Monday, February 15, 2021

Writing Scenes that Match Your Genre

 by Jan Drexler

One of the first things I learned when I became a Seekervillager ten years ago was that the scene is the building block of the book. A writer uses scenes to progress through the story, building tension and raising the stakes along the way. 

For my first several books, I used a method for writing scenes that worked very well. But then I started writing in a new genre and a new point of view. Those major changes made me realize that the way I had been writing scenes wasn’t a “one size fits all” method!

Let me explain…

Writing Historical Romance

In my historical romances, I change the point of view character with every scene. In my Love Inspired books, I use two POV characters, and in my longer, trade-length stories I use multiple POVs (the hero, heroine, and two or three secondary characters.) 

I structure my scenes like a mini book, with a beginning, middle, and an end. I plot the scene with a Goal, Motivation, and Conflict for the POV character, and create the scene with rising tension that comes to a resolution (although not a complete resolution) at the end of the scene. (You can click on the graphic to enlarge it.)

This works well in a romance. The POV characters grow and change in each of their scenes as they interact with the other characters and encounter conflict. 

Writing a Cozy Mystery

When I tried using my scene-building technique in my cozy mystery, I ran up against a brick wall! What was wrong? Why didn’t it work?

I think the main reason was because of the mystery genre. A mystery requires a limited point of view to keep the reader in the sleuth’s mind. For the first time, I decided to write in first person instead of third person.

When we write in first person, the POV character never changes. We are in Emma’s POV all through the book. This limits the amount of information the reader receives, but it also limits the number of characters we can use to tell the story. I was accustomed to letting my POV characters react to each other as I switched scenes, but with a single POV, I only have Emma’s experiences and reactions to work with.

So, I went to my craft books for help.

I decided to try a method that Dwight Swain recommends in his book, “Techniques of the Selling Writer,” the scene/sequence method. According to Swain, the scene contains the conflict, and the sequel is the transition between the scenes.


But then I saw this in Donald Maass’s “The Breakout Novelist:” 

“There was a time when aftermath passages were considered essential to a novel. Even today, some fiction instructors preach the pattern of scene-sequel-scene. I do not believe in aftermath…I find that most aftermath is the easiest material in any manuscript to skim. It lacks tension.”



I decided to try it out and see what happens.

The result? I disagree with Maass’s opinion – at least in this case.

The way the scene-sequel-scene pattern works is straight forward.

The Scene is full of action, rising tension, and conflict. It moves the story along with big things happening – things that cause the character to fight for what she believes. 

The sequel follows with Reaction, Dilemma, and Decision.

The Reaction is the part that Maass doesn’t like, because he thinks it’s too easy for the tension to sag. Well, I do agree with him on that point, but it doesn’t have to be that way! A clever, talented author (like all of us, right?) can keep the tension high, even in an aftermath.

So, how do we keep the tension high in an aftermath or reaction scene?

Let me show you with this example from my cozy mystery. The setting is a B&B where Emma is working for her Aunt Rose. It is the first day of the season, and the inn is full of guests.

I end one of the early scenes with this disaster:

A man was sleeping on the floor, on his side, facing the wall.


He didn’t move. Was he passed out? Drunk? And why was he in my room?

I circled the sectional thinking I would shake him awake, but when I touched his shoulder he rolled from his side onto his back, his eyes open and staring at the ceiling. I leaned over him.

“Are you all right?” I said it again, louder. “Hey, are you all right? Sir?”

That’s when it struck me. He wasn’t asleep.

The challenge is to keep the tension high in the reaction. The next chapter starts with the sequel and Emma’s reaction to the disaster.

“Rose.” I put my hand on her arm. “I have something to tell you.”

As she turned toward me, Sam and Nora came down the stairs dressed as if they were planning to party the night away. Annie and Roger were behind them, their casual clothes a contrast to the other couple’s. Finally, Montgomery descended the stairs, pulling on leather driving gloves.

“Good night, ladies,” he said.

“That’s all of them,” Rose said as Clara joined us. “It was a successful first afternoon, don’t you think?”

“Except for one thing.”

“What’s that, dear?”

I took a deep breath.

“There’s a man in my room. He might be dead. I think.”

The police come, Emma becomes the prime suspect, and the mystery is on its way.

This scene-sequel-scene method won’t work for every genre. 

Think of a suspense novel, where the stakes and tension need to be raised in every scene.

Or a romance, where the stakes need to continue to rise, but there also needs to be a scene here and there where the tension is released, and your characters have a chance to fall in love with each other.

But for the cozy mystery (and other stories with a single main character,) this scene-sequel-scene is perfect. The stakes and tension are raised in the scene, the tension remains high in the sequel, then raise again in the next scene.

What do you think? Let us know your favorite method for writing scenes in the comments!


  1. Another great post, Jan. I don't have anything to add, because I still struggle with making sure each scene in a story is necessary. I need to continue to learn how each scene has its own GMC, etc. It is interesting how what worked for you in one genre ended up not working in another. I'm glad you figured out what was wrong and how to fix it!

    1. Good morning, Glynis!

      Learning to write scenes is an important part of learning to be an author, so it's worth spending the time on it. Each of us has a different style - how we build our scenes and how they flow is part of our "voice," I think.

      And some non-writers think writing is easy, bless their hearts.

      Enjoy our warmer weather today! It was only -6° at our house this morning!

  2. Great post, Jan. I still struggle with writing scenes. Maybe these tips will help.

    1. Learning to write scenes might be the most important part of learning how to write, so it's worth taking the time to master them! Keep writing and reading, Sandy. That's the only way to learn. :-)

  3. Thanks Jan, for putting this in words...I have been struggling with how my writing is changing, not just the content, but seemingly the process. I sound like a big rooster don't I? When the truth is, other than 2 booklets (1 is poetry), I am starting on book 5 of a series, so I am a humble beginner.
    I desire to add mystery and action to my romance, and each book in the series has become "darker" with the first one being 90% "sweet". It has required a different type of thinking, plotting and building the suspense. I am loving it!
    On that note, I have a question - Is it okay to let a series that starts as book one being a sweet, young, innocent romance (with some conflict), then book 2 has romance laced with gunfights, and by the time book 4 comes out it is romance mixed with action, mystery, suspense and even a demon posessed woman? Have I crossed a line that will make me lose my original readers? They all show the importance of trusting the Lord to guide and protect them.
    I guess what I'm saying is that not only is my style changing, but my series is also. Is that acceptable?
    I will have to study on your guide because to write anything past the hanging thriller being solved in a book, it would have to be short or hold a lot of interest.
    I will be following this post closely because I am contemplating rewriting the ending of book 4, the after conflict scenes.
    Thanks for your helpful post!

    1. Lynne, I'm with you on 'putting this in words.' So much about writing is just HARD to put into words. Jan did a great job.

    2. Lynne, I just don't know about the change to the series. I guess, I'd write the book I wanted to write, and then see what happened.

    3. But then I'm pretty much branded for life.

    4. I agree with Mary - write the book you want to write!

      But as far as your series goes, you want to remain true to your readers' expectations. After all, you're writing for them, right?

      One thing readers expect in a series is that the stories will be connected writing style, tone, and genre. So starting the series with a sweet romance, but then adding suspense and darker elements in subsequent books will turn off some of your readers.

      It sounds like you're developing your voice and style as your series progresses, and that's a good thing. That's why it's smart to write several books before seeking publication. I would finish the fifth book, then go back and revise the earlier stories to match the genre and tone of the current ones.

      Best wishes with your writing!

    5. Yes Mary you are certainly "branded"! And I'm so glad of it.

      Jan, now you have me thinking that maybe my first book should have been a stand alone. The 2nd book introduces a new family, along with the characters from book 1, but it starts the new traits of action and suspense. The 1st is along the lines of Jannette Oke type love story, the rest get into another one of my favorite writers type of story with unexpected happenings, like when she wrote about a man escaping the scene of the crime by skiing down the mountain slope! That writer shall remain anonymous (tee hee)! No, my characters didn't do that, but the stories are full of unexpected twist. I already self published two in the series, and unless I want to pay to get the covers changed, maybe I should just leave it alone and see what happens. Now, I'm really confused.

    6. We'll pray for you to have clarity as you work through this!

  4. Jan you're so smart!!!! I love this info. Thank you!

  5. Hi Jan:

    I'm having a little problem with the terminology. To me the scene is where something happened. Like in the bedroom. Isn't the sequel also a scene? Doesn't the sequel have to happen somewhere preferably in a different setting? Otherwise, why isn't it part of the same scene?

    I'm with James Patterson on scenes. Each scene is its own chapter. Each scene moves the story along and changes the trajectory of the story. So each scene is important or it's cut.

    Each scene also rewards the reader for reading it in some way. Each scene makes the reader want to read the next scene. This does not have to be because of increasing tension -- it can be for anything else that does the job. Like: "What is going to happen next?" Curiosity, perhaps.

    I don't like continuously rising tension as a ploy. I want small victories and time to relax and smell the roses along the way.

    Think of it this way:

    You want to get and keep the reader's attention. So you have an alarm go off and each chapter you make it louder and louder. Like my neighbor's burglar alarm. I get sick of that noise within minutes. What if the alarm goes on for a week because the neighbor is on vacation in Arkansas?

    Well that's like one of those thrillers where they keep trying to kill the hero and fail in different ways in each chapter until the end when the hero finally kills them. Such stories would be sleepers except the alarm is too loud to sleep. It's just better to throw the book against the wall and part ways with just one loud and reasssuring thud. :)

    Keep it simple: keep the pages turning, reward readers for reading, make readers love the ending, and have them rush to Amazon to order your next book.

    Do this and how you do it or what terminology you use won't make any difference as you make your way to the bank.


    1. I used the terminology that Dwight Swain used in Techniques of the Selling Writer. The scene-sequence-scene pattern is one I see used a lot in books written before 2000.

      I'm not going to argue with James Patterson - the way he crafts scenes works well for him (obviously!)

      But I agree with you - the main idea is to tell your story in a way that holds onto your readers and keeps them turning the pages, no matter what genre you write.

      Because it's all about the readers, isn't it?

    2. Hi Jan:


      Give the readers what they want and they will want more of it. The crafty secret is giving readers what they want before they know it is something they want. Surprise and delight. A great opportunity for doing this is with the Amish theme. I just love reading Amish stories that are not what I expected. You do a great job with your various Amish works. Keep the delights coming.

  6. I have so much fun with cozy mysteries. They can be littered with humor and angst and sexual tension and back-and-forth repartee. And I'm dealing with older characters in my current ones, and it's fun to see how they play out. And how life is different at 60-plus than at 40-plus or 30-plus. And that's a really important variance!

    Two Hallmark mystery series that are really well done are the Gourmet Detective series (set up like "Castle" was on ABC back in the day, funny, quick and engaging) and then the Hailey Dean mysteries, based on Nancy Grace books... Like a well-written song, they hit all the notes.

    Jan, I love that you're venturing into this! Go you! And I like that you don't take the craft book's advice as gospel.... I find that with cozies we still let the character take lead and the circumstances will follow that character's profile. How they react to things is their personality jumping off the page and into the hearts of readers. Go get 'em!

    1. Thanks for the encouragement, Ruthy!

      I am having fun with this mystery. I'm taking my time writing it since I'm learning as I go with this first one, but my sleuth is coming into her own.

      And I agree about the older characters! Emma is in her mid-30's, but her aunt (and friends) are late 60's to early 70's. It is a blast bringing their personalities into the story.

    2. Hi Ruth:

      "They can be littered with humor and angst and sexual tension and back-and-forth repartee."

      Are you referring to your cozy mysteries or your cozy posts here on Seekerville?

  7. As a reader I find your posts so interesting.

  8. Jan, what a great post!
    I find that sometimes I pick and choose from the methods out there to create my stories. It totally makes sense that some genres don't fit with the recommended structure and that there are unique techniques to use instead.

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