Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border

Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border
photo by Gene Tunick of Eureka, Montana

Monday, October 1, 2012

Tip O'Day #401 - Elements of a Scene

Guest blogger Bill Hopkins says, “List? A writer don't need no stinkin' list!”

I've attended many writing conferences in my lifetime, enough to have several lists of things a writer (especially a fiction writer) must do to have a successful story.

But first, let me tell you where you can find a real-life example of the list I'm about to share. My selection of books is wide-ranging. I read The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas when I was in high school. I read every one of the books in The Mushroom Planet series when I was in the sixth-grade. Robin Hood books were my favorite when I was even younger.

However, the book that has affected me and my writing most is one I finished recently. Stephen King's 11/22/63 tells the story of a man trying to change the past by stopping the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It's pure science fiction (flavored only the way King can do it) and it adds a new twist to the canon of time-travel stories. (I think I've read every time travel story available; trust me on this.)

That's only part of what makes this book great. Things that King shows are elements that each scene of a successful story must have. A lot of these items are obvious, yet I've read books by high-powered authors who don't include some, making for confusion.

(1) Source of light. Every scene must explain the time of day and, if the scene takes place inside, show the reader where the light comes from. Are we outside in the middle of the night? Full moon? New moon? Starlight? Clouds?

(2) Participants. Every scene must also tell the reader who is there and where "there" is. One novel I read recently started a new chapter that ran for over a page before I knew the who and the where. This is frustrating and irritating to readers.

(3) Senses. Every scene should deliver the six senses. Six? That's right. Not only smell, sight, hearing, touch, and taste, but the emotional state of the character needs to be explored. Briefly and surreptitiously, of course, unless you want to have a list at the beginning of every scene. (Not advisable.)

(4) Resolution. In every scene, somebody must want something, somebody must oppose that want, and there's a clear winner and loser. Otherwise, what you've written is a lecture on morality. A good exercise is to write a scene about what Jack and Jill do with that pail of water. Each needs it and there can be no compromise.

There are tons of lists. Two more, by Kurt Vonnegut, can be found at these two sites: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurt_Vonnegut and also http://peterstekel.com/PDF-HTML/Kurt%20Vonnegut%20advice%20to%20writers.htm.

Finally, to paraphrase Vonnegut, if you're a great writer, you can ignore all those lists.

Learn more about this author at his website www.judgebillhopkins.com. Bill’s latest novel, Courting Murder, was released ahead of schedule just a few days ago, and is available on Amazon and B&N. Here’s the Amazon link. http://tinyurl.com/Bill-Hopkins-Courting-Murder
Speaking of writing conferences, there’s a dandy in Kalispell, Montana this coming weekend, Oct 6-7. Guest speakers include John DeDakis, writer/editor for “The Situation Room” with Wolf Blitzer on CNN, and Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords. It’s remarkably entertaining, educational and inexpensive, and there’s still time to register. Go to http://www.authorsoftheflathead.org/conference.asp


  1. Thanks for having me on, Dixon!

    Bill Hopkins

  2. Explaining something by keeping all the six senses in the mind is an crucial task, but it is very important and can be gained by a constant practice.

  3. Great post. I am feeling like I to have to read Stephen King's 11/22/63.