How to Write a Killer Scene in 5 Easy Steps

Recently, a friend was asking me about process, and how I plan my writing. I am a “lay the tracks as you go” kind of a writer. I’m not a pantser. I’m a failed plotter. I plan just enough ahead so that I can see where I’m going.

One thing I do plan pretty intensely, though, is scenes.

According to my internet search for “what the heck even is a scene?” a scene is:

scene. noun. : a division of an act in a play during which the action takes place in a single place without a break in time.

For me, it’s important to plan my book in scenes not chapters.

When I wrote my first book, I planned my writing in chapters. If I was writing the part of the story where a group of kids breaks into a casino, the entirety of the action in that sequence would happen in one chapter.

This is not helpful. My tendency was to start chapters as soon as the protagonists woke up and end them when the protagonist was safely home in their bed. This doth not a page turner make.

Instead of focusing on chapters, I focus on scenes. My “group of kids break into a casino” scene will probably be a couple of chapters. I think of it as one chunk of action (see definition above about scenes taking place without a break in time) and look for cliffhanger chapter breaks.

Here are five ways I prepare to write killer scenes:

1. Plan ahead

I’ve written before about how crucial planning ahead is to crafting good scenes. I don’t mean plotting or outlining. I mean actually taking the time to think through what you are about to write. Here are the five questions I ask myself before I start writing a scene:

  1. What happens – a one sentence description of the action taking place (Ex: kids break into casino)
  2. Goal – why is this scene necessary to the story? What change does it inspire in the protagonist? I’ve written in more detail about this here, but here’s a sample:

If I’m writing a fun scene, my goal might be to establish a friendship between two characters. If I’m writing a fight scene, my goal might be to make one character angry enough to do something stupid (which I know needs to happen in the next chapter). If I don’t have a good answer to this question (or if the answer is “because casinos are cool and heists are fun!), it probably means I’m writing an unnecessary scene.

3. Conflict – again, I will quote past me on this one:

Every scene needs conflict. Period. Whether it’s between a character and nature, two characters, or a supposedly adult woman fighting the urge to eat Taco Bell 24/7, there needs to be a struggle. In answering this question I try to set my characters in opposition with each other or with something else (an adult, a force of nature).

4. Outcome – how does the action and conflict change the story? How does this scene alter the protagonist’s goal or emotions? What is the next logical course of action she would take?

5. Off page – more from past me:

In each chapter I make note of what the reader is not seeing: what’s the villain doing? Is someone dying and/or being kidnapped? Who’s at the local Taco Bell? Keeping track of what’s happening in the world of my story helps me avoid stupid mistakes like killing someone twice (whoops) or writing a character in two places at once (not that I’ve ever done that

2. Journal out the logic

I started doing this after a few rounds of my critique partners asking very annoying questions like “why would she do this?” and having no good answers. It sounds painfully obvious (and for some writers, I’m sure it is), but the actions I need my characters to take to reach the outcome I’ve plotted for them, often make no sense.

Ex: why would the kids break into a casino to steal information they could probably find on the internet?


I begin my days with morning pages (if you haven’t done The Artist’s Way I highly recommend it). I always end my morning journaling by describing what I’m going to work on in my novel that day and asking myself questions.

Ex: Today I’m going to work on the casino scene. Why would they break in when the information they need is on the internet? Need to include a moment where they do a quick internet search and find nothing. Or tie the information to a physical object—perhaps a flash drive? Why would the antagonist go with my group of heroes? Maybe it would make more sense for her to already be at the casino and run into them there.

You get the idea. I know what needs to happen (because of my pre-scene checklist), but the journaling is where I solidify the why. Why are these characters doing this thing together? Why does it lead to the particular outcome I know I need for the story?

3. Start late, get out early

Many, many brilliant people have given this advice, but it bears repeating. Scenes should not start at the beginning and finish at the end. They should start in the middle.

So for my casino break in, I’m not going to start when the kids discuss breaking in and then follow along as they drive to the casino. I’ll start in the middle of the action, maybe with something like:

“Geraldine spun the combination lock. An alarm sounded…”

They’re already breaking into a safe. Then I would flashback to Geraldine being all “how the heck did I get myself into this situation” and briefly summarize how they broke in.

In Magazine Land we’re always talking about how to “frame” stories. Most novels are too big to have a frame. The one example I can think of is Twilight which starts with that prologue at the ballet school where Bella’s all “I’m going to die for loving him, but I don’t care he’s sparkly” and then when we get caught up to that point in the story we’re like ohhhh. (I was too lazy to look up any details about this so please fact check me).


I use frames on the scene level. One of my editors describes it this way: a story should begin at the lowest point before the character undergoes a change.

So if it’s a heist story, a good opening would be the moment the alarm goes off and Geraldine needs to decide how they’re going to survive.

Getting out early means the story ends as the kids are running out of the casino with the loot—not when they’re safe at home tucked into bed. Which leads me to:

4. End in the middle of the scene

The tendency in a first draft is to write complete scenes and call them chapters. That’s fine. Later, I try to break them at natural high points. So one chapter might end in the middle of the casino break in with footsteps outside the door and Geraldine whispering “Someone’s coming.” The next chapter would pick up mid-heist with everyone scrambling to hide. Don’t end a chapter with a natural break–end with the moment that will make the reader want to turn the page.


5. End with a kicker

Kicker is another term from Magazine Land that I’ve adapted for fiction writing. A kicker is the last sentence of a piece. It’s the line or turn of phrase that ties the piece together. One of my editors described it as ending with a punch (hence, kick). You can read more about how journalist’s use the term here.

I’ve worked with some editors who call this a driver. It drives the reader to know more, to turn the page, to keep reading.

I try to end every chapter on a kicker. It’s so important to me that I include it on my Tracking Spreadsheet. I list the kicker at the end of each chapter. If I don’t have one, I color the box red and my heart is sad until I come up with a kicker ending.

The kicker should:

  • Introduce a new story element (ex: Julie was a double agent. Dun dun dun.)
  • Reveal a change in the protagonist (ex: I was done playing nice. I was going to murder everyone.)
  • Change literally everything (ex: Bruce Willis has been dead the whole time?!?!)


And there you have it. Five quick steps, but they make a huge difference in the quality of the scenes I write. Going through these steps before I write also saves me a ton of time in revising.

What about you? What do you do to prepare for writing a scene?

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How to Improve Your Writing Immediately: Write Scenes, Not Summaries

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I had so much fun making fun of my former baby writer self last week that I thought I’d continue the merriment with another post about things I’ve learned from working in the magazine industry. (You can read the first post, about how my obsession with pretty sentences was crushed like a bug, here).

One of the notes I used to see most often on my magazine stories was, SCENE? In other words: why isn’t this a scene what are you even doing with your life?

My tendency is to write summaries instead of scenes. Ex: “I went to Taco Bell and ordered two burritos.” This is fine for my journal entries, but it is not fine for publication.

So what’s the difference between a summary and a scene?

On the Purdue OWL website (a lifesaver if you are like me and find it impossible to remember grammar “rules”) they define summary as writing that:

moves quickly, giving the reader important highlights or reminders, and is used for background information. Bits of summary often occur within scenes.

Example: I went to Taco Bell and ordered two burritos.

(I have been going through a Taco Bell “phase” for about the past two decades so if that’s a problem you should just stop reading now.)

1fba7566-091c-4483-9f9e-2df3a84ffc09 defines a scene, on the other hand as:

“a unit of story that takes place at a specific location and time. If one of these changes, you have a new scene.”

Example: The smell of cheap meat and hot sauce wafted from the air vents. The time had come. I stepped forward.

“I’ll have two bean and cheese burritos with no onions and extra sauce.”

You see the difference? The first version recaps something happening. The second version puts you in the heart of the action.

It’s easy to see the difference when compared side by side, but my first drafts are always chalk full of summary. “He went there. She remembered doing this. She felt this way.” It wasn’t until my top editors started pointing it out to me that I realized I was even doing it.

Most of my revising process is expanding summary into scenes. I like to think of scenes as the scaffolding holding my story up (see last week’s post for more of my extensive housing metaphors). Here’s the thing: every story contains some elements of summary. If every moment in a book were a scene, books would be twice as long.

Working in magazines has taught me that the ratio of scene to summary should be 80/20, and to think carefully about what I choose to summarize.

But before I learned to do any of that, I had to learn to identify summaries in my writing.

How to Distinguish Between a Summary and a Scene:

  1. Ask yourself what happens in this chunk of writing. If the answer is long and meandering “Jamie is walking to school while reflecting on a fight with her mom she had the night before…” you’ve probably written a summary. If you can summarize (LOL wordplay always intended) the action in a sentence “Jamie is fighting with her mom” you’ve probably written a scene.
  2. Is the primary focus of the writing action or imagery? If it’s imagery, you’re wrong.
  3. Determine when the chunk of writing takes place. If it covers a span of time (the fight last night to the walk to school this morning), it’s a summary. Remember: a scene takes place in a specific time and place. Scenes don’t time travel.

So what if you realize what you thought was one beautiful scene full of pretty sentences is actually a summary? How can you fix it? Never fear, this is literally what I do at my job all day and I have lots of ideas about how to kill summary.

How to Change a Summary into a Scene

  • Start with action.

Ditch any beginnings that require reflection, remembering, or exposition. Scenes should throw the reader into something that is already happening. Re-read what you’ve written and identify when the action (the meat of a scene) begins. Cut everything that comes before.

  • Externalize feelings

Description and imagery are vital to scene building, but they should be experiential not observed. One way I fix summaries in my writing is to do a find and replace for anytime I used the words “I/She felt.” This is lazy, bloodless writing. It’s fine for a first draft, but my aim is to root it out in revisions. Instead of writing “I felt hungry so I went to Taco Bell” I will write something like “My stomach was churning. I checked my watch. I hadn’t eaten in a whole thirty minutes. I walked past the open doors of a Taco Bell and the smell made my stomach clench.”

  • Plan ahead

I’ve discovered that one of the easiest ways to skip the summary stage of my writing is to plan ahead. I work out all my summary impulses during the outline process.

One super simple way to do this is with a Pre-Writing Worksheet. Before each writing session (at work and for my novels) I make a quick list. If I’m working on a short story for work I’ll note:

  • Scenes (shocker, I know)

  • Conflict

  • Resolution

Making a list of scenes I imagine taking place in the story helps keep me on track when I actually start writing.

If I’m working on a chapter in a novel, I’ll get more specific.

Here are the five questions I answer before I begin a writing session:

  1. What happens in this scene?

This is where I figure out the action. Writing this down first prevents me from summarizing.

  1. What is my goal with this scene?

This question is about why this scene needs to be written in the first place. What is my goal as the storyteller? If I’m writing a fun scene, my goal might be to establish a friendship between two characters. If I’m writing a fight scene, my goal might be to make one character angry enough to do something stupid (which I know needs to happen in the next chapter). If I don’t have a good answer to this question, it probably means I’m writing an unnecessary scene.

  1. What is the conflict?

Every scene needs conflict. Period. Whether it’s between a character and nature, two characters, or a supposedly adult woman fighting the urge to eat Taco Bell 24/7, there needs to be a struggle. In answering this question I try to set my characters in opposition with each other or with something else (an adult, a force of nature).

  1. What is the story outcome?

The action and conflict of a scene should change slightly alter the direction of the story. This question builds on question 2. How is my protagonist’s goal different at the end of the scene? What is her natural course of action after this scene?

  1. What’s happening off the page?

I use this question primarily for writing mysteries. In each chapter I make note of what the reader is not seeing: what’s the villain doing? Is someone dying and/or being kidnapped? Who’s at the local Taco Bell? Keeping track of what’s happening in the world of my story helps me avoid stupid mistakes like killing someone twice (whoops) or writing a character in two places at once (not that I’ve ever done that).

Want more info on scenes v. summaries? Here are some helpful links:

Technique: Scene vs. Summary

Scene and Summary: What’s the Difference?

The Fundamentals of Writing a Scene

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Surprise! Sentences Don’t Matter. Here’s Why.

Or, What Working in Magazines Has Taught Me About Storytelling Part 1: Your Sentences Are Trash.

Someone asked me the other day if it was difficult for me to take editorial notes on my manuscript. I’d labored over it for so long in private. Was it weird to accept input from other people? Was it hard to let go of complete creative control?

I hadn’t really thought about it until they asked, but once I did I realized that while it was a strange transition, I don’t find being edited difficult. At all.

This is probably because I work in magazines, which basically means I get spend all day every day watching my writing be ripped to shreds. Thinking about my friend’s question got me thinking about all the other ways working in the magazine world has impacted* my writing.

I realized that being a capital E Editor has transformed the way I approach writing. Not only am I very comfortable being red penned—spending eight hours a day having your writing destroyed will do that to you—I write differently. I thought it would be fun* to share some secrets of the trade here in the hope that others can benefit.

Secret 1: Structure is more important than sentences.

Growing up, I thought being a good writer meant writing pretty sentences. I was all about alliteration, adjectives, and big words. Purple prose was my friend. Structure, scenes, pacing—these were not ideas I associated with writing. I thought writing was about being an adept juggler of words.

Working in magazines has taught me that writing is really about being a master of story.

In my first month working for a women’s magazine I learned that sentences don’t matter. Why? Because every sentence I labored over was deleted or edited into an entirely different thing. No one cared about my word juggling abilities. No one wanted adjectives or adverbs or prose anywhere close to the color purpole.


When Editors gave me notes, they didn’t ask about specific word choices or draw hearts around my vivid descriptions. Instead they asked things like:

  1. How does this serve the reader?

  2. How can we structure this piece to keep the reader engaged?

  3. What is the best place to enter this story?

  4. What are the scenes?

Being an Editor requires analyzing a piece of writing as a whole. Writing for magazines has taught me that sentences are important, yes, but they’re the last step, the least important component, of storytelling. Why?

Sentences can always be rewritten. There are an infinite number of pretty words available to fill a line. But there’s only one right way to tell a story.

And in order for those pretty sentences to work, the structure has to be strong. Structure is what matters.


^^^ Boromir talking about the Ring of Power, but also probably about pretty sentences.

Working in magazines has trained me not to focus on sentence level writing until the final draft of a piece. Instead, I focus on the structure. What is the architecture of an article, an essay, or a book? How is the piece put together? What are the hinge points? Key scenes? Where is the arc going?

I think of it this way: structure is the foundation of story. Scenes are the scaffolding and walls. Sentences are the decorations.

I don’t know about you, but I would much rather decorate a house than build one. But if the house isn’t built, there’s no walls to paint, no pictures to hang, no furniture to arrange. And if the house is built poorly, it won’t matter how well decorated the place is, when a storm comes, it will collapse.

This was a heartbreaking revelation for me at first. I wasn’t good at structure. I was good at sentences. Who was I, as a writer, if my pretty sentences didn’t matter? If I slaved over a piece, filling it with elaborate metaphors (see the house references above) and vivid descriptions, and then my Editor told me to cut it all and start over, how was I possibly going to come up with that many more beautiful words?


It grounded a truth within me that has become fundamental to my writing:

I have an infinite number of pretty sentences within me.

Someone can cut my story and tell me to start from scratch and that is fine. I can come up with a million new interesting sentences. The well will not run dry.

And guess what? You have an infinite number of pretty sentences within you, too. 

So don’t worry about them. Worry about the structure. You have a million chances in a story to wow the reader with your beautiful wordsmithing. You have one chance to get the structure right. That’s what you need to focus.

In conclusion: start with structure. Build scenes. Then work on sentences.

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*Yes impacted. I have to google “affect v effect” every time I want to use it in a sentence. Yes I’m an Editor. No I am don’t “get” grammar.

*I have a weird definition of fun.