Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Tips for Writing Powerful Scenes

by Sarah Sally Hamer @SarahSallyHamer

Isn’t that what we all strive for? We all want the ability to write a scene that engulfs our reader with cathartic emotion, one that makes them laugh or cry, and hopefully, read the next one, right? A scene that is so powerful that we want to run to the top of Rocky’s steps and hold our arms up in jubilation?

Of course we do! 

So, how does it work?

I’m standing on the shoulders of giants here. Dwight Swain, who wrote Techniques of the Selling Writer, and Jack Bickham, Scene and Structure,almost invented the method, and I sat at their feet. Well, I actually met Swain and talked to Bickham on the phone, but I’ve read every word of their books. These two men really understood the structure of powerful scenes and break it down for us in a way that can be duplicated with a little hard work and a lot of practice. But once you get used to it, it’s an amazing tool for powering up that weak-kneed scene.

There are two basic parts of a great SCENE: 
the scene and the sequel. Don’t get confused, although it’s really easy when the same word is used for more than one thing. (We’re writers after all. I can’t believe we can’t come up with more creative words! But note the capital letters – they will denote the macro SCENE. Small letters equal the micro scene.)

Scene, used as part of a SCENE, is the action side, where the “doing” is. You’ll have minimal description, minimal back story. Mostly this is where the characters are walking or talking or fighting or whatever they are doing in your story. Action is the rule here, and you don’t want to slow it down one iota. It’s perfectly okay if your characters are having a heart-to-heart in a porch swing. Or if they’re in the middle of a typhoon. It’s not about WHAT the action is, it’s that there is little to no THINKING.

Scenes have three parts. 

The breakdown works like this:
Goal: create a goal for the scene, something the main character (protagonist/Point of View character) wants. He or she will have a larger, book-long goal, but each scene will have its own.

Conflict: this is something that specifically keeps the MC from reaching that goal.

Disaster: lastly, a scene has something happen that seems disastrous to the MC. 

Let’s try a short story:
Joe comes home from trying to find a job, expecting to find dinner ready. When he walks in the door, the baby is crying. His wife, angry and worried, says, “We don’t have any of her cereal left. Can you go back to the store and get some?”

Joe didn’t find a job that day. He has no money. They’re going to get kicked out of the apartment next week if he can’t pay the rent. He’s hungry too and the baby’s crying is making him crazy. He yells at his wife, who screams back at him. 

Can you see the G/C/D? His goal (implied, not said), was to come home and get something to eat. Conflict is that they’re out of food, at least for the baby, and he can’t think straight when everything is going wrong. Disaster? He yells at his wife and the baby cries even more.

This sets up for the next part, the other half of the SCENE, the sequel.  

Sequels are where we take a short breath. We allow our characters to react and to think, at least a little. Sequels are usually much shorter and they’re all about internalization. They are what let us know what a character is thinking.

Here’s how they’re set up:
Reaction: the main character reacts to the disaster. This can come as a visceral reaction (gut clenches, electricity down the spine, flushed face) and/or a verbal reaction (I won’t use the words that some characters might but an “Oh my” could be appropriate.) and/or a physical reaction (stomping feet, slamming doors, etc.).

Dilemma: figure out what the problem is and come up with some sort of solution, which becomes:

Decision: the new goal

So, here’s Joe’s sequel:
His stomach twists with hunger. He’s tired of never having enough. Everybody’s against him. Well, by darn, he’ll show them!  

Visceral reaction, a short spot of thinking, and a decision about what he’s going to do.

This then becomes the new goal for the next scene (a scene can be MUCH longer than this – I’m taking the short route):
He stomps into the bedroom, gets a box from the closet shelf, and pulls out a gun. His wife follows him. “No! You’ll go back to jail!” 

He pushes past her and walks out the front door.

Goal? Get the gun. Conflict? Wife tries to stop him. Disaster? He takes the gun and leaves the house, putting himself and his family into jeopardy.

Next could be another sequel. In a perfect world, each scene would be followed by a sequel. But it’s okay to have several scenes in a row before the character stops long enough to have a thinking sequel again. It depends a lot on what genre you’re writing and what your pacing needs to be at this particular moment. In the case of my little story, we could need to ratchet up the tension and have Joe burst into the store, waving the pistol. But if we instead needed to slow everything down for a minute, a sequel could sound something like this:
Joe leaned against the wall of the Pac-A-Sac, fear gnawing at his mind. Did he really want to take the risk? His wife was right – he’d go back to jail if they caught him. He didn’t ever want to go to jail again. But he had to get food. Especially for the baby. He straightened and walked around the corner, gun in hand.

It seems simple, right? When we go through it piece by piece? It really is simple, because there is that very specific pattern to make it work.

I recommend Dwight Swain and Jack Bickham’s books. They are amazing!


Sarah (Sally) Hamer is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in good stories. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick'. She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories, whether through fiction or through memoir. Writing in many genres - mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, medieval history, non-fiction – she has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.

A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for over twelve years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at Sally is a free-lance editor and book coach, with many of her students and clients becoming successful, award-winning authors. You can find her at or on Twitter @sarahsallyhamer.

I wish to express gratitude to the giants whose shoulders I stand on, from whom I learned the craft of writing. I would list every one, if it were only possible.


  1. You are such a great teacher Sally. I love all your posts and learn so much from them. I feel I can write better scenes since reading this.
    I also feel I need to read some Swain and Bickham. Thank you!

  2. Thank you, Ingmar! I appreciate the kind words. Yes, you need to read Bickham, at least. Both men were brilliant writers and teachers.

  3. Awesome post. And now I really want to know what happens to Joe! LOL

  4. LOL! Regina, I don't know what happens next, because he hasn't told me yet. But I'll keep throwing him into dire and uncomfortable situations until he learns his lesson because the book is over as soon as he achieves his main goal. In so many words, if he gets to the grocery store and someone gives him enough money to take care of his problems, the reader will lose interest. He HAS to figure it out himself.
    Hmm. Maybe he and I need to talk. :) Thanks for the post!

  5. Thank you, Sarah. I found this very helpful and understandable. Joe's woes were great examples!