Tips for Writing Scenes

I just returned from Louisville, Kentucky, where I presented a craft lecture at the spring residency of the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing’s MFA program. I offered some tips and techniques for writing scenes in any sort of narrative with a particular emphasis on creative nonfiction. Maybe it’s just me, but I seem to notice these days a tendency to lean away from narrative essays to more lyric ones that are often segmented. The lyric essay works more the way a poem does, and I’m thrilled by all the good ones. This doesn’t keep me, though, from thinking about the work scenes do even in fragmented forms.

Here are what scenes allow readers to do:


  1. Immerse themselves in the world the writer is creating or re-creating on the page


  1. Participate rather than spectate


  1. Become the characters


  1. Note significant action


  1. Feel the evolution of characters


  1. Agree to the truth of the writing


When we write scenes, we invite the readers to enter our dream worlds. Even if we’re re-creating lived experiences either from our pasts or presents, we’re asking readers to be our fellow participants. Here are some techniques for scenic depiction that will help your readers stay immersed in your dream worlds:


  1. Dramatizing action


  1. Using relevant description and detail


  1. Using interesting dialogue


  1. Using a resonant setting


Scenes highlight significant moments in a narrative, but they can also emphasize a relevant detail or image. Scenes shine spotlights on what we want our readers to note. Description not only offers readers a sensory experience, it can also create an atmosphere that either reinforces the emotional content of a specific moment or stands in ironic contrast to it. Setting operates much the same way. Details of a setting can become containers for something the characters may feel but not be able to express. Sometimes dialogue works that same way. What someone says may not be as interesting as what they’re not saying. Consider this line of dialogue: “I love the way the brim of your hat shades your face.” Given the proper context, the subtext of that line could be several things. One of them might be, My god, I can barely bring myself to look at you.

We shouldn’t forget that our characters have bodies and voices, and we shouldn’t be hesitant to use them. We also shouldn’t forget that scenes occur in specific locales, the details of which can be expressive. Finally, we shouldn’t be afraid to show our characters in action, and we should utilize all our senses to make scenes come alive no matter the genre or form in which we’re working.


  1. Clayton Cormany on June 7, 2024 at 3:12 pm

    Your comments about participating rather than spectating, becoming the characters and a resonate setting brought back a poignant real-life scene from my past. My 7-year-old daughter had just had her tonsils removed at Children’s Hospital. I went to my car to get her favorite toy, and on the way, I passed a circle of people in a waiting room. They bowed their heads and held hands. A murmured prayer and a few sobs reached my ears before I passed them. I knew without asking that a little child was in serious trouble, perhaps already lost. I didn’t know these people, but I felt like a participant with them in their moment of grief. That was over 35 years ago, and that scene remains fixed in my memory.

    • Lee Martin on June 10, 2024 at 2:04 pm

      That’s such a poignant story, Clay Thank you so much for sharing with us. It reminds me of a line from a poem by Miller Williams called “Compassion”: “You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.”

Leave a Comment