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How to Revise a Novel

How to Revise a Novel

Welcome fellow writers to the final entry in my chapter on revising (as well as the culminating exercise for this installment on the writing process).

Before we get started I want to offer you my heartfelt congratulations. I am so proud of you for making it this far, for it is finally time to begin the final draft of your novel, a crucial milestone in your journey. By now you should have made it through the rest of this guide and have a list of goals for aspects of your story you wish to improve sitting beside you.

In this exercise I will provide you with a plan for transforming your book into a complete manuscript, ready to self-publish or shop to potential agents and publishers. Just a heads up, this last step is a big one, and it will require a considerable amount of time and effort to complete several passes over your existing text.

There really isn’t any way for me to arm you with a perfect “one size fits all” strategy for going through this process, as your work is highly individual and will vary considerably from that of other writers. That being said, using the system I outline below, you can craft your own personal revising strategy. For my own novels, I prefer to use a three stage revision process, consolidating the various steps that I described in the last entry into three distinct passes of revision, each focusing on a different “depth” of your story.

My three pass system for revising a novel

Now, although I call this a three pass system, it might (will likely) involve reading the bulk of your text several times during each stage/pass. The exact number is based solely on whether or not you have completed all of your goals and feel ready to move on.

The first pass is all about revising and enhancing plot structure, and during it you will build a comprehensive map of your overall plotline and various subplots. The second pass tightens the focus to individual scenes (chapters or subchapters), ensuring that each is contributing to the plot and is as powerful as you can make it. This is also where you will focus on improving the prose of your novel. The final pass deals with correcting any lingering errors as we as ensuring that the consistency and formatting of your book is up to snuff.

Here is a detailed description of what goes into each major pass:

The plot pass

Key focus: Plot and character development.

1) Plot completeness and complexity

  • Finalizing your story structure and plot development.
  • Identify any missing or unnecessary scenes.
  • Set up and execution of major events (cliffhangers, plot twists, climax).

2) Plot Structure and character arcs

  • Critical examination of character arcs.
  • Meeting the overall objectives of your story.
  • Fully resolving your novel’s central conflict.
  • Bringing your story to a logical conclusion.

3) Continuity

  • Subplots and mysteries set up, fulfilled, and resolved.
  • No people, objects, or plot devices have fallen through the cracks.

4) Character balance

  • Making sure that everyone is where they should be and present in their relevant scenes.
  • Ensuring that each character possesses an appropriate level of “presence” from scene to scene.

The prose pass

Key focus: Words, sentences, and paragraphs.

1) Big picture items

  • Overall balance of action/dialogue/description.
  • Vary the length and structure of your prose (sentences, paragraphs, blocks of description and dialogue).
  • All of your transitions should be smooth and clean.

2) Character presentation and development

  • Make sure to reveal character through action.
  • Especially for the PoV character(s).
  • Use your characters’ emotion to provide context and atmosphere.

3) Settings

  • Help the reader feel like they are standing here.
  • Choose details (and adverbs) with the mood in mind.
  • Set your descriptions in motion.

4) Dialogue

  • Improve overworked, cumbersome dialogue tags (often by using no tag or action tags).
  • Make each conversation serve a purpose (plot, tension, character development, atmosphere).
  • Ask yourself, “Does each unique voice shine through?”
  • Give each speaker clear agendas.
  • Balancing your speakers (especially in a multiple speaker conversation).

5) Descriptions

  • Pare down and improve your adjectives and adverbs (repeated words, weak/vague words).
  • Cut out all filler words and redundant modifiers.
  • Remove vague metaphors, awkward comma splices, and clichés.
  • Use all five senses.
  • Describe details as they become relevant to the character.
  • Ask, “Does this text reflect the atmosphere of my scene?”
  • Reword passive constructions.

6) Action and impact

  • Gage your momentum and pacing.
  • Ensure the tension is present and never goes slack.
  • Establish an atmosphere that serves your action.
  • Add/remove words and sentences as needed.
  • Make sure you have a hook at the start and end of each scene.
  • Remove unnecessary stage direction.

The proof pass

Key focus: Final decisions on word choice, proofreading.

1) Consistency and formatting

  • Make sure your chapter titles and subscript are consistent.
  • Do the same with your inner monologue (usually by using italics).
  • Subchapter break formatting (e.g. —–).

2) Proofreading and punctuation

  • Be aware of the limits of spell check.
  • Be especially careful for mistakes you make often (misspelling certain words, etc.)

3) Final continuity check

  • Final check that all subplots or mysteries are resolved.
  • Write down anything that might be relevant to a later sequel.

A detailed description of each pass

Stage 1: The plot pass (Revising story structure)

The first major pass is geared towards completing the events of your plot. In it you will be identifying any issues with your existing story as well as any scenes that need to be added or deleted.


One way of losing focus and your reader’s interest is to create an unnecessarily complex plot. This might involve too many split timelines and plotlines, too many subplots, or an unclear jumble of dream sequences, flashbacks, and plot twists. On the other hand, if your plot lacks sufficient depth and breadth, you run the risk of weakening the impact and meaning of your story. In essence, you are going to need to strike a balance between these two extremes.

To do so, you should ask yourself for every subplot and plot twist:

  • Do I need this layer to the story for events to be sufficiently impactful?
  • Would my story be weakened by removing it altogether?
  • Are the events and their meanings easy for the reader to follow and understand?
  • Are these events true to my novel’s theme, conflict, and atmosphere?

Completeness (A powerful beginning and ending)

The first and last events of your story (and the impressions they impart) are going to define your tale within the hearts and minds of your readers, so it is vital that you make both of these bookends as powerful and impactful as you possibly can.

Some questions to ask yourself include:

  • Does the first scene grab the reader’s attention and plant a hook to make them curious about the rest of the story?
  • Does the story maintain a sufficient level of focus from scene to scene?
  • Is it easy for the reader to care about the characters and conflict?
  • Does each subplot and chapter have a solid entry and exit hook?
  • Does the novel sufficiently set up the climax?
  • Does the ending of the story satisfy the promise of the novel?
  • Does the ending make sense in context of the rest of the story?
  • Did the characters earn their ending?
  • Have you met the overall objectives of your story?
  • Have you resolved your novel’s central conflict fully and to satisfaction?
  • Does the resolution provide something for the reader to take with them?
  • Have you identified any additional scenes that need to be added?

Subplots and character arcs

Although they are subservient to your main conflict, each subplot in your novel needs to be crafted with care.

For each subplot and character arc ask:

  • Does this story add depth and breadth to my main conflict?
  • Would the book be lessened by removing it altogether?
  • Does the subplot have an intro hook, a climax, and a resolution?


Another key element of creating a satisfying read is making sure that the continuity of your narrative is complete, without any pieces that fell off the table or lingering questions unaddressed or unresolved. When you have a lot of characters it can be easy to have one or two slip through the cracks. This might wind up in someone not being mentioned for a hundred pages, even when they were along for the ride. Even worse, you might have someone show up somewhere they aren’t (or in two places at once.) Using the plotline tools I laid out in the planning process chapter can help to prevent these type of errors.

Things that will weaken or break continuity include:

  • Characters or key elements that disappear or show up where they shouldn’t.
  • Unresolved subplots.
  • Changes to names and descriptions of settings and characters.
  • Major plot twists that occur without any prior setup.

Character balance

Another key consideration is character balance. Or phrased as a question: “Is each character presented in balance in each scene (neither standing too far in the back nor dominating the spotlight)? Now, achieving balance is not a science, but taking a close look at which scenes your various characters appear in and to what extent can often inform you of places where their presence could use some tweaking.

Stage 2: The prose pass (Revising characters, settings, description, and action)

The second pass focuses on your text itself, refining and improving various aspects of your presentation.

Big picture items

  • Overall balance of action/dialogue/description.
  • Vary the length and structure of prose.
  • Chapter titles consistent and to your liking.
  • Transitions should be smooth and clean.

Characters and settings

All of your characters, (with the exception of extras) need to be relevant to the core plot and conflict in at least some manner. They should not be included in your story unless they help to drive the plot forwards. For minor characters, this impact might be limited to a single scene, but all of your major characters should in some way be involved with the novel’s central conflict, climax, and resolution.

Your characters should have clear goals, those wants and needs we discussed back in the planning and drafting sections. They should be easy to empathize with, so the reader can vicariously share in the emotions arising from their journeys. They also need to be armed with significant motivations, as well as communicate a unique voice.

Description and dialogue: Editing your words and sentences

After you have completed your big picture edits, it’s time to peel things back and look at another layer of your narrative, your words, sentences, and paragraphs. This pass is all about ensuring pacing, flow, tension, and atmosphere first. Then it’s time to move on to sentence structure, spelling, grammar, punctuation, and paragraph lengths. Finally you will spend some time strengthening your word choice as well as cutting out weak and redundant descriptions.

Some self-editing rules to live by

I covered many of these in greater detail back in the chapter on the drafting process, but here are some self-editing guidelines to keep in mind while revising your prose:

Cut out unnecessary and filler words

This is perhaps the most important self-editing rule for any author. Learn to live by it and your prose will be immeasurably enhanced.

Eliminate throat-clearing

Throat-clearing refers to when an author includes too much background information and laying out the setting before any action begins.

Never choose a complex word when a simple one will do

As we discussed in the drafting section of this guide, you should never include a fancy word just to show off your vocabulary. In fact, you should never toss in a highly complex or specific term unless it adds a new meaning to a phrase. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pick a strong noun or verb, but you need to choose words that are easy for your audience to digest and follow.

Don’t tell the reader what isn’t happening.

There is no need to inform the reader of things that are not happening, as this is filler that doesn’t tell us anything we need to know. Note this is different from saying that something did not happen. “Jane was not asleep,” is filler. “Jane had not slept,” is information that might potentially be useful to the story.

Remove redundancy in descriptions and exposition

““Bob, I’m scared,” Jane said to Bob.” “Bob nodded his head.” In each case the last two words are redundant and should be cut.

Don’t repeat information to your reader (especially at length)

Once you have presented a fact or event, there is no need to go over it again. Your reader will usually remember and the repetition will bore them. If you feel they could use a brief reminder, place it in a short bit of exposition or summary rather than going through the entire thing play by play for a second time.

Shave off unnecessary adjectives and adverbs

Powerful writing is achieved through the use of strong nouns and verbs, not by flinging around piles of adjectives. Modifying words are a potent spice, so use them sparingly.

Don’t hedge with your verbs

“He was almost tall.” “She was a little bit beautiful.”

Don’t include unnecessary stage direction

You only need to include enough detail to frame the scene and highlight important action. Avoid attempting to inform the reader of every tiny movement or action the characters take. You want to imply that these things are happening without actually relaying them in detail.

Don’t change the point of view mid-scene

This is perhaps the most common mistake novice writers make. Having a weak grasp on point of view is one of the fastest ways to damage immersion, ruin your first impression, and have potential agents and publishers take a hard pass on your novel.

Don’t try use punctuation or font changes for dramatic effect

Using all caps and lots of exclamation points, as this will only serve to make your prose appear amateur. Rely on the power of your words themselves to convey important emphasis.

Words to cut out of your prose

Refining prose often necessitates cutting out words, sentences, and phrasing that clutters, dilutes, or obfuscates the meaning and impact of your text. While learning to prune your prose is a skill that requires practice to develop, there are some words that have a tendency to weaken or muddle otherwise fine sentences.

Let’s take a look at several now:

Really and very

Although we use them all the time in daily speech for emphasis, the words very and really don’t actually help the reader to picture the events detailed in your prose. “Fast” vs. “really fast.” “Fun” vs. “very fun.” Neither of these add anything the reader can sink their imaginations into. If you want to convey stronger emphasis, chose a more powerful verb or noun instead.


The word suddenly means a rapid action without prior warning. However, when you use it in a sentence it both slows down the action and gives your reader a warning that something is about to happen. Usually, just relaying the action is more powerful than including a “suddenly” beforehand. It also reveals nothing as to the nature of the action it describes, no sensations or information the reader can use to paint a picture in their mind.

In order to

This phrase simply not needed in most sentences. “She took the pill to help her sleep at night” vs. “She took the pill in order to sleep at night.” The “in order to” is both totally unnecessary and clutters up the sentence.


Usually the word then is used to imply that something happens after the last event that was mentioned. However, in most cases, simply listing events sequentially already implies this ordering. The only time that you should use “then” is when it might otherwise be unclear as to the sequence of events.

Up and down (when they aren’t indicating direction)

“Bob sat down on the stool.” “Sarah cleaned up the mess.”


Don’t use the term literally, especially when you mean figuratively.


The word “that” is both useful and necessary, but is also easy to overuse. Sometimes you can just remove it altogether by moving a description to before the noun. “The dog that is brown is near my house.” vs. “The brown dog is near my house.” Sometimes it is included in places it doesn’t need to be. “I’m not that stupid.” vs. “I’m not stupid.”

You need “that” in a sentence to attach dependent clauses to independent ones and if a clause begins with a number of subordinating conjunctions. “That” is also used before clauses to clarify a noun. Some sentences just sound incomplete or awkward without it as well. When in doubt, try removing the “that from a sentence and see if it still reads well. If it’s a borderline case, leave it in.

Action and impact

It is important that the action of your novel is clear. But more than just being easy to follow, your action needs to grip your audience. To create a feeling of tension within them that can only be resolved by reading on to the end of the scene. This isn’t just about what happens (story structure and plot) but also about how the big event is revealed to the reader.


Tension refers to the amount of excitement or drama that the scene is carrying. It is created when there is a sense of urgency to what is happening, encouraging the reader to find out what happens next. It is a key part of any successful scene, and becomes critical when things start to ramp up before the climax. Sometimes the source of tension is less urgent, such as scenes in of falling tension (e.g. slice of life). But even in these cases, there should still be a sense that something is happening and that something important has yet to be resolved.


One powerful way of controlling the tension of your story is through the clever use of pacing. Pacing refers to the ordering and manipulation of time inside of a tale. A single page might only cover a few minutes of a story in one place, while in another it might mark the passing of days or even years. In general, you will want to slow the pace down in scenes of high tension, especially before major moments of action or a big reveals.

It is important to match the pacing of a scene to its need. If it is set too fast, the impact and meaning of events can be diluted or even lost. But if the pacing is too slow in the wrong place, the reader will become bored waiting to find out what happens next.

Stage 3: The proof pass (Typos, formatting, and polish)

Now it’s time for the third and final pass of your novel, the proof pass.


  • Do I tend to make any common spelling or grammatical mistakes? (Document search can help.)
  • Have I read this section out loud?


Make sure your formatting is consistent. If some of your chapters use subheadings, they all should. If some begin with quotes, they all should. If you write out the word Chapter at the start, all of your chapters should follow the same convention and not switch to numbers later.

  • Consistent chapter titles and subscript.
  • Manuscript all in same font and format style.

Final continuity check

  • Is every subplot and mystery resolved by the end of the story?
  • Did I cross off everything from the continuity list I made in the first pass?

Self-editing filter sheet

We already covered each of these topics in detail in prior sections, but here they are again in summary form in a consolidated list for you to use during revision. I encourage you to add to and customize these lists as you become more familiar with revising your story to get the most out of them. For more detail on each topic, refer back to the earlier chapters of this guide.


  • Does the first scene grab the reader’s attention and plant a hook to make them curious about the rest of the story?
  • Does the story maintain a sufficient level of tension and focus?
  • Does the ending of the story satisfy the promise of the novel?
  • Is it easy for the reader to care about the characters and conflict?
  • Does the novel sufficiently set up the climax?
  • Does the resolution provide something to leave the reader with?
  • Does the ending make sense in context of the rest of the story?
  • Did the characters earn their ending?
  • Does each subplot and chapter have a solid entry and exit hook?
  • Have you met the overall objectives of your story?
  • Have you resolved your novel’s central conflict fully and to satisfaction?
  • Did you bring the story to a logical conclusion and give the reader time to bask in a thrilling read?
  • Did you tie up all of your various subplots and character arcs?
  • Have you identified any additional scenes that need to be added?


  • Do I need to remove any characters?
  • Do I need to add any?
  • Do my characters choices line up with their goals and values?
  • Does each character possess a unique voice?
  • Does every scene matter?
  • This goes beyond whether or not your
  • Does every scene matter to the reader and plot?
  • Do they serve to move the story forwards?
  • Does it contain the proper tension, pacing, and atmosphere?
  • Are your scenes engaging and well-polished?


  • Don’t go overboard with adjectives and adverbs.
  • Reducing adjectives and adverbs by picking stronger verbs and nouns.
  • Eliminate redundant modifiers.
  • Be especially wary of adding adverbs to your adjectives.
  • Don’t choose unnecessarily complex words in general, but don’t use tepid qualifiers (or nouns and verbs) either.
  • Picking strong nouns and vivid verbs.
  • Don’t include adverbs and adjectives just to make your prose sound “pretty.”
  • Avoid writing in the passive voice.
  • Don’t overuse metaphors and similes.
  • Avoid cliché.
  • Use metaphors and similes sparingly.
  • Avoid repetition.
  • Vary the length and structure of your prose in order to keep it fresh.
  • Remember to engage the senses, the emotions, and the imagination.
  • Avoid repetition.


  • Don’t try to make your dialogue sound like real conversations.
  • Every conversation should possess a clear purpose.
  • Each character and group should possess their own mannerisms, voice, and speech patterns.
  • Include tone, body language, and facial expression.
  • Use dialogue to establish the personalities and mindsets of your characters.
  • Dialogue is also a powerful tool for revealing the relationship dynamics between your characters.
  • People can say one thing, but mean another.
  • Dialogue should provide your reader with information that is important to your world, plot, and conflict.
  • Use dialogue to progress your core plot and various subplots.
  • Grant each character who is speaking a clear agenda.
  • Keep your dialogue tight, focused, and lean. Less is more.
  • Make sure to balance the speakers in conversations with more than two characters.
  • Intersperse longer conversations with snippets of action. Don’t let your characters ramble on while standing still.
  • You can also use dialogue to break up blocks of description and exposition.
  • Remember to use dialogue to modify the level of tension and establish atmosphere in a scene.

Dialogue tags

  • Try to use as few dialogue tags as you possibly can without making your conversations ambiguous.
  • When a tag is required, using “said” is best (most of the time).
  • Swap them out with action tags instead.
  • When using dialogue tags other than said, choose evocative tags that don’t sound overwritten.
  • Remove redundant text and tags.
  • Avoid adding adverbs to your dialogue tags.


  • Increasing immersion by describing settings in motion.
  • Using setting to establish atmosphere.
  • Using settings as obstacles and sources of conflict.
  • Choose details with the scene’s mood/atmosphere and purpose in mind.
  • Increasing immersion by describing settings in motion.


  • Make the action easy to follow, visceral and vibrant.
  • Make the significance of the events clear to the reader.
  • Make sure that big events properly set up beforehand.

Proofreading and Formatting

  • Are my chapter titles and introductions formatted consistently?


  • Is every subplot and mystery resolved?
  • Did anything disappear between the pages (characters, key objects/outcomes)?

How to Write the Final Draft of a Book

How to Write the Final Draft of a Book

A good publisher or agent can tell within a few pages (or even sentences) how much work it will take to refine your novel into a publishable state. If a novel is going to be too labor intensive to edit, it’s not going to be worth their time and your inbox will quickly collect a pile of rejection letters. It will also leave them with a poor overall impression of you if dozens of problems leap out right away. Additionally, a professional can tell within those same couple of pages whether or not your writing is going to be able to grab the reader’s attention and hook them in for the long haul.

Some obvious red flags for potential partners might include:

  • Too many characters introduced too early.
  • A weak grasp on point of view (PoV changes mid scene, unclear PoV, etc.)
  • Boring settings and stale atmosphere.
  • Tepid prologue or opening scene.
  • Lack of clear direction and poor pacing.

Once you have completed a first draft of your novel, the next step is to dive head first into the revising process. You will need to shore up any of these weaknesses by polishing your plot and prose and cutting out any filler and typos. There are numerous stages or aspects to the revising process, ranging from big picture edits to your plotline, to line by line edits to improve word choice, sentence structure, and grammar.

You’ll never get a second chance to make a first impression, so you are going to want to do everything in your power to make your novel scream “I will sell” before you place it in the hands of a potential agent or publisher.

Before you start the final draft, it’s good to take a short break from your manuscript, somewhere between a few weeks to a month or two, in order to reinvigorate your inner editor and approach your revisions with the freshest eyes possible (closer to those of a new reader who knows nothing yet about your story).

Creating a plan for revising your novel

The next step when you are ready to sit back down with your story is to come up with a revising plan, ensuring that your self-editing has clear, complete goals, as well as an efficient process for meeting them. Before you crystalize your strategy, it’s a good idea to take a few days to ponder some big picture questions such as:

  • Does my story have any holes or weak links in the plot?
  • Is the overall pacing of my novel as tight as I can make it (not slowing down or skipping ahead where it shouldn’t)?
  • What might I add, cut, or compress to correct this?
  • Are my characters presented as complete people (goals, personality, life history, arcs)?
  • It is easy to understand where my central characters are coming from? Can I empathize with their relatable goals?

Once you have finished, it’s time to form a self-editing plan for revising your novel. Rather than attempting to fix everything at once, most authors find that it helps to break down their revising into several distinct passes or stages.

Revising in distinct stages

Arriving at a final draft of your novel is going to require a fair amount of revision. The work begins during the early stages of drafting, but even a complete draft is likely to take several rounds of mindful edits before your work is done.

One effective way to plan out your revision is to take several passes, each of which focuses on improving one specific aspect of your story. This can help provide you with greater focus and direction than trying to revise everything at once. A helpful way to begin is by crafting an outline of your overall goals for revising your novel, listing all of the elements you want to embellish, add, and improve.

For example, a six stage revision plan might look something like this:

The first stage deals with the main plot, making sure that the key events, climax, and resolution all make sense and achieve their purpose. It’s also a good place to start checking for continuity as well as that your world building is up to snuff.

The second stage focuses on tightening your various subplots, making sure that each is well-paced and resolved before your novel’s climax.

The third stage deals with characters, fleshing them out and making their presentation, goals, voices, and arcs as robust as possible. It’s also time to review your settings, ensuring that they contribute effectivly to their paired scenes.

The fourth stage begins to examine the chapter to chapter story, focusing on elements like pacing, direction, atmosphere, and tension. You will also want to check to see if you are revealing information to your audience at the appropriate pace without being too vague or explicitly telling them too much.

The fifth stage is for the paragraphs and sentences themselves, refining word choice, varying sentence structure, and looking at your dialogue and monologue. The goal is to refine your descriptions and exposition, making sure that your details are evocative, concise, and impactful.

The sixth stage if for polish, checking that your work is grammatically correct (as well as making a few final tweaks regarding word choice). This is also a great time to take in the totality of your story while ironing out any last typos or formatting issues.

Now your plan might not follow this six stage model to the letter, but you are still going to need to address each of these levels if you want to write the best story you are capable of. You might want to take each pass in order from cover to cover, or instead focus on the largest problem areas first before moving on to other sections of your text. Especially during the final stage (I do this at every stage) I advise that you read your work out loud as you go. This might take a little longer, but it also slows you down to a reader’s pace and helps you to catch issues you might otherwise miss (it also prevents you from skimming when your energy or attention span begins to waver).

At the end of this process you might want to hire a proofreader, especially if you plan to self-publish.

For each stage, you are going to want to create a list of questions or goals to go over as you read. To help keep things simple, I have consolidated these various stages into a three pass (plot pass, prose pass, and proof pass) system, which I will go over in detail in the next entry in this chapter.

With the general theory revising a novel out of the way, it’s time to dive into the minutia with the culminating exercise for this chapter and installment: Producing a complete manuscript.

The Revising Process

The Revising Process

Hello fellow writers and welcome to the final chapter of my installment on the writing process. By now you should be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, for at long last your book is nearing completion. However, there is still one last stretch of track to cover before you have finished your novel, the revising process.

In the last two chapters we have covered planning out every aspect of your novel and explored my multifaceted approach to drafting. Now it’s time to conclude your journey and tackle the revising process, transforming your novel into a complete manuscript.

For this chapter I have divided up the wide world of revision into three sections. First, I will review what revision looks like during the early stages of drafting a bit further down on this page. I will then then talk about revising a nearly completed manuscript in the following entry. Finally, I will help you prepare for the big one, revising a complete draft of your novel. But first let’s take a few steps back and explore the revising process in general and cover how it can be useful even during the earliest stages of drafting.

Stages of revision

As we discussed way back at the beginning of this guide, the revising process is composed of three types of edits:

  • Embellishing: Improving word choice, enhancing plot structure, adding colorful details, and fleshing out scenes/dialogue.
  • Pruning: Removing unnecessary text and even entire scenes to help improve the overall flow of your story and maximize the reader’s interest.
  • Proofreading: Correcting spelling errors, grammar, formatting issues, and typos from completed text.

Goals for revision during the early stages of writing a novel include:

  • Refinement of core text.
  • Development of scenes, characters, and plot.

Goals for later stages include:

  • Completion.
  • Continuity.
  • Polish.

The role of revision during the early stages of drafting your novel

Some writers will tell you not to revise your story until you have completed a full first draft. To just keep on hammering away while the iron is hot and push through all the way to the end. Personally, I find this advice to be generally unhelpful as going back and tinkering with your existing text can help you to:

  • Refresh older parts of your story in your mind.
  • Add key details that lead to new scenes and plot devices.
  • Place yourself in the reader’s perspective when evaluating your story and balancing your narrative.

One key caveat is that you should not attempt to revise a piece of text while you are still in the middle working on the initial draft, as spending too much time playing with the words themselves instead of deciding what happens next can kill your inspiration and momentum.

Revising existing plot, scenes, and text early on

Whenever I am working on a partially completed scene, I like to begin by simply reading whatever text I have drafted so far out loud. This helps me to refresh the scene in my mind, allowing me to visualize what is happening and ponder the goals I have for what comes next. During early stages, I might find myself adding considerable content as well, dropping in new details, dialogue, and descriptions as my writer’s sense clues me in that the patch I am going over is still a little rough.

The focus of revising during early the stages of writing a novel should be geared towards drafting more text rather than perfecting what you already have. Yes, if you see a better choice of word or phrase, it’s perfectly fine to tweak things as you go, but if you spend all of your time picking over every sentence of your existing text, you will likely impede your overall progress.

One day I might have an idea for a new scene, fleshing things out into a simple outline. A bit later on, inspiration might strike, and I sit down and draft a few hundred words of my fledgling scene. In a later session, I might review this existing text, smoothing and embellishing it a bit before completing the rest of the action. Then I would put the scene away for a few days or even weeks before coming back to it again, this time filling in detail and structure, bringing the draft into a complete first stage. I might come back a time or two as I work on the rest of the novel, adding pieces of foreshadowing and context that were produced while working on later sections of the book. Then, during the major revision of the novel, I would come back and take several distinct passes over the material, ensuring that my characters, settings, tension, pacing, atmosphere, word choice, etc. are as powerful as I can possibly make them, as well as that the logic, consistency, and continuity of my story is tight.

Writer’s block: Overly critical editor edition

Creating art is not a test. There is more than one way to do a good job and searching for a perfect answer to every problem will not only slow you down, it will burn you out. If you find yourself agonizing over a single word or sentence, simply write down what you are not satisfied with and why and then come back to it later.

If you find yourself overwhelmed by how raw your early text feels, just remind yourself that every successful novel starts out just like yours and that by the end of the project your book will feel a great deal more polished. If you find that you simply cannot stop yourself from tinkering with the words early on, come up with a series of rules so that you can keep making progress. For example, you might limit yourself to only fifteen minutes of revising existing scenes each day, or allow yourself to work on them only after making some progress on drafting and planning first.

Come join me in the next installments of this chapter, where we will dive into the depths of the revising process: Revising a nearly completed draft.

Then it’s time for the culminating exercise of this installment: Completing your novel.

To Prologue or not to Prologue: How to Draft the First Scene of Your Novel

To Prologue or not to Prologue: How to Draft the First Scene of Your Novel

Hello again and thanks for joining me for another thrilling episode in our novel-crafting adventure. At long last, we have journeyed through the heart of the drafting process and have arrived at the culminating exercise for this section: drafting the first scene of your novel. Although you have likely already hammered out a decent pile of text by this point, we are going to shift the focus all the way back to page one and take a close look at the first scene of your novel, building it all the way into a complete draft.

Over the course of this chapter, we have explored a number of tools and techniques for scenecrafting, so make sure that you have taken a look at the previous entry on scenecrafting 101 before getting started here. It will also be helpful if you have already read my prior entry on planning out your plot, so that you can be sure that you are beginning your novel in the best place for the story you are trying to tell.

For today’s exercise, we will be developing and polishing your opening scene, helping to ensure that the reader’s first impression of your novel will be a good one, including techniques for inserting a tempting hook that will help to seal the deal and ensure that they take the plunge and read your book from cover to cover. We will also discuss taking a step back and writing from the reader’s perspective. This is especially important at the beginning of your novel, as your reader knows absolutely nothing yet regarding your world, characters, and plot.

We will then discuss the pros and cons of opening with a prologue, including some tricks and tips for constructing one. Finally, we will end with a series of exercises intended to get the ball rolling as you dive into a complete draft, as well as a few to help flesh and round things out. So roll up your sleeves and get ready for an exciting session, for today your novel writing voyage enters exciting new territory!

The power of a first impression

Placing yourself in your reader’s shoes

Before we launch into some theory and technique regarding how to draft the beginning of a novel, I want to help you to recover a bit of distance by reminding yourself of just how much of an expert you have become regarding your story. Over the course of many long hours, you have pondered and labored over your characters, granting them unique personalities, drives, and backstories. You have meditated on the world you have created, fleshing out a fine collection of colorful settings. You have unpacked your novel’s theme and central conflict and lovingly sculpted your plot structure, packing in wonderful nuance and detail. In short, you have become an expert on your own book, an important step in growing as an author.

Despite all you have gained throughout this process, there is one thing you have lost. Namely, you no longer have the ability to easily and accurately perceive how your story appears to a new reader, who knows absolutely nothing about your world, plot, and characters.

In essence, you have lost your beginner’s mind, and with its passage, you are now in danger of unconsciously assuming that your readers have access to the same information that you do. This puts you at risk, especially when writing the first scene of your novel, in assuming the events and action that are crystal clear to you will be equally easy for your reader to follow.

So what do we do about this dilemma?

To begin, I want to you take a deep breath and remember what it is like to pick up new book for the first time. In fact, I advise that you crack open a novel or two you that haven’t read before and browse the opening chapters, just to remind yourself what it feels like to be coming at a new story with fresh eyes. This is important because when writing a scene from your expert’s perspective, it is astonishingly easy to assume that the events and characters you have laid out are way clearer than they really are.

The takeaway here is that when you begin to draft your first scene, you want it to be as simple and clear, as easy to follow as possible. Your reader needs to know (and only know) what is happening, who it is happening to, and why they should care/what they should feel. Get this right and you should have a relatively easy time drafting your first scene. Get it wrong and your reader will have trouble connecting to your story and forming that oh so critical positive first impression.

Components of a powerful first impression

1: Grabbing the reader’s attention

Creating a solid first impression starts with obtaining your reader’s attention. Before they can begin to appreciate your characters, settings, and hook, you will need to pull them into the flow of your narrative. Or, put another way, the first half of hooking your audience is getting them to pay full attention to your story, followed by cementing their interest with the main hook that will arrive a bit later in your opening. Some ways to grab your reader’s interest might include:

  • An engaging slice of action.
  • A provocative statement or hint of foreshadowing.
  • A problem that needs to be solved.

2: Let the reader know what kind of story this will be from the start

Right from the first paragraph of your novel, you should let your reader know what kind of story they are signing up for. This means showing them your protagonist and world in the opening scene (more about that below) but also giving them a fair introduction to the style, voice, and tone of your writing. This means that if your opening scene is gritty and grim, you create an expectation that this is the flavor that much of the rest of the novel will carry as well.

Conversely, if your opening is light or humorous, the reader will expect the rest of the story to be fairly upbeat. The opening scene of your novel should reflect the core theme and overall atmosphere of the book to at least some extent as well.

In order to create a first impression of your novel that is true to the rest of your story, you are going to need to pay close attention to the words you choose and to the atmosphere or feelings they convey. Think of this as a micro introduction to your story as a whole. Thus, whatever manner of story you are trying to tell, choose words and events that match it right from the start.

3: Introducing your protagonist and giving them a problem to solve

Once you have managed to grab the reader’s attention and set the initial atmosphere, helping them to form the beginnings of a first impression about your writing and story, it’s time to toss in another key ingredient to their evaluation of your novel, introducing your main character. Introducing your protagonist is a key moment in your story, so make sure to make it memorable. How you first describe your protagonist, along with what goal he or she is attempting to achieve at the start, will go a long way in cementing the reader’s first impression.

This means that you should try to make sure that you create an accurate and engaging image of this character, one that will stick with the reader as they head into the body of your novel. The early descriptions you provide, and even more importantly, what the protagonist thinks, says, and does, will help the reader to understand what kind of story lies beneath their fingertips.

Help the reader to like and empathize with the protagonist right from the start

If your audience can’t form a meaningful connection to your protagonist from the moment they meet them, they won’t buy in and decide to keep reading, no matter how well-crafted your prose and other elements of your introduction. The best way to help create such a connection is to allow the reader to emphasize with the protagonist, vicariously sharing in their emotions from page one.

The most effective way to achieve such a connection is to provide your characters with clear and relatable goals, as well as by making it obvious what the character feels and desires as well as their reasons for doing so. The wants and needs of your characters, their goals along with the obstacles that stand in their way, are a critical force that drives your story forwards. Such vibrant sources of tension and energy should be shown to the reader right from the start, as superficial goals and motivations will prevent them from caring about your characters and their inner worlds.

4: Your first setting

Alongside your protagonist, how you go about introducing your first setting will also play a part in creating a favorable first impression. This environment is a key piece of the reader’s initial glimpse into the wide world of your novel, so make sure to pick a location that is iconic to the events that will follow as well as one that reinforces the overall theme and atmosphere of your story as a whole.

5: Planting your initial hook

With that bit of introduction out of the way, it’s time to move on to the single most important component of creating a good first impression, planting the initial hook of your story. This a critical piece of narrative, designed to transform an interested reader into a committed one. Hooks can take many forms, but they all share a single defining feature, they make the reader want to know more. A well-crafted hook will lead to the reader wanting (or better yet needing) to know what happens next as well as what will happen to your characters later on down the road.

6: The first challenge and/or first setback for protagonist

Perhaps the most common form of hook, as well as another important part in generating a positive first impression, is introducing the first challenge and setback your protagonist will face. This might not happen at the end of the first scene, but should certainly transpire by the end of the first chapter. This moment is important because it contains the first time that your protagonist encounters failure. How they respond to this undesired occurrence, alongside how it changes them, will reveal a great deal about your novel to your reader. Make this setback important to your character, changing them in some way. Make the moment memorable and your hook will sink, reeling your reader in all the way to the last page of your novel.

To prologue or not to prologue

Although they do seem to be a bit less common than in decades past, many works of fiction include some manner of prologue. Some prologues work well, serving as powerful springboards that help to launch the audience into the midst of a thrilling narrative. Others are rather… less effective, rambling on for several pages with information that is difficult for the audience to absorb and glued to overall story like a vestigial appendage.

As a writer, the choice is yours. You will have to do a bit of pondering and then decide whether or not a prologue is a good fit for your story. Regardless, I recommend that you educate yourself regarding how to write a prologue now, so that you can make an informed decision regarding your first scene a bit later on down the road.

What is a prologue?

At its heart, a prologue is simply a bit of text that is included before the first chapter of a novel begins. A solid prologue provides the reader with important information that frames or catalyzes the plot.

Prologues often involve a character or event far removed from the lives of your central characters and the events of the chapter to follow, giving the reader a glimpse of things to come well before the inciting incident and conveying information that none of the main characters possess.

Does your story really need a prologue?

As we just finished discussing, creating a positive first impression is mandatory if you want people to read and enjoy your novel. One easy way to prevent this from happening is by starting off with an unnecessary or clunky prologue. In essence, you should only include a prologue in your novel if it provides information that is important to your reader’s understanding and that could not be included in the first chapter.

A vital prologue is one that contributes directly to the plot by unveiling significant, relevant information or events. Details without which there would be something critical missing from your reader’s understanding. Put another way, the reason for including a prologue needs to be more compelling than merely setting the stage or establishing atmosphere. Perhaps these events took place in the distant past, or in a place far removed from location of the main characters. Perhaps a bit of context and history is so important that the reader can’t really understand the events to follow without them. A good rule of thumb is that if the story could work just as well by starting at chapter one, without becoming weaker or more confusing, the prologue was most likely not needed to begin with.

The truth of the matter is that most stories simply will not need a prologue. And as such, many authors will advise you to avoid them altogether. But that doesn’t mean that you as a writer shouldn’t have a solid understand of how prologues work and how to write one. Who knows, maybe your story will be better served by including one. Personally I found that having the option at my disposal gave me a bit more flexibility when pondering how to start my story. For my first book I did decide to include a short prologue like section, as it reveals a ticking clock that none of the main characters are aware of (until it is much too late).

If you are considering a prologue, first ask yourself if the details or action it contains are relevant to your core plot. Then ask if this information really needs to be provided to the reader before they dive into the first chapter. If both questions come back “yes” then go ahead and give a prologue a chance. If you are worried that seeing the word prologue might be a turn off to your audience, simply remove it and leave the opening section untitled.

If you do decide to use a prologue:

  • The prologue should be a key piece of the novel, consistent with the voice and theme of the rest of the book.
  • The prologue should be a complete story, except that it should end with something important left unresolved.
  • The prologue needs its own hook, separate from the one you place in the first chapter.
  • The prologue should involve a time, location, or character far removed from the events of the chapters to follow.


Bury your reader under a pile of information

Some of the worst prologues are formed from pages and pages of background information. Such prologues are first impression disasters waiting to happen. This is because a reader has not yet had time to connect to a novel’s world and characters. To become curious about them and begin to care. Thus, all of this extraneous information is effectively meaningless. Worse, thick blocks of facts are tough to chew and swallow, preventing immersion and shattering the fourth wall from page one.

There is simply no way that a reader can form a great first impression while skimming past mountains of raw exposition, and your chance to hook them will have already blown past before they make it to chapter one. Most of these kinds of prologues can be cut out altogether, the information spread out across the first few chapters and introduced as it becomes relevant.

If you do want to include a bit of worldbuilding in your prologue, remember to keep it short and sweet and only include information that your audience really needs to know before the main story begins.

Be boring

This may seem a bit obvious, but a prologue should only be included if it as least as interesting as the chapter to follow. One easy way to make your reader’s eyes glaze over is to include a prologue where there is no tension. Where the characters do not possess clear goals or problems. The reader needs to know why they should care about what they are being told, as well as why they should feel something in response. Furthermore, the events of a prologue need to be important and not exist in isolation. They need to be compelling and tied directly to the main plot of the novel.

Another way of writing a boring prologue is by making it too long, forcing the reader to turn page after page before they get introduced to your protagonist and opening setting.

Six types of prologue

To help you wrap your head around the many approaches to crafting prologues that are out there, I will now outline six types of prologues commonly used in fiction. As with so many aspects of writing, there are an incredible variety of potential approaches to constructing a prologue. With time and practice, you will certainly develop your own variants as well.

1: A vision from the future

This type of prologue involves the protagonist or another character in a period of time set after the main events of the novel have occurred, written in the same point of view and tense as the rest of the novel. This purpose of this prologue is to show the state of affairs at the end of the story, while the novel explains and follows how these events came to be.

Although this approach my reveal aspects of the story’s conclusion, it should avoid showing too many of the key events that take place in the climax and resolution. Instead, think of it as a form of heavy foreshadowing. An example of a vision from the future might include the protagonist standing in the ruins of the city they lived in, letting the reader know that some manner of catastrophe is in the works.

2: … or from the distant past

This version of prologue shows a critical event in real time that occurred far in the past of the timeline of the novel. It is used when this moment is vital to understanding the story’s protagonist or central conflict, rather than packaging these events into a flashback or summary. An example of a view from the past might include the moment that a superhero first gained/became aware of their special powers, setting the stage for the character they have become by the beginning of the book.

3: An outside point of view

This type of prologue involves using a point of view character who is not one of the PoVs used throughout the rest of the novel. It can occur before, after, or during the main events of the plot. It allows you to show your reader a vital piece of story that none of the other characters have witnessed or heard about. This can help you to set up a variety of plot twists and foreshadowing techniques, which may not come to fruition until much later.

Sometimes the antagonist’s viewpoint is used for this scene (helpful when the protagonist will not encounter them until much later on), while in other cases a victim of the central conflict is utilized instead. An example of an outside point of view might be the antagonist setting their plans into motion, details which the protagonist will not uncover until the middle of the book.

4: Starting the clock

This is a variation of the outside point of view prologue, one that reveals a key, time-sensitive aspect of the central conflict to the reader well before the main characters will become aware of them. This a great way to foreshadow events to follow and one that creates tension and suspense right from the start. The reader knows that the characters and events are inevitably going to entangle with this threat, helping to draw them in and become curious how the problem will resolve. An example of starting the clock might include the antagonist concealing a bomb on a plane, the countdown starting and then ticking away as the early chapters of the book unfold.

5: Worldbuilding

Sometimes a novel is set in a world where the rules, culture, and settings are so unique or unusual, that it might not be possible for a reader to fully understand them without a brief introduction. A worldbuilding prologue is usually packaged in the form of a short story that reveals critical details that help render the first chapter relatable. Be careful when using a world building prologue not to overload the reader with too much, non-relevant information, and to include a hook that will grab their attention. Worldbuilding prologues are fairly common and easy to imagine, but a solid one will only include relevant information that contextualizes the first character and is presented in a form that is easy to understand and internalize.

6: The narrator introduces his or her story

This type of prologue is commonly used in first person PoV stories. It involves the protagonist either telling a story out loud to others or writing an autobiographical account (the rest of the novel). This helps to introduce the protagonist as well as their overall impression of the adventure they underwent, although the conclusion of the story is often only implied rather than explained in detail. An example of a narrator introducing his or her story might include the protagonist on their deathbed, relaying the story of their youth to a younger generation, or by dictating these experiences into a memoir.

Beyond prologues, drafting the opening scene of your novel

Deciding where to draw the starting line

Now that you have some ideas for the kinds of prologue that are out there, it’s time to move on to drafting the first chapter and opening scene of your story. In this section, you will be asking yourself a number of questions including:

  • Where in my story’s timeline will I begin my narrative?
  • What is the major event of my opening scene?
  • Will I include any characters other than my protagonist?
  • If so, who (Keep your starting cast slim and memorable during the first part of your book)?
  • Where will my first scene take place?
  • How will I grab my reader’s attention and then hook them into my story?

Drafting the opening scene of your novel

You have a number of important decisions to make before you are ready to start drafting, the first of which is where in the timeline of your story you want to begin your opening scene. We covered this topic already in my earlier entry on planning out your plot, but here is a summary of possible places to begin to help with your brainstorming now.

Places to open a story

At the beginning

One common place to begin a story is… at the beginning. When the characters are still immersed in their ordinary world and daily existence. This type of opening is generally used when you want to take some time to set the stage before the inciting incident, contrasting this bit of normalcy with the exciting events to follow.

Even with the slowly rising tension that this plot structure encourages, you will still want to lead with a hook to engage your readers and help connect them to your world and characters. One way to accomplish this is to foreshadow that this is the day to day existence of your characters, a state of affairs destined to come to an abrupt end before too long. Another is to introduce the wants and needs of your characters immediately in a subplot, following this bit of story until the main events of your plot sweep your characters up into the thick of things with the inciting incident.

Starting in a “present” that the story catches up to before the end

The next two starting points occur at key moments in the plotline, and then work the story backwards to explain how things came to be. One option is to have your novel open in a “present” that exists somewhere in the middle of the overall plotline, where the protagonist is narrating the backstory and explaining how these events came to be. At some point later on, the action will catch up with the story’s present, taking the reader along with the characters into unknown territory.

With this technique, it is easy to foreshadow the meat of the plot up to this point. After all, the main characters have already lived through these events and know what happened, while the ending is left a total mystery until you unveil the final scenes.

This type of opening shares a few similarities with a vision from the future prologue in that you should not give away too much regarding the overall plot. Just enough to make the conflict and characters seem interesting, ensuring that the reader will want to know how affairs arrived to this state, and how they will resolve after. One variation of this opening is to start in the aftermath of the inciting incident.

Right before the final climax

Another variation of opening a story in the middle of the plot occurs when the opening scene is set right before the main climax of the story. This lets the reader know immediately what the central conflict is and makes the rest of the story effectively a prolonged flashback until events catch up with the “present”, revealing to the reader how affairs have reached their current state. You can even place this start in the dark night of the soul, when the characters have reached a low point where things seem hopeless.

Exercise: Deciding where in your story’s timeline to place the opening act

It’s now time to decide if you want to begin your story at the beginning, or at some later point in the overall plotline.

  • Start by looking over your timelines and plotlines as well as any other information or text you have so far regarding this scene, character, and setting.
  • Then move on and ponder your goals for this section (what about your character or world are you trying to show to your reader?).
  • Think about how this intro will lead up to the inciting incident (foreshadowing works well here).
  • Consider letting the reader know the most important thing about your protagonist and story in the first paragraph.
  • Remember to open with a hook.

Try outlining the scene in complete sentences and mapping the setting if you get stuck at any point. If you do encounter writer’s block, pause for a few breaths to visualize your scene, picturing what it would be like to be standing there. Try to engage all five (ok maybe 3-4) senses and keep in mind the feelings (mood) you want to conjure for your reader.

Culminating exercise: A first draft of your opening scene

Drafting the opening

Now that you have an idea for how and where you want to begin your story, it’s time to begin drafting your first page, paragraph, and opening line.

If you are still mulling things over, go back and take a last look at my entry on scenecrafting and the discussion on various types of openings (action, character, narrative) to decide which you want to use for the opening scene of your novel. Remember, your job (in order) is to: 1) Catch the reader’s attention, 2) Make a positive first impression, and then, 3) Hook them all the way into your story.

The start of a novel contains the first several chapters and ends when the inciting incident launches events into the middle of the story. However, there is no way that a potential reader, publisher, or agent will make it anywhere close to that far unless everything up to that point is well-constructed.

They will never make it to the second chapter if the first doesn’t engage them. They won’t peruse the second page if the first doesn’t grab their attention and begin to hook them. They will never even arrive at the end of the first page if your leading paragraph and opening lines don’t excite them.

The first page

So then, what is your objective for page one of your book? Well, at the most basic level, your job is to do everything within your power to make sure that the reader forms a good first impression and then keeps on reading. In order to ensure that they continue reading, they are going to need to become curious about your characters and the events that are happening to them.

This comes down to the engagement power of your main character, as well as the initial action and conflict they are drawn into. Your protagonist needs to be interesting, likeable, and relatable. Any other interesting contradictions, traits, or behaviors will help with this process as well.

Moving beyond your characters, the opening of your story needs to create questions, questions which the reader is willing to keep turning those pages to discover the answer to. This needs to be introduced via some manner of engaging action or character interaction, setting the stage for the inciting incident to follow. While many opening scenes show a character still in their everyday life and environment, they should tease with a promise that more is yet to come. Resist the urge to dive into the protagonist’s inner world and backstory just yet, as your reader has not had time to form a bond to that person and become sufficiently curious about such matters.

The first sentence

In many ways, the opening line of your novel is the most important sentence you will ever write. If it doesn’t engage the reader’s curiosity, the rest of the pages that follow might as well remain blank. So then, what makes for a powerful and memorable opening sentence?

Well, of course there is no single answer to this question (try checking out the opening lines of your favorite books for ideas, as well as to appreciate just how many options you have at your disposal). In essence though, the opening line needs to grab the reader’s attention, making them curious to read a bit more and see just what this story is all about.

In general it’s best to:

  • Launch into some manner of action or interaction, rather than describing the setting or contextualizing events via exposition or summary.
  • Start with the protagonist rather than a minor character.
  • Begin with prose rather than dialogue.
  • Make the line unusual or unexpected, so that is raises questions in the reader’s mind.

In essence, you want your opening lines to flirt with the reader’s imagination, making them curious while also helping them to form an emotional connection to your character and events, usually by allowing them to emphasize with relatable goals. At the same time it’s good to entertain and surprise, while setting the mood for the scene to follow.

Closing your opening scene

I recommend that you make your first scene relatively compete in and of itself. It can and should raise provocative questions, but it’s nice if the opening action itself is self-contained, like a sneak peak of the entire story.

The end of your first scene should also offer a promise of exciting things to come, implying that the reader has only seen the tip of the iceberg of what your story has to offer.

With that out of the way, all that’s left if to try writing a draft of your scene. If you get stuck, try:

  • Outlining the rest of the events in complete sentences.
  • Looking at the next chapter and inciting incident and thinking about how the end of this scene will lead towards them.

Congratulations, you have now made it all the way through the drafting section of this guide. All that’s left is to put your nose to the grindstone and complete a draft of your first scene… and then keep right on going until you have complete a rough draft of your novel.

Of course, along the way you will begin to revise your existing text, so come on over and join me for the final chapter of this installment, the revising process.

Scenecrafting 101

Scenecrafting 101: How to write a good hook (then the rest of a book)

Crafting scenes in five stagesHello fellow writers and welcome to the next exciting entry in my drafting process series. Over the course of today’s discussion, we are going to take a look at one of my favorite aspects of writing a novel, scenecrafting.

Scenecrafting lies at the heart of constructing works of fiction. It is a core writing component as well as a complex art. The various tools and techniques that go into developing and drafting a scene possess myriad layers and facets, representing a nearly infinite variety of potential approaches. Your ability to structure and embellish scenes is a skill that you will be growing throughout the entirety of your writing career, developing your own process and style as time goes on.

In the next major installment of this blog, “the Anatomy of an Engaging Scene,” I will be getting granular with scenecrafting, diving into tension, atmosphere, and pacing, as well as some of the more abstract aspects of narrative construction (violating and fulfilling reader expectations, foreshadowing, continuity, etc.), inducing advice on how to choreograph intricate action sequences.

But to help you get oriented during the early stages of drafting your novel, I first want to share what I have learned regarding how to create scenes at a foundational level, providing you with an approach that will help you to reliably engage your audience and drive your plot forwards. We will begin by taking a look at the fundamental components shared by all scenes, then take a deeper dive within each piece, including examples and exercises intended to help you determine and draft the opening, action, and closing of your scenes.

Rather than attempting to be comprehensive in this post, I will instead offer an overview of scenecrafting in general, including some tools that should help you to wrap your head around the process so you can begin drafting significant portions of your text. By the time you arrive at the end of this section, you should have a plan in place for how you will go about drafting scenes in your novel as well as some techniques to help keep the ball rolling.

Three types of scenes

For today’s discussion, I am going to divide the wide world of scenes into three broad categories. In this analytical framework, the way I use the word scene is interchangeable with a chapter (or subchapter if you are using them).

Complete scenes: are scenes that are whole in and of themselves. In complete scenes, the action leading up to the major event is usually introduced during the opening and generally culminates at or before the closing, offering a clear resolution to the events contained within without a lingering question or cliffhanger.

Cliffhanger scenes: are scenes that do not fully resolve the major event when the chapter (or subchapter) comes to an end. Instead, the action cuts away at a critical moment at or before the big climax, leaving the reader in suspense until the paired continuation scene occurs sometime later in the novel.

Continuation scenes: are scenes that carry over from another prior scene. One with a critical piece of action or plot point left unresolved, often via some manner of cliffhanger. Continuation scenes tend to position their major event closer to the opening and often close with falling tension, as the events of the paired scene play out and influence the plot and characters.

Crafting scenes in five stages

To begin with, let’s take a look at the fundamental components shared by all scenes, no matter their length or content.

Every scene has:

  • A goal and purpose: The primary reason you are including the scene in your novel.
  • A dominant emotional overtone (atmosphere/mood): The feelings your audience experiences while reading the scene, often shifting as events progress.
  • An opening: The initial sentences in which you introduce and contextualize the scene, establishing its direction and pace. Every scene should open with some manner of hook, drawing the reader in and immersing them within the action.
  • At least one major event (and usually several minor events): A key event that serves to drive the plot (or subplot) forwards, establishes or reveals character, or moves a character along in their arc.
  • A closing: an ending to the scene, cementing (via another hook) the reader’s desire to know more as well as setting the stage for the scenes that follow.

Stage 1: It all begins with a clear purpose

Each of your scenes, before you even begin to decide which characters they will include or what major events they will cover, should possess a clear purpose for being, the reason why you are including it in your novel to begin with (as well as why the reader should care). A scene should never be added as filler, or for any reason other than to establish (or transform) character or to advance the plot.

Thus, the purpose of your scenes needs to contain a deeper significance than merely conveying superficial action or character interaction. They should be a link in the chain of causality initiated by the events in prior scenes and that significantly affect the events that follow. Put another way, each of your major scenes should form a natural procession, extending out from the scene(s) before it while paving the road for the scenes that follow, connecting and anchoring the narrative contained within to your plot as a whole.

But that doesn’t mean a given scene can’t serve other purposes as well. For, in addition to advancing your plot, a scene might help to:

  • Introduce a new character or subplot.
  • Build or relieve tension.
  • Establish or reinforce a setting.
  • Introduce or resolve conflict.
  • Alter the pacing or atmosphere of the narrative as a whole.

Exercise: Identifying the purpose of your scenes

When contemplating drafting a new scene, you might only know what the major event is and still need to decide how it advances the overall plot. Or you might know what needs to happen in general to move the plot along, but still be vague on the details of how the scene will do so. Coming from another angle, you will need to know what is going to happen (the major event), as well as why it is vital to your plot, before you can build an outline of your scene and fashion a complete first draft.

Now, it’s perfectly fine (and totally normal) if one of these pieces remains a bit vague during the initial stages of constructing a scene. However, the more focus you can obtain regarding the “what” and “why” of your scenes early on, the easier it will be to progress through the five stages of scenecrafting.

It is often helpful to start with a brainstorming session. Begin by writing down everything you have come up with so far regarding the what and why of the scene (as well as the who and where). When you have finished, try asking yourself some of the questions below intended to help fill in the gaps and flesh out the significance of the scene within your mind. A well-purposed scene will feel both vital and exciting as it begins to take on its full form and meaning, inspiring your curiosity to add more detail and discover exactly what will happen next (a feeling your reader will pick up on as well, encouraging them to immerse themselves fully within your narrative).

When pondering the creation or development of a scene, try asking yourself:

  • What is happening with my plot and characters?
  • What was the state of affairs at the end of the last scene, and where do things stand now?
  • What are the present wants and needs of my central characters? Where are they in their arcs?
  • What are the most pressing obstacles preventing them from achieving their goals?
  • What is the emotion or understanding I want my reader to walk away with from this scene?
  • What is the major conflict in this scene and do I plan on resolving it now or later on?
  • What is the best context (location and surrounding events) to convey my action?
  • Will I use one of my preexisting settings? Or will I need to develop a new one?
  • Will I be raising or lowering the level of tension in the narrative with this scene?
  • How can I make these events easy to follow for my audience?
  • Who will be the PoV character for this scene?

As you continue to ponder these questions, you will begin to decide who (character), where (setting), and what (plot) is going on in your scene and then start drafting complete sentences and paragraphs. You can also go back to these questions a time or two after laying down some track, in order to decide what else to add or how to bridge the gaps between events. You will likely begin to supplement and revise this list of questions as you gain additional experience in scenecrafting, customizing this tool to get the most out of it for your unique writing process.

Once you have some concrete ideas regarding the what and why of your scene (or if you have simply run out of gas on brainstorming for now), it’s time to move forwards and decide on the dominant emotional overtone for your scene (also known as the atmosphere or mood), the feeling that you will be paring with the meaning of your events.

Stage:2 Atmosphere/Mood

Every scene in your novel should be designed to make your reader feel something (or more often a seamless progression of several mindsets and/or emotions). For these kinds of visceral experiences are a key part of why people enjoy reading fictional stories to begin with. The atmosphere evoked by your words should be intimately tied to the purpose of the scene and will vary considerably between scenes of rising and falling tension.

An atmosphere is established by the descriptive language you choose. The nouns and verbs that draw clear lines around your settings, characters, and events, as well as by the modifiers you use to regulate them. The pattern (pacing) of your words, sentences, and paragraphs will go a long way in creating the atmosphere of your choosing as well.

Additionally, the dialogue and dynamics between the characters in your scenes create and reinforce the atmosphere through the words they speak and the manner in which they react to one another. This means that the present emotional state of your characters (especially the PoV character) should be consistent with the tone you are trying to set, as this is a powerful way to let the reader know how to feel without telling them outright. This emotional overtone is further reinforced by which details a character notices and reacts to in their environment.

Common tones include:

  • Action and adventure.
  • Suspense and mystery.
  • Slice of life.
  • Horror and fear.
  • Joy and beauty.
  • Solemn and spiritual.

A few core principals of mood:

  1. You should be able to define the mood of a scene in a single sentence.
  2. The dominant atmosphere of a scene should support the meaning of the major event it contains. This can be done either by reinforcing the present feelings of the main characters (heavy rain on a sad day), or by deliberately creating contrast (a happy group is blithely walking into danger).
  3. It is common (and probably a good idea) for the tone of a scene to shift after the beginning or near the end. This allows for the dominant overtone to feel more significant, as feelings evoked by words are often more powerful when we can observe a change taking place (especially when this shift is mirrored by the emotional state of the PoV character).
  4. In general, the atmosphere of your scenes should vary, along with many other aspects of your prose. This helps to keeps things fresh for the reader, preventing the onset of boredom caused by predictability.

Some helpful tools to help establish mood include:

Setting (core and transient properties)

This is the first major choice to ponder when crafting the mood of a scene. Begin by asking yourself which of your settings will best reinforce the atmosphere you are attempting to create. Will one of your existing settings work well, or does your gut tell you that only a new environment will do?

In addition to the core dynamics of the setting (the unchanging physical characteristics of that place), what transient properties of setting will best convey your chosen mood? These can include the time of day and weather events, as well the presence of other people, animals, or objects. The atmosphere conjured by your setting is further reinforced by the conflict or challenges the environment creates for your characters (or frees them from).

Choice of words (style and emphasis)

Perhaps the most powerful tools you possess to establish and enhance mood are the specific words you choose to set the stage and frame the action. The descriptive nouns you select, along with adjectives and other modifiers, should come together to form a consistent image for your reader. This effect is further enhanced by what objects and actions you decide to elevate and which you ignore. For example, a character watching the sunrise over a garbage dumb will generate a rather different mood depending on whether you choose to highlight the beauty despite the mess, or focus on the rotting filth instead.

Pacing and patterns

Along with their content, the structure and rhythm of your paragraphs and sentences will also influence the mood of your scenes. A series of short sentences can help to raise tension as the action intensifies, while longer blocks of text can help to calm things down. Beyond their overall pattern, how the rhythm of your words changes across a scene can help to convey atmosphere and meaning as well. For example, speeding things up as characters near a major event, or slowing them down to allow time to reorient and reflect. The imagery you evoke via prose, often through the use of metaphor and simile, will also help to lock in and enrich the mood you have chosen.

Dialogue and internal monologue

Another way to establish mood is through the dialogue and inner monologue of your characters. This is because the words that a character speaks or thinks are windows into their present emotional state, and vicariously absorbing the emotions of your characters is one of the most effective ways to generate similar feelings within your reader. See my entry on dialogue for more details.

Exercise: Pondering the tone of your scene

This is another simple brainstorming exercise intended to help you clarify the mood of your scenes. Start by briefly reviewing any outlines or early text you have so far, then ask yourself:

  • What do I want the reader to feel at the start of the scene, during the major event, and at the conclusion?
  • Which elements have I included to bolster or diminish the current level of tension in my narrative?
  • How does my setting reinforce the mood I have chosen? What is the best time of day and weather to enhance this choice?
  • Which characters best convey the emotional overtone I am attempting to instill? Who else might I include to contrast or amplify this feeling?
  • Does my descriptive language help to capture and sustain my chosen atmosphere?
  • Does my dialogue and inner monologue help to show the reader how to feel?

When you have finished, see if you can write down the mood you wish to convey in a single sentence, then leave it out somewhere where you can glance at it during the drafting process. This can help you to naturally select words and events that will reinforce your chosen atmosphere without having to expend any additional effort.

Stage 3: The curtain rises: Deciding how to open your scene

As I mentioned in the introduction to this section, some scenes are the continuation of an existing conflict, while others herald the beginning of a new challenge or struggle. Which type of scene you are working with (continuation, complete, or cliffhanger) goes a long way all by itself in determining the nature of the events contained within the opening of your scene.

Continuation scenes tend to place their major event right at the opening, as the paired cliffhanger is resolved and sets further events into motion. While in complete and cliffhanger scenes, the opening usually focuses more on contextualizing and setting up events to come, often taking the form of a minor event that eventually transitions into a major event sometime before the end of the scene.

Additionally, some scenes involve rising action, raising the level of tension as a major event or conflict approaches. While other scenes are set to falling action, in which conflict usually takes a backseat to character development and interaction.

Regardless of the above considerations, every opening should contain some manner of hook, an interesting piece of story that is designed to grab the reader’s attention and pull them into the flow of your narrative.

Things a solid opening can achieve:

  • Establish the atmosphere, direction, and momentum of a scene.
  • Hook the reader, galvanizing their desire to follow the chapter or subchapter to completion.
  • Contextualize current events.
  • Foreshadow a dramatic change in plot, tension, or pace.

In some ways, every opening is unique, for there are effectively an infinite number of ways you might begin a given scene. However, for the sake of simplicity, I’m going to break down the various types of openings into three broad categories: action openings, narrative openings, and character openings.

Action openings

One powerful way to open a scene is to thrust the reader into the middle of the action right from the start. Rather than attempting to explain and contextualize events via narration, summary, or exposition, you begin with events already in motion, generating a powerful momentum that will cement your reader’s interest all the way to the conclusion of the scene. This is fairly simple to achieve when the scene is the continuation of a conflict carried over from a prior section. But even when introducing a new conflict, action openings can be an effective way to instantly hook your audience by immersing them within exciting physical sensations.

To create effective action openings, the reader needs to have at least some sense of what is happening and why they should care. This means it should be clear right from the start who is involved in the scene and what emotions the characters are experiencing. But this doesn’t mean that you need to pause and explain things to your reader, as this will get in the way of the energy you have built by starting with action. Rather, weave short bits of critical detail into what the characters notice and react to, as well as into the physical motions of the scene itself.

For example, if your characters are detectives investigating a murder, you could begin a scene as they dive for cover as mysterious figures open fire from a nearby alleyway. As they fight for their lives, you would continue laying out the details and context of the ambush in small pieces as your protagonists desperately throw themselves behind nearby cars and buildings, the sound of gunfire and flying debris framing small bits of exposition.

In general, you shouldn’t open with intense action unless the results will lead to important consequences later on in the scene or chapter, and when you do begin with action, go heavy on the sensory details. Attempt to rein yourself in and prevent yourself from over-utilizing action openings, as you will hit diminishing returns with their engagement power, especially if you are too heavy-handed. Scenes with action openings will frequently close with less intense pieces of reaction, as the characters begin to absorb and respond to the events and their immediate aftermath. Finally, unless a scene is particularly short and its conflict will continue on into a later scene, don’t try to keep the action going nonstop from start to finish.

Remember, the key to crafting a successful action opening is to make the events contained within as engaging and easy to follow as possible, without excessive explaining.

Conflict openings

One variation of action openings are those that still center on some manner of conflict, but contain less physicalized action. Conflict openings follow the same principles of action openings in that you should launch into the events without much explanation or preamble. In a conflict opening, the events center on two or more characters with competing goals, or between a character and themselves (often taking the form of a dilemma).

There should still be a good deal of sensory detail in a conflict opening, but these will focus more on posture, gesture, tone of voice, and facial expression, as well as the physical and psychological reactions that come from experiencing powerful emotions (sweating palms, a rush of adrenaline, flushed with embarrassment, etc.)

Mystery and suspense openings

Another kind of action opening focuses on suspense rather than physical or interpersonal conflict. These type of openings present some manner of unknown that the reader will want to know the answer to. This can take the form of a mystery introduced by a minor event (one character is desperately attempting to find another, but we don’t know why), or of an approaching conflict that is steadily drawing near. The action in this case involves the characters coming closer and closer to danger, or some other significant risk or revelation.

This type of tension can be further tightened when the reader and characters possess different understandings of what is happening (e.g. the characters are walking into a trap that the audience knows about but they are blind to) and usually works best when the situation has already been explained to the reader in earlier scenes. As with other action openings, a solid suspense scene generally opens with events already in motion, rather than leading with exposition or summary.

Narrative openings

Sometimes action is the best way to open a scene, drawing the reader into the midst of events immediately and without preamble. Other times, it can be useful to begin a complex scene by providing some context first, allowing the reader to fully understand the implications of the events that will follow. Narrative openings are often employed when introducing a character or setting for the first time as well as near the beginning of a book, when the world and its relevant history are still largely unknown to the reader.

Sticking with our murder mystery from the example above, perhaps one of the early chapters opens with a few paragraphs about the city and year the story takes place, before moving on to the location where the first victim is discovered. In this case, such an opening could provide the audience with a block of critical background that informs them of the local culture in a way that sets the stage for everything that follows.

In general, you will want to keep any form of narrative opening short and sweet, transitioning into the first minor or major event well before the tension in your story goes slack and the audience loses interest.

Setting/Descriptive openings

There are times when an environment itself is critical to the plot. Perhaps the city is burning, or a character is sailing into the heart of an uncharted frontier. In such cases, describing the setting before launching into action or character interaction can be critical in establishing context and mood. In such cases, it can be effective to open a scene with a bit of description, framing key details of the setting before putting things into motion.

When crafting a descriptive opening, focus only on the sensory details that are important to the character and that demonstrate the significance or novelty of the setting, rather than overwhelming the reader with a thick slab of description. With this type of opening, the setting will be establishing the atmosphere and momentum rather than immediate action, so try to choose descriptive language that is conducive to the emotional overtone you are attempting to create. As I have discussed before, with descriptive language, less is usually more. This means that a handful of well-chosen details will serve your needs better than long lists of tepid nouns and verbs.

Include metaphor, simile, and other constructions of prose to further reinforce the meaning and feeling of your setting, showing the reader why your characters find it so engaging and unique. It is often best to use what I call the funnel approach when describing a new setting, starting with the general (large strokes) and then dialing down into more specific sensory details, the same process you would undergo if you were experiencing a new place for the first time. Show the impact that the environment is having on your characters directly, revealing the thoughts and emotions they are experiencing in response to entering this place. As with any other well-crafted opening, setting openings should contain a hook that draws the reader into the scene and leaves them wanting to know more.

Exposition openings

Another type of narrative opening consists of a well-pruned block of exposition, either provided directly by the narrator or simply told if the style is third person limited (or unlimited) omniscient. While there is a danger of boring your audience by burying them under a mountain of raw information, exposition can be a powerful way to provide them with a great deal of context in a few short paragraphs. This kind of opening is most useful when the history of a place or character is vital to grasping the meaning of the action to follow.

But beware of overdosing your reader with a deluge of actionless information. With large blocks of exposition, it is useful to space things out with small bits of action, dialogue, or inner monologue to help keep things fresh and the reader’s attention from wondering. Try to limit the information you provide to details that are relevant to the rest of your scene, and save other bits of exposition for later on (when they become directly pertinent).

Another time when this type of opening is helpful is when no characters are on scene, or the ones that are around do not possess the necessary knowledge or memories. If you do use exposition openings in your novel, be sparing with them, saving them for scenes where the context and meaning cannot be concisely delivered via other techniques.

Character openings

The final category of opening I want to share with you involves what I call character openings. Here, rather than starting off with action or background, you launch right into some manner of character interaction. This can take the form of a conversation or inner monologue, or via a more physical engagement (overlapping a bit with conflict openings). In these cases, begin the scene with the key interaction and its significance and then intersperse other bits of context and action as you go.

Character openings are best saved for when the resolution of the interaction is a vital point in the plotline, or when they create or resolve a conflict that is central to a character’s arc. They tend to be the most powerful and impactful when the reader already possesses a clear idea of who is speaking, as well as why the outcome of this interaction is important to the characters and plot. Put another way, simply launching into a conversation without the proper context is unlikely to hook your audience and carry the momentum of the scene forwards in an effective manner (although a carefully constructed conversation can certainly provide its own context).

Character openings should center on clear goals and longings as well as the barriers preventing the characters from obtaining their desires. When using them, you should have a good idea:

  • What the characters most want and need at this moment.
  • How they plan to achieve these goals.
  • What opposing forces are standing in their way.
  • Who will help them to attain their goal and who is actively (or passively) working against them.

Keep in mind that character goals should always be tied to the core plot or a subplot, driving the story forwards or moving the characters along in their arcs.

Continuing on from our murder mystery example, a solid character opening might begin with the protagonist detective sitting alone with the primary suspect, waiting for backup to arrive. This is the first face to face showdown between these powerful opposing forces and it would be a perfect time to begin with a conversation. Everything so far in the story has been leading up to this moment, when the antagonist and protagonist come face to face. Every exchange, every word and reaction between them, is dripping with tension and meaning as they probe one another for weakness.

Exercise: Picking the best opening for your scene

In this exercise, you are going to do a bit of experimentation, deciding through trial and error which style of opening to use for your scene, as well as obtaining bit of practice in drafting each type. The idea here is fairly simple. First, go ahead and review everything you have written or brainstormed so far, then try writing a few paragraphs using each of the three types of openings we have discussed above (action, narrative, and character).

Most of the time, as soon as you draft a few sentences, something should tell you that one of these types is the best fit for the scene you are working on. But even if this happens, try to draft some openings in the other styles as well. Sometimes this kind of experimentation can lead you to new and exciting places you might not have otherwise visited. It will also help you to develop a feel for which type of opening works best at various places in your narrative.

Stage 4: Deciding on a major event and the minor events that will embellish it

In many ways, the most critical component of any scene is the major event it contains. A well-chosen major event lays a foundation that grants the rest of your scene its form and function and provides a stable framework to build upon. Sometimes when drafting a scene, this event will already be clear in your mind, providing you with a concrete center to construct the rest of your action around.

Other times, you might only know that you need to place a scene between two major plot points and the nature of the events contained within might not be so obvious. In this context, the term “event” can refer to any type of interaction between characters and/or their environments that significantly changes one aspect of the scene (tone, meaning, tension, character goals, etc.) or your plot as a whole.

A single scene is in many ways a complete story in and of itself, often focused on a major event that drives the plot forwards. In general, I find it best to limit a given scene to a single major event, as this helps to ensure a tight focus that makes it easy for your reader to follow along. If you want to include a second major event involving the same time, location, and characters, consider starting a new chapter or subchapter (this also gives you the option of changing up the PoV character).

When considering the nature and specific details of your major event, begin by reminding yourself of the purpose of the scene, the reason why it is vital to some aspect of your plot (core plot, subplot, or character arc) as well as why the reader should care about what is happening. For additional advice on determining the exact nature of your major events and their corresponding conflicts, take another look at my previous entry on planning out your plot.

Major vs. minor events

While a given scene should generally only include a single major event, it is common to layer in one or more minor events to further establish atmosphere or momentum or to provide critical information to the reader. The division between major and minor events is one I have created in order to help structure my chapters, subchapters, and scenes. In essence, the difference between the two is that minor events might only affect a given scene or chapter, while major events impact the overall progression of the narrative. The major event of a scene should represent the most important occurrence that happens within it, the one that has the highest stakes or whose outcome will significantly affect the story ahead.

Each chapter should be structured around one or more (if you are using subchapters) major events, while minor events are generally used for transitions, pacing, and altering the present mood or level of tension.

Types/purposes of minor events:

  • To provide contrast (a foil) for the major event to come (the quiet before the storm).
  • To help set up big events ahead of time (key details, foreshadowing).
  • To help transition from one location, mood, or time to another.
  • To form an intersection between various subplots and the novel’s core plot.

Scenes of rising vs. falling tension

Perhaps the most important consideration when deciding on the major event of your scene is whether it is a scene of rising or falling tension/action. Scenes of rising tension tend to possess major events that are structured like mini-climaxes, while scenes of falling tension tend to focus more on the inner worlds and relationships of your central characters.

Exercise: Selecting the best major event for your scene

Now, there is no way for me to provide you with a specific formula for how to construct the major events of your novel. They simply vary too much from story to story and depend heavily on your own unique writing style. That being said, here is a simple exercise that you can use to help whet your creative pallet, as well as to flesh out existing ideas with a bit more detail.

How to decide on the focus of your major events:

Begin by reviewing the purpose and atmosphere of your scene, as well as the opening and any other minor events leading up to the major event that you have sketched out so far. Then write down or review any ideas you have come up with regarding the major event before filling in the categories below as completely as you can.


  • Who is present (or nearby) for this scene?
  • Which characters are most important to the conflict/resolution at hand?
  • Who has something important to gain or lose or is experiencing powerful emotions tied to the outcome?
  • Who else is nearby but not central to the main event?
  • Who might be included to help compliment or contrast the meaning and mood of the event?
  • Do the central characters in the scene possess clear intentions?

What and how

  • What is happening?
  • What is the main source of conflict and what are the stakes of its resolution?
  • What are the key physical actions of the event?
  • What are its corresponding psychological reactions and emotions?
  • Is this the most powerful way to drive the plot forwards?
  • Is this the most engaging manner in which to resolve the event?
  • Was the resolution earned by the characters?
  • Will it satisfy my reader?


  • Why does this event matter in the immediate (and grand) scheme of things?
  • Does it help to significantly advance the plot or reveal a vital bit of character?
  • Was the meaning of the event set up adequately before hand?
  • Is this the best place in the overall plot/narrative for this particular event?

Where and when

  • Does the setting for the major event reinforce the mood of the scene?
  • Is this the best setting for the event out of the ones you have already crafted?
  • Do the time of day, weather, and other transient properties of the setting help to amplify the meaning of the event?

Stage 5: Picking the best closing for your scene

Your closings should compliment and complete your opening and main event, granting the chapter or subchapter the feeling of being a (more or less) complete short story. In a broad sense, you have the same options as far as content as you do with your openings, in that your closings can consist of action, narration, or character interaction. The biggest difference between openings and closings is that closings are designed to leave your reader with something to ponder. A bit of something to chew on until they have time to sit down and read more of your novel. A good closing should feel like a place where you can slide in a bookmark and walk away for a bit, having swallowed a complete bite of story while reading the paired scene.

Just like your openings, your closes should contain a hook that will encourage the reader to come back soon (or just keep right on turning those pages). Or put another way, the end of every scene should leave your audience wanting to know more. Keeping with our original taxonomy, in continuation and complete scenes, the ending should be the culmination of the events they follow, while in cliffhanger scenes, the action, revelation, or culmination will break away at a critical moment without offering the reader a full resolution.

This is a bit more nuanced than ending every scene with a riveting cliffhanger, as they are powerful tools, but also ones that are easy to overuse. In fact, even though I call incomplete scenes cliffhanger scenes in this guide, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that an effective cliffhanger always needs to cut away in the middle of some manner of critical action. In fact, if you overuse this type of cliffhanger, they will begin to lose their power as your closings become more predictable. Instead, think of a good cliffhanger as containing a note that will leave the reader unsatisfied.

They were invested in the outcome of these events, but some aspect has not been fully resolved to their satisfaction, although there seems to be a promise that these details will come in a later section. In this sense, a complete or continuation scene ends with the tension of the present conflict fully resolved, while a cliffhanger leaves some element of tension still simmering away, encouraging your reader to continue on to the next section, or to come back to the book as soon as time permits.

These types of “cliffhangers” can involve the central characters in the midst of grappling with powerful emotions, or of an interpersonal conflict that has yet to be fully resolved. They can include a new (and often even more serious) obstacle placed in the path of your character’s goals, or of obtaining a want that does not truly satisfy the deeper, underlying need.

As I mentioned above, along with your openings, your closings should contain some manner of hook. A little something that will tug at the edges of your reader’s awareness, granting them an exciting question or surprise to mull over as they go about their daily lives, gently pulling them back to the story you have created.

Some common closing hooks include:

  • A significant setback.
  • A major revelation, either fully or partially explained.
  • A cliffhanger that cuts away before the action is resolved.
  • A new mystery is unveiled, one that the reader will want to know the answer to.
  • A plot twist, taking the story in a new and unexpected direction.
  • The fake out, providing your reader with a red herring or false impression that will set up a plot twist to follow.

As with so many other aspects of your story, variety is vital to keeping your reader engaged and on their toes. Your closings should be satisfying and make sense in the context of their paired scene, but also take the reader in unexpected and fulfilling directions.

Exercise: Trying out a few possible closings

This is similar to the exercise on scene openings above, so take a second look at it before jumping into this one. To get started, simply ponder the possibilities (or go through my list of brainstorming questions) on how to end your scene until you have two or three approaches that might work. Then try writing up a closing in each style and see which one your gut tells you is the best fit for your story and scene.

As time goes by, you will develop a natural sense for what works best for you in what context, meaning that you will increasingly know how you want to open and close a given scene without the need for as much experimentation.

Well, that’s all the material I have for today’s entry on scenecrafting 101. I hope that you find this guide useful as you start to develop your own unique scenecrafting process. Please come back and join me for a deeper dive on the various aspects of scenecrafting in the next major installation of this blog coming soon.

Now it’s time to move onto the culminating exercise for this section on the drafting process: Drafting the first scene of your novel.