3 Smart Tips for Structuring Powerful Scenes

It’s common wisdom that in structuring powerful scenes, we should open in media res—that is, while something is happening. And it’s generally best to bow out while things are still happening: close the dinner conversation with the last line of dialogue, not after everyone has fallen silent, gotten up from the table, washed the dishes, and gone to bed.

But once we get into a scene, what do we do there? What does a scene need to accomplish? What constitutes a scene, anyway?

Tip #1 for Structuring Powerful Scenes: Think of Scenes as Miniature Novels

Example:

Honey felt a tug on the line.

“Reel ’er in slow,” Grandpa said.

It was a slow, lazy afternoon on the river, the kind Honey loved. Grandpa was in a chatty mood, and they whiled away the hours fishing—sort of—while he shared memories from the past.

“Grandma and me used to come do this,” he said. “The other girls thought it was strange that she liked to fish, but I guess she did. Or else she just liked to spend the time with me.”

Honey smiled. She understood her grandmother. There was nothing nicer than spending time with someone you loved on a sunny day on the river, feeling the cool breeze and the splash of the water when you tried to bring a fish in. Not that it ever seemed important to really catch one.

“Well, I guess it’s time we go home and get dinner,” Grandpa finally said.

As an editor, I regularly see passages like this one in rough drafts. But this example is not a scene. It’s a snapshot. Although it opens in media res and ends with a sense of closure, it goes nowhere in between. If you were to cobble together a hundred snapshots like it, you would not have a story at the end.

In fact, a scene is not just a building block for a novel; it’s something of a novel in miniature. Like novels, scenes begin with a status quo, move through an incident that changes that status, and then build to something—a reveal, a confrontation, a climax of some kind. Often they will dip down into a resolution as well, though not always.

Scene structure mirrors that of any drama:

  • Status quo (Act 1)
  • Inciting incident
  • Challenge(s) (Act 2)
  • Climax
  • Resolution (Act 3—optional. Since scenes are only smaller parts of a bigger story, they can end in cliffhangers, whereas a novel cannot.)

Fixing Scene Structure

  • If Honey had caught a fish (inciting incident), and then struggled hard to land it (challenge) but finally won out (climax to resolution), we would have a scene.
  • If Grandpa’s conversation had turned into something deep and meaningful, such that he revealed a secret about Honey’s past, or professed love for his family for the first time in his life, or admitted he had cancer, we would have a scene.
  • If their fishing trip was interrupted by aliens descending on the river, and then Honey and Grandpa hid in the woods and managed to escape, we would have a scene.

A good scene has forward motion—not only in the sense that something actually happens but also in that it moves the whole story forward. By the end of a single scene, the story world is not the same as it was before.

Tip #2 for Structuring Powerful Scenes: It’s All about Change

Ultimately, stories are all about change, and so are the scenes that make them. Change doesn’t have to be big and dramatic, but it must be there. After beginning with the status quo of fishing on the river, Honey’s life could change in several different ways:

1. Grandpa reveals a secret about Honey’s past—her perception of her entire life changes.

2. Grandpa professes love for his family for the first time—a relationship alters.

3. Grandpa admits he has cancer—the future changes.

4. Aliens land and Honey escapes—the universe changes!

Good scene structure begins with a status quo, moves through a few obstacles, and finishes at a climax—where something, in the character’s situation or life as whole—is changed.

Tip #3 for Structuring Powerful Scenes: Move the Story Forward

In the scheme of things, the particular climax of a scene may not be anything major. Maybe it’s just a slight alteration in the way two characters perceive one another. But it moves the story forward. The inciting incidents and climaxes within a particular scene do not have to be high-level events: they might be the tug of a fish on a line, a set of keys found, a minor confession made, a friendship struck up. But they must change something—something that ultimately builds the whole story by one more block.

Scenes that use dramatic structure within themselves and then link together to create the larger dramatic structure of the novel: these are what truly make a story come together.

5 Editors Tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing (The Writer's Toolbox Series) C.S. Lakin, Linda S. Clare, Christy Distler, Robin Patchen, and Rachel Starr ThomsonThis post has been adapted from the new book 5 Editors Tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing by C.S. Lakin, Linda S. Clare, Christy Distler, Robin Patchen, and Rachel Starr Thomson. The book is available here and features more than sixty detailed Before and After examples of flawed and corrected passages to help authors learn to spot flaws in their writing.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What is your biggest challenge in structuring powerful scenes for your stories? Tell me in the comments!

3 Smart Tips for Structuring Powerful Scenes

 

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About Rachel Starr Thomson | @writerstarr

Rachel Starr Thomson is the author of eighteen novels. As an editor and writing coach, she has helped writers achieve their best work for over a decade—so she’s thrilled to contribute to The Writer’s Toolbox series, which gives fiction writers everything they need to know to create compelling, solid stories. You can check out all Rachel’s books at her website.

Comments

  1. I’ve read a lot of manuscripts in my life, and many weak scenes… some of them my own!

    One of the first things I look at in my own scenes is conflict, i.e., is there enough? Your way of talking about change is related to that.

    The idea of writing an entire novel can be daunting, but looking at it as X number (say 80) of linked short stories makes it seem manageable.

    Thanks for a great post.

    • Thanks for your comment, S.J.! Grasping the idea that conflict = change really helped me understand what needed to happen in a scene, because otherwise it was so easy to think of “conflict” as just “something antagonistic happening.” A lot of that, with no meaningful change or forward motion happening, is just exhausting but doesn’t tell a story.

      I love your concept of a novel breakdown as linked short stories. Very true!

  2. Great tips. They really help one consider all of the possibilities of making a scene work.

  3. I am a collectaholic of writing craft books. Have been collecting them for years. I have up to 100 hardback/paperback,even more digital. Yes I have all yours too. I have to say of all the things read that is one of the best and clearest pieces of advice I have read about the scene.

    There are many great ones out there too. I have had my own ideas about scene. Answer to the question have always felt like they missed something in the connection to help me really grasp what I wanted to know–not sure I can explain that in words, despite being a writer.

    I have ask the question, What makes a scene? How do you know? That was one of the clearest most straight forward response I have ever read. I got it. You laid out a sort of map for my mind that it could follow and apply (reuse) putting it in way I had not consciously thought about before, but makes so much sense. Thank you.

    Juneta at Writer’s Gambit

  4. What if we’re trying to establish the relationship between Honey and her grandfather? What if that’s best illustrated by an afternoon spent fishing, where nothing really happens but you just spend time together? What if this is establishing that Honey is slowly taking her deceased grandmother’s place in the grandfather’s life (not literally, obviously, but emotionally)?

    Does that justify a “scene” (or snapshot, or whatever you want to call it) like this? Obviously, you want your plot to move forward, but not all plot-moving scenes are good at telling you what’s going on emotionally, or what is actually at stake (maybe the story is about preserving those moments even when Honey moves to another city, or finding the simple joy of those moments in her later hectic, adult life).

    Just some thoughts, eager to hear the wisdom!

    • Hi Sonia,

      Fabulous questions! Of course not every story is all about “things frantically happening,” which is what I think we sometimes picture when we hear advice about scenes needing conflict and that kind of thing. But every scene does need to incorporate some kind of change, something that moves the story forward, even if it’s very quiet, very internal.

      For example, the “change” might just be that Honey and her grandfather bond to a new degree that day as they’re fishing. The scene shows the development of a relationship, and yes, that’s absolutely a great reason for a scene. Without that sense of motion and change, the story will stall out.

      Make sense?

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      • In other words, what’s missing from your example scene might just be a few words about how contented Honey was feeling, or a small reflection on the grandfather’s part of how nice it is to have someone to go fishing with again, and that he would like to do it again soon, something of that sort?

        • Yup, that’s the idea. It really depends on the story you’re telling, but yes, “change” can be subtle and internal. It doesn’t have to be aliens :).

          • I did figure it didn’t have to be aliens 😉 But thanks for helping me figure out how subtle something like that could be – though I try to have establishing scenes also provide important clues for the story, I’m still stuck with a few that are important for establishing certain things about certain characters, but don’t obviously further the story. Now I have a better feeling of how little and how far I can go to make them relevant.
            Thank you!

  5. In genre fiction, you might be abe to get away with one or two “snapshot” scenes in a novel, but you risk losing your readers. You can get away with more such scenes in literary fiction BUT, in my opinion, regardless of genre, the best writers find ways to make their scenes serve more than one function, and moving the story forward is a key function.

  6. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Rachel!

  7. Perhaps, for each scene, we should articulate (in one sentence or a few) the purpose of the scene–what’s the status quo before, who wants what, who changes in what way, or what changes to what, and what’s the status quo after

    • Thanks for your comment! That kind of exercise can be REALLY helpful. I like how simply you’ve put it, especially the “status quo” bookends.

      If you’re pantsing rather than plotting, you can simply tell yourself the scene is not over until something has changed. I recently tried that and was amazed at how much the momentum of the book picked up, both in terms of story and of the actual writing process.

  8. You made it sound so simple. 🙂 Great post, thank you.

  9. A really smart way of showing how to make your novel smart. Well, it is becoming a steady streak of smartness so I will smartly finish the comment and say this post had made me a lot smarter. Oops, that S word again. 😮

  10. This is extremely helpful! The instruction to CHANGE something, in particular, is so useful to me. I don’t like the word “conflict,” as I am a “conflict-averse” person. But there’s no doubt that scenes need “conflict” — just not necessarily the type of conflict I’m averse to! I know sometimes characters DO need to have an emotional argument, but I find it tiresome when a book has scene after scene of arguments, especially when the arguers are supposed to be a romantic pairing. This really helps me understand how to build the right kind of conflict into a scene.

  11. This article was so good I added to my recommendation article list for writers–this does not show it, but Rachel Starr Thomson was credited with writing and Weiland with hosting, Good job ladies. I plan to grab that book about flaws on pay day too.
    Juneta Writer’s Gambit

  12. I look forward to the day when “grab” is no longer a fashionable word

  13. Thanks, Juneta! Appreciate it! I hope you enjoy the book :).

  14. It was not meant to be fashionable, but addressed to author of article and book in causal relaxed discussion. I admit I wrote it in a short handed way, as if speaking instead of taking time to make a formal written sentence. The word grab over purchase was chosen to indicate a stronger intent, because I really do want that book after reading this article.

  15. Wynn Guthrie says:

    “Grab” is a perfectly acceptable word if one intends to seize with firm purpose or eager haste. 🙂

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