March 28th, 2018

Frame Your Scene with Essay Structure

Lori Freeland

Does the blank page cause you anxiety? Do you have a scene that’s just not working? Do readers miss what you’re trying to get across? Using essay structure can help you start and finish clear, purposeful scenes.

When we wrote essays in school, there was always a basic format to follow—OPEN with an intro, move into the BODY, and close with a CONCLUSION.

That made it easy for us to write and for the teacher to evaluate. From the first paragraph, she could tell what to expect. By a few lines in, she was already forming an opinion about your grade.

The same idea holds in fiction. From the first paragraph, readers can tell what to expect. By a few lines in, they’re already forming an opinion about your story.

The Opening

An essay OPENS with what will be discussed. In fiction, this is where we SET OUR SCENE and HOOK our reader.

First lines are important—not just for the book, but for every scene. They drop us into the story.

Example: Tuesday was a fine California day, full of sunshine and promise, until Harry Lyon had to shoot someone at lunch. Dean Koontz, Dragon Tears.

Clarity in building a scene is crucial. If you remember these Four W’s (who *we are, when we are, where we are, and who’s with us), you’ll hit the information readers need to know up front.

*We because readers like to become your characters. It’s a way to escape our lives to experience someone else’s.

Who We Are

Open with the POV character—the character telling the story in a scene. Readers experience the world through one perspective at a time. We only see what that POV character sees, hear what he hears, feel what he feels, and know what he knows.

POV Opening Example: Taking a ride through backwoods Kentucky wasn’t George’s first choice.

In this scene, our perspective will be through George’s eyes.

Where We Are

This is your setting. Use at least a few words of description. Until you show a reader differently, they see a white room. Remember to weave in setting so it doesn’t feel like an information dump.

Example: I pulled my ’69 mustang along the curb behind David’s boring black sedan. That was where I locked my gaze. Not on the iron gates to my right or the sprawling estate behind them that could be a fancy bed-and-breakfast—but wasn’t. 

If you’re picking up from a previous scene, remind the reader where they are. We bookmark at the end of chapters.

When We Are

If relevant, tell us the time-period, time of day, or how much time has passed.

Example: Chicago in 2096 wasn’t the safest city to commit a murder.

Example: There wasn’t an hour over the next few days I didn’t spend wondering if I’d ever see him again.

Who's With Us

Who else is in the scene? Don’t let lurking characters “beam in” with no warning.

Example: The crowd from the diner showed up, and the drone of loud conversation kept Jill in the corner.

You don’t have to list each person, but we know Jill’s not alone.

The Four W’s don’t have to be in order. Watch for them in the scene opening below.

Example: Kim (who we are) stretched her legs under the table, bumping Jason’s (who’s with us) foot with her sandal, and tried to distract herself with the early-morning (when we are) conversation buzzing through the congested coffee shop (where we are).

The Body

The BODY of an essay is filled with information. In fiction, this is our STORY.

Each scene needs to add something new and move the story forward—a piece of the story arc, a clue to a mystery, a character’s introduction, his internal growth, relationships, or obstacles.

Don’t repeat what you’ve already done. In scene three, if your character plays a hockey game, don’t have him give an interview in scene four that recaps what the reader already saw.

Helpful Hint: Ask yourself—If I deleted this scene, would the reader notice? Would the story suffer?

The Conclusion

The CONCLUSION brings the essay together. In fiction, this is our TAKE AWAY from the story and our LURE to turn the page.

Unlike an essay, we don’t summarize the current scene, we dangle the next. While the first line drops us into the story, the last line keeps us reading.

Example: I trained the light on the lump floating on the water. The chill in my spine wove a web of ice around my ribs and through my heart, my lungs, my throat. I opened my mouth and screamed. And screamed. And screamed.

Helpful Hint: Don’t fortune-tell.

Example: If Jim had only known the meat was spoiled, he never would’ve made it his late-night snack.

Not only does fortune-telling kill tension, unless Jim’s psychic, he isn’t going to know the decision he made today will ruin his tomorrow and neither can the reader.

Now that you’ve seen essay structure in action, let me add one more helpful hint.

Before you begin a new scene, write a summary of what needs to happen. This gives you your scene goals.

I prefer a short paragraph at the top of the page where I delete things as I use them. I also ask myself questions. Sometimes I don’t know what I need to include until I’ve started writing.

Example: Beth stops over to see John unexpectedly and sees him kiss Mary. That pushes her to return Liam’s phone call. Add picture of Beth and John’s daughter, Chloe. Do I need to intro her here or in the next scene?

If my way doesn’t work for you, play around with what does. Maybe you’re a bullet-points person or someone who likes longhand. Find your scene-goal happy place. Writing tools don’t work if you’re not comfortable using them.

Next time you’re frustrated by a blank page or a confused reader, try using essay structure.

Leave me a comment and let me know what you think.  

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Lori Freeland, author, editor, and writing coach holds a BA in psychology from the University of Wisconsin and currently lives in the Dallas area. She’s written numerous blogs for writers and presented at multiple writing workshops. When she’s not snuggled up with her husband or worrying about her kids, she spends her days dreaming up romance and messing with the lives of imaginary people. You can find her Young Adult and Contemporary Romance at lorifreeland.com and her inspirational blog at lafreeland.com.

30 responses to “Frame Your Scene with Essay Structure”

  1. lrtrovi says:

    This is a very helpful framework to help a writer launch into a scene gracefully, yet with the necessary information for the reader. I love it! Your examples were clear and now I feel like I have another tool in my toolbox when faced with blank page paralysis. Also, I will be going over and editing all my openings with this in mind.

  2. Laura Drake says:

    Excellent advice, Lori. I'm saving this for my First 5 Pages class, as a reference! It's a great checklist for openings!

  3. Sandy Richardson says:

    I love this approach to teaching scene! Saving for my workshops as we!!.

  4. Terry Odell says:

    Very helpful. I'm starting my first editing pass, and these reminders are timely.

    In my critique group, where it may be days before we see the next chapter, really drives home the importance of grounding the reading in the who, when, and where at the beginning of a scene. Same goes for writing alternating POVs in scenes, especially if the characters are apart.

    • Those openings are important. I find that I bookmark at the end of a chapters when I'm reading, then I have to go back a few pages the next time I pick it up to remember what's going on. But with that information right up front in every scene, it makes for a smoother read.

  5. This is so helpful, thank you very much!

  6. tracybrody says:

    If I deleted this scene, would the reader notice? Would the story suffer? - I'm asking that very question about a favorite scene today. Just seeing this kind of answers that questions. Darn it. 😉

  7. Holly Robinson says:

    Wow, Lori. I don't think I have EVER read a more helpful blogpost! I'm printing this out NOW and taping it to the wall above my desk as I tackle rewriting my current WIP. Thank you! The examples were terrific, too, btw.

  8. Julie Glover says:

    Wow, this rocked! Love it. And so necessary for me right now as I'm editing and need to go back through these scenes and make sure they have solid openings and pull their weight. Thanks, Lori!

  9. mimont says:

    Really great post. Thank you!

  10. Libby Sommer says:

    great post. excellent info presented in clear easy- to- understand way. thank you.

  11. johntshea says:

    “*We because readers like to become your characters. It’s a way to escape our lives to experience someone else’s.”

    Indeed! Even when that someone else's life is much worse than ours! It's also interesting just HOW we become someone else and how much characterization is enough to draw us in without alienating us with vast differences from ourselves. Some writers hardly describe their characters at all, not even their protagonist, though thought, speech and action reveal character of course.

  12. Very true. There's a fine line between painting us a good picture and letting us become the character ourselves.

  13. dianegates says:

    This is a wonderful post, Lori. You are the reason I write and you never cease to amaze me. I'm saving these wise words for my edit group this next month. Thank you...thank you!

  14. Fae Rowen says:

    Wow, I had great English teachers! (For whom I am eternally grateful.) As I read your post, I remembered the points. Thank you, Lori, for reminding us of something most of us were taught in school, and letting us know that it still works—in particular for putting together scenes.

  15. Great read here Lori. And you're right, fortune-telling kills tension!
    Readers don't want to be told what may or may not happen. They want to experience it first hand, with action and dialog.

    Thanks much for this!

  16. […] Frame Your Scene with Essay Structure […]

  17. […] 3. Here’s another great post at the Writers in the Storm Blog. Lori Freeland checks in with some tips on how to Frame Your Scene with Essay Structure. […]

  18. […] pages, Peter Selgin demonstrates how to craft setup and payoffs in scenes, Lori Freeland says to frame your scenes with essay structure, and Jami Gold explores if a story can still be compelling with a “quiet” back […]

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