A New Way To Structure Your Story's Scenes

A New Way to Think About Scene Structure

A New Way To Structure Your Story's ScenesStories live and die on their scene structure. A great plot—even a well-structured great plot—won’t be able to stand if its individual scenes are floundering with no clear sense of purpose and direction in the overall story.

Dwight V. Swain engineered the classic approach to scene structure, which breaks down each scene into integers of action and reaction—or, as Swain calls them, scene and sequel.

Each of those halves is then broken down further into three parts each (scene: goal, conflict, disaster; sequel: reaction, dilemma, decision). This approach creates a solid chain of cause and effect that ensures each piece is integral in driving your overall plot forward.

The Overall Scene Structure by Better Novel Project

But it’s not the only way to think about scene structure.

Today, I’m going to show you a secondary scene structure tool you can bring in as a support for Swain’s comprehensive, but occasionally mechanical overview of your story’s most fundamental building blocks.

What if We Thought of Scene Structure As a Series of Questions and Answers?

So there I was, sitting outside at my rustic writing table (before the weather got too cold, of course), working on my scene outline for my portal fantasy sequel Dreambreaker. As always when mapping out scenes, I was paying strict attention to the six parts of Swain’s scene structure.

11-writing-outside-in-the-indian-summer

The view from above when I’m figuring out scene structure in my outline.

The protagonist’s goal must, of course, be obstructed by pertinent conflict, which must then lead to a directly related scene outcome/disaster. Everything’s connected in a beautiful straight line.

Except for when it’s not.

In the helter-skelter of real-time plots, in which you’ve likely got two or three different aspects of conflict all happening concurrently, it can be incredibly easy to fumble the continuity of a scene, despite the fabulous tools offered by Swain’s method.

As I mentally worked through one such complicated scene, I caught myself pondering, “What question is this scene asking?”

Boom.

I immediately sat back and realized this idea had given me the ability to look at each scene through an entirely different perspective.

One of the easiest ways to make sure any scene’s opening gambit is a direct line leading through the intermediary chaos of any number of conflicts straight to a pertinent scene climax is—you guessed it—to make sure the question raised in the scene’s beginning is the same question that finds an answer in the scene’s end.

The Writer's Guide to Beginnings by Paula MunierThis whole concept was reinforced in Paula Munier’s fantastic new book The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings (about which I’m still a little giddy over getting to write a cover blurb for), in which she refers to scene-level questions as “meso questions” to distinguish them from macro-level plot questions and micro-level questions that appear anywhere and everywhere in the narrative. She suggests:

When you make your scene list, identify the meso story question for each scene. This will help you remember what each scene is all about and what you need to accomplish in that scene.

What Is a “Scene Structure Question”?

On one level, we might posit that a story itself is in fact a question. Generally, this question is “What’s going to happen?When this question finds its definitive answer in the story’s climax, the story is over.

That same pattern is repeated, on a smaller level, in every scene.

The question you need to be asking at the beginning of every scene is: “What’s going to happen?” But, of course, to be useful, you must then refine this question into something unique to each specific scene.

For example, if we look at some of the scenes in Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, we find these obvious scene questions:

  • Will Mr. Bennett introduce himself to the eligible Mr. Bingley?
Pride and Prejudice 2005 Donald Sutherland

Jane Austen’s scene structure in the beginning of Pride & Prejudice asks, “Will Mr. Bennett meet Mr. Bingley?”

  • Will Elizabeth see Mr. Darcy when she visits his Pemberley estate?
  • Will Elizabeth cave to Lady Catherine’s insulting demands that she refuse Mr. Darcy’s hand?

At first glance, all of these questions may seem to be just general queries within the narrative. But not so. A closer look at this familiar story shows us that each of these questions is pertinent to driving a very specific scene. Even when the protagonist and/or the readers are not immediately aware of the specific nature of the question, once we reach each scene’s answer, we can identify what question was driving the scene from the very start.

How to Find the Right Question and Answer for Your Scene Structure

Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain

When using Swain’s approach to structure, you can begin planning a scene by either identifying its goal and following it through to its conclusion—or by choosing the scene outcome/disaster you want to create and then forming the correct goal to lead the character to this ending. Same goes when using questions and answers to frame your scene structure.

You can begin with either the question or the answer. Usually, the answer will be yes or no. Either the character gets what he wants, or he doesn’t.

In Pride & Prejudice, the above scene questions find corresponding scene answers:

  • Yes, Mr. Bennett introduced himself to the eligible Mr. Bingley on his daughters’ account.
  • Yes, Mr. Darcy will return to find Elizabeth visiting his Pemberley estate.
Pride and Prejudice 2005 Elizabeth and Darcy Pemberley

The scene structure here answers its opening question with a resounding, “Yes. Elizabeth does encounter Darcy.”

  • No, Elizabeth will not cave to Lady Catherine’s insulting demands that she refuse Mr. Darcy’s hand.

This will then raise the secondary question: How did the character reach his goal? Or How was the character blocked from reaching his goal?

  • Mr. Bennett anticipated his wife’s harangue and visited Mr. Bingley before she could each raise the subject.
  • Just as Elizabeth is about to escape the premises of Pemberley with her aunt and uncle, she is surprised by Mr. Darcy’s return.
  • Elizabeth refuses to give Lady Catherine her promise that she will not marry her nephew—and in so doing, discovers her love for him.
Pride and Prejudice 2005 Dame Judi Dench

The final part of this approach to scene structure is the “how.” How will Elizabeth respond to Lady Catherine’s unjust demands?

Each part corresponds to Swain’s structure:

  • The question reveals the goal.
  • The “how” reveals the conflict.
  • The answer reveals the outcome.

How to Implement This Approach to Scene Structure

This is not a competing system to Swain’s, but rather a bolstering one. Swain’s scene structure is scene structure. But looking at it from a slightly different angle is helpful in stripping scenes down to their bare facts, which then allows you to verify a single, solid, cohesive throughline in each scene.

As you’re working through the six parts of Swain’s structure for each of your scenes, take an extra moment to also evaluate the scene through the lens of question and answer. This is a remarkably easy way to streamline scenes and keep them firmly on track, no matter how many layers of subplot conflict you have running through any given spot in your story.

As a total bonus it also gives you a ready-made hook for the beginning of each scene. The hook itself is nothing more or less than a question. Pique your readers’ curiosity with this scene-driving question and you’ll pull them right through to the end of the scene—and hopefully into the next one as well.

This does not mean you must always state the scene question explicitly. Austen never outright says, “Was Elizabeth about to give in to Lady Catherine’s bullying?” Usually, your best approach is to allow each scene’s question to arise from the subtext of the character’s goals and the obstacles they meet along the way.

The very simplicity of this approach to scene structure makes it invaluable in cutting through the inevitable clutter while plotting a book. Use this question-and-answer approach to scene structure to immediately discover the heart of each scene, allowing yourself to then move onto the more complex issues of layering the blow-by-blow of the narrative itself.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What questions and answers frame your current scene structure? Tell me in the comments!

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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. Thankyou!!!

    I’ve loved your teaching on overall story structure, but I never did latch on to scene structure. Recently, I decided that I needed to master it somehow, but the “somehow” was the hard part.

    This system is so much more natural, intuitive, and dynamic, but it’s still formal. I think I can really use this.

  2. I have to say, that is a beautiful rustic writing space you’ve got there. 🙂 I like the idea of question/answers guiding the scenes. I’ll have to keep that in mind when I write. Oh, and congratulations on getting to do the book blurb.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes! I feel blessed to get to write there every morning–although I’ve had to abandon it for the cold months.

  3. K.M.,

    I like you post. I am also doing two projects writing the clan book and a novella about Jewel Pearl, Leilani’s grandmother. I am going to write about Kai’s parents coming to visit the palace of the Mera clan where Jewel lives. When you write do you write with the senses by that I mean,-Smell, taste, touch, seeing, and hearing for the character to that effect.

    Leilani’s family uses their abilities for good and not evil.

    Have you ever written an epilogue at the end of the last chapter because I have not?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, sensory writing is a great way to bring it to life for readers. I’ve never written an epilogue; 99% of the time, they’re unnecessary.

      • Ms. Albina says:

        K.M, Thank you. I am going to having 20 chapters total. Do chapters have to be ten pages total or have when I am going to type it? I do like to write. Do paragraphs have to be seven sentences each time?

  4. Thank you so much for this! I’ve been having a lot of trouble with scene structure the last couple of days, and I feel like you read my mind and came to my rescue 🙂 This is wonderful.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yay! Glad the timing worked out well for you. 🙂 Just have fun with it. The Q&A approach brings a lot of fun and playfulness to the process, I find.

  5. This can also help eliminate some tangents. I usually ask two questions. Why is my character there, and what happens next because of it? For example, if I have a character flying from New York to Los Angeles, why are they going there? If they’re going to a convention, I ask what happens at the convention. I focus on that. If nothing major happened in the flight, I don’t worry about it.

  6. JS Devivre says:

    You have nooooooo idea what a help this is. Best Christmas present ever!

  7. A.P. Lambert says:

    Great advice, as always. I especially love the simplicity of this method. I’ve discovered asking a leading question (and coming up with an answer) is also an important and necessary part to pretty much any creative approach. Write on!

  8. hakimblue99 says:

    I think using questions for scenes is quite creative. It does ‘ignite’ your brain and make it easier for you to structure your novel. The more questions you ask, the more creative you be. Great post! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I love questions as a creative device. When I’m outlining or brainstorming, I always try to think in questions instead of statements. It’s such a simple hack, but I find it really opens up my brain to the possibilities.

  9. Yes!
    I like simple. (When possible.)
    Simplify it – the six steps are in essence only three.
    The Q, the “how” and the A, or goal, conflict and outcome.
    The trick, the challenge, and the art, is then to learn to ask (and keep asking) the right, the better, the smarter, the tougher Qs. Then apply the same with the conflicts and the outcomes.
    Easy? No.
    But easier.
    Thank you for breaking it down into easier to digest bites, Katie!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree. Writing isn’t, and never will be, easy. But if we can find the right questions to ask, finding the answers then becomes a much clearer process.

  10. Too…much…information…

    I love everything about this post, but I need to read it a couple more times and let it sink in. I tend to over simplify my scenes and put (at minimum) an overlying conflict and a resolution that will move the overlying plot forward.

    I’d like to try working out some of this stuff into a scene or a single scene short story and see how it feels.

  11. Thanks so much, K.M. Your post came at a perfect time for me!

    I hope you have a great Christmas!

  12. K.M,

    In writing is there to be need a prologue before chapter 1 like when the character or characters is born or history about their life and so on.

    Have you written one of ones before?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      In general, I’m not a fan of prologues. They’re rarely necessary.

      • Ms. Albina says:

        K.M.,

        Thank you. What did you mean fewer characters for a novella? Do you mean 10 or five? Do beta readers charge money for to reader what I wrote?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Not just for a novella. In general, it’s best to include the fewest number of characters that make sense for the story (which can still be quite a few). Here’s an article on it: How Many Characters Should You Include in Your Story?

          And, no, beta readers do not charge money. It’s a trade: they will read your story in exchange for you reading theirs.

        • Make a list of your characters and rank them on different levels by how often they appear and how important they are to the story.

          I haven’t made a list myself, but when I tried it just now I realized I’d likely have 40 or 50 that I know of so far, and more will get added.

          But once I classify them
          1 I have THE main character who’s the star. It’s a first person story so he will be in every scene.
          2 his girlfriend, who’s the female lead, and is in 90% of scenes
          3 his mom & dad, her mom, brother and his girlfriend (who didn’t show up until almost halfway)

          So that’s 7 who will see the vast majority of the action.

          Her stepdad and little sister are recurring characters, as well as his best friend over the summer and another at college. Couple other girls. Say 6 on that level.

          He has 3 grandparents, maybe 5 aunts & uncles, 8 or so cousins. The guys on his baseball team (3 or 4 have speaking roles) Some kids at her school. So there’s where I will end up with several dozen, but they’re bit players who show up for a scene or maybe two.

          So 1 main, 6 supporting, 6 recurring and 30 or 40 bits.

  13. After your previous post on Swain I had his six steps in bold red letters at the bottom of my writing window. However, even as recently as yesterday, I found myself lamenting that I may not be hitting them as precisely in every scene, even if I’m otherwise satisfied.

    This post alleviated that anxiety. I’ve mentioned here previously how before each scene I map out the themes and central questions which will drive what the scene is supposed to accomplish. Various subtext and subplots may be touched on, the logical links in a causation thread.

    Another thing I thought of after awhile was that each sequence of ‘goal, conflict, semi-disaster, react, dilemma, decision’ might not wrap up neatly at the end of each scene. There may be secondary overlapping threads at a different stage. This offers a little more fluidity.

    I’ll use a variation in the third act when I will be beating up on my female lead. There will be a series of goals, conflicts and semi-disasters, one after another, that are not resolved until after she crashes under the pressure, applying one decision to all those incitements.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I adore Swain’s approach, but in practice, it’s kinda like Eisenhower’s battle plan: nothing works out quite like you think it will in the messiness of real time. The 6 elements definitely overlap and spread out from scene to scene, so it’s never quite so neat and tidy as the structural theory itself makes it seem. If we’re too strict with ourselves in *making* our scenes fit the equation, it can lead to problems–and unnecessary stress!

  14. Great and easy to use, stripped-down approach. Thanks for another great blog post!

  15. K.M.,

    I want to have my stuff to get published so I have my name out there. How long did it take for you to get published?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I wrote four novels before the first one was published, over a span of about seven to eight years.

  16. Ms. Albina says:

    K.M.,

    Thank you.

    In my novella book I only have about 12 characters or 12 total. Jewel is 107 years old equivalent to a human on your earth to 17 years old. I would say that Jewel can be a little headstrong as well as stubborn since she does not want to get married right now. I just wrote that she had a vision about someone ill with the yellow death/fever that comes to planet Avanara. Ruben, the evil sea deity who is also in this novella is only a background character for now. He is more important in Leilani’s and Zane’s series because he thinks Leilani’s ancestor had make his parents Josephine and his father become sick with the yellow death so that is why Ruben wants his revenge. He was once good but now he is evil. I know what Ruben looks like but I need to right that first.

    In the novella that I am working on is Jewel who becomes Leilani’s grandmother. Jewel is a teenager in this novella who is also the main character. Her love interest is Kai, a mer-prince from the sapphire clan which is also in the sapphire ocean.

    Jewel’s clan just does not like to wear clothes in the water.

    Do you write your ideas in a journal or not?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I don’t journal so much anymore, but I do extensive notebook outlining, which is similar in some ways.

  17. K.M.,

    I wanted to get a mermaid write mind planner, but the mermaid one is out of stock.

    Do also made your website for you? When I get published I need a website so I can post when my novella or books come out and also do a newsletter for my readers.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Varick Design did my website. Depending on your budget, they may not be the right choice for you, but I highly recommend them.

  18. K.M,

    When your character thinks about something your thoughts you don’t write she thought right do you use a different word that means the same thing.

    Characters in books as well as us humans have feelings of joy, sadness, happy, and when we are made or angry.

  19. Minty Axolotl says:

    Thanks for this! Like other comments I was recently having a LOT of trouble with scene outlines and this was tremendously helpful. Dumb question, but how does this approach apply to sequels? I can clearly see where it overlaps with scenes, but when it comes to sequels do you do the same thing? or is it just a continuation of the question’s answer?
    Thank you so much again !

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The Q&A approach applies to sequels a little less intuitively–or a little less visually, shall we say. But if you think of the Dilemma part of the sequel as the question, than the Decision (leading to the next scene’s Goal) is always going to be the answer.

  20. Jeffrey Barlow says:

    And when your scene question’s answer is asking another question, you’ve got a page-turner on your hands.

  21. Thank you for this excellent article Katie, it really helps steer me away from writing scenes that become an end in themselves.

  22. I’ve written here of my process which is almost in ‘interviewing’ a scene. I want to know what each scene is supposed to accomplish, which maybe a little broader than driving the plot – such as establishing character and settings.

    The other day I answered Katie’s Twitter & FB question, “In one word, what is your story’s theme?” with ‘redemption’ because that’s how it will all end. However, each scene or sets of scenes may be different. My last chapter looked at father-son relationships across two generations. Does the father have reasonable expectations? How long are disputes allowed for fester? How does the specter of death change how we look at our lives?

    I dove right into the next chapter and got 4k words out in a week, but came to s atop when I look ahead to the coming scenes. I had a list of the events that were unfolding between the MC and those close to him, but what did they mean? After a few days of thought it was clear. The common themes were of setting priorities, commitment in the face of temptation and her seeing him in a role to protect her. These are all parts of a maturing romantic relationship as well as adult responsibilities. The MC is being forced to grow up.

    Once I had that, I am again excited to jump back into the writing, knowing how I have to craft the scenes to follow these themes and in a way to foreshadow what’s to come.

  23. I am increasingly convinced that things are defined by their relationship to everything else.

    I usually start plotting be establishing the major actors on the plot and their relationships as a result of their goals/motivations. Then, considering the overall situation and the types of conflicts that are likely to occur, I ask how those will change by the end of the story. All I have to do is keep asking “Why?” until I get a series of steps leading from one to the other, combine as many of those relational events as I can and I have my major plot points.

    I try to carry that down to the scene level, asking what changes between the beginning and the end of each scene–whether it’s a relationship between characters or the relationship of a character and an idea like the Lie or The Truth or whatever.

    Overall it helps to have events laid out in a nice cause-and-effect structure, but you first need to gather a lot of elements by asking and answering a lot of questions before you can be confident you have the right chain of events.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree. Ultimately, that’s the trickiest thing about story theory–it’s circular. Everything depends on everything else, which can make finding the right entry point tricky.

      • The logical connections have been one of my strengths. Now, inspired by the archetypes, I’m making a spreadsheet of my characters and as I list and label them them I’m already feeling a better sense of each character’s identity going forward (instead of juggling them in my head.)

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Ultimately the idea of nailing things down instead of “juggling them in my head” is why I gravitate to all this stuff too. Why make it hard on ourselves?

          • You’re naturally a lister – I’m not. For many years (decades) I succeeded being able to keep everything in my head.

            Now, as I 1) get older 2) diversify 3) get deeper into things I have to convince myself to start writing it down. Now I have bunches of Wordpad and Excel files. Next step is consistency and better organization.

            It’s also like the difference between “Structuring Your Novel” and “Structuring Your Novel Workbook.” I thought, “Won’t it be the same thing?” but I found that in the regular book, as has been my norm forever, I think of an answer to the question in my head, nod, and then move on to the next question. The workbook forces one to stop and list the answers in writing immediately. Right away I noticed the difference in forcing to me come up with more thorough and thought out answers. Seeing the answers written alongside the questions has an affect.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            I used to believe an idea wasn’t worth writing if I couldn’t remember it. Enough wonderful forgotten ideas later, let’s just say I no longer believe that. I like lists because they’re a safety net for my overcrowded brain.

  24. I’ve been really working hard at understanding and applying Swain’s model in a more organic way. As you mentioned in your book Katie, the scene beats could span more one than scene. I’ve also been initiating the scenes through different characters POV’s now and again to develop them all more fully.

    The goal is always easier to find, although, because I’m writing a thriller, the protagonist always seems to be seeking information so it’s been a challenge keeping that fresh with context and subtext. Inevitably, the outcome is either she gets the information or she doesn’t so that’s also been a challenge.

    Is the reaction in the sequel meant to reveal emotion and character and is that meant to be seen more in physical reaction, especially since screenplays are visually orientated?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      One way to think of scene and sequel is as “fast” and “slow” beats with the story. In the scene, something happens in a flurry of activity. Then, in the sequel, the character slows down to process it. Very often, this is where we’ll get an emotional response. However, this isn’t absolutely necessary. You can certainly write a sequel that just features a physical or logical response, but sooner or later, you’ll probably need to catch the readers up on the character’s emotional landscape.

      • That makes a lot of sense Katie. I’ve realized that in certain genres we tend to race from scene to scene without giving characters breathing space to absorb, reflect, respond, etc. I think the absence of the sequel leads to flat, somewhat inhuman characters. I’m hoping that in time I can develop a well-oiled internal clock that can instinctively sense how the beats should fall; where the pace should be upped and where we need that personal breathing space. For now it’s just thump it out, assess it, adjust, repeat.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Totally agree. Action w/o reaction ultimately endangers realism and suspension of disbelief. Honestly, good sequels are my favorite part of any story.

  25. Love this! Such a neat way of expanding the way I think about structuring scenes!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thanks for reading! Sometimes after you understand the complicated version, you get even more out of returning to slightly simplified approach.

  26. Amazing; love this article.! I’m going to have to bookmark this and have it open with the next revision. (I like keep your articles open in a tab when doing a book wide edit; or if I’m having a problem with a character/scene and such.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I gotta admit: sometimes I have to keep my articles open in a tab and reference them as well. :p

Trackbacks

  1. […] have to think about the macro elements of our work to get the story right. K.M. Weiland gives us a new way to think about scene structure, and Jami Gold shares 5 ways to discover and develop our […]

  2. […] find the terms and next to nothing more.  So I was silly happy when I saw K.M. Weiland’s post on scene and sequel. Weiland recommends that we break down our scenes beyond scene and sequel to […]

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