Structuring Your Story’s Scenes, Pt. 12: Frequently Asked Questions

Once authors grasp Scene* structure, the whole approach to storytelling becomes clearer and more refined. At first blush, it can be a subject that takes a while to fully grasp and, as a result, can spawn all kinds of questions. But all you clever Wordplayers seem to have caught on without so much as hitch. When I sent out a call for any final questions on Facebook and
Twitter, I received only two.

One asked for info on character arcs in a sequel, as compared to a previous book. This, of course, refers to the “sequel” as the term applies to follow-up stories in a series, and not to the sequel as the second half of the Scene. But it’s a good reminder that this often confusing term pertains to two totally separate aspects of storytelling.

The second question asked for examples of scenes and sequels from popular stories. In answer to that, I’ll direct readers back to the previous posts in the series, since practically every one demonstrates Scene structure from well-known books and movies.

In lieu of any other official questions, I thought I’d share a few that were asked in the comments section at the end of previous posts in the series. If you have a question that isn’t addressed here, please feel free to ask it below!

Q. I try to stick to the mission-driven scene concept, trying to build each scene around the things my plot (or my character) needs to happen. But I have noticed that there are moments when certain scenes are meant to give an insight of the scene (the character-driven scene) and, in my experience, readers don’t usually get it and find those scenes unnecessary. I’m still wondering how to avoid that!—Meryl

Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding StoryA. Speaking generally, “plot” Scenes are usually scenes and “character” Scenes are usually sequels. Scenes drive the action forward; sequels allow characters and readers alike to absorb and react to what’s happened. That, of course, is a gross generalization, but suffice it that a story can’t exist without both. Plot and character, when done right, can never be extracted from each other.

Q. How would you actually go about showing a scene instead of telling the scene?—JustSarah

A. Showing is all about dramatization vs. summary (which is telling). You may find this post helpful.

Q. When structuring scenes, would it be considered tacky to give each scene sort of a premise sentence?—JustSarah

A. When it comes to outlining, I highly recommend doing just that. If you can plot out each scene’s arc—goal, conflict, disaster—as well as each sequel’s arc—reaction, dilemma, decision—you’ll be way ahead of the game in constructing a solid plot from beginning to end. As for stating the Scene’s “premise” in the text itself, that’s rarely a bad idea, since you always want readers to understand any given Scene’s focus.

Q. When I read about your POV change in the same scene my brain went berserk! Hauntings of don’t head hop played through my mind. I guess if you know the rules and break them, it is okay. When I wrote my first novel, I did many POV switches and was reprimanded constantly because of it. It had a similar feel to what you wrote.
So why in some cases is it acceptable and at other times it isn’t? Is it only acceptable in the occasional scene? Or can you do it throughout a novel? I’d really like to know your view.—Michael Di Gesu

A. What you’re seeing in the Scene I quoted from isn’t head hopping. Head hopping occurs when you’re switching POVs (usually multiple times) within a single Scene without any indication of a Scene break. If I had jumped into the second character’s head without using the three asterisks to signal a Scene break, that would have been head hopping. The key to successful POV switches is giving each POV a large chunk of time. In the Scene I’ve quoted from, both characters’ POVs each received half the chapter. If, on the other hand, I had switched back and forth every few paragraphs, that would have been way too much hopping around, even with asterisks to signal the Scene breaks.

Q. I wanted to ask about where to place a sequel. Is it generally considered wise to open a book with a sequel? I’m contemplating opening this one character arc this way, but I’m not sure if it would leave them wondering, “Ok, so what are the characters reflecting about?”—JustSarah

A. Not that it cant be done, but it’s absolutely better not to open with a sequel. Start with your character acting, hook readers in, then slow down to reflect.

***

And that brings us to the end of our series! I hope you’ve enjoyed the last twelve weeks and found this journey into the finer points of story structure to be enlightening and even empowering. Solid stories are built on the minutiae of solid Scenes. If you can put together a Scene, you can write a whole book, easy-peasy!

*For the purposes of this series, “Scene” with a capital S will refer to the scene in general (which can include in its definition the sequel). I’ll use a small s and italicize scene and sequel to refer to the two different types of Scenes.

Tell me your opinion: Do you have any questions about Scene structure?

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Thank you, Kathryn. I enjoyed this great summary of the series!
    It’s been a great one 😀

  2. Glad you’ve enjoyed it!

  3. Great post as usual! I love your series, especially the podcast format. I can listen to them on the way to work or home.

  4. I am currently reading Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. He didn’t try to make up separate scenes. He made transitions through several scenes in a single paragraph. So he didn’t have to use any scene breaks as such. What do the rules have to say about this?

  5. This has been a great series on a complex subject. Thanks so much for sharing!

  6. @Elke: Glad you’re enjoying the podcasts!

    @hariprasad: I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment on it specifically. In all likelihood, Rushie did use the scene/sequel structure; he just didn’t separate them with breaks. This would fall under the notion of experimental fiction (which is almost always literary). If you do it extremely well, readers won’t mind. But you’ll likely be better off following a more conventional layout.

    @Christine: You’re welcome! I’m so glad you’ve found it useful.

  7. Hi K.M.

    Great post as usual. I have nominated your blog for the very inspiring blogger award: http://lkwattsconfessions.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/very-inspiring-blogger-award.html

  8. Thank you so much!

  9. I’ll leave my question here, too: What is the difference between the planning portion of the dilemma, the decision portion of the sequel and the goal of the new scene? My brain is wanting to interchange them! Thanks!

  10. In practice, they often *are* interchangeable. One can lead right into the other without the reader ever realizing they’re three separate things. Also, the fact that an obvious goal often negates the need for an explicit decision (and sometimes vice versa) contributes to the inherency each part of the scene has to the other. It’s important for authors to be able to pick apart the differetn pieces, but they don’t necessarily have to be obviously distinct within the story.

  11. dennis fleming says:

    I went through all twelve weeks in two days and feel I’ve learned much. Tell me if I’m wrong, but I see the large S scene as encompassing a scene and a sequel. I’m trying to see that in terms of hook/development/climax.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yep, you are spot on. It’s regrettable these widely accepted terms are so confusing. But, yes, Scene includes both scene and sequel.

      • Hi K.M

        I’n trying to get my head around scenes and chapters. My editor made a comment recently, saying ‘you can’t start a scene with a sequel’. I’m still confused by this.

        Thanks

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          If you’ve read the earlier posts in this scenes, you’ll know that the overall big Scene is broken into two halves: scene (action) and sequel (reaction). Therefore, the big Scene always begins with the action, not the reaction. This doesn’t, however, have anything to do with chapter breaks. You *can* begin a chapter halfway through the Scene with the sequel/reaction part.

  12. I’ve just read through this in a few hours and know I will have to refer back to it. It’s given me a very different approach to planning my book, which I would otherwise have done as a chapter by chapter account, but now I see that a Scene by Scene account makes more sense and allows me to consider the pace. How Scenes break down into chapters is almost secondary, so long as there is enough content and interest to sustain enough chapters.

    Really useful and very interesting. Thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good approach. Scenes are the building blocks of stories, whereas chapters are really more just arbitrary divisions.

  13. I’m a getting confused over MRUs and how they apply across the scenes and sequels. I’m missing something.

  14. Hi K.M.,
    First I’d like to say how great this series was. I learned a lot from it, as I do from all your posts. I’m always so interested in how so many of us ignore structure when we’re starting out, and yet how obvious these concepts are once they’re pointed out. Everything I learn from you, I’m always like “Why didn’t I already know that!?”
    On another note, I’m interested in your thoughts: On your character arc series, I made a comment about arc structure in short stories. I’ve been searching for a definitive method of structuring short stories, and I haven’t come up with much. Your comments then were helpful, but after reading this series, it occurs to me that the model for a short story might well exist in the model of scene and sequel. You have some of the essential elements of a complete story built into the Scene (conflict, disaster, personal growth through decision making…), and I’m beginning to think that a well-structured short story might be just 1-2 trips through the scene/sequel model. Any thoughts on this?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It depends greatly on the type of short story. Unlike novels short stories come in a huge variety of flavors. Some will hold up under a complete three-act structure. Some will be more of a vignette/snapshot that serves to capture a single emotion or observation. Others will be a series of snapshots, presented primarily as sequels. Still others will work as you’ve indicated here, as a bare handful of completed scene/sequels. There’s more room for experimentation in the short story world, so what it really comes down to is what would best serve the story?

  15. Good stuff – thank you! Here’s my dilemma. Can’t anything good ever happen to my character? I would get depressed reading about someone who doesn’t accomplish anything until the end. I would think for the benefit of the pacing there need to be some victories to give us a break from the failures. What am I missing in the scene/sequel structure?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s where the “yes, but” disaster–discussed in this post–comes into play. Keep in mind your character *will* be steadily advancing and making progress toward his overall goal throughout the story. He gets closer and closer to that goal throughout, but he won’t *reach* it until the end. There always needs to be an obstacle pushing him one step sideways for every two steps he advances forward–otherwise he reaches the goal unimpeded and the story ends.

      Keep in mind, too, that “disaster” is hyperbolic. A disaster doesn’t have to be literally disastrous. A scene disaster is simply the character meeting a new obstacle instead of gaining his overall story goal right away.

  16. Thanks so much! That makes sense! I’ve been very much enjoying your posts about prepping for Nano as well. 🙂

  17. I have a question about setting the Normal Wotld near the beginning of the story and establishing the characters. My story takes place in a boarding school. It starts with the arrival of a new teacher, and the headmistress shows him around, and then he meets the rest of the staff. Now I can see the potential for conflicts of one form or another with the meet and greet, I guess, but what about the tour? The headmistress is proud of her school, the new teacher is eager and excited (him being anything else would be out of character for him.) So – what can I do? Does it really need a conflict?
    And since I fear the answer is yes, what could I possibly do? Have them bicker about the school uniforms?
    I’d really appreciate some advice on this. Thanks in advance!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      At the least, it needs to be presenting a question that readers want answered. What is the purpose of the tour? What’s the undercurrent? Maybe think about what the school symbolizes within the story.

      • Yes, good advice, thank you! The school does symbolize something for the new teacher. I’ll have to see how I can make that evident, since he’s nor a POV character.
        I thought the tour might be important to the reader, so he can envision the setting. Various rooms can be described more in detail when a scene takes place there, but they should get a general idea of the layout from the beginning. I thoought the tour would make it more interesting than simply describing it.

  18. Sandy Stuckless says:

    Here’s a question I didn’t see address in the series (or maybe I just missed it).
    Do you typically put sequels after every scene?
    In my current WIP, I think I have three ‘scenes’ with no opportunity for the ‘sequel’ part.
    Would it be advisable to have one ‘sequel’ for those three ‘scene’ bits?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Short answer: Yes. Every scene needs a sequel.

      However, a sequel can sometimes we only a paragraph or two, indicating the character’s reaction, dilemma, and decision. It isn’t advisable to do this often, since it will destroy any opportunity for character development, but it’s definitely feasible in certain situations.

  19. I found this series very interesting. I’m still a bit “shocked” to learn that the whole Scene structure should (ideally) be applied to each and every scene of a novel. Thinking of my current plot, I find it difficult to identify specific goals for the main character in the first act, as the actual goal only comes clear with the key event; I figured everything before that should be more “static” (i.e. introducing a rather complex setting with normal life events, until the key event occurs). Are static scenes necessarily boring? Should I try to turn these “normal life events” in “action-reaction” patterns (maybe by considering the key event as a “goal”, even if this key event is information still unknown to my character)? Any little piece of insight would be welcome. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Even though your protagonist won’t find his specific story goal until after the First Plot Point, he will still *want* something in the beginning. This want will drive his early scene goals as they are obstructed, leading him up to his first bump with the main conflict at the the Inciting Event.

  20. Ms. Albina says:

    I am co-authoring a mermaid book. Do you keep track of the scenes? I mean such as the mermaid who is also a healer also needs to go to a village to help the people who are very sick. How many scenes would you write or jot down as notes for the scene. Do you also do long descriptions in your book of what the scene looks like if you are in a palace library or swimming in a pool or ocean?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I outline according to scene structure and usually go into as much depth as I feel I need to make sure I clearly understand the scene. I probably tend to err more on the side of more details, just because I like to known exactly where I stand when I start drafting the actual scene.

  21. Ms. Albina says:

    Okay, Thank you. Do you have any worksheets for writers for scenes or the story structure?

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