Master Four Elements of a Scene to Enhance Your Fiction Writing

Michael Kilman
16 min readAug 14, 2023

This essay went out to my substack and was originally published on my website. Considering subscribing for updates on tons of free content. And if you are curious about my work, and want to support me you can become a paid subscriber to read exclusive and early access to fiction, audiobooks and more.

Like music, good writing often has a rhythm and a flow. There are always exceptions of course, but if you want your readers to connect with your content, it can be helpful to consider the four elements below.

This essay will focus mainly on fiction. Non-fiction has a different set of elements, and maybe I will write about that soon (comment below if you’re interested in that).

Before I dive in, It’s important to note, that style is really important here too. Different writers use these elements in different ways, but, finding your way to balance them, can help your writing immensely. Often, thinking about how to balance these elements is better done in your second draft. Why? Well, often the first draft is more about discovery. What’s happening? Why is it happening? Once you have the core basics of what you want the scene to accomplish, then you can go back through and apply these elements. Of course, as you practice, you’ll get better at doing it the first time around too.

As I cover each element, I’m going to write a sample scene using the elements. Each element will build on the previous scene. The first iteration of the scene will only include dialogue. With each element, we will add another layer to the same scene.

Let’s dive in.

Element 1: Dialogue

What makes dialogue compelling? Have you ever stopped and read your favorite scenes of dialogue?

There are a few key ingredients to dialogue. But before we get into that, it’s good to note that dialogue in real life, is not the same as fiction. You can’t listen to real-world conversations to help with fictional dialogue.

When I was in graduate school a huge part of my job was transcribing interviews and roundtable discussions. I spent hundreds of hours typing up conversations. It wasn’t long before I discovered that most people don’t follow the same grammatical rules that we do when we are writing. Good dialogue has to simulate conversation but is cleaner and more to the point. No one wants to read all the ums and pauses and false starts. So a first tip is to consider studying how your favorite novels or films set up quality dialogue.

Beyond the flow of dialogue, it’s vital to consider your characters’ interests. What does your character want out of this conversation? What’s their agenda? Do they just want a cup of coffee or are they trying to persuade someone else to take action?

Every person in the dialogue should have some kind of agenda, even if the agenda is to try and remain neutral or understand what the other character is trying to say. How does that agenda tie into their larger goals? Or does it? Maybe their goal is to relax and their neighbor is pestering them. Maybe the conversation is with a powerful person whose goal is to take over the world.

Dialogues are often games of power, persuasion, and coercion. We use our words to enforce norms in society. We use them to get what we want or prevent something from happening. We use words to connect with people or share our feelings just as often as we use them to compete. Always consider how these conversations drive the plot and character development.

Each of your characters will use different kinds of words and phrases. A ten-year-old, unless they are a prodigy, is unlikely to use big words and scientific jargon. They are also less likely to be self-reflective. However, if the 10-year-old is trying to sound smart (because their agenda is to sound more grown up in a group of grown-ups) it can be fun to have the child use the words incorrectly.

You can also use a conversation between an adult and a child to reveal something about your world. The adult can explain elements of your world or story to your child that might be difficult to do in other ways. Children and newcomers to a world are often useful tool for helping your reader to understand your story more organically through dialogue than a long info dump.

Personally, I am not a huge fan of incorporating a lot of dialects into writing. In the Harry Potter series, for example, I loathe reading the Hagrid Dialogue out loud to my kids. That’s because sometimes it’s hard to understand what the character is saying. You have to read the sentence several times and that kind of dialogue can pull you out of the story and leave you feeling frustrated. Your use of accents or dialects should never pull the reader out of the story. You want to draw people in, not frustrate them and force them to read the same line several times to understand what’s happening. There are always exceptions of course, but generally, I suggest avoiding distracting dialects.

On the other hand, if there are certain words or phrases that a character always uses, it can be a good way to build personality or remind your reader of their quirks. Just don’t overuse this. We have all encountered the annoying person who uses the same phrases over and over. Though, this too can be a tool in writing. Perhaps your main character is exhausted by their neighbor who says the same phrase six times in a single conversation. But remember, a little bit goes a long way.

Avoid adverbs. I’m not one of those writers who says never use them, adverbs have their place. But if you always have to write something like, ‘She spoke softly’ or ‘He said with certainty’ then you aren’t really balancing out the other elements. There are lots of other tools in our writing kits that help us understand tone and emotion. Dialogue can be good for showing the reader things, but avoid telling your reader about the tone or feelings of the character. Let the character share their own thoughts and feelings as much as possible.

There are definitely more things to think about with dialogue but considering these key points can significantly improve your dialogue. If you want to dive deeper into dialogue specifically, I highly recommend the book ‘How to Write Dazzling Dialogue’. It’s a pretty quick read and covers some additional key points about how to improve that particular part of your writing.

Scene Example Part 1: Just Dialogue

Stephanie said, “I’m leaving for a reason.”

Grandma said, “But we need you here on the farm.”

“Bert isn’t going to college. He’ll stay here forever.”

“One person isn’t enough to take care of all the animals.”

“So hire someone.”

“You don’t care about your family?”

“It’s not that grandma. I do care. But this place. It’s just not me. I don’t feel like I fit in here. I want to find where I belong.”

“Stephanie, of course you fit in here. I couldn’t do any of this without you. And besides, Bert isn’t going to marry anyone. He’s not going to have kids. This farm has been in the family for generations and you’re just going to abandon us?”

“It’s not abandoning you. I have to find myself. I’m an artist Grandma. I need inspiration.”

“You can paint here!”

“Paint what? Barns? Trees? Farmers? No. I want to travel the world and paint all the amazing things I see.”

Element 2: Action

Action isn’t necessarily violence. Action is also motion. It’s everyday tasks. It’s moving around in the space and inhabiting it. Action is important because you don’t want your character floating around in a void, you want them to be living breathing beings inhabiting an interesting space.

Is your character cooking dinner while talking to their grandmother?

Are they brewing a magical potion to curse their enemies while discussing their evil master plan with their assistant?

Action and Dialogue work together in beats. The dialogue in the example above is an okay start but when we only have the words, were missing so much more of the lived experience of these two characters. Dialogue and action have beats and melodies just like music.

If you have only dialogue and no action, there’s no room for the reader to pause and consider. Action can give dialogue some breathing room. It can add quirks to each character and deepen the emotions of the dialogue.

Maybe it’s just me, but I struggle to stay interested when there is too much action. A big battle scene, a one-on-one fight, a massive explosion, or a scene where someone is fleeing a monster can be a lot of fun to read and write. But if your characters never stop to catch their breath, if every chapter has a scene where someone is fleeing a monster, if your entire book is a battle… you’re going to bore the hell out of most readers. There are certainly people who will read nonstop action. Hollywood counts on some of those people to consume their endless sequels of Fast and Furious, but even those movies, have downtime.

Action should serve a purpose in the story. Yes, you can absolutely write cool action scenes and they’re definitely fun to write, but why? What does this do to drive the story?

Frank Herbert was notorious for cutting out the vast majority of the big battles in his Dune books, and Dune is hands down the best-selling sci-fi novel of all time. There’s lots of action in the books, but you don’t hear very much about the big interstellar battles as Paul Atredies conquers the galaxy. And while not everyone loves Dune, it’s one of the most important science fiction novels in history. There are lots of ways to approach action.

Why does that bomb need to go off? Why do two rivals have to fight that battle? Or rather, why do you need to show the battle? Is your main character a warrior so the audience needs to see their skills or use of magic? Is important to show them fighting for their life against an evil shapeshifting clown? If your story contains a lot of battles, it’s not necessary to show every element of every battle. Choose important moments in longer moments to highlight important actions. Don’t make the mistake of the Transformers movies and have ninety minutes of a two-hour film dedicated to fight scenes. Those movies make my eyes glaze over because it’s just action, action, action.

Be strategic with your action. Too much and you might have readers putting down your book, too little and they won’t understand the scene the way you want them to.

Scene Example Part 2: Dialogue and Action

Stephanie stirred the marinara and said, “I’m leaving for a reason.”

Grandma kneaded the dough on the adjacent countertop. She pressed her hands much harder in the dough than needed, “But we need you here on the farm.”

Adding in some more garlic, Stephanie stopped and turned facing her grandmother. “Bert isn’t going to college. He’ll stay here forever.”

Grandma sighed shook her head. “One person isn’t enough to take care of all the animals.”

“So hire someone.”

Grandma stopped kneading the dough and put her hands on her hips, scattering flower on the floor. “You don’t care about your family?”

Stephanie turned back to the pot, adding seasoning to the sauce. “It’s not that grandma. I do care. But this place? It’s just not me. I don’t feel like I fit in here. I want to find where I belong.”

Her grandmother leaned into the rolling pin and flattened the dough. “Of course you fit in here! I couldn’t do any of this without you. And besides, Bert isn’t going to marry anyone. He’s not going to have kids. This farm has been in the family for generations and you’re just going to abandon us?”

“It’s not abandoning you. I have to find myself. I’m an artist Grandma. I need inspiration.”

“You can paint here!”

“Paint what? Barns? Trees? Farmers? No. I want to travel the world and paint all the amazing things I see.” She waved her arms around spattering droplets of marinara on the countertops.

Element 3: Worldbuilding

Worldbuilding is the cultural and environmental setting your characters are in. It’s the kinds of cultural elements you’ll see in the seen giving your story more context.

– What time in history does your story take place?

-What is the level of technology?

-Are the characters indoors? Outdoors?

-What kinds of things decorate their walls?

-What kind of furniture or objects fill the room?

-What does the landscape look like? Can people walk in it or do they need a space suit?

We cultivate our spaces based on cultural knowledge and personal experiences. But personal experience is also bound by culture. If you live in a different culture you will naturally have different experiences. Think about the culture and the setting of your scene. In our example, we have a family farm and a young girl dreaming of traveling the world and painting. What kind of cultural details are important to make the world feel real?

Worldbuilding should be realistic. No, I don’t mean you can’t use magic, or spaceships, or supernatural forces, I mean your world must be internally consistent and holistic. What does that mean? It means that there are manyl ways that sentient creatures (like humans) interact and adapt to the world they live in both socially and physically.

-Every culture has limitations and gaps in knowledge. What are your characters?

-What are the power dynamics between the characters? Who tries to assert power? Who tries to resist it? The rebellious teenager who wants to travel the world and paint is trying to both resist the power of the older generation and assert her own.

-Do they fit within the status quo of the culture or is one character challenging the status quo?

-How does their identity fit, or not fit, into the culture?

A few sentences here or there can add a little more context to the world in which the characters inhabit. Everyone always says to avoid info dumping. But what if you have to introduce the reader to a giant walking city, telepathy, and what it’s like to be homeless in this environment in a single scene? How can you avoid info dumping? The balance between these elements (including the next and final one) can help you to draw your readers in and make a scene more compelling, while at the same time introducing interesting concepts or ideas to your story.

If you want a full book chapter that includes worldbuilding through, dialogue, action, and the environment, you might consider listening to audio narration of the first chapter of my novel “Mimi of the Nowhere” for free over on YouTube.

If you want more on worldbuilding specifically, I’ve written several other essays on the topic and of course, my co-written book, “Build Better Worlds: An Introduction to Anthropology for Game Designers, Fiction Writers, and Filmmakers might give you some things to think about.

Subscribe now

Scene Example 3: Dialogue, Action, and Worldbuilding

Under the warm light of the kitchen, Stephanie stirred the marinara and said, “I’m leaving for a reason.”

Grandma kneaded the dough on the adjacent countertop. She pressed her hands much harder in the dough than needed. “But we need you here on the farm.”

First, adding in some more garlic she had bought that morning from the farmers market, Stephanie stopped and turned facing her grandmother. “Bert isn’t going to college. He’ll stay here forever.”

Grandma sighed shook her head. “One person isn’t enough to take care of all the animals.”

Cornelius the Rooster picked that moment to jump up and peck at the kitchen window.

“So hire someone.”

Grandma stopped kneading the dough and put her hands on her hips, scattering flower on the peeling linoleum floor. “You don’t care about your family?” She grabbed the ancient rolling pin, that had probably been around as long as she was alive. Two white handprints lingered on her apron as she worked the dough.

Stephanie turned back to the pot, adding seasoning to the sauce. “It’s not that grandma. I do care. But this place? It’s just not me. I don’t feel like I fit in here. I want to find where I belong.”

Rain replaced the rooster, drumming on the window.

Her grandmother leaned into the rolling pin and flattened the dough. “Of course you fit in here! I couldn’t do any of this without you. And besides, Bert isn’t going to marry anyone. He’s not going to have kids. This farm has been in the family for generations and you’re just going to abandon us?”

“It’s not abandoning you. I have to find myself. I’m an artist Grandma. I need inspiration.”

“You can paint here. Your family loves you. We’ll miss you.” She nodded toward the family portraits on the wall, taken semi-often over the last hundred years. The older photos were black and white and gradually changed to a printed copy Grandma had reluctantly taken with her cell phone.

“Paint what? Barns? Trees? Farmers? No. I want to travel the world and paint all the amazing things I see.” She waved her arms around spattering droplets of marinara on the countertops. Similar stains speckled the walls from past disagreements, a map of misunderstandings.

Element 4: Internal Life

Internal life is what’s happening in the character’s mind. Not every scene needs a great deal of internal life, and in some situations, it might make sense to cut it entirely. But I think that internal life can be a powerful ally in writing a scene that connects the reader to the character’s emotions. It can also show how a character has changed in a longer story.

One of my favorite fantasy writers, Brent Weeks, does a fantastic job of using the internal life of his characters to show how they reflect on what’s happening to them and how they’ve changed over time. When you read either one of his famous book series, The Lightbringer, or the Night Angel series, that inner life helps you to feel that you’re growing with the character and you feel a deeper connection.

Things to consider about the element of inner life:

-What are the character’s thoughts and feelings?

-How do they think about what the other person just said?

-How do they feel about the place? The weather? The political situation?

-What do they think about themselves?

-What emotions are most potent in the scene?

-What things do they ruminate on? What can’t they stop thinking or worrying about?

-Do they have trauma? What things force them to relive that trauma?

-What motivates them?

-What are they afraid of?

-How does the internal life reflect the outer conditions?

Be careful, too much internal life can slow the scene down to the point where it’s hard for the reader to focus. If you’re always in the character’s head, the scene can feel bloated. Some books focus so much on inner life that nothing happens for most of a chapter. That may or may not be good for your story. Consider carefully.

Scene Example 4: All Four Elements

Under the warm light of the kitchen, Stephanie stirred the marinara and said, “I’m leaving for a reason.”

Grandma kneaded the dough on the adjacent countertop. She pressed her hands much harder in the dough than needed. “But we need you here on the farm.”

What did they need her for? She barely tended the animals anymore. She couldn’t understand why her grandmother was pushing so hard to keep her around.

First adding in some more garlic she had bought that morning from the farmers market, Stephanie stopped and turned facing her grandmother. “Bert isn’t going to college. He’ll stay here forever.”

Her baby brother loved this place. He was up early every single day with the animals, spent hours on the tractor, and loved the work. But Bert was a loner. He only left the farm to go on supply runs.

Grandma sighed shook her head. “One person isn’t enough to take care of all the animals.”

Cornelius the Rooster picked that moment to jump up and peck at the kitchen window. She hated that damn bird. It woke her every morning and pecked at the window all the time. She definitely wouldn’t miss him.

“So hire someone.”

Grandma stopped kneading the dough and put her hands on her hips, scattering flower on the peeling linoleum floor. “You don’t care about your family?” She grabbed the ancient rolling pin, that had probably been around as long as she was alive. Two white handprints lingered on her apron as she worked the dough.

Stephanie turned back to the pot, adding seasoning to the sauce. “It’s not that grandma. I do care. But this place? It’s just not me. I don’t feel like I fit in here. I want to find where I belong.”

The rain replaced the rooster, drumming on the window. She’d almost rather the rooster. Stephanie was so tired of the rain, of the endless months of overcast. She wanted to be somewhere warm and sunny.

Her grandmother leaned into the rolling pin and flattened the dough. “Of course you fit in here! I couldn’t do any of this without you. And besides, Bert isn’t going to marry anyone. He’s not going to have kids. This farm has been in the family for generations and you’re just going to abandon us?”

And there it was. She wanted Stephanie to become the typical barefoot and pregnant farmer’s wife. And who the hell would she stick around for? There weren’t exactly a lot of good options around here. After high school, all the fun people had gone off to college. After her parents had died, she had stayed for three years until Bert graduated. But she dreamed of New York and Paris and London. And she wanted to see those places before she even considered kids.

“It’s not abandoning you. I have to find myself. I’m an artist Grandma. I need inspiration.”

“You can paint here. Your family loves you. We’ll miss you.” She nodded toward the family portraits on the wall, taken semi-often over the last hundred years. The older photos were black and white and gradually changed to a printed copy Grandma had reluctantly taken with her cell phone.

“Paint what? Barns? Trees? Farmers? No. I want to travel the world and paint all the amazing things I see.” She waved her arms around spattering droplets of marinara on the countertops. Similar stains speckled the walls from past disagreements, a map of misunderstandings.

Concluding Thoughts

Take a look at how much more we know about the character’s motivations and the world in which they inhabit in the last example compared to the first one where we only use dialogue. How I use these elements will certainly be different than how you use them, but I hope the scene examples will help illuminate how you might approach and improve your own scenes.

Even if you choose to skip one of these elements, or if you use one far less than the others, it’s important to consider how each of these approaches is used and integrated into the scene to breathe life into your characters. These aren’t rules, these are suggestions. At the end of the day, you decide how to approach your style of writing.

I write essays like this to help readers like you understand the core foundations so that they can truly understand the nature of the art and craft of writing. After all, the world is a better place with better stories. And I believe that stories can save the world.

I hope this was helpful! Best of luck with all of your writing! Feel free to add questions or comments below.

--

--

Michael Kilman

Author of the Sci-Fi series the Chronicles of the Great Migration, Anthropologist and Host of the YouTube Series, Anthropology in 10 or Less