Setting and Shifting Scenes
     Victoria Grossack

In the column for March, 2005, we discussed different levels of structure in writing. Since then, many of the columns have been devoted to covering a particular level of structure. In this one we will discuss scenes.

Scenes differ from the other levels of structure we’ve considered in that it is possible for there to be more to your book than scenes. It is possible to write words and paragraphs which are “outside” of scenes – transitions, explanations, characters thinking things over, and so on.

But let’s not get too uptight about the definition of levels of structure. After all, this is art, not science! And scenes are an immensely critical to writing your book or story. They also have certain structural aspects.

What Are Scenes?

In terms of size, scenes are usually somewhere between paragraphs and chapters. Occasionally, a scene will consist of a single paragraph. More often, a chapter may consist of a single scene. A scene is usually limited in the time and space of your story.

Scenes also have a relationship to storytelling. It may help to think of the theatre when considering scenes. In drama, everything takes place in scenes.

Scenes are where chunks of action of your story take place. Scenes often have conversation. Scenes are where you show and do not tell. Scenes are what you hope will remain in your readers’ minds and feelings long after they close your book. Scenes are where your story really lives.

This little column, however, won’t cover what it takes to make scenes come alive. That issue can wait until another column (after I have figured out the answer myself). Instead we’ll stick to the larger theme of this series, i.e., some of the issues required for structuring scenes to function in your story. Although this goal is not quite so lofty, it’s still one of the many, many details that writers need to master.

Setting Scenes – Where and When

Besides making scenes exciting and visual and giving the reader the feeling of being there, of giving the feeling that your characters are alive, breathing and fighting and even more vibrant than the people in the next cubicle, as you write your scenes you have to take care of a few housekeeping issues. You need to let your readers know where they are in the story. Literally, where are the characters? What day is it? Even what time is it?

There are many ways of answering these questions. Usually you don’t want to be too obtrusive about it, but – unless you are deliberately confusing your readers – you need to get this information across. Here are some ways to go about it:

Information at the beginning of a scene. Consider the show, “Law and Order,” which begins each new scene with a particular sound and a title card, which gives the place and time. Fiction writers occasionally employ this technique (without the sound) – most often with thrillers, it seems, because it somehow conveys a sense of urgency, as if the storyteller and the reader don’t have enough time to take out for more than the bare facts.

Hint: you may want to do this for yourself, while you’re writing, in order to make sure you keep your details straight, especially when you’re working on a long and complicated piece. My writing partner and I do this and delete this information only as we’re in the last stages of polishing the project.

Work it into the conversation. For example, you could write:

Jack asked: “Where are we?”
Jill replied: “Up the hill.”

This type of conversation, in which characters are talking about things so that the reader learns information, is called expository. Sometimes it sounds natural; sometimes it doesn’t. If Jack asks too often where they are, readers will start to wonder why he doesn’t simply look around him.

However, if you combine the information you want to convey with more action or more emotion, a conversation can help not just set the scene but to get it going.

“Do you plan to start the race today?” asked Broteas, leaning against his chariot. “Or will you yield now and spare us all the trouble?”

Here we can see that we are at a racecourse for chariots. We’re also working in a taunting character and conflict, also good for scenes.

Work it into description. Another method of letting your readers know where and when they are in the story is to simply describe it. You could write:

The sun was high over the mountain, and its hot golden rays made the shady grove of pine trees attractive to Diane.

The sentence above gives an idea of when, where and who. Some writers practically pen poetry when they write description.

The examples above are not meant to be exhaustive, but to illustrate a few different possibilities.

Who(m) Is the Scene About?

Not only do you need to determine where and when you are in your story, you need to know who is in the scene. Generally this should be obvious to you, the author, but you should also make an effort to make it clear to your readers.

This means establishing who is there, and also whose point of view you are using. (Point of view is something that I’m saving for another couple of columns.) This is done by focusing quickly on your main character for that scene, and especially by giving that character some emotion with which the reader can sympathize.

(The “m” in “Who(m)” is correct and supplied for the grammarians.)

Shifting Scenes - Formatting

One consideration for writers is how to show physically – by formatting your text, I mean -- that a scene is beginning or ending. There are, again, many possibilities.

The first choice is to do nothing. It is not required. You can simply start with the next paragraph. You may choose to do this if the change in scenes is not abrupt, or if you are writing transition information which summarizes the story and takes the readers to the next scene.

However, when a change in scenes is more abrupt, some writers will put a break in the text, to signal to the reader that the scene has changed. This technique is used often, but there are potential problems. When you are submitting a manuscript that is double-spaced, breaks in the text may be difficult to spot. Or even with a single-spaced manuscript, it could be easy to miss a break in the text if it happens at the same place as a page break.

Other techniques include putting an asterisk in between scenes, at least while the story is in manuscript form. Or, you may choose to be more deliberate. In Pelops & Amphion, still in manuscript form, my writing partner and I began each new scene with a number, such as “4.3” – where the “4” represents the chapter and the “3” represents the scene within this chapter.

Shifting Scenes - Order

There are other questions to consider. In what order to you place your scenes? You want to place them in the order that gives out the story’s information out in the way that serves your storytelling goals best, whatever they happen to be.

Chronologically. This means putting your scenes in the order in which they occur. I believe you should be following this for most of your story. However, don’t feel you need to show us everything. You can skip over, or at least summarize, the boring bits. Scenes are where things are usually supposed to happen, to move the story along.

Flashbacks. This means going back in time, either for a short period or for a longer one, and having the character either recount, remember, or relive past events. You should establish a reason for the character going back in time – why is a particular event being recalled?

Often an entire book is told in flashback, with what is known as a “frame story” around it. My writing partner and I do this in Iokaste: The Novel of the Mother-Wife of Oedipus, where the frame story occurs in the prologue and epilogue. In the prologue we learn that Iokaste’s long marriage with her son has been discovered and she is contemplating suicide. One of their daughters wants to know what happened, and Iokaste decides to tell her – giving the excuse for the rest of the book. (A second reason for writing the story this way is to put the readers on a more even footing, as many people have heard of the story of Oedipus but they often remember different amounts of it.)

Moving between story-threads. If your story is following the lives of several characters, you may move between different characters and their set of events. When you do this, it is kind, for the sake of your readers, to establish the place and the people as soon as possible.

Again, these are just some of the possibilities of how you can order your scenes.


This article has taken a brief tour behind the scenes, highlighting some of the mundane but necessary structural issues. When these items are managed well, you can hope that your readers barely notice them.

If you have comments, questions, suggestions, or if you want to use this article, feel free to contact me at [email protected]. Until next time!

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About the Writer:

Victoria Grossack is, with Alice Underwood, the author of Iokaste: The Novel of the Mother-Wife of Oedipus. She is working on her own series of novels, set in Bronze Age Greece. There’s exciting news about Iokaste: even the Greeks want to read it! Learn more about Iokaste and other books in the series at Tapestry of Bronze.

Victoria was a moderator of a critique group for Coffeehouse for Writers and teaches the Writing Historical Fiction workshop for Coffeehouse for Writers.