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The following builds on the ideas we encountered in Basic story structure and Expanding the basic story. You’ll also find additional advice on scenes in Characters.

In this chapter we’ll look at:

Defining a scene
Active and passive scenes
Each scene as a story
Being economic
Aiming for visual interest
Scenes checklist
Editing — be ruthless

Defining a scene

As a theatrical term ‘scene’ describes all the action taking place on stage in a particular location (the set of a drawing room, dungeon, street corner). In movies and novels a scene can be more fluid and might comprise a series of continuous related actions taking place across a number of locations. Think of a classic swashbuckling sword fight when the hero and villain spend five minutes clashing steel through milady’s boudoir, through the corridor, down the stairs into the Great Hall, then out into the kitchen turning left and ending up in the pig sty. In contrast, other scenes may describe action that is not continuous and might be spread over diverse locations over a long period of time.

Active and passive scenes

Whatever the mechanics of a scene each falls into one of two categories: active or passive.

Active scenes: here the protagonist is determined to reach a well defined, achievable goal and by the end of the scene they’ve either succeeded or failed to accomplish it. Active scenes don’t contain time breaks, everything happens in the present as a single continuous sequence of events.

Passive scenes: these generally deal with the aftermath of an active scene. The passive scene starts with the protagonist facing a dilemma and ends with them reaching a decision. These scenes can contain time breaks.

Take the following. A bank robber approaches a bank; his goal: robbery of said bank. He barges through the main door pulls a gun and orders the cashier to fill a bag with money. A customer sees his chance and tackles the bandit. The gun goes off and the customer is killed. Spooked, the robber flees the bank without his loot and the last we see of him he’s running down an alley, police sirens blaring in the background.

The above is an active scene. There are no time breaks, the robber doesn’t pull his gun and suddenly go into a flashback reminiscing about his school chess club, the sequence of action is unbroken.

If the next scene is passive we might see the robber facing his dilemma: to hide or run. He decides to run and furtively walks the streets as he tries to raise the cash to skip town from his lowlife friends. Eventually our robber ends up at the train station counting his money, trying to decide where to go. Then he sees a navy recruitment poster...

Most stories comprise strings of active scenes interspersed with passive scenes. Passive scenes do the following:

Give your audience a chance to catch its breath after the excitement of an active scene.

Allow implications arising from events in active scenes to sink in.

Provide opportunities to introduce new information about characters and build up their back-stories.

Provide opportunities to introduce twists.

Allow changes in direction — the setting of new goals.

In First Blood Rambo escapes from the town and is hunted through the woods by the sheriff and his deputies. This is an active scene that climaxes when Rambo captures the sheriff and, holding a knife to his throat, tells him to back off. The next scene is passive and we see action in a variety of locations: discussions inside a command tent; a news-reporter speaking to a camera; a helicopter coming into land; troopers assembling by a river; Rambo hunting a wild pig and making camp. The climax of this scene is Rambo’s radio conversation with his old commander Colonel Trautman (“Company leader to Raven. Talk to me, Johnny.”) which reveals much about Rambo’s past life. Trautman asks Rambo to surrender (presenting Rambo with a brief dilemma) but he refuses. The next scene is active, the action resuming as the National Guard and various armed townsfolk swarm into the woods to hunt down the fugitive.

Each scene as a story

Treat each scene as if it were a mini-story in its own right with a beginning, a middle and an end divided by two plot-points (see Basic story structure for an explanation of these terms).

For example, near the beginning of Star Wars there’s a passive scene in Obi-Wan Kenobi’s desert home. Here Kenobi tells Luke Skywalker that his father was a Jedi Knight, and R2D2 plays the recorded message of Princess Leia asking for Obi-Wan’s help. Obi-Wan asks Luke to join him and help the Princess. Luke refuses.

Here the first plot-point consists of Obi-Wan asking Luke to come away with him. This presents Luke with a dilemma, he can either go with Obi-Wan, or not. Luke refuses but agrees to give Obi-Wan a lift to the nearest spaceport. The offer of a lift is the second plot-point in the scene — it resolves the conflict between Luke and Kenobi. The next course of action has been agreed on and the story has been moved forward.

Being economic

Try to lump action into as few scenes as possible. It takes time and effort to establish a new location and this is better spent on the action and dialogue that will move your story along. If you have three separate scenes that feature conversations between the same two characters is there any way this information could be delivered in one or two scenes? Cut weak ‘bitty’ scenes or combine them to make strong, significant ones.

Aiming for visual interest

Make scenes more interesting and memorable by including a strong visual element. If you’re describing a conversation between two businesspeople in the atrium of an office building, do it against the backdrop of an impressive water feature or bright mural — some image that will stick in the mind. Alternatively, if it’s a really crummy office make the stand-out feature the half dead yucca plant drooping in the corner, or the extravagant blonde wig wobbling on the head of the receptionist. In the same way a conversation between two old ladies could take place in a parlour or sitting room, but would be more interesting in the corner of a bingo hall or during a walk through a graveyard.

Scenes checklist

Your active scenes should include the following:

A short-term goal for the protagonist. They must have an objective, and one they have a reasonable chance of achieving within the time-scale of the scene. If there’s no chance of success, there’s no tension.

An obstacle for your protagonist to overcome. Without significant obstacles your scene will have no interest or suspense.

A dramatic outcome. The best active scenes culminate in your protagonist suffering an unexpected disaster or setback. These raise the stakes and increase tension. Alternatively, if a scene is centred on your villain, aim for a good result. What’s good for your villain is bad for your hero.

In passive scenes make sure you have:

An appropriate beginning. Most passive scenes follow on from an active scene; in these cases the action in a passive scene should be a logical progression from the climax of the active scene that went before it.

A dilemma. This should be a choice between two equally unpleasant alternatives.

An outcome. Once the dilemma has been mulled over, your protagonist must come to a decision. It’s this outcome that will propel the story to the next scene.

Editing — be ruthless

The director and screenwriter Howard Hawks once said that a good movie should contain three great scenes and no bad ones. It’s great advice that’s true of any story. When you finish your first draft go through your text and eliminate your poorest scenes; either cut them altogether or extract the action they contain and find ways to embed it into stronger scenes. More pruning tips can be found in Revision and editing.

Main image: Frenzel c/o Shutterstock

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