Like story itself, each Scene* follows a specific structure. At its heart, the arc of the Scene is the same as that of the larger story structure exhibited over the course of the book:
When we look at the arc this way, it makes a basic sort of sense. But it doesn’t really offer us any specific advice for how to create these elements within the Scene. So let’s break it down further still.
(Graphic by Christine Frazier of Better Novel Project.)
Both scene and sequel follow a basic three-part arc, but the elements are significantly different in each. Today, we’re going to take a look at the three basic building blocks of the scene. As we continue in the series, we’ll look at some variations upon these three parts of the arc, but, generally speaking, your scenes are going to need to possess the following:
Building Block #1: Goal
This is where it all starts. What your character wants on a large scale is what drives your entire story. What he wants on a smaller scale drives your scene. If he doesn’t want anything, then the story has no impetus.
No goal=no giddy-up-and-go.
What your character wants in any given scene will be a minuscule reflection of his overall story goal and/or a step toward his achieving that goal. For example, if your character’s overall story goal is to escape a POW camp, his scene goals might be to procure a shovel, to bribe a guard to leave his post, or to convince a buddy to come along. Once you know your character’s goal in a given scene, you know the purpose of the scene.
No goal=no point.
Establish the character’s goal as early as possible in the scene. Readers need to understand what’s at stake. What is the character trying to accomplish? Why is he trying to accomplish it? And what will happen if he fails?
Building Block #2: Conflict
Once you have your goal in place, your next responsibility is to create an obstacle that will prevent your character from easily achieving the result he seeks. “No conflict, no story” might be said more accurately as “no conflict, no scene.” Conflict is what keeps the character from reaching his goal—and thus what keeps the story from ending too quickly.
Conflict makes up the middle/development section of the scene arc. Most of the meat of your scene will probably be taken up by the conflict. In our POW camp example, the story’s overall conflict might be to outwit and escape the camp’s cruel commanding officer. But on the scene level, this conflict will manifest in ways such as getting caught stealing the shovel, getting blackmailed by the bribed guard, or arguing with the buddy who’s unsure about the escape.
Whatever the scene conflict, it must arise organically as an obstacle to the goal. A random spat with the camp bully may offer conflict, but if it doesn’t endanger the protagonist’s ability to achieve his goal, then it isn’t the specific scene conflict you’re looking for.
Conflict comes in many variations—everything from a knife fight to a cave-in to a lost credit card. It doesn’t have to occur between two people. It doesn’t even have to be a fight or an argument in the traditional sense. All that matters is that it hinders the achievement of the scene goal.
Building Block #3: Disaster (Outcome)
Finally, the conflict must be resolved decidedly—and probably not in the protagonist’s favor. The scene’s outcome is the build-up to the next Scene. If it’s all tied up too nicely, there will be no logical next step and the story will end.
Some authors dislike the “disaster” label for the scene’s outcome, since it seems to indicate that something earth-shatteringly awful has to happen at the end of every scene. If you’re writing a thriller, that’s all fine and good, but what if your story is a romance or a quiet literary saga? You can hardly have folks getting shot or crashing their cars at the end of every scene.
True enough. It’s also true enough that it’s pretty near impossible to end every scene with a full-on disaster. Sometimes in order for the story to move forward, the conflict simply must be resolved in the protagonist’s favor. (We’ll talk more about this in our post on Variations of the Scene.)
Even with all that in mind, I still prefer the emphasis on disaster, if for no other reason than it offers a continual reminder to keep the stakes high and the protagonist off-balance. As such, disasters can come in many different varieties. Shootings and car crashes are the extreme end of the disaster scale. On the tamer side, we find unfavorable outcomes such as getting suckered into making a losing bet, getting a flat tire on the way to a crucial meeting, or even just letting that box of Valentine’s candy melt into a sticky mess.
The disaster must also evolve organically from the conflict that created it. If your hero gets dumped by his girl as a result of an argument, that’s an organic disaster. If he argues with her and then gets arrested for jaywalking, that’s probably not going to be a sensible outcome. You either need to change the disaster to fit the goal and conflict, or change the goal and conflict so they properly set up the arrest as the disaster.
Our POW camp scenes might end disastrously with the shovel thief failing to find a shovel, the bribed guard threatening to throw our hero into solitary, or the scared buddy hurling accusations of self-serving recklessness.
The point, in any disaster, is that the hero finds himself in a pickle—which will lead us right into the sequel.
The Scene in Action
As an example of these three elements of the scene, consider the third chapter of Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen:
Goal: To dance at the assembly ball and to catch the eye of the newcomers from London.
Conflict: The women outnumber the men, so there aren’t enough partners to go around.
Disaster: Darcy rejects Elizabeth as a partner.
So there you have it! A full-blown scene, from top to bottom. Once you understand the inner workings of this most important of all story components, you can purposefully build strong scenes that will not only carry their own weight, but which will bear up the story itself and create a plot that flows logically and powerfully from beginning to end.
*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.
Stay tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about Options for Goals in a Scene.
Tell me your opinion: Does your current scene have all three components? Why or why not?
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