialogue.”

DeMarco-Barrett tends to be a minimalist, she says, and often needs to lengthen her scenes. “I look for places I summarized or told what happened and instead, I get my characters talking and interacting. But not just show what they’re saying; how are they saying it?” In other words, dramatize: “Expressions, gestures, movement, action. Insert what a character is thinking as they split wood, clean the grout, pick up the mail. I look to the setting, too — is it vivid?”


According to Varallo, “extending a scene to enliven it seems to work better in a novel. A good place to look is the narration that occurs between a long dialogue exchange.” Often, he says, narration that “lingers in the moment” could be remedied by getting into your character’s head — or providing interiority. “What does your focal character think during the most intense moment of the exchange? What might they recall? Can you give the reader one specific detail that might amplify that tension?”

A long, extended scene need not be dull, states McBrearty. Think of it “as containing a series of scenes-within-the-scene. Let’s say our protagonist is at a party. She has an interesting and revelatory conversation in the kitchen but now moves into the living room with a subsequent conversation with a new character.” We can think of this as an extended scene, he says, “because we’re in the same time period, but in a way, it’s new — new room, new conversation. If an extended scene seems dull, try moving the protagonist to a new locale.”

Or if not a change of locale, says McBrearty, try “cutting away from the ongoing action” and entering your character’s mind. “A memory pops up, and that memory creates a scene, and then we come back to the ongoing scene. Our scene, once dull, now feels enlivened, dynamic, textured.”


Ending a Good Scene

Should a good scene end with fireworks going off? Well, in some way, the ending should be suspenseful. It needs to end on a strong note of one kind or another.

Make it a page-turner, says Sullivan. “The idea is to leave the readers with a line that has them saying, ‘I’ll just read the next page to see what happens.’” But how do you do that? You whet the reader’s appetite by making sure “there’s something left unsaid, whether it’s in the character’s mind or a conversation with another character.”

According to Berry, “each scene must lead to the next. I like to think of scenes as falling dominoes, each triggering the next until the final domino falls.” To end a scene with a measure of suspense, she depends on three techniques: “ending with a question that simply must be answered; foreshadowing subsequent action; and introducing a plot twist.”

For McBrearty, the ending of a scene depends on where the scene falls in a story. “If it’s an early or midway scene,” he says, “I’m not concluding the whole story, just closing off the scene, and the closure opens the door to the next scene. Still, the conclusion (or closure) should strike a strong and memorable note.”


According to Varallo, “If there’s any way I can end a scene on a line of dialogue rather than a line of exposition, I will aim for dialogue. There’s something generous about allowing your characters to have the last word in a scene — not you, the writer — that can open up the scene to richness, depth, and complexity.”

His advice: “Let your characters take the wheel of the scene, so to speak. See where they might lead you.” Not that ending a scene with exposition can’t be as strong, says Varallo. “In fact, I think you need to have some variety, scene by scene, so that they end on different ‘beats.’” Yet he does think that dialogue is often “a good cure for a scene that ends on exposition and somehow feels stiff, soggy, or just plain boring.”

According to DeMarco-Barrett, “Just as the end of a story is important — and hard to get right — the ends of scenes, or curtain lines, are important.” She’s always looking for ways to make the end of a scene intriguing. “Sometimes I want to deliver character detail, sometimes I want to amp up the tension, and when ends of scenes do both, all the better.”


Energizing your scenes

Scenes involve readers if they are driven by conflict. If they’re ho-hum, they won’t. The best scenes, rich with compelling dialogue, capture your character’s unique voice. How long should a scene be? Whatever it takes to work out the conflict — to a degree. Don’t resolve it. End a scene making the reader want more.


Writing Good Scenes: Tips from the pros

Anthony Varallo:

“A good scene enlists the reader’s involvement in the story to the degree that they feel shoulder to shoulder with your characters.”


Sophie Sullivan:

“You know a scene is good when you feel like you, as the reader, are part of it; the characters’ emotions resonate off the pages and make you want to know more. A good scene sends that jolt to your heart or stomach because it has an impact.”

Lisa Peers:

“A great scene is a diabolical mix of tension and release. On the one hand, it provides answers that move the story forward and develop the characters — but on the other hand, it sparks even more questions that compel the reader to turn the page.”

Jack Smith is the author of six novels, four books of nonfiction, and numerous reviews, articles, and interviews.