Incidents and Happenings: Scenes That Aren’t Actually Scenes

After our recent (and lengthy) discussion of scene structure, it might seem that everything that happens in a book must be tied down hard and fast within that framework. But what about when something that happens in your story doesn’t seem to fit into the goal/conflict/disaster paradigm of the scene? What if something happens (and needs to happen) that doesn’t create conflict and doesn’t end in disaster? What if whatever happens isn’t a direct result of any of the major players’ goals?

As always, there are exceptions to the rule. Before we move entirely away from our discussion of scenes, I’d like to share two of the more prominent of those exceptions: incidents and happenings.

What is an incident?

An incident is a sort of abortive scene, in which your character attempts to reach a goal. But he meets with no resistance, no conflict.—Dwight V. Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer

Much as we want to keep our protagonists in hot water most of the time, it’s just not going to be practicable to thwart him at every turn. His every goal can’t end in disaster. Sometimes he’s going to get exactly what he wants. Let’s say you have a detective character who needs to dig up some info about his suspect. He goes downtown to talk to his old mentor, a retired cop. They settle in for coffee, chew their toothpicks, and the young cop acts on his goal of discovering the needed information by asking his mentor to tell him what he knows.

You could very well turn this into a full-blown scene. Maybe the old cop doesn’t want to spill. Maybe he’s scared, maybe he’s corrupt, or maybe he’s just ticked off at the young cop for any number of reasons. Now you’ve got conflict, and when the scene ends with the old cop refusing to share the needed info, threatening the young cop, or maybe getting gunned down by a watchful mobster, then you’ve got a disaster—and a full-scale scene.

It’s a good scene and may well be worth considering. But maybe you have other plans for these two characters. Maybe this needs to be just a quickie encounter and you don’t want to spend any more time on it than you have to. So you have the old cop tell the young cop what he needs to know, and the younger cop then moves on to encounter both conflict and disaster in the next scene.

What is a happening?

A happening brings people together. But it’s non-dramatic, because no goal or conflict is involved.—Ditto

Not everything that happens in a novel is going to be fraught with conflict. Sometimes a casual meeting between people is necessary to introduce characters, information, or maybe just to serve as a distraction (for either the protagonist or the readers) from something more important that’s going on. You can’t blow up every exchange of pleasantries into a full-blown scene. Both your word count and your melodrama would shoot off the charts.

Maybe your young cop is on his way up to talk to the chief of police when he meets a fatally beautiful blonde in the elevator. This is an important encounter, since, in a few chapters, that blonde is going to become both his love interest and a key witness within the investigation. But for now, all you want to do is plant the indication that she’s going to play an important role. She drops her poodle, he picks it up for her, she bats her eyes, and they exchange a few words. Then the elevator stops and she sashays off. End of happening.

Again, you could turn this into a full-blown scene with all the trimmings. Goal: Young cop wants to make a favorable impression on beautiful blonde. Conflict: Bad poodle bites young cop, for which beautiful blonde blames young cop. Disaster: Young cop attempts to apologize, beautiful blonde smacks him one, and then sashays off the elevator, bad poodle tucked firmly under her arm.

All of this might also be worth a consideration, since it could lead your story in some interesting directions. But you have to determine if that direction is one you really want to explore. If not, a happening, which allows the characters to meet briefly and then frees the protagonist to pursue the true arc of the scene, may be better suited to keeping the story moving right along.

At first glance, incidents and happenings can both appear to be scenes. But their brevity and their lack of conflict are indications of their true nature. Don’t take their inability to fulfill the demands of scene structure as something prohibitive. But do recognize them for what they are and use them sparingly and with care.

Tell me your opinion: What was the latest incident or happening you included in your WIP?

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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. Thank you for your series on scenes and sequels. It has done so much for me. I have read Swain, Ingermanson, and Butcher on the subject and tried to understand. But I was always still lost at the end of the day. Your timing was perfect for my WIP. I’ve finished my outline (thanks also for your book on outlining) and with you series have been able to determine scene vs. sequel content for each scene.
    Now the hardest part, trying to implement these great techniques into a story that is fun to read.
    Thank you so very much.

  2. I have really enjoyed your series on scene structure and last year’s on story structure. I’m now a K.M. addict 🙂 Though I bought it last year, I’ve just started reading Outlining. Loving your flexible, inclusive techniques. I used to think of myself as a pantser, and to a large extent I still discover through the writing, but I now realize that I have been plotting all along – journals and notebooks. I always know where I want to go, the major incidents, and the ending before I start. It’s a relief to know that I’m part of the plotter paradigm!
    Thanks for everything!

  3. @Thomas: So glad the series was helpful to you in getting the hang of scene structure!

    @Melanie: The great thing about outlining vs. pantsing is that it really isn’t the either/or approach most people originally think it is. Our best approach is always going to be whatever combo makes us most productive.

  4. As always, your posts are very helpful. Thank you for covering this. Sometimes I have ‘happenings’ like this and I stress their lack of conflict, but as you say, they further the plot. Thanks again.

  5. Great series! I’ve learned so much. I’m grateful for today’s instalment, because all along the way, as I’ve been soaking in the teaching I’ve been thinking “yeah but sometimes some just needs to happen that doesn’t fit this structure.” You’ve now answered that for me.

  6. @Jennifer: Incidents and happenings are things we often stick in our stories instinctively, knowing with our gut that they’re right, but doubting with our minds, since we’ve had the need for conflict harped on so often. So it’s helpful to recognize them for what they are and realize their unique functions.

    @Adam: It’s those niggling “yeah, buts” that create most of the confusion in story structure discussions. Once we get them figured out, all the pieces just slide in place.

  7. I worried that this recent ‘scene’ I wrote was either not written well or was perhaps superfluous. But I see now that it is actually an incident. There is no conflict, beyond the fact that the new character – who appears only in these few hundred words of story – initially refuses the villain entry into his home. But in the end, the villain’s goals are fulfilled, and he continues on his way. It is a necessary piece of the story, and to leave it out would require telling rather than showing. That didn’t seem right either. I’m so relieved to find out I wrote it correctly, and that it can stay. Hooray!

  8. Usually, incidents and happenings are better off as short segments, since they do lack much of the forward momentum of full-blown Scenes. But, as always, this is something that each author will have to feel out within each individual situation.

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  10. Great post, as always. As you said, there was a certain need to reduce the melodrama of the plot by inserting a few happenings. But I have a doubt that how long can those happenings be, to keep them safe enough so that it doesn’t bore the readers?

  11. I loved this post! Sometimes, happenings and incidents are ideed necessary. Conflict isn´t there all the time, and it can help to rise the tension too.

  12. Incidents and happenings. I think I will pay attention to my own life today and try to divide all that occurs into those two catagories. As always K.M you are a wealth.

  13. Could incidents sometimes frame a scene? In my memoir I wrote an incident (playing with my niece and nephews in the backyard) then I go into the kitchen where I wrestle with the idea of how hopeless my life is (at the time I was suicidal/depressed and dealing with memories of abuse). I start to cook dinner. After I wash the paring knife, I contemplate using the knife to slice a vein in my wrist lengthwise. My nephew races through the kitchen to use the bathroom. I drop the knife, realizing it wouldn’t be fair to my niece and nephews for me to kill myself where they would discover my bloody mess. I then interact with nephew, and resolve to do myself in when I am alone.

    Needless to say I am alive now and healed from this debilitating depression, but the scene is more powerful I feel because it is surrounded by incidents.

    Thanks for your helpful posts. I save many of them for future reference.

    Heather

  14. @hariprasad: Incidents and happenings will almost always be short. Although there should always be a ribbon of tension in these episodes (same as in a sequel) to keep readers’ glued to the page, you still won’t want to waste time with either of these partial scenes. Do what needs doing, then get back to the conflict.

    @Meryl: Although incidents and happenings start out feeling like scenes, they’re actually an extension of the reactive sequel phase, in which tension takes precedence over conflict. So you’re exactly right: they’re great for raising tension.

    @Donna: What a great exercise!

    @Heather: Absolutely. In fact, incidents and happenings will almost always be frames. They’re like little bridges extending the space between the sequel and the scene. BTW, so glad to hear you’re doing better these days!

  15. As an opener to my novel, my MC comes across something that horrifies him and runs away. It’s not something he would actively look for and he’s not actively avoiding it either. It could be a consequence of something, but that doesn’t seem right.

    In essence, it’s a disaster without the goal or the conflict. Is that OK?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Opening chapters very often begin with a disaster. It sets the stage and lets readers see the character’s progression from reaction to new goal. As long as the events leading up the opening disaster make sense in retrospect, you should be fine.

  16. With happening and incidents it is my belief that they still need to have conflict and disaster but it will only be subtle and with very low stake.

    For example. a police speaks with the chief of police at the bar to get information is his goal. there is no real conflict it seems just two guys conversing at the bar. But there really is and should be. perhaps his goal is to get some information from the chief of police, the conflict could be that the chief of police is hesitant. A disaster could be that he tells him some of the things he needs to know but not all of it because he has to go suddenly or he gets drunk and passes out or lost memory or it hurts too much to think of it and he won’t. There is still conflict and disaster, only difference is that it will be kept brief and not dwelled on for too long.

    The example of the protagonist meeting a girl in a lift. He is astounded about her beauty.. perhaps she could be a love interest at another point in the story.. she leaves without any interaction.. seems like just something that happened. But we can still as some conflict and disaster no matter how subtle. it still leaves an impact. for example. for conflict the protagonist may have an inner thought of how he felt like talking to her but he was gripped with anxiety. the disaster could be she left before he managed to say a word even though he felt he really should have said something.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s true that the differentiation between “conflict” and “no conflict” is a pretty fluid one. Optimally there’s tension in every scene and lots of subtext underneath even the most ordinary of situations. But sometimes we do actually serve the story better with “half” scenes, such as incidents and happenings, in which events are portrayed quickly without the usual structure of goal/conflict/disaster.

  17. Irrevenant says

    Does it make sense to integrate happenings and incidents into *other* scenes?

    For example, meeting the blonde in the lift. You gave examples of how that could be turned into a full-fledged scene *about* the blonde, but would it be more efficient to feature her in a scene about something else? He’s trying to evade the bad guys so he slips nonchalantly into the elevator to escape and helps the blonde with her dog before getting off. Or whatever.

    Is that a good idea or should each have its own space?

  18. In working on my scene outline, I have a very long incident, in which my characters finally put most of the clues together and get all the info they think they need; no conflict there. It’s still a pretty tense scene, though. Is it possible to have a sequel at the end of only a happening, with a reaction, dilemma, decision and all that, even though there is no disaster?

    Madi

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