Stories 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.
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.
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?”
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.
This 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?
- 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
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.
- 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.
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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