7 Essential Elements to Creating Scenes That Sizzle

Every story spans a period of time. Story can be defined as conflict shown in scene, meaning that most writers will treat time in scene rather than in summary.

An example of a partial scene from Rick Bragg’s memoir, Ava’s Man:

Charlie felt the hot rush of shot fly past his face, and his legs shook under him with the boom of the gun. But it was a clean miss, and he started to run at Jerry, closing the distance even as Jerry fished in his pocket for another load.

Twenty feet…

Jerry cursed and broke open the breech.

Twelve feet…

He slapped in the fresh shell.

Eight feet…

He snapped the gun closed.

Six feet…

He threw it to his shoulder.

Four feet…

He saw a fist the size of a lard bucket come flying at his nose.

Every high point in a story must be played out in scene on the page, moment-by-moment in real time. The technique of slowing things down forces the stakes in a story ever higher. At the same time, the stakes also rise for the writer.

Many beginning writers hide from the pressure of creating scenes by relying on summary. These same writers hold the mistaken belief that they can control things better by “telling” what happens rather than by “showing” what happens in scene. Consider, instead, the idea that by breaking down each scene to its smallest parts you retain control.

Essential Element #1: Time and Place

The first layer of every scene deals with time and setting. Often this layer is implied or understood from the scenes and summaries that precede it. Either way, be sure to ground your readers in the “where” and “when” of the scene. The last thing you want is for your reader to awaken from the dream you have so carefully crafted due to disorientation or confusion.

In the scene from Ava’s Man, the time is established in the earlier part of the scene – “They were getting ready for supper just a few weeks later when.”

Essential Element #2: Character Emotional Development

If conflict, tension and suspense drive the reader to turn the page or send the viewer to the edge of her seat, the character emotional development motivates them. Readers read stories and viewers go to the movies to learn about a character’s emotional development. The word development implies growth or change. Therefore character becomes a layer.

Using the example, Charlie’s character emotional development has deepened over the scope of the story thus far. “Then Charlie did one of the bravest things I have ever heard of, a thing his children swear to. He opened the door and stepped outside to meet his enemy empty-handed, and just started walking.”

Essential Element #3: Goal

The protagonist has a long-term goal for the duration of the story and smaller goals for every scene. They may or may not reach the scene goal by scene’s end, but viewers and readers who know what is at stake for the character are more apt to cheer for the character’s successes and mourn his failures.

For example, in Ava’s Man we know that Charlie’s goal for the portion of the scene written above is to close the distance between himself and Jerry before Jerry loads the gun.