Scene Structure


Failure is usually boring. It is the credible but unrealized threat of failure that is interesting.” Robyn D. Laws

A scene is a portion of a story which occurs in a single time and place, and is usually seen through the eyes of a single character, typically the one who has the most at stake in the scene.

scene str

The scene must have a purpose. Either it advances the plot, or it develops the character, or conveys some important piece of information. In the first few lines, we must set the scene (show where we are in time and space) and establish who is the POV character.

There are two types of scene, action and reaction. Actions scenes end in a disaster, reaction scenes show the character reacting to what happened and making a decision about what to do next. The two kinds of scenes are arranged back to back, with the action scene getting the reader spun up, and the reaction scene giving them a moment to recover before proceeding on to what’s next, usually an even bigger disaster.

Scenes are containers for conflict. There should be as much confrontation or danger within a scene as possible, and the scene should end with a disaster.

Scene Purpose

A scene must do something for the story:

  • Advance the plot
  • Develop character

Scenes may also convey information. If it doesn’t do any of these, no matter how beautifully written it is, it shouldn’t be in your story.

Elements of a Scene

A well-crafted scene is made up of a number of components:

Set the Scene Establish where you are as soon as you enter the scene; also establish when.

Establish POV Normally the POV character is the one with the most at stake during the scene.

Whats At Stake A scene is all about conflict, and there has to be a motive for facing the conflict and working through the obstacles.

Obstacles / Conflict One way to add to the sense of conflict is to throw obstacles between the hero and his goal. Obstacles can be physical, like flooded rivers, but they can also take the form of information withheld or the hero’s own lack of resolve.

Disaster at the End The scene must end with a hook, something to make the reader turn the next page. In an action scene, it’s a disaster bigger than any of the conflicts or obstacles in the scene so far.

It’s best if your scenes contain all of these elements. If any are missing, your scene won’t be as strong as it could be.

Action and Reaction Scenes

In a character-driven story, the reaction scene might be even longer and more exciting than the action scene that launched it. Consider the first act of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

There was an event in the action scene, King Duncan named his son as his heir, but the really memorable part was the reaction scene that followed, in which Macbeth waffles back and forth, agonizing over what to do, “letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would’.”

macbeth box

The decision came when Macbeth plunged a dagger into Duncan’s heart. Reaction scenes end in a decision. They can contain much more than thought and contemplation.

Fractal Decomposition for Scenes

Fractal decomposition works for scenes, as well. Plan the story structure, then plan the structure for a scene. Scenes may be developed from a few bullets, followed by synopsis, storyboard, and then may be drafted.

Plan a little, write a little

Another thing Randy Ingermanson advised was, “Plan a little, write a little.” In my writing group, the novelists usually submit a chapter at a time for critique. The latter chapters might be sketched out, but they don’t usually have the whole novel written or even outlined at the time they submit a finished chapter for review.

decomp for scenes

It’s not necessary to plan the whole story and then draft it from beginning to end. Most people know how the story starts and ends, and a few things that happen along the say. They’ll sketch out the plot in an abstract way, and then flesh out one chapter or scene at a time. They might not even write the scenes in order.

However, I would urge you not to rework the wording of your text, and most certainly not copyedit it, until you’ve done the first structural edit and are certain the scene will remain in the story, and will remain in more or less its current form.

At this stage, just focus on structure. Structural editing at the story level, and then at the scene level, should be complete before significant work is put into the wording.


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