How to Write a Great Novel Scene, or How Tolstoy Broke My Eyes


By Julie Wu

Writing a great scene is hard.  Writing a great novel scene is even harder.   It has to be effective in itself, and it also has to propel forward the plot and narrative arc of the book.

When I was a graduate student in music, I wandered into a used bookstore, opened a copy of Anna Karenina, and couldn’t put it down.  I read all day and night for five days and got such terrible eye strain that for weeks I needed sunglasses even indoors to protect my eyes from the light.  The optometrist told me to remember to blink while I read, and to look away from the book once in a while.

What had made me forget to blink, look away, eat, and sleep?  Great, great scenes.  Twenty years later, I still remember them unfolding in my mind for the first time.

I thought I’d take a look at a scene from Anna Karenina to figure out what makes it so effective.

In case you haven’t heard, the main narrative arc (there is more than one major one) of the book concerns Anna’s impossible quest to be happy with her illicit lover in high society Russia.

Among my favorite scenes is the one in which Anna secretly visits her son after she is living with her lover.  She has been banned from her husband’s house, and her son, Seryozha, has been told that she is dead.  But Anna misses Seryozha so terribly that on his birthday she puts on a veil and rings her old doorbell, pretending to be a messenger delivering birthday presents. Her agitation and her attempt to bribe the assistant porter arouses the porter’s suspicions and he comes to the door to investigate*:


‘I’ve come from Prince Skorodumov, to see Sergei Alexeich,’ [Anna] said.

‘He’s not up yet,’ the porter said, looking at her intently.

Anna had never expected that the totally unchanged interior of the front hall of the house in which she had lived for nine years would affect her so strongly.  One after another, joyful and painful memories arose in her soul, and for a moment she forgot why she was there. . .

Kapitonych looked into her face, recognized her and silently made a low bow.

Please come in, your excellency,’ he said to her.


This moment is so moving and speaks so eloquently about Anna and how much her servants love and miss her, despite her disgrace.  It is also a study of micro-tension, continuous conflict, and suspense.  Anna has come with the purpose of deceiving the servants to get to her son; she is immediately thwarted by the failure of her bribe, by the porter’s insistance that her son is asleep, and by the fact that she is so overwhelmed with emotion.  Her planned deceit fails, which seems a disaster, but the porter surprisingly lets her in–and in fact his doing so is the true disaster for her.  Her hurdles continue as she enters the house; the porter still tries to keep her out of the nursery, where Seryozha is still waking up.  Anna insists on entering, but even so, Tolstoy never gives her an easy moment; she and her son take turns having trouble attending to each other–Seryozha because he is so sleepy, Anna because she is so afraid of being caught:


‘Mama!’ Seryozha said, moving under her arms, so as to touch them with different parts of his body.

Smiling sleepily, his eyes still shut, he shifted his plump hands from the back of the bed to her shoulders, snuggled up to her, enveloping her with that sweet, sleepy smell and warmth that only children have, and began rubbing his face against her neck and shoulders.

‘I knew it,’ he said, opening his eyes.  ‘Today’s my birthday.  I knew you’d come.  I’ll get up now.’

And he was falling asleep again as he said it.

Anna looked him over greedily; she saw how he had grown and changed during her absence.  She did and did not recognize his bare feet, so big now, sticking out from under the blanket, recognized those cheeks, thinner now, those locks of hair cut short on the back of his neck, where she had so often kissed them.  She touched it all and could not speak; tears choked her. . .

Just then there was a great commotion among the domestic servants.  Everyone had learned that the mistress had come, that Kapitonych had let her in, and that she was now in the nursery; and meanwhile the master always went to the nursery himself before nine o’clock, and everyone realized that a meeting between the spouses was impossible and had to be prevented. . .


The nanny enters to get Anna to leave.  As she enters, the boy is telling his mother a story.


(Anna) listened to the sound of his voice, saw his face and the play of its expression, felt his hand, but did not understand what he was saying.  She had to go, she had to leave him—that was all she thought and felt. . .

‘Mistress, dearest!’ the nanny started to say, going up to Anna and kissing her hand and shoulders.  ‘What a God-sent joy for our little one’s birthday! . . .


The nanny, one of the many servants to demonstrate how beloved and missed Anna is, finally warns Anna that she must leave.  Every sentence of Anna’s parting moments is filled with complex, conflicting emotions:


(Seryozha) silently pressed himself to her and said in a whisper: ‘Don’t go yet.  He won’t come so soon.’

His mother held him away from her, to see whether he had thought of what he was saying, and in his frightened expression she read that he was not only speaking of his father but was, as it were, asking her how he should think of him.

‘Seryozha, my dear,’ she said, ‘love him, he is better and kinder than I, and I am guilty before him. . .’

‘No one’s better than you! . . .’ he cried. . .

Seryozha sank down on the bed and sobbed, covering his face with his hands.  Anna took his hands away, kissed his wet face once more and with quick steps went out of the door.  Alexei Alexandrovich was coming towards her.  Seeing her, he stopped and bowed his head.

Though she had just said that he was better and kinder than she, feelings of loathing and spite towards him and envy about her son came over her as she glanced quickly at him . . .

She had had no time to take out the toys she had selected with such love and sadness in the shop the day before, and so brought them home with her.


The ending confrontation with her husband is brief and silent, but it is, for her, disastrous.  It is the last she ever sees of her son and the beginning of her downward, tragic spiral.

This scene is extraordinary because it works at every level.  Each small gesture is complex and moving.  Each moment adds additional suspense and uncertainty.  The scene on its own is exciting, and as a whole it propels forward the plot and the main narrative arc of the book.

A few key points:

1.  Propelling the plot and the narrative arc of the book:

Anna’s visit to Seryozha is critical to the narrative arc because the worst case scenario—the one that Anna and the servants fear—happens.  Anna is seen by her husband, and the result is disaster.  Anna has tried to make herself happier by visiting her son, but instead she worsens her position with her husband, upsets her son, and ends up feeling even more desperate afterward.  Her increased desperation leads to even more desperate action (attending the opera with her lover), which sinks her further in society’s eyes, causing a further downward spiral of desperation, and so on.  It is important to realize that had Anna simply snuck in and out of the house undiscovered, the scene would have had no effect on the narrative arc and would have been completely superfluous to the novel as a whole.

It is also worth mentioning that this scene echoes an early, happier scene, in which Anna actually does give Seryozha presents and reassures him that he is better than anyone else in her eyes.  This scene therefore has emotional resonance and helps us see how much the mother-son relationship has changed, and that Seryozha is now the one reassuring his mother that she is better than anyone else in his eyes.

Take home message:  Make your scenes end in a disaster that propels your protagonist, your narrative arc, and your book, forward.  Use repetition to remind the reader how much the protagonist has changed and show where he/she is on the narrative arc.

2.  Propelling the scene as a unit:

Anna has very specific, localized goals in this scene.  She wants to gain entry to the house undetected, see her son, and give him presents.  The anticipated arrival of her husband “before nine” gives Anna a ticking time frame to accomplish these tasks.  She is thwarted at every turn.  Her disguise fails, the servants try to take her away but delay her with their outbursts of affection, her son falls asleep while she’s talking to him, she can’t follow what he’s saying, she forgets to give him her presents, and her husband ultimately discovers her.

Take-home message:  Give your protagonist a deadline to achieve localized goals and thwart him/her at every turn.

3.  Making each moment exciting and memorable:

On a micro level, there is conflict in nearly every sentence.  Anna’s memories are joyful and painful.  She desperately wants to see her son, yet she forgets why she’s in the house.  She fears recognition, yet when the porter recognizes her, he lets her in.  Anna recognizes and does not recognize her son’s features, and Seryozha falls asleep while he says he’s getting up.  She praises her husband, but loathes him on sight.  As we read, we are continually surprised and intrigued, and this keeps us reading on.

In addition, there is in these same passages an abundance of sensory detail that evokes her conflicting emotion—her confusion in the entry hall, her tears choking her when she first touches her son, her inability to follow his words because she is so distracted by the knowledge that she has to leave.  I have already discussed, in Being Harry Potter, how the sensory description of emotion evokes our own emotions as we read.

Take-home message:  Use conflict on the micro level, and use sensory detail to evoke emotion in the reader.

To summarize, in this wonderful scene, Tolstoy uses a situation evocative of a past scene and ends it in disaster to propel forward the plot and narrative arc.  He gives Anna a narrow time frame to accomplish localized goals and thwarts them constantly, in a variety of ways.  And he uses micro-level conflict and abundant sensory detail to evoke emotion in the reader.

These are just a few of the elements that make this scene a great one.  And they are some of the reasons Tolstoy broke my eyes.

So, go on.  Try them out.  I have my sunglasses ready.


*These excerpts are from the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, Penguin Books, 2002, pages 532-537.



  1. Excellent breakdown. I think I’m going to return to this piece more than once. Also, makes me want to reread Anna Karenina.

  2. Julie, thank you for this outstanding workshop on how to write an effective scene.

    It’s easy to understand that every scene must move the plot forward, reveal character or both (I think I’ve read that at least a thousand times), but you do a wonderful job here showing how the best scenes work in layers, adding depth and texture to stories in ways the reader doesn’t even perceive but for the fact that she can’t put the book down.

    I’m printing out this post so that when I get to the appropriate point in my WIP, I can use it to help me evaluate the quality of my scenes.

    • Julie Wu says:

      You’re very welcome, Tracy! You’re right that we are so often told what to do without actually bieng shown how to do it, especially with novels. I love examining memorable scenes and seeing how they operate–it’s so much fun and so instructive. Good luck on your WIP and I’ll be so glad if this post helps you!

  3. Robin Black says:

    Wow, Julie. This could not have come at a better time for me! Brliant stuff here! Thanks.

  4. Necee says:

    It’s often hard for me to understand what people are talking about when they make suggestions about plotting a story. You’ve managed to take a small scene in a large novel and break it down in a way that makes perfect sense to me. Thanks!

  5. What an incredible scene, and your breakdown was so helpful. Exactly what I needed today before sitting down to edit — thank you!

    • Julie Wu says:

      Thanks very much, Julia! It is one of many incredible scenes in the book. I could write a post about every one . . . but I probably shouldn’t. Good luck with your editing!

  6. Mary Incontro says:

    Brilliant post! Thank you. I, too, now want to reread Anna Karenina. This scene also reminds me that there is nothing new under the sun in terms of plot. Anna’s sneaking in to see her son reminds me of the scene in The Godfather where Michael’s wife Kay has to sneak into the house to see her children after she has betrayed her husband by aborting his son. The artistry of creating a powerful scene is evident in both works.

    • Julie Wu says:

      Thanks, Mary! It’s true–I’m sure there are many books/movies in which the same basic scene occurs, but it’s the telling of it that can make it powerful or not. It’s amazing how much machinery you can see cranking behind the scenes to give them that power, when you look closely.

  7. Julie-Absolutely fabulous dissection of a scene, the how and why, and more. Your observations from sentence to sentence, emotion to emotion, are just pure Wow! Anna K is one of my favorite novels of all time. Your appreciation of plot mechanics and story arc took me straight to this novel’s soul. Thank you for your gorgeous insightful post.

    • Julie Wu says:

      My turn to say Wow! Thanks so much, Jessica for your lovely comment! Anna Karenina is one of those books you can never forget. I will never, unless demented, find myself scratching my head and saying, “Who was Anna Karenina, again? What was her story?”

  8. Kathy Crowley says:

    Julie — this is terrific. What a great dissection. Thank you.

  9. Erin Cashman says:

    What a great essay, Julie! The dramatic tension was wonderful, on every level, as you point out. You really made me think about so many different things to look for while I read, and try to bring to my own writing. Thank you!

    • Julie Wu says:

      Thanks, Erin! It was really hard to condense this scene because the parts I left out were just as great, but I didn’t think people would have the time to read through a five-page excerpt. So glad you liked the post!

  10. Leslie Greffenius says:

    I am very glad you wrote this post. I love discussing details – and having them discussed – in this way. The take-away lessons are wonderful. Thank you!

  11. Julie says:

    Saw a link to this post on Twitter. Wonderful, helpful article about one of my favorite books. Thanks for so explaining so clearly why this scene works so well!

  12. BubbleCow says:

    Thanks, loved this post.

  13. Debbie G. says:

    I am new to this blog – thank you for such a great first impression. Your clarity in describing so many important elements in moving the plot forward from such a short scene was so helpful. As I start to revise the first (really rough) draft of my first novel, I know I will be returning to your post.