Scene Construction: Nanoprep #5

Here’s our final preparation session for next month’s Nanowrimo. The content is a recap of my weekly writing workshop at the Bixby Library in Vergennes, VT. Following at home, if you’d like

Building Blocks of Writing

You’re going to write your novel using a combination of these building blocks: exposition, dialogue, summary, and description. Your scenes will build into chapters and your chapters will make a novel. Early chapters will be heavier in exposition (the explanation/establishment of theme, introduction of characters, etc. that comes both at the beginning of narratives and in smaller pieces at the outset of scenes), while your later scenes will be combinations of those other modes as the tension and drama ratchets up. Each writer will find their own balance of these elements, appropriate to their project and informed by their tastes.

An Example

What’s the difference between a historical narrative and historical fiction in terms of these modes? A history narrative (written by a professor of history and delivered to his colleagues, for instance) will heavily emphasize summary and exposition, with some description thrown in for “highlights.” Historical fiction will emphasize dialogue and description, with some periods of summary to connect scenes, and exposition to set the scene. Still following?

Scenes as Building Blocks

The average novel has about 40 chapters and each of those could range from one to a few scenes long. So how do you write scenes? Scenes are usually unified by perspective, location, and time. They also usually detail a single “action” (i.e., planning the attack, storming the castle, licking the wounds). When any one of those things change, you have a new scene.

Establishing Scenes

Here are some keys to establishing scene:

  • Have a reason for doing so, if you begin a scene by transitioning locations.
  • Provide enough context for a new location to anchor your reader.
  • Make the logistics of the scene (where each character is in relation to each other) clear at the outset.
  • Give new characters an introduction–give the reader their relationship to other characters.
  • Have a clear, consistent perspective for each scene’s narration.
  • Use your narrator/perspective character to influence the setting/mood of each scene.
  • Integrate description into the forward movement of the story (rather than clogging the progression with needlessly long description interludes).
  • Give new details (if any) of a reused location instead of repeating details.
  • Attend to unnecessary repetition of details and information.
  • Give enough of a foundation of the current scene before descending into flashbacks. Avoid unnecessary shiftiness in contexts and settings.

Concluding Scenes

Here are some keys in concluding scenes:

  • Be conscious of the emphasis that ending your scene on any particular note/beat creates. (How does the destruction of the Death Star scene change if it were ended as the proton torpedos are about to enter the exhaust port, if it ended mid-shockwave with a shot inside the Death Star, if it ended on Luke’s pleased reaction, if it ended on a long shot with the survivors flying toward the camera and the Death Star exploding in the background?)
  • Some things in the scene can be emphasized by implication and others by being made explicit. Choose the appropriate emphasis.
  • Order elements of your scene appropriately for story (dialogue elements can sometimes be moved out of the natural order of conversation to the end of a scene to emphasize).
  • Avoid always cutting a scene after the moment of greatest dramatic tension. Allow some scenes to develop past that moment. (This lingering can be an opportunity for excellent characterization.)
  • Variety rejuvenates the reader. (A long series of exciting action scenes does not actually maximize excitement…)


Get your final pieces of preparation ready for Nanowrimo. List out forty or so scenes, incorporating your beat sheet details. Optional extra credit: list the central action, location, and time of each scene.