Three Easy Ways to Strengthen A Scene

by James Scott Bell

Scenes are the bricks that build the fiction house. The better the bricks, the better the house. You don’t want bricks that easily crumble or aren’t fitted properly.

Now, sing with me the song of the novel:

It’s a brick houuuuse
It’s mighty mighty, makin’ the readers shout


So what is a scene? It’s a unit of action. It involves a viewpoint character who has a scene objective. If there is no objective, the scene is flat and crumbly. The objective must be met with obstacles, which create conflict. If there are no obstacles, the scene is boring. Finally, there is an outcome, which must push the reader on to the next scene.

For today’s lesson, let’s take it as a given that you’ve constructed a scene with these elements. It’s a solid brick, doing its work. I want to suggest three easy ways to strengthen that brick.

  1. Enter later

Suppose a scene begins this way:

The next morning I showered, shaved, and put on my best suit. I was going to show Mr. Bullard not only that I could be prompt, but also that I looked every bit the hot young salesman on the way up.

Too bad traffic didn’t cooperate with me. The 405 was absolutely jammed. Which made me ten minutes late.

When I walked into Bullard’s office, the first thing out of his mouth was, “You’re late.”

“Sorry, Mr. Bullard, but the traffic was—”

“I don’t care about the traffic. You were told 8:30. It was your business to be here.”

“If I may—”

“The only sound I want to hear is you cleaning out your desk.”

Okay, there’s nothing technically wrong with how this scene opens. It sets the whole thing up. And you may decided to leave it that way for pacing purposes. But consider entering the scene this way:

“You’re late,” Bullard said.

“Sorry, Mr. Bullard, but the traffic on the 405 was—”

“I don’t care about the traffic. You were told 8:30. It was your business to be here.”

“If I may—”

“The only sound I want to hear is you cleaning out your desk.”

I slinked out of his office, feeling ridiculous in my best suit. So I was going to show him a hot young salesman, huh? What a joke.

Notice that some of the exposition from the first example is filled in by way of dialogue. That’s always the better choice, so long as you place the info in the midst of a tense exchange.

Tip: Look at the opening of every scene in your book and see if you can start a bit later. Most of the time you can without losing anything.

  1. Exit earlier

Most writers, I expect, write a scene to “closure.” They want to end it as if it were a complete unit. Something like this:

The last thing I put in the box was the framed picture of Molly and me.

“So you got the ax.”

I looked up. It was Jennifer, the accounts manager.

“Yep,” I said.

“No worries,” she said. “You’ll land on your feet.”

And then she was gone.

I finished filling up the box. Taking one last look around my office—my former office—I made my way to the elevators. Five minutes later I was out on the street.

The last paragraph makes the scene feel like a completed unit. So what’s wrong with that? Subconsciously, the reader takes a breath, relaxes just a bit. If that’s your intent, fine. But consider creating more page-turning momentum this way:

The last thing I put in the box was the framed picture of Molly and me.

“So you got the ax.”

I looked up. It was Jennifer, the accounts manager.

“Yep,” I said.

“No worries,” she said. “You’ll land on your feet.”

And then she was gone.

Wait, what? What happened after she left? The reader needs to know! So the page is turned and you take the reader to the next scene, right in the middle of the action (see tip #1).

“Double Jameson’s,” I said. “Neat.”

The lunch crowd hadn’t arrived yet. The bar area in Morton’s was cool and dark.

“Tough morning?” the bartender said.

Tip: Look at all your scene endings and see if a little trim doesn’t give you added momentum. I think you’ll be pleased with the results.

  1. Surprise us

I have a little sticky note that says SUES: Something Unexpected in Every Scene. If you think about it, what is it that makes reading dull? It’s when the reader anticipates what’s coming next…and then it does!

So surprise them. Sometimes that means we change the scene outcome to provide a major shock or twist. But we can’t do that every time without giving the reader whiplash. What you can do is find some way to create surprise within the scene itself. Again, this is easy to do.

Tip: Simply look at the scene and ask yourself what the reader might be expecting with each beat. Then give them something different. Try:

  • Flipping a character stereotype.
  • Adding a fresher description.
  • Using side-step dialogue.

Just a bit more on that last one, which is one of my favorites. From my book How to Write Dazzling Dialogue, I use this example:

“Let’s go to the store, Al.”

“Okay, Bill, that’s a fine idea.”

That’s called “on the nose” dialogue. And while you need some of it, for that is how we communicate in real life, doing the “side step” is an easy way to surprise the reader.

“Let’s go to the store, Al.”

“Your wife called me yesterday.”


“Let’s go to the store, Al.”

“Why don’t you shut your fat face?”

In sum, these are three easy ways to strengthen any scene. The ROI is tremendous, and you’ll end up with a solid brick houuuuuse.


Now let me do you a solid. For the next few days book #1 in my Mike Romeo thriller series, Romeo’s Rules, is on sale for 99¢ in the Kindle store. U.S. buyers go HERE. Outside the U.S., go to your Amazon store and search for: B015OXVAQ0

44 thoughts on “Three Easy Ways to Strengthen A Scene

  1. Great advice, Jim. I really like the “side-step dialogue” advice. Simple but effective. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I commented yesterday about finishing my first novel at 140K, and tightening it to about 90K for publication. One of the things I learned was that if I went to the end of each scene and backed up about three or four paragraphs, it was much stronger. One of my former critique partners referred to these scene endings as “landings” and we adopted her term. We try to avoid “soft landings.”
    The Hubster reads my scenes off the printer, and there’s nothing better than him handing my pages back and saying, “when do I get the next one.”

    • Yes! That backing up bit is simple and effective.

      And it’s always nice to get that spousal request for more pages. I get nervous when Mrs. B is silent…

  3. Thanks for the reminders, Jim. I need constant reminders for rules #1 and #2. And I love the acronym for rule #3 – SUES. (As long as it’s not a malpractice suit.) It is fun creating a surprise and cliffhanger for the end of most scenes.

  4. Great advice, James, as usual. And a great book, too. I loved Romeo’s Rules. Keep ‘em coming, my good man.

  5. Jim, thanks for practical advice that’s easy to understand and apply. Going back to my WIP right now to chop off several scene endings.

  6. Very helpful tips, Jim. I’m going to use these as a handy checklist in revising my current WIP, especially lopping off some scene endings. And I’m putting SUES on a post-it note of my own 🙂

    Thanks! Have a wonderful Sunday.

  7. Excellent advice as usual, Jim. For anyone struggling with this advice, watch Penguin Town on Netflix. Each short episode ends early, starts late. It’s impossible not to binge the whole season. Top-notch storytelling, with conflict, stakes, and expertly timed structure.

  8. Thanks, Jim, for this wonderful and practical advice. It’s so useful to have a memory device like “Objective – Obstacles – Outcome.” Bookmarking this page and preparing to give the scenes in my WIP a strength workout today ala the three O’s.

    I love the Mike Romeo series. Looking forward to the next book.

  9. Thanks for the SUES tips, Jim. I just added it on a third yellow sticky note at my laptop edge. The others are SSSTF (Sight Sound Smell Taste Feel) and WWELD (What Would Elmore Leonard Do?) Enjoy your day!

  10. Going to file this one for another review as I go. I also like how you keep saying it in your books on writing – find ways to add tension to the scene. Thank you for the tip.

  11. Solid advice. I’ve heard #2 expressed as: End the scene as soon as the reader/viewer knows who won.

    A minor wrinkle, maybe #2.01: Move the scene: avoid bar and restaurant settings; they’re too static and don’t lend themselves to action. You’ve probably heard about the writer who avoided a cliche setting for a meeting with the Pope by moving the scene to the Vatican swimming pool with the Pope doing laps while the MC strides back and forth, poolside, trying not to get chlorine on his Ballys. Consider Mr. Bullard already lurking in the elevator, carrying a carton, when its doors open. “This is for you,” he says, smiling and holding out the box. MC (and possibly the reader) thinks it’s a present, at first. But no.

  12. “Then she was gone.” The reader thinks “Like his job.”

    I have always loved Henry James’ advice to make the reader think it instead of spelling it out. That’s always more powerful.

  13. So I went to YouTube and listened again to “Brick House” (The Commodores). I loved that song back in the ’77-’78 day and bought the album just for it (that’s the way it was back then, remember?).

    In my scenes, I follow your O-O-O format, but I like the added tips here, especially the SUES one. Adding a sticky for that! Thanks.

    • Harald, did you ever see Houseguest with Sinbad and the late, great Phil Hartman? Hilarious scene where Phil is singing Brick House to himself. I miss that guy.

  14. Jim, I can see now that I need to put my tiny paring knife away and get an axe for my scenes. Great tips for seasoned and unseasoned authors alike. Thanks for learnin’ us, my friend!

    And Romeo’s Rules is on my TBRN pile. (To Be Read Next) Can’t wait to dive in. In fact, I think I’ll put a bookmark in the novel I’m reading now, and get up on that diving board . . . 🙂

  15. Spot-on, succinct tips with great examples, as always, Jim. An excellent resource for fiction writers, as are all your books.
    And off to buy the Romeo book as well. 🙂

    Enjoy your Sunday.

  16. In my opinion, a writer could fall short on many elements of fiction but he’d still put out a decent book if he simply strung together excellent scenes. Often I write a random scene as a mere exercise. Also, this is a reason I love short stories so much—great scene practice.

    Great post.

  17. Great tips. I usually just spit out the draft then go through and apply the “enter later” tip. I literally usually put in a note something like [will probably delete this part and start at….]. As I develop more experience I hope I will get to the point where I can do that better AS I write.

    Exit early is an area I need to continue to work on, as well as putting the surprise element to better use.

    Thanks as always for the great tips.

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