Crafting Scenes Part 1

NCWA welcomes Gloria Kempton in part one of a two part series.

Every story is, or should be, created scene by scene. Like a child building a tower of blocks, scenes are built one upon another. Thaisa Frank and Dorothy Wall (Finding your Writer’s Voice) give us another way to look at creating a plot or story line:   You understand  instinctively that a good plot functions like a series of billiard balls hitting against each other.

It’s cause and effect; every scene causes an effect that leads into the next scene that causes another effect and so on. In between the dramatic scenes we need sequels to give the reader a moment to breathe and so that the main character can catch up with himself. If you’re writing about your own life, these are the moments you cry, go to therapy, throw something, and figure out what you’re going to do next.

Every scene should have three elements. Jack Bickham, in his excellent book, Scene & Structure, calls these elements goal, conflict and disaster. I call them intention, journey and collision. If you’re writing a personal story, you want to identify your intention or goal right away so that the reader can get on board and so that the story begins to propel forward.

The best way to reveal your goal is through a scene of dialogue and action that shows rather than through a few paragraphs that tell. Knowing your intention is what causes the story to begin to move for the reader—there’s something you’re reaching for and the story events will engage the reader as the obstacles begin to show up and you fail time and time again to reach your goal.

The series of obstacles is the journey part of the story and reveals your external and internal conflict, whatever it is. It could be that you’re running a race and your goal is the finish line—that’s external. But the internal goal could be much deeper—you want to prove to yourself that you can finish what you start which is something you’ve never been able to do before.

If you’re writing fiction, it’s the same process. Your protagonist has a goal, but is faced with a conflict that grows more and more intense as the scene progresses. Finally, at the end of the scene, your character collides—with another character, with a physical obstacle, with his own value system. And he’s temporarily derailed.

The goal/intention can come from within or without, preferably both. The journey/conflict can also come from within or without. And the collision can be a physical one coming from something external, or it can be emotional, psychological, or spiritual and come from within. The best stories are ones that occur in both the external and internal dimensions.

At the point of impact—collision—the character can then slide into a sequel, which will give both character and reader a moment to catch a breath before the next scene begins. More about sequels next time.


Gloria Kempton will be speaking at NCWA’s December meeting.

She is the author of eight nonfiction books, two novels, and hundreds of short stories and articles published in a number of national magazines including Writer’s Digest.  Gloria coaches writers one-on-one on any aspect of fiction, nonfiction, or the writing life and has taught at writing conferences all over the country including the Maui writers conference.  She was the managing editor of two magazines and was a freelance book editor for nine major publishers.  She currently instructs online courses for and


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