Writing Scenes v. Narration: Know the Difference

download (1)New novel writers often ask me to clarify what constitutes a scene. Some guess scenes have dialog. Others venture that a scene is full of action. How do you know when what you’ve written is a scene or if it’s narration?

Writing Tip for Today: Scene writing is oftentimes preferred over lengthy narration for one important reason: Scenes show, narration tells. Here are some easy things to look for to be sure you’re writing scenes:

Identify Key Words.

One easy way to tell if you’ve written a scene or some narrative is to scan the section for some key words. Always, never, could and would are words that usually denote narrative. This is because these words remove the time barrier to any scene. You may think you’ve written a scene if you write:

Grandma would always cook up a mess of fried chicken on hot Sunday afternoons. We kids never could wait for her to announce that dinner was ready, especially when those delicious smells wafted from her kitchen.

Although you may imagine a scene (Grandma slaving over the hot stove, kids waiting anxiously with their mouths watering) and even smell the “delicious” odors, the passage does not meet the standard for a scene. The always would and never could take the image out of the scenic realm and instead it becomes a continual memory, one where the reader will not be able to place definitively in time.  To make it a scene, simply anchor it by a simple phrase: One Sunday, That day, July 25th.

So What IS a Scene?

Once you’ve placed a specific time in the scene, you can add in as many of the eleven elements of a scene. In addition to 1. specific Time, scenes must have 2. a purpose 3. a POV character 4. A Setting (Place) and as many of the senses as you can fit in: 5. sight 6. sounds (including dialog) 7.smells 8. tastes 9. touch plus 10. A second character and 11. The Quality of Light (as in dark night, bright day, overcast, etc.) With practice, you’ll be able to animate the scene in your head for the reader.

Is Narration Ever a Good Idea?

The short answer is yes! If you act out every moment of a character’s life, there are bound to be long stretches of the mundane, even boring bits we all go through. The secret to writing good fiction is knowing when to write scenes and when to include narrative. Generally speaking, scenes are best used for important parts of a story, times when you need to show the reader exactly what takes place. Conflict and tension are usually best acted out with scenes–readers are interested in knowing the blow-by-blow accounts of any struggle. In contrast, narrative is best for summaries, transitions between scenes and for spots that are basic and/or mundane and that we almost all do everyday (waking up in the morning, drinking coffee, getting dressed). When you put narrative and scenes together, you discover pace. Scenes feel as if they take longer, and narrative zips by more quickly if it’s kept short and to the point. Practice writing both and your fiction is bound to improve!


About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

6 comments on “Writing Scenes v. Narration: Know the Difference

  1. Pingback: Why Scene Making is a Great Idea | Linda S. Clare

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