Strengthening the scenes in your fiction

Strengthening the scenes in your fiction

by Ellen Buikema

This post is based on notes I took during Susan Pohlman’s talk at the 2014 Southwest Valley Writers Conference about creating an effective scene.

writer'simaginationEvery scene services the journey; it moves the story down the track, not sideways. Slow down and let your readers step into the room and watch. Present events in real time to win the heart of the reader. And remember that scenes show; summaries tell.

  1. What is the structure of the scene? The beginning: where (setting) and when (time). The middle: dramatic action unfolds. The end: the reader is moved along to a new plot point or understands a change. The scene is over when something has happened.
  2. What is the function of the scene? What will the scene accomplish? Why do you need the reader in the room?
  3. Which event occurs during the scene? At the end of the scene, something will have changed. What has the reader learned? Have you revealed character? Have you moved the plot forward?
  4. What do the characters want? Which emotion is driving the action: love, hate, jealousy, anger, revenge, prejudice, or something else?
  5. Does your scene have tension? Does it build? Is the tension released in some way? Conflict builds tension.
  6. Is the scene grounded in action? Plot the action beats to track the movement of your characters. Chose actions that support your mode/tone. Check the balance of action/reaction using different colored highlighters on the printed copy of a scene.
  7. Does the dialog advance the plot or reveal character?
  8. What is the hotspot? Where does your scene turn? After the hotspot, there is no turning back: “Houston, we have a problem.”
  9. The scene opens when the action starts.
  10. The scene closes when the action is over.


Ellen Buikema is a parent and former teacher. A graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago, she received her M.Ed. specializing in Early Childhood. She has extensive post-graduate studies in special education from Northeastern Illinois University. Ellen writes short stories, poetry, adult non-fiction and children’s fiction, sprinkling humor everywhere possible. Find her at Follow her on Twitter @ecellenb.

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