“Writing a great scene is like juggling. You need to ground your scenes first in place and time and build them by creating that particular moment in time…”
Linda Joy Myers
Scenes are the building blocks of short stories, plays, and novels. A well-crafted scene transports readers into your world, immersing them in its sights, sounds, and feelings. If you use sensual details effectively, according to neuroscience research, your readers will experience them in the moment — as if they are actually happening. How can you help your readers sink into the world you’ve summoned up for them?
Linda Joy Myers, the author of Don’t Call Me Mother and The Power of Memoir, offers some helpful suggestions on powerful scene writing gleaned from well-written memoirs. Here’s her “Checklist for creating scenes:”
Place, setting: Ground your reader in their new reality by describing the landscape, the weather, buildings, cityscapes, and natural landmarks — whatever is most helpful in evoking a sense of time and the atmosphere you want your readers to absorb.
Characters: Focus on revealing who they are through their actions and dialogue. Use reflection and physical actions to help sketch a portrait of your characters. Weave in details that show your characters fully engaged in your scenes by giving their thoughts and reactions to what they say and hear — reveal their behavior through what they say and use details, such as their body language, to clue the reader in to how they say it and how they react to others.
Situation: What is the central problem in the scene? What do the characters want?
Action: How do different people in the scene move through the space they inhabit and react physically to what’s happening to them and around them?
Dialogue: How do people speak and engage each other verbally? What is the cadence, the rhythm of their words? What does their body language reveal about how they are actually feeling? What do their reflections about what they hear — their inner dialogue — reveal to the reader?
Conflict: How do the people in the scene express their differences? How do they interact with the goal of getting what they want?
Context: When does the story occur in time? How can you indicate this through telling details that the reader will register?
Sensual environment: How can you help your readers experience your world through their senses? Moving beyond what they see, how does the world you’re building for them smell, taste, and sound like? Is it harsh and hot like parts of Strayed’s Wild, or wet and cold, like McCourt’s miserable Irish childhood captured so vividly in Angela’s Ashes?
Scenes well crafted transport and engage our readers. Let’s create them with care as we all write on!
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