Brick by Brick: How to Build a Scene from the Ground Up

Oftentimes, the hardest thing about writing something new is how to translate the composition from your head to the page. We might take notes in notebooks, scribbling ideas or pieces of dialogue for later use, but that doesn’t mean they always translate with ease. The hardest thing is the first jump, the start, and if you’re already choked up from the beginning, what can you do? How can you get the scene you’re imagining in your head onto the page?

The simple answer is: write it how you see it.

But honestly? It’s much more complex than that. I’m always a bit weary giving writing advice, as I think writing is the furthest thing away from a one-size-fits-all activity, but this practice has helped me draft faster and more confidently. It’s also incredibly useful when it comes to line editing. In order to look at the whole, you have to evaluate the parts.

 

Use Your Imagination

This isn’t a cop-out, I swear! If you’re as dramatic as I am, you probably have already envisioned your story as a TV show, movie, or short mini-series on cable airing in late August. That’s cool. When you sit and imagine each scene, what you’re actually doing is writing it before you write it. You are exploring theme, colouring, dialogue, exposition — everything at once before the first word even hits the page.

This is one of the best ways to begin prepping for a scene. You can get an overarching idea of if the scene will work or not, what the tone of the scene is, what important dialogue you want to include, and so on. All of these components are important for second and third round revisions. If you can’t “see” the scene you’re trying to write, you may have a difficult time trying to make a reader “see” it as well.

 

Set the Stage

Where is your scene taking place? The simple answer is, of course, “the laundromat” or “the school” or “some parking lot at the edge of the town”. That’s workable. But when we talk about setting and where your scene is taking place, it’s not about the larger area; it has more to do with the intricacies that make up the space your characters are playing in.

So where does your scene take place?

I have a scene in my contemporary YA debut that takes place in a neighbourhood diner-style restaurant. When I began writing this scene and setting the stage, the most important thing to me was that the readers were able to understand just how heavy the scent of grilling burgers and stale oil was as it hung in the air while my characters were speaking. To me, this is what the setting is.

I think a lot of writers can fall into the trap of using too many words to describe a place. I personally don’t think it’s necessary. Sometimes I think too much description can kill a good thing. It’s nice to leave things up to the imagination too! That’s why I use different descriptors when I set a stage, and these descriptors usually have to do with the senses. What do the characters see? What do they smell? What can they hear? What can they taste? And what does what they see, smell, hear, and taste reveal about the characters? Some characters may have not noticed how oil peppers the air of the restaurant (maybe their diet is all about fried foods, so to them, it’s completely normal) but other characters will point out the oil. Maybe it makes them uneasy. Maybe it reminds them of something unfortunate.

Which brings me to my next point…!

 

Work the Dialogue

Dialogue and character really are analogous in my mind. If your character is fleshed out, their dialogue will be too. If the dialogue is stale, you gotta figure out what with your character isn’t clicking.

So you’ve imagined the scene and the stage is set. Perfect. Now it’s time to get your characters’ voices in your head. You can get really technical with it and start thinking about the pitch of their voice or what they sound like when they’re yelling — or, you can focus more on diction and work around the kinds of words they use. Word choice is huge and I’ve seen (and used) cases where certain characters will use words a certain way and other characters won’t use that same diction at all.

You may be thinking: “Louisa, that’s unrealistic and I don’t wanna do it”, and to that I say, “What’s realistic??” Let’s talk about realistic dialogue for a hot second. There’s this strange notion that we all talk in complete sentences; that we always have the words and the phrases ready to go when we’re in a heated conversation with a friend, or a lazy conversation with a sibling, or we finally get home from work and someone’s asking how our day was.

Listen, I can’t get behind that because I know for a fact I’ve never had a complete, isolated thought in my entire life.

I speak in fragments. I think in fragments. My characters sometimes do the same. They say “um”, they say the wrong word, they use gestures when they can’t remember a word, they trail off and end awkward sentences with “so, yeah…” when they can’t think of what to fill the air with. These are all completely natural ways of speaking. I agree, they can’t all work in fiction because the way we read and write is different from how we speak, but if you incorporate some natural speech patterns into your dialogue, you’ll see the difference. Readers will feel the difference too.

 

Finesse the Details

You’ve dreamt it, you set the stage, and you filled in the blanks with expert, semi-realistic dialogue. The final tip to help crafting the perfect scene is to finesse the details. By this, I mean your own mini version of line editing.

Go through the piece line-by-line and read it out loud. How is it sounding to you? Are you running out of breath trying to read? That may be a good indicator that your grammar needs a tweak or you’re packing in too many words per sentence.

Read it to yourself. Are the characters responding purposefully? Are their actions indicative of the backstories you gave them? Will someone who is reading the story for the first time understand what’s going on based on what the characters are saying? And how does the setting play into it all? Maybe you’re like me and wrote a restaurant scene with the heaviness of stale oil in the air. Maybe the characters, like mine, are reminiscing about what things were like when they were younger, and the smell of oil reminds them of those days they used to bring back bags and bags of day-old fries the restaurant owner gifted them. Maybe it’s not the best feeling, being there with those memories, because then they have to think about the friends who aren’t with them anymore. Maybe they want to leave.

 

It’s easy to get overwhelmed when crafting a new scene, but with a little planning and extra creativity, you can get over the initial hurdles and write a section to be proud of. What are your best tips for crafting a scene? Have you used any of these tips in the past, and if so, how did they work for you?

Louisa Headshot Original Official_1Louisa Onomé is a writer of books for teens. She holds a BA in professional writing from York University and is represented by Claire Friedman at InkWell Management.

A part of the Author Mentor Match round 3 cohort, she is also a writing mentor and all-around cheerleader for diverse works and writers. When she is not writing, her hobbies include picking up languages she may never use, trying to bake bread, and perfecting her skincare routine. She currently resides in the Toronto area.

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