Scene writing is the secret sauce for bringing a story to life. Just like a really good play or movie, reading a story that captures the emotions and motivations of characters just through what they say, do, or notice about the world around them creates an engaging experience for readers.
However, knowing exactly how to set up the right situation for a scene to take place in can get many writers stuck. How much dialogue is too much? What’s the right balance between portraying the characters’ internal thoughts and external behavior?
Yes, having some basic knowledge of how to use these techniques can help. But understanding how to do it can only take your story so far. What you really need is practice and room to experiment with how to portray the crucial moments in your story.
As I mentioned last week, I’ve been having a lot of fun with The Habit’s Short Story Summer Camp, where we’ve been doing writing prompts each week that will eventually lead up to a completed story.
So, I want to bring some of what I’ve learned to an interactive post that will let you practice these techniques using a story you’re currently working with, along with some bonus prompts that have worked for me in the past.
But before I unveil these prompts, here’s an important caveat . . .
Don’t feel like you’re under any pressure to “finish” something or to incorporate all these exercises or techniques into your work.
Some of them might work really well for where you’re at now, but others might just be something cool to play around with, at least for now.
The point here is to have fun. Developing characters and seeing what happens when you put them in a room together is supposed to help you experiment and discover where your story might be headed.
The more you lock yourself into a particular mode of thinking for a project, the more you close yourself off to this opportunity.
So, grab a pen and paper, round up some characters, and give these exercises a go.
Exercise 1: Writing a scene with sensory details
One of the best ways to bring a scene to life is to use sensory details. Sensory details are descriptions that appeal to the five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. They can help to create a vivid, immersive experience for the reader.
For this exercise, choose a setting and write a scene that includes sensory details. Think about the sounds, smells, and textures of the environment. What does the air feel like? What sounds can be heard in the background? What smells are present?
Exercise 2: Writing a scene with dialogue only
Dialogue is an essential element of scene writing. It can reveal character, advance the plot, and create tension. For this exercise, write a scene that consists entirely of dialogue.
Choose two characters and a situation. Think about their personalities and motivations. What might they say to each other in this situation?
Here's an example:
"Did you do it?"
"Don't play dumb with me. You know what I'm talking about."
"I really don't."
"You're lying. I can tell."
"I swear, I have no idea what you're talking about."
If you feel like this conversation doesn’t quite work for what you’re writing, you can always use this conversation as the basis for a revised scene by adding action beats and internal thoughts.
Exercise 3: Writing a scene with a limited word count
Limiting your word count can be a great exercise in brevity and precision. For this exercise, set a limit of 200 words and write a scene that includes both action and dialogue.
Choose a setting and a situation. Think about the characters involved and what they might say and do in this scenario.
If you really like your scene idea, you can always forgo the word limit and add more to it later on.
Exercise 4: Writing a scene with a specific emotion or mood
Emotions and moods can be powerful tools in scene writing. They can create tension, reveal character, and set the tone for the story.
For this exercise, choose a specific emotion or mood and write a scene that captures it without using any emotional words or mentioning emotions in the dialogue.
Think about the setting and the characters involved. How might their actions and dialogue reflect the chosen emotion or mood?
Exercise 5: Writing a scene with a unique setting
Choosing a unique setting can be a great way to challenge yourself and push your creativity. For this exercise, choose a setting that is unusual or unexpected, and write a scene that takes place there.
Think about the sensory details of the setting and how they might impact the scene. What unique challenges might the characters face in this environment?
Exercise 6: Writing a scene with conflicting motivations
Conflicting motivations can create tension and drama in a scene. For this exercise, choose two characters with opposing motivations and write a scene in which they clash.
Think about the goals of each character and how they might try to achieve them. What actions and dialogue will they use to get what they want?
It’s important to remember that this exercise is true for real life as well as fiction. All of us have defense mechanisms and tactics that we use when we want something and are trying to get other people to comply. In stories as well as the real world, conflict sparks when two people with opposite desires or motives clash.
Exercise 7: Writing a scene with a surprise twist
A surprise twist can keep readers engaged and guessing. For this exercise, write a scene that includes a surprise twist.
Think about the expectations you've set up in the scene and how you can subvert them. What unexpected turn of events can you introduce that will surprise the reader?
Again, don’t worry about thinking too hard or coming up with a truly surprising idea. The goal is to get yourself thinking in new creative ways and considering possibilities beyond the obvious directions a story could take.
Want more writing prompts?
Check out my FREE Ultimate Writing Project Workbook.
It contains dozens of prompts, tools, templates, and worksheets to help you bring your story to life so you can impact and inspire your readers.