9 Steps to Constructing a Good Scene or Chapter

Don’t put that book down, girl!

You know how sometimes you’ll read an entire chapter of a book and think to yourself, “What did I just read?” Or maybe, “What was the point of that?” Well, the reason you’re asking yourself this question is because whoever wrote the chapter didn’t know how to properly construct a scene…or it’s supposed to be some kind of deep literary nonsense, though if that’s the case you’d probably think to yourself “Soooo deep…” while secretly feeling ashamed because you assume you’re too dumb to understand it.

You are not too dumb! Some authors will write in the abstract for the purpose of showing off, but the goal of the vast majority of writers is to clearly relay information to the reader. Not to say there’s no room for ambiguity, interpretation, or abstract ideas or images, only that it needs to be purposeful; clarity should be the default.

The point is, every scene and chapter in your story should have a clear purpose, and that purpose should be one of two things: to build character or move the plot along; ideally both.

Most beginning authors will make the mistake of writing scenes or whole chapters for the sole purpose of exposition: worldbuilding info, character or story background info, characters moving from one place to another, characters explaining things to each other that the reader already knows, characters doing mundane tasks, endless buildup of some mystery, plot point explanations, etc. A scene can contain one or some of these elements, but if that’s all it does, then you have a problem. If your scene doesn’t illuminate or change a key character trait, or move the plot—not just explain the plot but move it forward—then it’s not a good scene. If people are complaining that your “story is dragging,” it’s probably for this reason.

To clarify, a scene is an event, or sometimes a series of events, that are connected by a singular time, place, or purpose. A chapter is one long scene or multiple scenes that complete part of a narrative arc.

Specifically, a scene should do one or more of these things:

  • Introduce new, important characters (important = story-relevant)
  • Character learns new, important information
  • Character reacts to new, important information
  • Character makes a meaningful choice
  • Key event in the plot takes place (usually due to character actions)

Here’s what a chapter should do:

  • Move the main character (or one of the main characters if more than one, ala a romance) along their primary narrative arc. Character should start in one place, mentally and/or physically, at the beginning of the chapter, and end up in another at the end of the chapter

Since chapters are made up of scenes, we’ll focus on just scenes. So how do you set up a scene? It’s comparatively easy to plot out your story, even to the detail of what will happen in each individual scene. But it’s less intuitive how a scene should flow from beginning to end. The key is to do something similar to the How to Start steps: determine who the “star” of the scene is, what they want, who or what’s in their way, and if they get what they want at the end.

Here are the steps to constructing a good scene:

(ASSIDE: Why are you so into steps and numbered lists? you might be wondering at this point if you’ve read my other posts. Because it’s easier to explain stuff in steps, that’s why. And it works for Cracked.com.)


  • Step 1: Decide who’s the POV character for the scene
  • Step 2: Make it clear when and where the scene is taking place
  • Step 3: Establish what the POV character wants
  • Step 4: Establish the context of the scene, and how the character’s critical flaw will be tested
  • Step 5: Establish who or what is preventing the POV character from getting what they want
  • Step 6: Convey what’s at stake in the scene
  • Step 7: Have the POV character and the opposing force face off
  • Step 8: Show if the POV character gets what they want at the end of the scene
  • Step 9: Finally, double check to make sure your scene serves a purpose
  • Step 1: Decide who’s the POV character for the scene

Don’t be cute and do an omniscient POV. Very few writers can pull that off without looking amateur.

If your book is in first-person POV, then this is obviously a non-issue—the POV was established at the very beginning of the book. If you have multiple POV options—say a scene takes place between two main characters ala a romance, for instance—then pick the character who has the most at stake in the scene. If that’s not a discerning factor, pick the one who can relay the most information to the reader, ex: an outsider visiting a new area the reader’s not familiar with yet. If that’s not a discerning factor either, then pick the most interesting character. If THAT’S not a discerning factor either, then just freakin’ pick one randomly and move on.

You need to establish the POV character by making it clear upfront whose perspective we’re in. For instance, let’s say our POV character for a scene we’re writing is named John. You could start the scene with this sentence: “John forced himself to walk through the police station’s towering double doors, taking slow breaths through his nose to appear calm.” We’re clearly in John’s POV because he’s the only person who knows what he’s thinking (assuming this story doesn’t involve psychics).

  • Step 2: Make it clear when and where the scene is taking place

Right from the opening line, we know John is in a police station. If it matters what time of day it is, we can add a mention in the first couple paragraphs about how he’s hungry for dinner—implying it’s the early evening—or maybe he needs to get back to work because he’s on his lunch break—implying it’s around noon.

  • Step 3: Establish what the POV character wants

What’s their goal in this scene?

For instance, let’s say John is in the police station because the police called him there so they could question him about the disappearance of his wife. What he wants is pretty simple—he wants to get out of there. His broader goal is to get the cops off his back. So we open the scene with John in the police station, acting fidgety and anxious (the opening line makes it clear he doesn’t want to be there). Maybe he asks the receptionist when he can leave over and over again.

  • Step 4: Establish the context of the scene, and how the character’s critical flaw will be tested

The context of a scene will inform how the characters should act. Now let’s say John also has secrets he’s hiding from the police; for instance, a mistress. Not only does he want to go home, he also wants to avoid slipping up and tipping them off to his secret…but he’s a bad liar. John’s critical flaw is that he’s dishonest. He’s now in a situation that directly tests this flaw. The result is he’ll be nervous and on edge when the police question him, while trying and failing to appear calm. Maybe right before the interview, John clumsily tries to delete the texts from his mistress off his phone.

The context of this situation is that John is in a cat-and-mouse game with the police that he’s woefully unprepared for.

  • Step 5: Establish who or what is preventing the POV character from getting what they want

The engine of any story is conflict, so there MUST be conflict in the scene. If the POV character just waltzes in, gets what they want, and waltzes out, then that’s a pretty boring scene. Or if the characters stand around exchanging exposition for the benefit of the audience -the most common version of a boring scene – then you’ve also got a snoozefest on your hands. There has to be something or someone significant standing in their way.

Usually, the opposing force is another person (sometimes it’s nature or a supernatural force like a ghost or whatever, but those opposing forces are less interesting and should be avoided unless they’re key parts of the story. If it’s a system—ex: the evil Empire in Star Wars—then the system should be represented by a person or a few key people—ex: Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine. The point is, people are easier to identify with than non-people, and make for more compelling antagonists). The antagonist also has a goal that’s in conflict with what the POV character wants, and this is how we define the trajectory of the scene: these two opposing forces face off.

In our example, John’s main opponent is the police detective questioning him. The detective takes John to an interrogation room and straight-up tells John that they want truthful answers to their questions. They know John is hiding something (the detective sees John nervously deleting texts), but don’t know exactly what it is (…though a mistress is pretty standard, honestly—any halfway decent detective can guess that). The detective also suspects John is responsible for his wife’s disappearance, but doesn’t know that for sure, either. The detective’s goal is to squeeze the truth out of John, which is in direct conflict with John’s goal to hide the truth.

  • Step 6: Convey what’s at stake in the scene

What happens if the POV character fails? What happens if the opponent fails? Stakes are what give a conflict—and hence the entire story—its strength. If the stakes are low, the reader’s not going to be super-invested in the outcome. If the stakes are high, the opposite happens: readers tell their friends your book is a page-turner, your sales go up, you become famous, BOOM YOU’VE MADE IT TAKE THAT HATERS…something like that.

Understanding the stakes is what builds suspense and tension. Hitchcock had these immortal words about tension (paraphrased here): if two people are sitting at a table having a conversation, and then a bomb goes off, the most you’ll get out of an audience is “Oh, wow” for a second at the end. However, if you show the audience the bomb underneath the table at the beginning of the scene, suddenly the entire conversation is dripping with tension. That’s how stakes work.

The stakes should continuously increase as the story unfolds. They don’t need to start off high, because a key element of stakes is that we care about the outcome, usually meaning we care about the characters. Some newbie authors will try to juice up the beginning of their books by putting their characters in peril right away, like writing an opening scene where the main character is running from danger ala Raiders of the Lost Ark. However, that particular scene was in a movie and was compelling because it introduced us to the adventure world of the story with some visual razzle dazzle, not because (at that point) we cared about Indiana Jones. If you try to do the equivalent with words in a book, it’s almost certainly not gonna work (trust me…many amateur writers have tried).

Sometimes I’ll get to the midpoint of a book I’m reading or a TV show I’m not super-into, and ask myself, “If this character got shot in the head right now, would I care?” If the answer is no, then I’ll stop reading/watching. Yeah it’s kinda morbid, but it illustrates my point quite clearly I think.

First, you introduce your characters and make your reader care about them with some low-stakes drama. Then you ratchet up the stakes.

For instance, here’s a quick scene that would be appropriate for the beginning of a story: Our protagonist, Jane, is at a supermarket shopping for food—her goal in this scene is simply to buy food. She lives alone, so she’s filling her shopping cart with a lot of single-serving meals, margarita mix for one, a single banana, one apple, etc., maybe while sighing sadly. We see she’s lonely and unhappy about it—that’s the context. Then, she sees a guy she knew from high school in the bread section. He was the only boy who was nice to her, despite the fact he was also a popular football player. She really wants to say hello to him, but she’s extremely nervous—her critical flaw is that she lacks self-confidence. So instead of just walking up and saying hi, she keeps starting to walk up to him, then changing her mind and walking away, over and over again as he’s shopping. What Jane doesn’t know is that he’s with his girlfriend—the opponent in this scene—and his girlfriend sees Jane’s erratic behavior and mistakes Jane for a creepy stalker. The girlfriend loudly confronts Jane, and Jane is escorted out of the store by local security. The scene ends with Jane not getting what she wanted—neither companionship, nor food. Jane’s critical flaw kept her from meeting her goals, even though all she initially wanted was food. Now we’ve set the stage for the rest of the story, and can increase the stakes as the story progresses and Jane wants more than just food.

So, back to our example with John the Lying Liar Who Can’t Keep It In His Pants: we might not like John, but we understand him and are rooting for him to become a more honest person; therefore, we care what happens in this scene (this particular scene would take place at about the midpoint or latter half of the story). The stakes for John are that he could be implicated in the disappearance of his wife, maybe even charged with her murder and thrown in jail. The stakes for the detective are the life of the man’s wife, if the detective fails to find her in time. Both have a lot to gain and to lose, which makes this a tense scene.

  • Step 7: Have the POV character and the opposing force face off

After you’ve set the scene and established what the primary players want and what’s at stake, the bulk of a scene will be two opposing forces facing off.

In our example, John and the detective will have an intense, cat-and-mouse conversation where John tries to lie his way out of trouble while the detective tries to coax him into telling the truth.

  • Step 8: Show if the POV character gets what they want at the end of the scene

The scene ends when the POV character gets what they want, or it becomes clear they won’t get what they want.

To wrap up our example, let’s say this scene culminates in the detective letting John go—so John gets what he wants—but the detective is also convinced that John is lying and probably killed his wife to cover up for something, like an affair. Now John has moved up to the detective’s number one suspect—not good for John!

  • Step 9: Finally, double check to make sure your scene serves a purpose

Like I said in the beginning of this long-ass post, every scene needs to either develop a character or move the plot forward, ideally both. Our example is a good scene because we get to see John’s primary character flaw in action: he’s lying to try to get out of trouble. We also get to see him make a meaningful choice: he could be honest with the detective and tell them the truth, but he chooses not to. The consequence is he becomes their number one suspect and increases his chances of going to jail (this whole example, BTW, is pretty much the plot of Gone Girl). We get character development and plot movement in one scene. That’s ideal!

However, let’s say this is the second or third scene where John is being questioned by the police. If all this stuff has already happened before—we’ve seen John lie to the police, we’ve seen their suspicion of him go up—then it’s NOT a good scene. We’re getting no new information, and John is still in the same place narratively that he was at the beginning of the scene.

A good rule of thumb is if you can cut a scene out of your story and nothing significant changes, then cut it or rewrite it.

A story is kinda like a Russian nesting doll—every scene is a mini-story with its own narrative arc within the larger story. Now that you know how to write scenes, go forth and conquer that blank page!


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