4 Reasons You’re Confused About Scene Structure (With Examples)

4 Reasons You're Confused About Scene Structure (With Examples)Scene structure is the backbone of strong narrative storytelling. Built properly, scenes effortlessly link one to another to create a chain of give and take, cause and effect, action and reaction, question and answer.

The whole point of scene structure is to create an ebb and flow that mimics how humans balance forward momentum with the necessary introspection to process that momentum (another analogy might be: extroversion and introversion).

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165

Classic scene structure (as I discuss in my book Structuring Your Novel) looks like this:

Part 1: Scene (Action)

a. Goal (character wants something on the scene level that will ultimately help him reach his overall plot goal—and he tries to get it)

b. Conflict (character is met with an obstacle to obtaining his goal)

c. Outcome (usually disastrous, in the sense that the character does not achieve the goal or achieves only part of it)

Part 2: Sequel (Reaction)

a. Reaction (character reacts to the outcome)

b. Dilemma (character must figure out  how to overcome the new complications and still move forward toward his main plot goal)

c. Decision (character decides upon a new scene goal to cope with the new complications and move forward toward the main plot goal in a—hopefully—more effective way)

>>For an even more complete discussion of scene structure, see my series How to Structure Scenes in Your Story.

5 Reasons You’re Confused About Scenes and Sequels

I receive a lot of questions from writers who seem to be confused about scene structure, but in fact, know a lot more than they’re giving themselves credit for. Here are five important facts about scene structure that can help you stop overthinking the process.

1. Structural Scenes Have Nothing to Do With Scene Breaks

Let’s just get this one out of the way right at the start: a structural scene is one that includes all of the structural pieces mentioned above. It has nothing to do with the popular concept of scene as a portion of the story divided from the rest of the story by a scene break or chapter break.

Several structural scenes can reside within one chapter or “scene.” Or a single structural scene can span many chapters.

>>More on that in this post: 7 Questions You Have About Scenes vs. Chapters.

2. Scene Structure Isn’t Always Exact

Even if you’ve already mastered the basics, scene structure remains a complex subject if only because it isn’t always a rock-solid principle. The idea is to create an overall framework within your story that follows this give and take of scene and sequel. But this doesn’t necessarily mean every single moment within your story must nail every one of these beats.

The various parts of scenes and sequels will often bleed over into one another, sometimes expanding, sometimes compressing, sometimes combining. It’s an often intuitive dance that authors have to be confident enough to feel their way through.

3. “Incidents” and “Happenings” Don’t Follow Proper Structure

Sometimes you’ll write a “scene” that doesn’t follow proper structure at all, but is still necessary to the story. If you’re trying to religiously follow proper scene structure, this may have you freaking out.

Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. SwainBut actually, it’s totally acceptable to write the occasional scene that does not include the above-mentioned integers of proper structure. In Techniques of the Selling Author, the late great Dwight V. Swain defines two possible approaches:

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.

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

You’ll want to use incidents and happenings sparingly and with care, since too many of them will quickly derail the forward progress of your plot. But neither should you be afraid of including them where necessary.

>>Find out more here: Incidents and Happenings: Scenes That Aren’t Actually Scenes.

4. Scenes and Sequels Can Be as Big or as Small as You Want

Harking back to the beginning of this section, your scenes and sequels can be so big they span many chapters or so small there are several of them within a single chapter.

This is especially true of the sequel portion of the structure. Very often, in the heat of action, characters will experience a disastrous outcome, immediately process their reaction, face the dilemma, come to a decision, and begin acting upon a new goal—all within the space of a few sentences. Indeed, the whole concept of action/reaction can be found in “Motivation-Reaction Units” on the sentence level.

>>Find out more about Motivation-Reaction Units (or MRUs) here: Motivation-Reaction Units: Cracking the Code of Good Writing

So, although you don’t need to particularly worry about the size of your scenes/sequels, there are two key things to keep in mind:

1. With few exceptions, you want to make sure all the pieces of the structure are present (at least implicitly), no matter how short or long your scene/sequel.

2. Scene structure controls your story’s pacing. Rapid-fire scene/sequel pairings, or even lengthy scenes with short sequels, will contribute to a fast pace. Longer scene/sequels or disproportionately longer sequel segments will slow down your pacing. You’ll want a good mix of both options.

The Thematic Way to Approach Scene Structure

Most of the questions I receive about scene structure are from writers who understand the structural aspect but are trying too hard to make it “perfect.” There’s no need to obsess about your scene structure. It’s there as yet another of those infamously piratical “guidelines.”

Pirates of the Caribbean Barbossa Geoffrey Rush More What You'd Call Guidelines

Solid scene structure throughout your story will help you create a cohesive narrative, in which you never have to wonder whether or not a scene is necessary or causal. But don’t feel there’s no room to breathe, to flex, or to let the narrative itself dictate the ebb and flow.

Previously, I talked about how one way to look at scene/sequel is to think of them as question/answer. Today, I’m going to give you yet another helpful analogy, this one inspired by a John Truby talk I listened to last year.

Scene = Action

Sequel = Lesson

I like this view because it emphasizes the importance of the sequel. We all get that stuff is supposed to happen in a story—action is supposed to happen, goals are supposed to be pursued.

But that’s not enough. And that is where scene structure becomes so powerful in linking plot structure with character arc. With this in mind, we could reinterpret the original approach to scene structure more like this:

Part 1: Scene (Action)

a. Goal (character wants something but tries to achieve it in a way that isn’t fully informed by the thematic Truth)

b. Conflict (because the character is not yet mentally or spiritually equipped to understand how to pursue his goal with the Truth-empowered tools he needs to accomplish it—he meets obstacles, which he either partially created himself and/or simply failed to recognize)

c. Outcome (when the character fails—partially or wholly—to reach his scene goal, he is presented with the opportunity for growth and learning)

Part 2: Sequel (Reaction/Lesson)

a. Reaction (character reacts to the outcome with the growing realization that his Lie-based tactics are failing him)

b. Dilemma (character is presented with the opportunity to learn from his failure: not just how to do better next time, but, more importantly why did he fail this time?)

c. Decision (depending on his thematic arc, the character will either learn something about his Truth or further reject it—and form a new plot goal that will help him act accordingly)

>>For more on character arcs, see: How to Write Character Arcs (Complete Series)

What Scene Structure Looks Like in Action

Once you know what scene and sequel look like, you’ll start spotting them in all your favorite books and movies.

Rule of thumb: whenever a character looks confused and/or suddenly has that “I got it!” look in his eyes, he’s probably in the midst of a sequel.

Not long ago, Wordplayer Becky Jones Fettig  requested:

I would love to see a scene from one of KM’s books dissected into the Scene and Sequel format for instruction purposes. Is that possible something KM?

Sure thing!

Below you’ll find an interplay of several different segments of scenes and sequels within a single chapter from my historical/dieselpunk novel Storming. (For context, you can read the story summary here.) I’ve created images of the text below, which you can enlarge by clicking on them.

Storming Chapter 16 Page 1

 Storming Chapter 16 Page 2

Storming Chapter 16 Page 3

Storming Chapter 16 Page 4

Storming Chapter 16 Page 5

Storming Chapter 16 Page 6

What Should Your Book Outline Look Like Free Download of Complete Outlining Transcript of Storming by K.M. Weiland

Scene structure offers writers a reliable set of guidelines for crafting scenes that work. Understanding the interplay between scene and sequel can also help you open up the vast options for enhancing them within your plot and theme.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How do you feel about scene structure? Tell me in the comments!

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

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

Email:
About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

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. Robert Billing says:

    I find that there is a complication with the basic structure. Rather that wanting to achieve something, the character is mainly concerned with with finding out just what the seven bells is going on, and then deciding what they want to achieve.

    From “Love in the Afterlife”

    He punched the pillow, made himself comfortable. There were such things as lucid dreams, where the dreamer could take control, and this was going to be one of them.
    In seconds he was asleep again, then sitting in the back seat of the Volvo as Alistair got out again to tackle the gunman.
    He turned, heard a rustle, looked down and saw a long, green skirt.
    “Right, that does it,” he snapped. “Who are you, and what am I doing in your body?”
    “Oh gosh,” came the reply, “thank you ever so much. I’ve been waiting simply ages for you to ask.”

  2. Very helpful to see this applied to an actual chapter. Thank you. (And I may have to go re-read Storming soon… this reminded me how much fun it was.)

  3. Eric Troyer says:

    Great column and loved the dissection!

  4. I must have missed the post on `Incidents and Happenings’ when you first put it up, so I’m happy it was linked now. I’ve had some incidents in my current (rather lengthy) sequel scene where Skete and Gar start making a connection and developing some trust for each other. Not the kind of thing you can leave out, but not exactly fraught with peril, either. 🙂

  5. Very helpful post, Katie. 🙂 Scene structure was something I originally shied away from the same way I avoided outlines and charts and anything else that tried to box storytelling into a logical process, but I’ve since realized the value.
    I think a lot of writers starting out tend to view structural tools like this as catch-all magical fixes, where you follow the formula and instantly create magic. I know I did, which is why I avoided them— I knew it couldn’t be that easy. Not to mention my brain doesn’t work linearly or step-by-step, and I knew if I tried to put my stories in that kind of structure I’d be putting myself into unfamiliar territory.
    But I came to see that this system is like all others— not something to be taken at face value, but something to be understood for where it comes from and recognized for the understanding it can bring. All systems come from somewhere. They’re all built on real patterns. Recognizing those patterns and putting the knowledge to use is the trick. 😉

    I may have something helpful to add… the way I like to think of scene structure is like a maze. There are hallways and then there are rooms. The hallways lead to the rooms, and the rooms open out into more hallways. The hallways— going straight and even— are the action sequences. The rooms— full of character and color and life, where you can just stop and soak it all in— are the reaction sequences, and what you find in each room dictates which door you leave by when you go, stepping into the next hallway, etc.
    It’s been a helpful, slightly more abstract/holistic way of viewing it for me as a person who has trouble with step-by-step thinking. 😛

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “All systems come from somewhere. They’re all built on real patterns. Recognizing those patterns and putting the knowledge to use is the trick.”

      Exactly!

      I like your hallway/room analogy. It aligns well with the idea of scenes/scene sequences–the latter being a chain of several scenes linking together to form a larger thematic episode within the overall plot.

    • Intuition is just pattern-matching, so I’d emphasize to anyone who don’t want to be boxed in by “formulas” or “logic” that it is primarily an intuitive process. Learning structure just allows you to know when you are weaving a pattern rather than adding random knots in the fabric.

    • The hallway/room analogy is so help to me! I do have trouble using the hard, analytical terms when I’m creating. To me, the rules are a check for what I’ve already produced, more so than a starting point for how to create. And it’s for precisely this reason that I appreciate an analogy that brings in the “feel’ of what I am trying to do, structurally, without distracting me with labels. I would compare this to an athlete finding a certain mental image more helpful in the moment than the abstract rules of physics that actually govern the action. There is very much a place for both.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Mastering writing–or anything, really–is all about harmonizing logic with emotion, conscious with subconscious. If logic is overpowering feeling, then one or the other of them is out of balance.

        • Totally! It’s precisely because I like rules that I have to learn how to operate without consciously relying on them — otherwise, the rules take over. Actually, I wrote my law school admissions essay on a similar line of thought, about how thorough mastery of the rules enables intuitive action in the moment.

  6. This is such an excellent and reassuring post! I had been stressing recently about not being able to see clearly where the scene and sequel components are in my WIP. I’m a more intuitive writer in that I tend to play things by ear- I use structure, but I don’t consciously plan it out. Also, I had never realized that the “scenes” of scene structure didn’t have to correspond to the “scenes” as we normally think of them. That makes complete sense, though, and hopefully means my scene structure isn’t as lacking as I originally thought.

  7. Daeus Lamb says:

    Personally, I hope that one day we will be able to replace the terminology of scene and sequel since they seem perfectly worded to confuse people. I now use the terms action sequence and reaction sequence, but I guess I still have to convince the rest of the world to use the same terms. *sigh*

  8. Oh, Katie, I always love your posts! I have so many of them pinned to my browser, it takes up half my tab space! But if I don’t do that, I spend too much time searching for remembered posts when looking for specific guidance.

    Anyway, today’s post about scene structure gave me a major ah-ha moment I thought I’d share: I tend to straddle chapters with a partial Reactive phase. I go through the reaction and dilemma, but stop before the decision, carrying it over to the next chapter.

    Nothing inherently wrong with that, I don’t think, except it makes me open a new chapter backtracking with internals about the old cycle (basically a rehash of the Reaction phase) instead of moving forward on the new goal.

    The straddle may still end chapters sometimes–it comes so naturally to me–but I’ll be cognizant of delving right into the decision and new goal at the beginning of the next chapter, keeping the pace and forward momentum going strong.

    I’m so excited to implement this “new” knowledge! If it’s as impactful for me as your Secrets of Story Structure, I’ll owe you such a debt of gratitude. THANK YOU.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      One of my favorite approaches is opening chapters with the reaction phase. Not only does it allow for a quick, unobtrusive recap, but it lets me end the previous chapter with a great hook thanks to the previous scene’s disaster.

  9. I think it was this very topic that brought me to your site a few years ago. Nice to see it updated with linking plot to the character arc.

  10. Ms. Albina says:

    Good article, in my lotus story she heard she has an arranged marriage then will meet the guy she marries.

  11. Ms. Albina says:

    Lotus was outside her parents door listening to what was said. “An arranged marriage,”

    “What?!” Lotus shouted. Then went to her parents to see if it was true.

    This is one scene for the Lotus story. Good?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      As long as Lotus has a goal in listening, then you’ve got the complete structure of the scene half.

      • Ms. Albina says:

        Lotus does not want to get to get married so she will tell her parent yet even though she will get married before her next birthday.

  12. You must be psychic, my dear.

    Just recently I had an, “Aha!” moment and was looking for the time to organize my thoughts and write you – then you pegged it in point #1.

    I’d understood the MRU’s, but had a hard time fitting them well to what I’d written. That’s when I realized that ‘scene’ had a different meaning. Perhaps we should use a different term – I’ve call them ‘story threads’ and others ‘subplots.’

    I envision a series of threads, some short and others long, that when bound together made a rope that was the story. Threads that co-exist at the same time may run parallel or they may touch and interact with each other.

    I got confused trying to match my definition of ‘scene’ with the MRU structure because my scenes (or perhaps chapters) can have many things going on. Just like real life, even in one room at one time, there can be several stories playing out. I take great satisfaction when I can write one of these ‘scenes’ that blends the events together.

    The one I’m writing at the moment is of the MC attending his cousin’s 18th birthday party. It opens up right where the previous chapter left off, as he’s trying to apologize to his girlfriend for eyeing up the waitress at lunch a few days before. Then his cousin tells him of the unexpected activity his girlfriend gave him as a present. The MC asks his cousin’s girlfriend to back him up in his spat, but she calls him an idiot. They have a chat which explores some of her backstory and sets up future interactions, and two other characters in the room are together in a way that very subtly suggests what’s revealed many chapters later. Finally, his girlfriend scolds him about wanting to listen to the final game if the baseball season instead, which leads into a discussion of fandom.

    Perhaps five items touched on, each with their own scene structure, some long, some short – woven together in a single chapter.

    PS I’ve mentioned before about Frasier where several seemingly disparate events are always pulled together for the climax of the episode.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, you raise another good point that I probably should have mentioned in the post: scenes can be interwoven with other scenes. This is particularly obvious when you have multiple POV characters. One character’s structural scene may be carried over several chapters while the second character’s POV intervenes.

  13. Ms. Albina says:

    Lotus does not want to get to get married so she will tell her parents.

  14. Are all scenes followed by a sequel?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, although the sequel can sometimes be very brief and/or be interrupted by another character’s POV.

Trackbacks

  1. […] reminds us that a great story is more than a string of interesting events, K.M. Weiland lists 4 reasons you’re confused about scene structure, C.S. Lakin explains the dark night moment, and Sara Ridley examines 10 ways to end your […]

  2. […] https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/scene-structure-2/ Incidents and happenings are sometimes necessary instead of the standard scene and sequel. This article discusses all. […]

Speak Your Mind

*