8 Different Types of Scenes

Any story will require many different types of scenes. Some of this variety will come from content (romance vs. action vs. humor vs. tragedy). However, much of the variety in types of scenes will arise from the needs of pacing.

Authors can find great value in understanding some of the different types of scenes, so they can choose which are best at any juncture of a story. Most authors instinctively pace their stories through the selection of different types of scenes but then question their instincts when they read guidelines that suggest all scenes are supposedly the same.

To some extent, this understanding isn’t incorrect. All scenes offer the common features and arcs that create their definition as distinct dramatic units within the story. However, just because all scenes bear commonalities does not mean they all look the same, function in exactly the same way, or offer the same challenges to writers.

Recently, I received a question from Elena Singleterry, asking for tips on writing “happy scenes.” This is a common enough question among writers. So much emphasis is put on the importance of conflict within scenes (because it is important, especially when you fully understand what is meant by the term) that writers sometimes feel blocked when it comes to writing scenes in which the whole point is that characters are getting along and aren’t in conflict.

Elena wrote:

If possible, I would like to ask a question about writing a happy scene. In my book, the plot calls for a number of such scenes (every time the two lovers reunite, which does not happen often, but does happen throughout the book). My characters are not reuniting in a way where they are enemies becoming lovers or anything like that, but already as lovers, so these scenes are mostly dialogues and happy times together—so no real suspense or conflict there.

There is a conflict that unfolds in between their get-togethers and serves as an external force (such as, heroine’s complicated family situation), but because their get-togethers happen out of direct reach of the external force, their meetings are largely conflict-free. The characters spend these precious days talking, exploring foreign cities (a different city for each of the meetings), getting to know one another more and more. These meetings are meant to show their compatibility and discovery of self, of themselves as two parts of this couple, and the physical/cultural world around them, not as a major source of conflict.

 If you feel it would be of interest to your other readers, could you please give a few suggestions on how to make happy scenes engaging?

Next week, I will be addressing this question more specifically by offering five pertinent tips and techniques you can use to fully satisfy readers with your happy scenes. This week, I wanted to address the core of this question, which is really pointing out that there are different types of scenes—so how can standard structure apply to them all?

What Writers Sometimes Miss About Classic Scene Structure

Every single “rule” for writing (or at least the ones that actually work) comes down to the recognition of a simple basic pattern. The very simplicity of this pattern is what allows it to be endlessly applicable in so many varied story situations. However, taken too literally these patterns are quite obviously limiting. It is important to view the “rule” as the foundation and then to understand how nuance and variety are layered on top.

Classic scene structure was popularized by Dwight V. Swain in his 1973 book Techniques of the Selling Author. His model divides scenes into two halves (action and reaction), then further divides those halves into three parts apiece:

1. Scene (Action)

a. Goal

b. Conflict

c. Outcome (Disaster)

2. Sequel (Reaction)

a. Reaction

b. Dilemma

c. Decision

Analyzing the Dragon Scene Structure From Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone

>>Click here to read 4 Reasons You’re Confused About Scene Structure (With Examples)

Even a cursory examination shows how these six elements comprise an infinitely repeatable cycle in which one scene neatly creates the cause and effect necessary to lead into the next scene, and so on throughout the book. You can also see there is a great deal of variety explored throughout this cycle. Arguably, it offers space for just about any type of moment a story might feature.

The major takeaway comes down to the definition of “scene.” This word can require different definitions in different situations. Often, in discussions of scene structure such as this one, “scene” will refer to the complete structure—from goal through decision. However, in more common parlance, “scene” often refers to any distinct dramatic unit within a story. Usually, these units are delineated for readers via scene breaks and chapters.

>>Click here to read 7 Questions You Have About Scenes vs. Chapters

However, and here’s the key point, chapter and scene breaks do not affect scene structure in any way. You can insert a chapter break in between a character’s reaction and the subsequent decision. For that matter, you can insert a break smack in the middle of any one of these beats. This often happens in stories with multiple POVs, such as romances, in which a scene break might be inserted in the middle of the conflict in order to switch from one character’s perspective to the other.

Taken further, you can see that each beat of scene structure could in fact be stretched out into a full chapter or even more. This does not endanger the integrity of the dramatic structure. As with all structural questions, the effect of the pacing upon the audience is the primary metric of effectiveness.

When you understand and look at scene structure through this flexible perspective, you can see how there is room within the model for just about any type of scene. Happy scenes and other more emotional or reflective moments within the story don’t necessarily have to bear the load of scene structure’s demand for “conflict.” They might instead be featured in the reaction section.

This is not to say that even slower and comparatively conflict-free scenes don’t still require dramatic techniques to advance the plot and maintain the audience’s sense of forward progression. One aid for this is recognizing that “goal” and “conflict” don’t always have to be played out so literally or aggressively; sometimes, they can even be subtextualized as “intention” and “obstacle”—or even just “possibility of an obstacle.” Next week, we will talk more specifically about techniques you can use in slower scenes to make sure readers are just as riveted (if not more so) than in more obviously conflict-oriented scenes.

8 Types of Scenes—or 4 Polarities

Not all types of scenes are built to do the same thing in a story. Understanding some of the main polarities found in types of scenes can be helpful in recognizing which choice is right for your story at any particular moment. Following are four of the main and most important polarities found in scenes.

1. Conflict vs. Tension

Much of modern storytelling focuses on conflict and forward momentum in the plot throughline. Conflict offers the ability to drive plot forward. It is a powerful technique that, when wielded well, engages readers with a solid and believable sequence of cause and effect.

Too often, however, conflict is thought to be simply confrontation—two characters arguing or even physically fighting. Although this is a form conflict can take, conflict itself is perhaps best understood as simply whatever obstructs the character from moving forward toward a goal. On the scene level, this could be as simple as a character whose goal is to get to work on time discovering a detour sign in the middle of the road. This creates the need for the character to adjust either the goal or the method for achieving it—and on and on throughout the story until the ultimate goal is either reached or thwarted.

The flipside of conflict is tension. We can think of tension as the “promise of conflict.” If conflict is two forces of energy colliding, tension is that energy before it is released, still coiled and waiting. In story, tension is just as powerful a technique as is conflict. In fact, as horror and suspense readers know, sometimes the tension is the entire point. Depending on how tightly the tension is wound, the conflict can seem like a release or even relief more than something to be avoided.

Conflict is most appropriate for scenes in which something is happening that moves the plot externally. Tension provides a necessary counterbalance to conflict. Ideally, conflict and tension will be balanced within the story, with one beat focusing on conflict and its subsequent partner beat building the tension for the next scene. Because tension creates the unspoken pressure of “what happens next,” it is crucial for maintaining audience interest.

2. Action vs. Reaction (Scene vs. Sequel)

Closely related to conflict and tension is the pairing of action and reaction. Swain created the often confusing terms “scene” and “sequel” to discuss these two progressions of story momentum. However, simply thinking of them as “action” and “reaction” is often more intuitive and helpful.

Creating Character Arcs

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Within their most basic definitions, action refers to the external aspect of the story (often equated with “plot”) while reaction refers to a more internal aspect of the story (often thought of as “character”—and applying to character development and arc—which is what I talk about in my book Creating Character Arcs).

These days when we hear the phrase “action scene,” we think of car chases, shootouts, and explosions. However, “action” within a story may refer to anything that happens within the physical reality of the story. In a romance, the “action” will be dating, dancing, and making love. In a mystery, the action will be investigative. In literary stories such as David Guterson’s East of the Mountains or Tony Morrison’s Beloved, it might be traveling through the countryside or making pies (respectively). If the character is doing something that affects their external world, that’s an action scene.

By contrast, reaction is the beat in which characters take stock of what they (or others) have just done. Even in plot-heavy stories, this is a crucial beat. In most stories, this is where the bulk of the character development will revealed. Turns out characters are less defined by what they do and more by how they respond to it. Reaction scenes are often introspective- or dialogue-heavy, offering insight and perspective about why characters were motivated to take the actions they did and how they have been affected by the results.

These scenes can be some of the most powerful and poignant in any story, and even the most plot-oriented stories risk their integrity by neglecting reaction beats. However, it should go without saying that these scenes should not be dumping grounds for explanation. Just like their action-oriented partners, they must utilize all the tricks and techniques of good drama to develop the characters’ reactions in a way that authentically leads into their next action.

3. Setup vs. Payoff

Foreshadowing is one of the most important techniques for drawing audiences into a story’s forward momentum and balancing cause and effect. Foreshadowing is made up of two parts: setup (sometimes called “plant”) and payoff.

Usually, when we think of “big scenes” in a story, we’re thinking of payoff scenes. These are the scenes in which something major happens, something memorable that defines the entire story and changes everything for the characters. However, these scenes don’t work without previous setup scenes.

Although setup can take many forms—conflict, tension, action, reaction, et al.—it will always be presented in a way that is dramatically “smaller” than the following payoff. Tension is a key factor in most setup scenes, since it offers the ability to create indirect foreshadowing that may not offer any specific clues to audiences. Instead, the story’s tone promises that something specific is going to happen later on—whether that something is horrible or wonderful.

If you know which scenes in your story will feature payoffs, you can then work to create earlier scenes in which you plant the setups. These setup scenes will often offer the potential for low-key character dynamics that don’t necessarily require full-on conflict or action.

4. Vignette vs. Scene

All the beats we have discussed so far are likely to appear as part of a proper structural “scene”—one designed to play a role in moving the plot forward. In any plot-oriented story, these structural scenes are crucial and should be featured throughout the majority of the story.

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However, some moments within a story will not obviously act as “scenes.” Rather, they act simply to show audiences something of value. I think of these moments as “vignettes”—snapshots of the story world or the characters’ lives. In my book Structuring Your Novel, I discuss Swain’s terms “incident” and “happening” for two different types of vignettes. Basically, these are story moments that are not intended to create obvious conflict or tension. They are often description-heavy and may summarize as much as they dramatize. (A montage in a movie may be used to create the effect of a vignette.)

Recognizing and using a vignette in your story allows you to include little moments or extra information that may not explicitly advance your plot but still offer interest and context to readers. However, even though vignettes will necessarily stand a little apart from the rest of your story (unless you’re telling highly literary or experimental fiction entirely comprised of vignettes), their presence in the story still needs to accomplish a specific aim. For example, a vignette that simply shows a couple sharing a happy day together may not directly impact the plot, but it should still supply either important information or context, subtext, or contrast that deepens the audience’s relationship to the rest of the plot.

Needless to say, without direct access to the story’s conflict, tension, action, and reaction, vignettes must artfully employ other techniques to keep audiences engaged.

***

Variety is the spice of stories. Understanding the many types of scenes and how you can approach them in your story can help you create nuanced layers for your audience’s enjoyment.

Stay Tuned: Next week, we will dive into “5 Tips to Make Happy Scenes Interesting.”

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What types of scenes have you been writing lately? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in Apple Podcast or Amazon Music).

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Awesome! I love that you’re doing this. It’s like I’ve received a great gift that I didn’t even know I wanted. My scenes tend to flip between heavy action and heavy reaction, and I see a definite opportunity to round out my repertoire. I’d also add that “happy” scenes are something I need to work on. I think one thing that’s easy to overlook is that if you have a likeable MC, readers will like finding out something good happened to them every now and then, and not just at the end. I’d also never considered your more expansive definition of a scene as something that could occur across scene breaks or even chapter breaks (though never in Pratchett). Big thanks here!

  2. Nick Nichols says

    Great, great post. This is so very helpful. To me, writing scenes is one of the most vital and practical skills. Plus, I’m a huge proponent of the Dwight Swain approach. Thank you very much!

  3. Oh, I like this. I think a happy scene is also vital for creating tension, especially in a story where the survival of the characters isn’t guaranteed, e.g., horror story. In the eye of the storm a couple might reminisce on how they met, or plan their future wedding: Will they live to have their wedding?

    Or is the very act of planning for a joyful future sufficient to tempt fate — “I’m going to retire in a few days” dooms cops in action movies. An episode of “Endeavor” got a lot of mileage with imperiling a young cop who had just gotten engaged and was about to leave the force to go to America with his bride-to-be.

    I have a reflection scene that occurs after two lifelong friends have just committed to undertake a dangerous mission. They laugh about an unsuitable admirer one of them has – “I will not be ex-wife number three” – and speculate on what kind of future the other one will have with her betrothed. They express gratitude about life lessons an elder taught them, and decide to put their affairs in order by thanking that elder in one case, and preparing to do an act of kindness to another friend in a different case.

    I used their stop-and-smell-the-roses moment to show what’s at stake for the duo if they fail their mission. If they die they will be missed, and if they live it’s a triumph. Definitely don’t skimp on those scenes.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Indeed. “Happy” scenes and the like are crucial for building tension. They show us what is at stake in scenes in which the character’s goals and evolution are putting that status quo at risk.

  4. I agree with Andy that this looks like a great series! I guess because I’m writing romance most of the time, I split scenes between POVs, like you said. I tend to write action/reaction scenes, but, since I’m working on a romantic suspense at the moment, I’m definitely writing tension/conflict scenes. I tend to write my happy parts as reactions to conflict, whether it’s a lover’s spat or finding a body.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, knowing what type of scenes (and pacing) is right for your genre is important.

  5. Rick Dyer says

    I feel more than a little foolish. I’ve always thought of both Action and Reaction as plot elements (i.e. something happened and then something else happened because of that). Maybe I should blame Swain for my misunderstanding. This article has created a “Eureka” moment for me and a whole new perspective.

    Every time I feel I’m getting a handle on this “writing thing”, you send out another post that makes me realize how much more I have to learn.

    Can’t thank you enough.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Of course, action and reaction are elements that occur at all levels of story. They’re major aspects of story structure, as well as scene structure, and even sentence structure.

  6. Victoria Leo says

    It’s been a fun few weeks, of posts directly related to what I’m doing. Love this one, with scene types, especially breaks and pauses, including when the characters assess their decisions they just made. I realized that, with all the drama of my plots, I seem to unconsciously insert some badinage or humor, even just a short vignette, to give the adrenal glands a break. So I can see myself in there. And I see other techniques I can use – thank you.

    I had to laugh at last week’s number of characters title – just reading the title. I have a universe of multiple species, planets, and there is some group of individuals moving the plot forward (sometimes with a little funny vignette after an assassination attempt, etc.), so looked at holistically, I have a lot of named characters. No one gets named unless they move the plot forward and some have important but unrecurring parts. But the point about not dumping a ton of names in the space of a short time, especially not in the first chapters, reassured me. I dribble the cast, not dump them, and I assume no one can remember who’s what species so I have some reminders (he wacked the deck with his tail, reminds you that this is a Fareha).

    Just finishing book 7/the end of the series/ and I can only say, the next series will be better because of these articles. Thank you, professor! LOL

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “I assume no one can remember who’s what species so I have some reminders (he wacked the deck with his tail, reminds you that this is a Fareha).”

      Smart! This is a great technique when dealing with a large cast and/or cast members who don’t show up in every chapter.

      (This is referencing last week’s vid on YouTube, in case anyone is wondering: How Many Characters Are Too Many?

  7. Heather Willis says

    Thanks for this post. I’ve been wondering how I can write longer sequels for my scenes. Maybe my characters just aren’t developed enough in my own head, but I tend to write LONG scenes (goal/conflict/disaster part) and then have my characters spend much less time reflecting on what happened (reaction/dilemma) before deciding what to do next (decision). I’m a very goal-oriented person, so this is the way I tend to approach situations. How can I move away from this in my writing and thus give my characters more time to develop and control my pacing better? Thank you!

  8. Sandy Day says

    Fantastic post. I look forward to the happy scene details next week because the resolution of a positive ending novel is made up of a bunch of “happy” scenes. My latest ends with a New Year’s Eve party, for example.

  9. Before I read any further, I’d like to address Elena. I think of The Silly Song from Disney’s Snow White as an example of a downright happy scene, but there is clearly conflict in it. Grumpy correcting his organ, Bashful’s reluctance to sing, his and Happy’s lyrics indicating their unusual issues, Dopey’s battle with the fly and Sneezy’s conclusive interruption of the music by an immense sneeze.
    Talking and getting to know one another as lovers needs not be absent of conflict, either. The movie When Harry Met Sally does not just have the two at war with each other. They share the pain they arrive at from their individual lives.
    As for traveling, there will be little chance of avoiding conflict. Language barriers, culture shock, conversion rates, getting lost, not to mention the tedium of packing. Wouldn’t you say what makes all of this happy is in it being a worthwhile experience?
    IMHO, your best bet here is to show the lie that your characters believe in action, and the threats looming over them that pops the bubble of paradise. He sees his ex-girlfriend at the carnival and tries to lead them away without telling her, she hears an odd creaking in the rollercoaster that scares her (don’t worry, it always does that), etc.

  10. Alright, let me try.
    Goal: Timmy wins a tanuki plushie out of a crane machine, by all appearances, the last one in it.
    Conflict: His brother wrestles the tanuki out of his arms. Timmy screams for his mommy, who runs over and…
    Outcome (disaster): Puts two and two together, giving the toy back to Timmy and grounding the brother.
    Reaction: Timmy is with his friend Steve in this scene. Steve says, “you really got it, didn’t you?” Timmy: “Within 24 hours. Pay up. A bet’s a bet.”
    Dilemma: Steve excuses himself a moment and finds his elder sister. Steve: “Thank goodness. Listen, you’ve got to give me 20 bucks. I got you out of being grounded.” Sister: “I was innocent to begin with!”
    Decision: Sister: “But whatever. For 20 bucks, you owe me the next time I get in trouble.” Steve: “You can count on it.”
    Thus begins my newfound respect for Dwight Swain.

  11. Elena S. says

    Thank you so much for addressing my question about happy scenes! And, as I was working on my book today, I came up with another question, which this post answers – does each segment of a scene (separated by scene breaks, as in breaks within a scene, not different scenes) has to have a full beat structure. Thank you!

  12. This was helpful. I’ve been struggling with a training scene in my sword-and-sorcery work-in-progress. There was no real “disaster” moment. My main character is gaining skills that he will need latter while the audience is learning key facts about the magic system.
    After this episode of the podcast, I’m thinking the training “scene” is more a vignette than a scene.

  13. This was helpful, as was your wonderful “structure” book. I have two questions which I didn’t see answered in either:

    – Assuming I am following the scene/sequel pattern, but I am following three independent (for now) characters A, B, and C. Is there a “proper way” to order them? (e.g. switch characters after scene? after sequel? mix it up? anything goes?). To be more concrete 1) A’s scene, B’s scene, C’s scene, A’s sequel, B’s sequel, C’s sequel … OR 2) A’s scene+sequel, B’s scene+sequel, C’s scene+sequel. Ideal the answer is “anything goes” because I have a time order

    – Question 2) Is there any “right way” that says key scenes (inciting, key, 1st plot pt, 1st pinch ..) should fall in scenes or sequels?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Wonderful to hear you enjoyed Structuring Your Novel!

      In answer to your questions…

      1. No, there’s no right way. Pacing will be a big concern, as will causality, but you can intersperse sequels and scenes amongst POVs as needed.

      2. Often, the big scenes will end up being “scene sequences” that span multiple scene/sequel units. However, if you’re streamlining things, then the main thrust of the major plot points is one of action, so they are most properly dramatized in “scenes” rather than “sequels.”

  14. Thanks for this post, very very helpful! I was just wondering, can you leave one scene at the disaster moment for one POV character, switch to a new scene for a different POV character, and come back to the reaction part of the first scene for POV 1? I.e., is it okay for two different POVs to have their own structural scenes woven through each other? Or is it better for the scenes to flow sequentially? I.e., wrap up one structural scene before moving to the next structural scene?

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