3 Rules of Scene Building

[Excerpted from my Sensational Scenes class]

Nobody likes to be bound by rules. As The Editor Devil, I especially hate rules. But the rules of scene building help you better meet the goals of storytelling. Here are a few that will keep you moving the story forward not backward, show not tell, and entertain not bore your reader.

Rule #1: Each scene in your manuscript should move a story forward, even if it’s moving your characters backwards in order to give them some new hurdle to overcome. Let me repeat that: Every scene must move a story forward. As scenes progress, the interplay of characters and events and landscape must change. And the plot must advance. This change from scene to scene is what creates a story arc. All scenes must progress the reader toward the final showdown and resolution, the final actions between the main characters and the final character epiphanies. One way to gauge whether your scene is advancing the story is to ask yourself, “What is the payoff of this scene and could the story live without it?”


Rule #2: Every scene must include tension and relief. That means you must have story conflict on a larger level, and scene conflict on a moment by moment level. Harmony is for love scenes and Hallmark cards. So get characters butting heads.

Typically scenes will ebb and flow with tension. Too much tension all the time and the reader will become numb. Too little, and they will feel disinterested. A scene/situation should never be repeated (unless your story is “Groundhog Day” which had a reason to literally repeat scenes as part of advancing the storyline), so look for “repeating” situations in your story and edit them. Making every scene unique helps keep the tension feeling fresh to the reader.

Rule #3: Every scene must involve the goal and motivation of a main character. Whether it’s your hero, heroine, or villain, their goals and motivations drive the story.

One way to look at it is “how does this scene/situation enable the character to change (for better or for worse)?” Yes, you can have goals and motivations for minor characters. These are called subplots, but they don’t drive the story overall and can’t hold up scenes on their own. Writers often want two create scenes with minor characters. I don’t recommend doing this, but if you do, these minor characters must be advancing or affecting the goal and motivation of a main character, even when they are working on their own subplot.

Hope these rules give you guidance on stronger scene development, whether you are writing or editing...

Happy storytelling!
Your Adoring Editor Devil