I went to an art party once. The kind of party where I showed up with friends, a bottle of wine, and zero artistic talent. When I first stood in front of that blank canvas, brush in hand, I froze. I couldn’t even produce a stick figure that didn’t look like a throwback to preschool.
But by the end of the evening, not only did I make memories with my BFFs, I took home a painting I actually wanted to hang on the wall—where people could see it. The trick? Creating the picture one piece at a time. One color at a time. One section at a time. One brush stroke at a time.
Constructing a new scene is like working with that blank canvas. Blank is scary. Blank is intimidating. Blank sometimes makes me want to turn off my laptop to watch reruns of Buffy. But writing a new scene doesn’t have to bring anxiety. Not if you have a plan.
For most of us writers, an unwritten scene plays like a blockbuster movie in our minds, complete with sights, sounds, smells, and emotions. Coming up with ideas isn’t usually the problem. We’re living the full cinematic experience inside our heads. It’s translating that cinematography onto the page that can be daunting. And it doesn’t come in a first draft. But that’s okay.
Like crafting a painting, getting the movie out of your mind and onto the page works best in pieces. Below, I’ll show you how I build a scene and in what order. I’ll bold the additions as we go, so you can see exactly what I’m doing.
Remember, we’re all different, and we each have our strengths and weaknesses. So pick the order that feels comfortable to you. I like to start with dialogue, which is what comes easiest to me.
I begin with a conversation. Sometimes it’s just a straight back-and-forth between my characters. No action. No setting. But you don’t have to be that strict. Just know as you keep building your scene, anything extra you write here will probably change.
“I can drive myself downtown,” I say.
“Vi’s already here to pick you up,” Dad says.
“If you let me drive, I’ll text you the second I get there,” I say.
Next, I go back and add the action beats around my conversation. What are they doing? What’s going on in the background? I don’t worry too much about adding in anything else just yet.
Without knocking, Dad opens the door and walks into my bedroom toward the suitcase on the end of my bed. Pushing down the top, he zips it on the first try and grabs the handle.
I resume last night’s argument. “I can drive myself downtown.”
“Vi’s already here to pick you up.” He walks out my door.
Pushing my feet into my flip-flops, I hurry after him. Gripping the railing, I try again. “If you let me drive, I’ll text you the second I get there.”
All I get is a grunt as he heads down the back staircase with my suitcase.
This is where I struggle and where I have to be the most deliberate. What are my characters wearing? Where are they? What time of day is it? Is it a new place that I need to describe in more detail or is it a revisit to a place I’ve already set up? If yes, what hints do I need to remind the reader of the setting? And can I be more descriptive in my characters’ actions to better show who they are?
Without knocking, Dad opens the door and strides into my bedroom toward the bursting suitcase on the end of my four-poster bed. Pushing down the top with his huge hand, he zips it on the first try and grabs the handle.
I resume last night’s argument. “I can drive myself downtown.”
“Vi’s already here to pick you up.” He walks out my door.
Pushing my feet into my flip-flops—one pink, one purple—I hurry after him. Gripping the railing, I try again. “If you let me drive, I’ll text you the second I get there.”
All I get is a short grunt as he tramps down the back staircase looking out of place with my neon purple suitcase. Trained by decades of marine posture, his wide shoulders stay at attention, while his wardrobe falls at ease. Retired five years, he’s replaced the starchy uniform with wrinkled tees and faded jeans, clung to his buzz cut, and cried rebel with a single hoop earring—giving him an odd vibe of uptight casual.
Here’s where I add emotion and tension. How are my characters speaking to each other? Acting toward each other? What does their body language look like? Their expressions? How can I show what’s happening between them instead of telling? Can I add humor? What ways can I build out personalities and relationship dynamics? This is the frosting (polish) on the cake (word picture). And who wants to eat cake without frosting? To me, the polish is the most important piece.
Telling the truth. Dodging drama. Staying invisible. Painting butterflies on my toes. Things I used to be good at. I glance at my perfect pedicure. I’m down to one out of four.
Without knocking, Dad opens the door and strides into my bedroom. He heads to the bursting suitcase on the end of my four-poster bed. Pushing down the top with his huge hand, he zips it on the first try and grabs the handle.
Feeling reckless, or maybe just desperate, I resume last night’s argument. “I can drive myself downtown.” Or stay home and spare my life a few thousand skid marks.
“Vi’s already here to pick you up,” he says the words as he walks out the door. The only words he’s said to me all morning. Not words I want to hear. Riding and rooming with my literary agent leaves me no escape when my first writers’ conference spirals south. And it will spiral south.
Pushing my feet into my flip-flops—one pink, one purple—I shove my laptop and the diary into my backpack and tuck my earbuds into my pocket. Then hurry to run after him. Gripping the railing, I try again. “If you let me drive, I’ll text you the second I get there.”
He tramps down the back staircase looking out of place with my neon purple suitcase. Trained by decades of marine posture, his wide shoulders stay at attention, while his wardrobe falls at ease. Retired five years, he’s replaced the starchy uniform with wrinkled tees and faded jeans, clung to his buzz cut, and cried rebel with a single hoop earring—giving him an odd vibe of uptight casual.
Last, I read the entire scene through out loud (the ear catches what the eye misses) and check for flow. Will the reader be clear on who is speaking and who is reacting? Do the actions make sense? Have I shown where everyone is and what they’re doing? Are they more than cardboard characters? Does the tension build as I go down the page?
I try to put all these pieces together in the same writing session as a first draft. That way, all the crucial scene elements are present and accounted for, and I won’t forget to add them later. When I’m not sure exactly what to write or I know I can do better, I draft a simple version inside parenthesis as a reminder to come back to it later. Once my scene is complete with all the pieces, I put it away for a day or two. That gives it time to marinate. Usually when I come back to something, my creativity has new things to add.
Let’s chat in the comments. How do you construct a scene? What’s hardest for you to write? Easiest? Share you own tips and tricks to make the blank page less daunting.
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Lori Freeland wrote her first story at age five. It wasn’t good. But it left her with a firm belief that everyone has a story to tell. An author, editor, and writing coach, she holds a BA in psychology from The University of Wisconsin and lives in the Dallas area. She’s presented multiple workshops at conferences across the country and writes articles, novels, and everything in between. When she’s not curled up with her husband and dogs drinking too much coffee and worrying about her adult kids, she loves to mess with the lives of the imaginary people living in her head. You can visit her at lorifreeland.com or lafreeland.com.
Some accidents were meant to be.
Gabe isn’t a werewolf. He just plays one on TV.
Jess isn’t a guy magnet. She just writes about teen romance.
TV heartthrob Gabriel Wade has never met a party he couldn’t rock, a problem he couldn’t dodge, or a crowd he couldn’t play. Homeschooled Jessica Thorne has never met a party she couldn’t wallflower, a problem she couldn’t stress over, or a crowd she couldn’t escape. But they both know what it’s like to lose someone—someone who’s still here.
After a hotel escalator dumps Jess into Gabe’s spotlight and he unknowingly hijacks her first kiss, he decides she’ll be the perfect decoy for the paparazzi—if he can convince her to play his “girlfriend of the week.” Jess wants nothing to do with TV’s Hottest Hairball or his Hollywood ego. And by the time she figures out he isn’t who she thought, it might be too late to admit she needs him as much as he needs her. Even if he wants her for real.
Top photo by Alp Allen Altiner on Unsplash
Middle image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay
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Love your breakdown! I hear the dialogue first, too. The description is always the hardest. And I have to check myself to be sure I didn’t leave the goal and stakes as an assumption on my part. Thanks for this—it’s encouraging!
Hi Chris! Thank you, and you're welcome!
Hi, Lori. Your comparison of writing a scene to painting hit me at home. My husband was an artist and piece-by-piece is exactly how he developed his illustrations. It's also how I learned to write scenes. After many years of multiple deliberate passes, I don't have to make as many passes to get all the pieces into the scene but the dialogue still comes to me first. I have to be more deliberate with the setting and descriptions.
Lynette, we sound a lot alike! I've found that too. That the more I write, the less drafts I do 😃
Great, specific step by step. This is a ideal for newer writers who are just looking at a simple straightforward way to get some ideas down on paper. The refining can come later in revision. I can still remember my first book coach reading my initial pages and saying "First of all, I need to teach you about what a scene is." Yes!
😃 I work with a lot of new writers. And even knowing that all these pieces should be in every scene is new to them. I have a checklist I give them. Along with what should be in the opening of every scene. It's what I wish someone would have given me.
I am continually amazed by how many ways people approach the art form of writing. Thank you for sharing yours. I grew up in a home with artists. Watercolors mostly. in that medium the back ground must begin the work. Perhaps this is why I always need the 'room' even before dialog can start. Setting is my first character.
I love that! Setting is my hardest piece. I get so involved in all the other parts that I forget. So I have to be deliberate about it
Have you been looking over my shoulder as I write? Your process here looks exactly like mine and I love how easy it is to write a first draft using pure dialogue. Great blog!
🤣🤣🤣 Thank you!
This is a great example! I'm like you: I begin with dialogue. My first drafts are mostly dialogue. Then the layering comes in and builds the scene. It is fun to see how different people write!
It is fun. And we can learn so much from each other!
Interesting approach, and I’ve been interested, more recently, in trying new approaches to speed up my production.
My stories, so far, have gravitated more and more toward the plot driven. As such, I approach each new chapter knowing what I want to accomplish, yet have a palette of characters (each with their own style and merits) who can move the story ahead in their own way. These scenes are typically very dialogue driven, but I strive to include some beats and color. Nevertheless, this means I initially approach most new chapters without a clue about who or where I’ll start.
Yet usually, in the first few moments sitting before my blank screen, the cast needed seem to stroll in on their own, and a scenery crew begins setting up the basic background props for the first dry run. In subsequent read throughs, the dialogue gets refined and props are added, changed, or moved to improve the scene.
I love that!
The draft MS I'm working on (a memoir) is almost finished but after reading your (very helpful) piece, I'll make sure that one of my many next-passes reflects the process you describe above. Thank you! Also makes me think I might actually like to try my hand at a novel next!
Thank you. And novels are fun. I say, "go for it"!
After I write dialogue, I always go back and add in details.
That always seems easiest for me too. But I'm dialogue driven for sure.
I haven't been to an art party recently, but I see my bowl-of-pears whenever I go to my kitchen, and it brings up fond memories.
My go-to scene building activity it to put myself into the character's shoes and see and feel what is around me. It helps me get accuracy on making the scene believable for the reader.
Thanks for the fun post. 🙂
This was great! I often struggle putting everything I see in my mind on the page! It’s almost overwhelming, but you break it down into manageable chunks. I’m definitely giving this a try!