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Writing in Scene: A Staple for Reader Engagement in Fiction

by William H. Coles


The art of in-scene writing in fiction is critical for allowing a reader to enter the fictional story and vicariously participate in the story to discover meaning and pleasure. It is one on the main skills in creating great fiction, as opposed to memoir and creative nonfiction. In-scene writing is illusory and created by a process difficult to dissect. To start, in-scene writing is not narrative descriptive writing, although certainly scenes with timelines, beginnings, middles, and ends are often created in narrative description to great effect. But narrative description tends to static, and tends to increase psychic and physical distance from the action in the scene. Not so in scene where the writer brings the reader in close to the action leaving space in the writing for the reader to imagine, and participate.

                                                   FIFTEEN COMPETENCIES FOR CREATING IN-SCENE WRITING.

1.  Direct viewing with feeling of action as if it is occurring “now” in story time.   

Note differences in these two scenes.

The apple fell from the lowest branch, landing in a muddy puddle too shallow to allow a splash. 

(A narrator, from a distance, relating happening.)

The skin on his right hand blanched where he gripped the cold steel of the pistol, and his left hand, bloody from the knife cut, supported his right wrist but only slightly decreased the trembling.

 (A narrator through third person, bringing immediacy, action, and intimacy through the use of the senses of the character and “close up” imagery.)

2.  Switching to present tense

Switching tense has to be carefully considered; switching tenses can be disruptive and break a well-crafted fictional dream of the reader. However, in some circumstances, a switch to present tense from past tense can add immediacy and intimacy with the action in certain scenes and styles of writing–but not always!

Past tense.

He wiped the scalpel blade on a square piece of sterile gauze. Then he cut her open, the blade engulfed in skin and fat until the blood oozed.


Present tense.

He wipes the scalpel blade on a square piece of sterile gauze. Then the blade cuts the skin to disappear into muscle and fat until the blood oozes.

 [Note need for verb change, which demonstrates different construction sometimes needed for past and present tenses.]

The advantages of present tense over past, as is often true, are based on taste and context. Don’t switch tenses when the there is minor or no improvement in the storytelling, or when the tense switch calls attention to itself. It must be seamless.

Example of inappropriate use of a tense switch.  Too abrupt and disrupts sequence.

He was called to the OR, the patient had a distended belly, and he scrubbed quickly. He wipes the scalpel blade on a square piece of sterile gauze.  Then the blade cuts the skin to disappear into muscle and fat until the blood oozes. 

3.  Incorporating sensual detail and attributing to the specific character when appropriate, not to the narrator.

Narrator POV

She felt the touch of his fingers on her breast as he leaned over to kiss her ear.

Character POV

Her ear knew the abrasive feel of his dry cracked lips and her skin the exploration of her breast by his fingers seeking her always sensitive nipple waiting to be excited.


My ear knew the abrasive feel of his dry cracked lips and his exploration of my breast by his fingers seeking my always sensitive nipple waiting to be excited.

4. Use strong verb forms.

A. Avoid participles (often weakens effectiveness of action verb).

He believed in her.  (Stronger)

He was always working at believing in her.

B) Avoid past perfect constructions (except when needed for orientation on the story timeline). He traveled. NOT  He had gone. OR  He had traveled.  

C) Avoid passive constructions whenever possible EXCEPT where progressive tense can be used to advantage. He was perfecting his technique by practice. USUALLY PREFERABLE. He perfected his technique by practice.

5. Use perfectly crafted dialogue appropriate for in scene. 


“If I were in heaven, Nelly, I should be extremely miserable.”

“Because you are not fit to go there,” I answered.  “All sinners would be miserable in heaven.”

“But it is not for that.  I dreamt once that I was there.”

“I tell you I won’t harken to your dreams, Miss Catherine! I’ll go to bed,” I interrupted again.

She laughed, and held me down; for I made a motion to leave my chair.

“This is nothing,” cried she: “I was only going to say that heaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; . . .”

Wuthering Heights
Emily Bronte

6.  Use pinpoint imagery.

Pinpoint imagery expressed succinctly and with room for reader to create their own unique images is usually better that lengthy descriptions of a setting. It may be useful to think of pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. What are the fewest number of pieces that would suggest the whole of a puzzle?  Each piece has to pinpoint the most revealing aspects of the whole. The feather of a bird, the foam and mist at the foot of a cascading waterfall, the windshield wiper of a car, etc., examples where a revealing bit may be better than a descriptive whole. This concept engages the reader whose imagination fills in the whole mentally with unique personalized imagery.

7.  As an author, pay attention to the story timeline.

Backstory does not lend itself to in-scene writing. Backstory is in the past, before the story (or sometimes scene in a novel) timeline starts, and essentially loses any sense of immediacy. Write on the timeline in the logical position of story progression in the story present (not necessarily present tense). (Don’t forget or confuse the timeline of the story, which in-scene writing must adhere to logically while satisfactorily sequencing story information for the reader.)

8. Consider use of past and present progressive tenses for reader engagement.

Using present progressive.

He drives the car off the cliff.  COMPARE   He is driving the car off the cliff.

Using past progressive.

He ate his pancakes.  COMPARE   He was eating his pancakes before tasting the coffee.

9. Action and prose with momentum are essential to good in-scene writing.

Word choice

Look for different degrees of specific action in the following.










killed—bludgeoned to death


Look for nouns that have energy.  EXAMPLES: LOW-HIGH ENERGY


telephone pole–computer



Concrete and abstract words have different effects on a reader.  For
action in-scene writing, concrete is almost always better.  EXAMPLES:  concrete–abstract




March 22–future



G note–sound


10. Use proper constructions to make in-scene writing effective.

Authors write to be read; authors must avoid constructions or unclear associations that cause reading to be difficult, especially in in-scene writing.

Sentences. Chose best sentence types for the prose of the story-moment.

Tight subject-verb, subject-verb-object sentences are concise and often serve well in in-scene writing.

Examples of compound sentences that are often needed for clarity and variation, but with caution in in-scene writing so as not to slow momentum in the writing:

Periodic sentence (subject and verb at end of compound sentence). “With his body trembling, his breath trapped in his lungs when he failed to breath, he jumped from the plane pulling the ripcord.”

Loose sentence (subject and verb at the beginning of compound sentence). “He jumped from the plane pulling the ripcord with his body trembling, his breath trapped in his lungs when he forgot to breath.”

The emphasis and effect are different.  Both are valuable when used in an appropriate, receptive, creative-writing context.  Sentence length and sound, as well as structure, should also be varied with attention to rhythms and tensions of the story-moment.

11. Manage ideas effectively.

1. Don’t present subordinate ideas when the relationship to the main idea is not clear. He feared Jason, always believing that honesty is the best policy.

2. Movement in images is a privilege fiction gives to authors.  In writing, images are created in a reader’s mind, which is active in forming the image.  Basically, great authors don’t create still lifes, they paint portraits that intrigue and engage the reader in scenes that live on the page.

There was a bird on a limb. Static. The flying bird settled on the limb. Improved with some action.The olive branch quivered when the claws of the sparrow grasped the sturdy twig. Lots of action.

3. Prose with momentum.  Consider your preference in the following:

The locomotive with colorful cars behind followed the track that snaked though the valley.  Any motion perceived is really implied.  Now with action:

–The steam of the locomotive reddened the face of the engineer as he leaned out the window. The track curved many times ahead.  He wondered, as the clouds gathered, if the printed banners with the czar’s name flapping above the red, green and white decorations so carefully applied on the cars behind by the birthday celebrants, would be dampened, maybe even destroyed, by rain. He gripped the waist-high metal lever jutting up through a slit in the floor and shoved it forward.  The locomotive strained ahead tilting to the left when it banked into the first turn.

12. In fiction, and especially when writing in-scene, make antecedents clear.  

Avoid constructions such as:

He would never use that to do this again.  

Even if the context provides some clues as to meaning, these vague pronouns frustrate a reader.  Here is a possible improvement:

John would never use a spoon to dig a grave again.


13. Minimize narrator stage direction, let action set the stage, for best in-scene results.


He went to the door and twisted the door handle.


The noise from his opening the door alerted the fugitive.

14. Balancing fictional style elements.

Consider carefully the length of in-scene writing to narrative description. Both techniques are usually necessary for a successful story, and the relative use of each will vary from story to story. In-scene cannot deliver all narrative can, and visa versa. Choose wisely for best development of your effective style.  Think: what will it do for the reader you want to please?

15. Parting thought.  Genre writers depend on in-scene writing.  Their readers expect to be engaged in the plot and characters’ story world.  In contrast, contemporary literary writers, especially academic fiction writers seem unwilling to master in-scene writing, or willfully ignore it. Could it be a sense of superiority in the belief that writing lyrical narrative description as fiction is more intellectual? Regardless of cause, readers deserve to be served the best writing and storytelling, whether genre or literary. And every story needs a carefully considered balance of fictional elements, in scene and narrative description being among the most important in any style of storytelling.






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2 thoughts on “Writing in Scene: A Staple for Reader Engagement in Fiction

  • Ron

    Thank you for the information in this essay, for the information in all of them.

    I would like to understand types of narrative within fiction. I have read the following:

    Expositional Narrative: narrative by the author that reveals information about the setting, characters, etc, all necessary background.

    Commentary Narrative: narrative by the narrator or author (3PPOV) who comments on the events or people of the story usually in reaction to a triggering force and reveals his/her reactions/observations. Narrative may be conceptual, introspective.

    Anecdotal Narrative: narrative that relates a brief or long tale (past or present) or part of the story itself. This distinguishes it from scene narrative. Scenes always occur in fictive present. The camera is on; you are watching the characters as they act and talk (regardless of verb tense) as if they are actors in a play.

    Pre-Scene Narrative: narrative that sets up the scene.

    I would appreciate your elaboration on these narrative types. Are there other types? Sub-types?

    • admin Post author


      Thank you for reading and special thanks for the comment.
      All you’ve said is accurate and useful. Rather than identify other subtypes, however, let me present the way I think about this, which is like learning about a frog when it is live and whole rather than dissecting it in death into brain, gut, head, extremities, etc., when it becomes no longer an integrated entity but separate parts.
      I write and teach “literary-fiction” storytelling. Literature, for purpose of discussion, is creative writing considered to be of lasting artistic merit (of course there are many definitions) and fiction is imagined story and characters. Historically, successful literary stories engage readers. The writing creates a specific story world that the reader feels a part of and in this story world imagined characters are as accepted by readers as credible and truthful for the story world, and stories are created with action, dramatic plots, emotional arcs, story structure that helps to propel the reader through the story specifically to create a memorable, enjoyable, and, in literature, enlightening experience.
      John Gardner introduced the concept of the fictional dream, the idea that a writer creates a dream for the reader (volumes have been written on this) that is like diving into the oceanic world–in this metaphor, a fictional world–and not breaking the surface to emerge from story world to reader’s real world. In essence, if the reader’s story dream is broken too often by the writer, the effectiveness of the story and characterization in the story-world are damaged. Lack of skillful narration is one of many ways a fictional dream is broken (others are non-sequiturs, lack of logic or credibility, grammar errors, misspellings, inaccurate word choice, etc.) as the narrator is telling story and creating story world through characters or speaking directly to reader.
      An essential guide is to recognize that authors create imagined stories, narrators narrate (tell) stories, and characters act in stories. So, in telling a literary story, we think of the story as a unit that has most success in pleasing receptive readers by guidance using the great historic principles gleaned from the past—beginning, middle, end; credible reliable characterization for the story world; a feeling of story momentum by progression on a timeline; concrete rather than abstract prose; and a series of interrelated scenes that deliver setting, plot, characterization, and theme and meaning. As story evolves, characters, narrator, and author all have individual real-world views, ideation, and experiences. The literary author must write with attention to time of the story moment, never the author’s (that’s memoir), and the involvement of narrator and character in that story moment. And there is always story information that is not in the worldview, experience, sensory stimulation, intellectual capacity of the character and the narrator is used to build characterization, develop plot, and the setting of the story world whcih would be impossible for the character. The trick for the author is to achieve delivery of story information without bringing attention to who is telling and therefore breaking the fictional dream.
      Exposition, where background to the main conflict is introduced in fiction, is essential but is best when it doesn’t break the fictional dream. This is achieved best by showing mainly in scene action–with telling being secondary to creating story unity—that allows continuous reader engagement in the fictional world.
      The author’s role in all of this can best be understood through reading parts of Virginia Woolf’s “Common Readers”. The author’s presence in a story is delivered by how the author creates the setting, characterization, and plot of the story as a whole; authors don’t insert themselves in the story as characters or narrators (that would be memoir, autobiography, essay, etc.). Incandescence is a useful concept for discovering the author’s personality characteristics through storytelling. As Woolf implies, Jane Austen is always present in Pride and Prejudice, but she is never in the drawing room.
      It can become confusing without crisp thinking. A writer is creating a story with two major techniques, both necessary—showing and telling. There should be little or no author intrusion in the great literary story. Narrators are always present in some degree, but in the best fiction, narrator delivering the story by telling is minimized and the story—setting, characterization, plot, meaning—is delivered through character action, dialogue, internalization, in-scene development (and reflection) all though character point of perception in the moment. Commentary, anecdotal material, are not helpful in maintaining story unity and momentum, and backstory, critical to storytelling, should be delivered subtly through front story in the timeline-progression.
      Now, for narrative writer concepts, think like this. The story is being told by the narrator. Narrator and author often seem to be collapsed into one, as in 1st person POV, but it should not be memoir as fiction. Instead, the author is creating a story with a distinct narrator intellect and personality telling as if this is his or her story. (When the author is telling the story from his or her world, remembering rather than creating, the writing is memoir or autobiographical, not wrong, but it denies imaginative characterization for literary fiction.
      To keep the fictional dream, have characters and narrator perceive rather than just view, i.e. keep the reader immersed in scene rather than in a “theater seat” starring at a stage drama–show, don’t just tell; keep exposition immersed in story and dialogue; keep story line logical and credible; keep character desires and motivation logical for story; have character, and sometimes narrators, change in the way they perceive and think about the world.
      Commentary is inherently judgmental and when delivered by a character or narrator is not effective. The goal is to let the writing and the storytelling stimulate the reader to make critical assessments through enlightenment rather than character or narrator telling.
      So, I haven’t specifically answered your question about subtypes. My purpose is to have you think about narration for the literary story as a culmination of creative choices that contribute to story unity, in which the elements of narration are imbedded and not thought of as dissected parts from the whole.
      All the best in your writing.