Novel Writing 101: Building a Story with Scenes

Today’s post, as promised, will look at how we can come up with scene ideas to fill in the gaps in our novel outlines. But first, a quick review… What, exactly, is a scene?

Simply put, scenes are the building blocks that make up a story. They may contain dialogue, action sequences, narrative, exposition, or a character’s direct thoughts. But one thing a scene must contain is a single change that advances the main plot or a subplot. This change can come in a variety of forms: for example, an object breaking, a revelation, a kiss or a fight, an interview, a death, a decision. It can run the range from life-altering for a character to barely seeming important at the time it happens.

A scene is made up of two key components–action and reaction. (Note: Sometimes the action section is called the “scene,” while the reaction is called a “sequel.”) The action entails something happening to or within the character; this first section is usually where the scene’s change occurs. The follow-up section, the reaction, shows the character’s emotional response to what has just happened. The reaction may be quite short, only a sentence or two, but it sets up whatever action or decision the character will make in their next scene. And, of course, unless you’re writing about Vulcans or robots, a character who reacts emotionally to what happens around them will be much more realistic.

For example, say you’re writing about two high school girls who are BFFs. Perhaps in your scene they have a huge fight over a boy, and one of them stomps out of the other’s house. That’s the action, and it marks a change in their relationship. But how much this fight affects their friendship won’t be revealed until a reaction sequel is written, along with future scenes. The reaction might show how the POV character’s attitude toward her friend has shifted, setting up the action of the next scene–which will probably involve showing one of the girls intentionally doing something nasty to her former friend.

So here’s the key point–every scene you create to fill in your outline needs to contain at least one change that moves the story forward, and it needs to show the POV character’s reaction. If there’s no change, or it’s irrelevant to your plot or subplots, it’s not a scene.

How many scenes do you need? The answer depends on your genre and estimated length of your book. You can always estimate an average word count per scene (say, 1000) and use that to determine how many scenes you’ll need. For a 100,000 word book, you’d need about 100 scenes. Of course, if you write longer or shorter scenes, that number will change.

Do I need to outline all those scenes before writing the first draft? The short answer is, nope. We’ve already talked about creating a skeleton, or structural outline, for our novels by creating scenes for the major turning points in the plot. You can start drafting with only these eight to ten scenes in place, but if you prefer to have more to work with as you write, you might want to fill in as many of the intervening scenes as possible.

But how do I know what happens between the major plot points? Ah, the million dollar question. With some of my stories, the entire plot has laid itself out before me like a buffet at the Golden Corral. But with others, like my YA Fantasy The Cursed Ones, I struggled through draft after draft trying to decide exactly how I wanted the story to progress and what scenes needed to happen. Unfortunately, there’s no easy 5-step answer to this question. Stories often take on a life of their own, leaving us writers behind trying to figure out how to pick up the pieces.

So what can you do? Here are some ideas that have helped me:

  1. Logical flow of the story – You already have your major plot points; often there are some obvious things that need to happen to get from point A to point B. Write those scenes down first.
  2. Brainstorming – Set a timer and write down every idea that pops into your mind. Save the editing until after the timer goes off. If you’ve got anything usable, make a scene card for it.
  3. Journaling from a character’s POV – Even if it’s not a point-of-view character, thinking through their thoughts, actions, and desires can help inform you as to what should happen. It can be especially helpful to write from the antagonist’s POV, since their moves directly affect the MC and the story.
  4. “Watching” a scene unfold – Close your eyes and let your inner movie projector roll. Play through a scene you’ve already decided on, and watch to see what happens next.
  5. Worst-case scenarios – Look for ways to make your MC’s life more difficult. Readers love to see characters struggle through the worst. Ask yourself, what’s the worst thing that could happen to this character right now?
  6. Asking “what if?” – Starting with the scene you’re stuck on, ask some “what if” questions to help you consider different paths the story could take. Make notes as to what would happen, and how you feel about the different possible outcomes. Remember, you should be happy with your own story!
  7. Seek inspiration elsewhere – Sometimes our brains need a break, and some input from a source outside of ourselves. Visit an art museum, listen to music, take a walk in the woods, sit in the mall and people-watch, or watch a movie.
  8. Sleep on it – Try thinking about where you’re stuck before you go to bed, and tell your brain to work on it overnight. Usually your mind always has plot problems simmering away on the back burner; you never know when the right answer will come to you.
  9. Shelve it – Sometimes, you might just have to wait until you’re actually writing the first draft to see how to fill all the gaps. At some point, you might need to set your outline on the shelf and begin with what you have.


Ultimately, there are no hard and fast rules to outlining or how to decide on what events need to happen in your plot. A manuscript goes through many sets of eyes and many revisions before it reaches the hands of readers. And we all know from reviews on Goodreads and that even bestsellers aren’t received well by everyone. There will always be someone who thinks you should have told the story differently. What’s most important, in the end, is that you are happy with your story. You still have a first draft to write, and then the glorious chance to change and improve anything you don’t like during revision and editing. Writing is a very fluid process and your story won’t be “done” until it’s either in print or you decide you’re done with it.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I have a lot of scene cards to write now. Until next time, enjoy the journey!


Image credit: CC0 License.


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