Saturday, May 25, 2024

The Art of Scene Crafting: A Guide to Amplifying Narrative Impact

by Zena Dell Lowe @ZenaDellLowe

As storytellers, we hold the power to shape worlds, captivate audiences, and evoke profound emotions through our craft. But there are times when writers unwittingly diminish the power of their own stories. Since stories unfold as a result of one scene, plus another scene, plus another scene and so on, the place to start is with scene construction, and learning how to maximize the dramatic potential of each moment.

Number 1: Milk each scene for everything it’s worth

When it comes to storytelling, every scene, every moment matters. Every scenario holds the potential to deepen our understanding of characters, their most important relationships, and their internal emotional state. No instance is inconsequential; each serves as an opportunity to enrich the narrative tapestry. When you’re writing your story, milk each scene for everything it's worth in terms of revealing to us, the audience, who that character is, what their interpersonal relationship struggles are, and where they are at emotionally at that exact moment in the story. Nothing can be wasted. You must use every single moment that you have at your disposal. 

Let's say you have a character going from point A to point B. Rather than a mere transition, it’s an opportunity to tap into their psyche. Try to find a way to utilize it, to reveal something extra to your audience. For example, what is their internal emotional state? Are they anxious? Are they confident? Are they sad or melancholy? Do they march passed a homeless person, so absorbed in their own world that they don't even see this person? Do they march towards a library, but then see a stray dog and stop to give it some food, even though the character has no more money in their pocket? Maybe they don't march to the library at all. Maybe they meander or stroll and window browse, which shows they're not in a hurry. But it also shows they're maybe avoiding or dreading something. You CAN just have them walk to the library. But if you do that, you're missing a precious chance to expose more to us than at first might meet the eye. Always be looking for those opportunities to milk every moment to reveal character, character relationships, or their internal emotional state. 

Number 2: Any moment can be enhanced, including dialogue scenes

If you have two characters meeting as friends to discuss the latest developments in their individual love-lives, you want to use that scene to reveal the depth and breadth of their relationship. What happens is writers will stick to the literal dialogue to try to get exposition out, or they’ll have those characters speaking in low-context dialogue for the audience’s benefit, and then they'll ignore or miss the opportunities to reveal the subtleties of character dynamics. So, what could you do instead? Perhaps you show them in action in the kitchen, where one grabs a teacup and the other grabs the kettle, and they do a dance around the kitchen as they carry on a conversation, which shows us they've done this a million times. This is a ritual of theirs. It shows familiarity. So, you're taking something simple and you're magnifying it, revealing even more. You’re milking it for all it's worth. 

There are so many ways to do this. You could have a character kneel to pick up a quarter, then look around to see who dropped it. That reveals something about them. You could have a confident character striding with purpose down the sidewalk, but then they trip over a crack and quickly look around to see if anyone saw them stumble. This behavior shows us that deep down they’re insecure, or perhaps it's an omen of bad things to come. You might not know what it means until the next scene, but you can still take the time to milk it. Don’t let a single story moment be wasted. 

Number 3: Everything that happens should play into the larger narrative in some way

Whenever anything happens in your story, whether it be set-ups, dialogue, character revelations, etc., anything that you include in any scene of your story must ultimately play into the narrative overall. You can’t have stuff happen in a scene if it doesn’t somehow impact the larger narrative. It should come back into play in some way. Otherwise, you’re missing a golden opportunity to make each moment matter.

For example, I recently critiqued a script where the writer opened on a scene between a husband and a wife, where the man is watching his wife learn to fence. He’s saying things to the instructor, like, "Don't be easy on her. I want her to learn to defend herself." The problem is, this never came back up again in the story, even though she did need to learn to defend herself because she was targeted by bad guys. You don’t want to have a character be learning a particular skill at the outset and then not have that skill come up again later in the narrative. It can be either to the character's benefit or detriment. It doesn’t matter. It just needs to play into the narrative. 

Number 4: Even playful dialogue scenes should ultimately matter to the larger story

In another recent critique, the writer had included some lovely dialogue exchanges between a married couple who were discussing certain films they’d enjoyed from the past. Now, it perfectly legitimate to use exchanges like this in the moment only to reveal the depths of their camaraderie and connection. There can be witty banter between them. We can see a tradition they’ve established. But it's even better if this element comes back into play in the narrative later. In the case of this story, the husband ends up dying. So, what if one of the movies they discussed at the beginning ends up streaming on the TV in the hospital room, right after he’s passed? The wife is in shock, but she hears the movie playing. She looks up, and… then what? Bringing it up now allows this element to mean more than it did before. Now, it emphasizes what she’s lost. Now, it can be utilized as a physical manifestation of her grief. She can actually do something with it. Perhaps she picks up the TV remote and hurls it across the room. The point is to us how she feels. You’re bringing back this sweet moment from the beginning to maximize the dramatic potential of this moment. You always want to bring things back into play once you've set them up. It makes the story so much more interesting and enjoyable to the audience. 

The bottom line is that you want to milk each moment of your story. You do this by recognizing every moment as a setup. Whatever you setup ultimately needs to come back into play later. Nothing brings joy to an audience more than a good payoff. 

For more tips like these, check out my weekly podcast for storytellers on my YouTube channel:, or find me on the podcast app of your choice. Be sure to like, comment, and subscribe!


Zena has worked professionally in the entertainment industry for over 20 years as a writer, producer, director, actress, and story consultant. Zena also teaches advanced classes on writing all over the country. As a writer, Zena has won numerous awards for her work. She also has several feature film projects in development through her independent production company, Mission Ranch Films. In addition to her work as a filmmaker, Zena launched The Storyteller’s Mission with Zena Dell Lowe, a podcast designed to serve the whole artist, not just focus on craft. In 2021, Zena launched The Storyteller’s Mission Online Platform, where she offers advanced classes and other key services to writers. Zena loves story and loves to support storytellers. Her passion is to equip artists of all levels to achieve excellence at their craft, so that they will truly have everything they need to change the world for the better through story.

To find out more about Zena or her current courses and projects, check out her websites at WWW.MISSIONRANCHFILMS.COM and WWW.THESTORYTELLERSMISSION.COM


  1. Chriswels.grace@gmail.comMay 25, 2024 at 8:24 AM

    Thanks for your detailed explanation, Zena. Very helpful! :)

  2. Zena, thanks. Once again, you have posted relevant crafting information that I will be able to apply this writing weekend. My biggest worry has been that I would "over-write" a scene. Your first two bullet points above sent my muse soaring with ways to concentrate on adding dramatic impact to several special moments in the first two meeting of my P.I. and his new client. Your examples were spot on for my story.

  3. Alfred Hitchcock said he liked to maximize his settings. So if you have someone go to a mysterious meeting by a cornfield, you should involved what makes that setting unique. Like a crop duster trying to kill he hero.