A Method Through the Madness: 5 Tips for Writing Scenes

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Every writer has a different method to their madness. There’s no right or wrong way to weave a story from beginning to end. Of course, I believe every writer should study the craft, learn as much as they can about fiction-writing basics--but then, ultimately, each writer needs to pull it all together in a way that works for them.

All that to say, what works for me, won’t be a fit for everyone. Nevertheless, if I had to pick one way to describe how I write my books, I’d have to say “I write by scenes.” From start to finish, I build my entire book with one scene upon another.

I know many writers use the technique of scene-writing. There are even writing books that go into detail about writing scenes. So, I don’t claim to be the expert. In fact, I’m still learning with each book that I write what works and what doesn’t.

With that said, here are just a few of the scene-writing techniques I incorporate into my books:

1. Plan out the scene before writing it.

Not everyone is a planner—I completely understand that. But . . . there’s something to be said about being intentional with the blank page that sits directly in front of us. Maybe we won’t map out the entire book, but when we carefully make decisions about a scene before writing it, we have the potential to make it richer and fuller. Here are the things I plan out before writing a scene:

Time and Date: Keeping track of this will come in handy later during line-editing

POV (point of view): Whose POV would have the greatest impact for the scene? Who’s POV haven’t I used lately? Whose POV can best move the plot along?

Setting: How can I alternate the setting so that I don’t have too many scenes in the same room or area?

Sensory Details: What sights, smells, tastes, textures, and sounds can bring the scene alive? What other details can help set the mood of the scene?

2. Set scene goals carefully.

We should be aiming to incorporate only those things into our stories that have a purpose, whether to move the plot along, enhance our theme, build our characters, or foreshadow what’s to come. I make bullet points for everything I hope to accomplish within the scene that I’m about to write. As I sit down to do the actual writing, things often change, but the goals keep me on target. Whatever I don’t end up including in the scene, I circle so that I can try to remember to include that “goal” in a later scene.

3. Let the scene play out like a movie.

Once I have my scene planned out, then I write it, letting it play out in my mind like a movie, keeping the action moving, showing what’s happening. But of course, I’m also in my POV character’s head. So I make sure to show what’s going on inside her head, her reactions, emotions, conflicts, and eventually her growth.

4. Decide how much transition (or sequel) is needed.

Some writers use transition or sequel to move to their next scene. Others (like me) jump-cut to the next scene without the filler. When we cut off one scene and then move directly to the next, we often still need to weave in transitional information like the passing of time or anything significant that’s happened between the scenes. Not everything is important enough to include, so we have to decide what the reader must know for the story to make sense, and then thread those things throughout the scene (usually the early paragraphs).

5. Begin and end the scene with hooks.

If possible, we should look for ways to draw our readers immediately into a scene (similar to the way we want to hook them with the first paragraphs of our books). And likewise, we should try to end our scenes with a ROP (read-on-prompt)—something that urges the reader to keep turning the pages to find out what’s going to happen next.

There you have it. My method through the madness! What’s your method? Do you write by scenes or some other way? And if you write by scenes, what other techniques do you use to bring it to life?



  1. That's an interesting way of writing a story. Perhaps I will try it out for myself some time. I like the idea of planning the whole thing from start to finish before beginning, though I just wrote a novella manuscript without very much planning at all. I made a short character profile and thought of a very vague outline, and that was after I'd started writing. I will try writing by scenes some time. It sounds like something that would work well for me when writing a short story.

  2. This is exactly how I write. I find planning scene by scene to be the only way I can put the story down in words. I also imagine it playing out as a movie. I think it helps to visualise the scenes. The sensory details also really help the reader to engage with the story.
    Thanks for a great post.

  3. Jody, I write by scenes as well and plan them out in my head before I begin. I've seen such an improvement since I started doing this. I'm writing with purpose and not sitting down to write a book.

    The one thing I still struggle with at times is figuring out the transitions that need to go between. Sometimes you don't need one, but often you do. And that gives me fits over and over.

  4. Does a scene for you usually equal one chapter? This type of planning seems to be natural for me, but I think of scenes as chapters. I confess, though, that when a scene becomes too large I break it into multiple chapters.

    1. Meghan,

      Sometimes a scene will take a whole chapter, but usually I have a couple of scenes per chapter. But then again, my 100K books are only about 25-30 chapters long, so perhaps my chapters tend to be longer.

  5. Good morning, everyone! It's great to hear a little bit more about all of your methods for planning your novels! We have so much to learn from each other! :-)

  6. Jody, I love this and definitely need to work on it! I'm bookmarking this. Yes, I've noticed that you write in scenes, leaving out the in-between stuff we don't need to know. Excellent method.

  7. Good tips. I usually let it play out in my head before I write it too.

  8. This is so helpful, Jody. As a pantser, I have to force myself to pre-plan and pre-write scenes in my head, but these are essential tasks, unless you want to spin your wheels and do a lot of rewriting. The steps you outline provide sound techniques for writers. Even pantsers have to think through a scene to its logical conclusion. Thanks for an outstanding post.

  9. Great points, Jody! I think each one would make for a memorable scene that would draw the reader right in. :) I especially like # 2. Sometimes I find that if I have writer's block, sitting down and asking myself what this scene needs to accomplish, helps me brainstorm through it.

    1. Great point, Joanne! When we figure out the purpose of a scene that does usually help remove the writer's block! Brainstorming through the goals can give us the direction we need.

  10. Great tips! I've been trying to have 2 scenes per chapter and have each chapter about 1900-2000 words. So far so good! I really believe in ending with a hook.

    Thanks for the post!

  11. I'm definitely a scene by scene writer. I plan a scene in my head before I write it, but often it takes on a life of its own while I'm writing and then I have to tweak the next scene a bit more to make it fit. I think it's so important to let the scene play out like a movie in my head before I write it - and that's when I "look" around and notice all the details that my POV would notice. Thanks for another great post, Jody!

  12. I especially like your idea of setting a goal for each scene; that made me stop and go "Hmmmm..." I'm going to try that next time. I'm definitely a pantser rather than a plotter, and I do write one scene at a time. But now that I've finished my first draft, I'm going to go back and organize my scenes by outlining them; I figure it'll help me revise them.

  13. I'm really curious about #4, how you decide whether a scene needs a sequel or not. And when you do put sequels in, do you always follow the Reaction-Dilemma-Decision pattern?

    When I use sequels, I tend to put in a Reaction and Dilemma, but I don't always put in a Decision (enter my crit partner, who points out that my scene needs a decision). But I'm a little uncertain as to whether sequels always need them. I'd rather leave my character torn in two directions with his decision hanging, and then SHOW you his decision in a later scene.

    Anyway, just curious about whether you feel sequels are a hard fast rule (which I assume you don't if you sometimes leave them off). And when you do use them, if they have to follow Swain's methodology.

    1. Hi Naomi,

      I rarely use sequels. I try not to because it's a lot of telling. I prefer to weave any important transitional info into the following scene through exposition while the action of the next scene is unfolding.

      I don't know that sequels work the same way they may have once worked. Our modern readers are used to the fast pace of TV and the cutting from one scene to the next, without having to know everything. So I think that it's okay to "jump cut" in our stories too. Readers want to get to the important stuff, the action, and they'll usually piece together what we leave out.

      I don't know if I answered your question or not, Naomi! If you'd like, you could send me an example of one of your sequels and I could let you know what I think.

    2. Thanks for the offer, Jody. You answered my question and helped. I won't second guess myself the next time I play around with a sequel. I suppose if there's trouble, an my agent and editor would ask for revisions, too.

      I did peek at the sequel that had given me trouble, but that passage occurs well into the story, and I think it would be too complicated to explain everything that's going on. Plus I stuck a flashback in the middle of it. That probably breaks some rule too. Anyway I appreciate your offer. Maybe next time it will work out. :-)

  14. Jody, I'm so glad you posted this information. I confess that I also write by scene. Many scenes come to me on long bike rides, and then I burn more calories on my trip back home so I can write down all the details.

    Using scene cards really helps because I can spread them across the living room floor like a paper rug, and move the pieces around.

    Thank you for your blog posts. This is one of the few blogs on the craft of writing that I follow on a regular basis. I have found many 'nuggets' here.

    1. I like your idea of using scene cards! Thanks for sharing that! And thank you too for the kind words about my blog. I'm glad the posts are resonating! :-)

  15. Very practical and helpful post Jody, thanks so much for sharing...I'm gonna make these into a 'check list' thingy and hang it above my desk :)

  16. Hi Jody,

    Great Post as usual. When I do emotional scenes I like to attack it from both the H/heroine’s POV. Thinking about it I guess I convey their emotions through actions spotted. By that I mean the hero may see the heroine’s shoulders slump, her lip quiver or back straighten. Sometimes having the hero (who the reader knows without a doubt loves the heroine)suffer just because she is in pain. It isn't necessarily the direct emotions that reader connects with, but they do connect with the concept regardless of the cause.

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