Structuring Your Story's Scenes: Variations on the Scene

Structuring Your Story’s Scenes, Pt. 6: Variations on the Scene

If writers have one complaint about the whole notion of story structure, it’s that it makes them feel boxed in. But the great thing about structure is that it provides a solid framework for your story, while still presenting endless possibilities. This is just as true of the Scene* as it is of the three-act structure that guides your story as a whole.

Now that we’ve concluded our exploration of the first part of the Scene—the scene—let’s take a minute to explore some of the variations upon that standard model of goal/conflict/disaster. You’ve already probably thought up some successful scenes, in your own stories and in popular books and movies, that don’t seem to quite fit the proposed structure. How exactly does that work? Is it one of those “if-you’re-famous-you-can-get-away-with-anything” instances, or are there credible exceptions?

Well, undoubtedly, there are a few of the former lurking about. But, in truth, Scene structure can flex to fit just about any proposed situation in your story. As with just about anything in writing, the key to breaking the rule is, first, knowing the rule and, second, knowing why you’re breaking it.

Variations on the Scene Goal

The goal belongs to a character other than the narrator.

Most of the time we want our scene’s POV character to be the one with the most at stake. But there will be occasions when he’s just an observer. He will always have a scene goal, but his goal may not always be the one that drives the conflict and disaster. For example, he may want nothing more than to make a PB&J sandwich, while his sister wants to get the attention of the cute TV repairman working in the living room. Your hero may be just an observer to the greater stakes of love and war. However, his observation and probable input must either immediately or eventually relate back to his story. If you can tie in the other person’s goal and conflict with the narrator’s, so much the better (for example, perhaps his sister’s flirting interferes with his lunch).

The goal is discovered after the scene begins.

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Although your character will usually have decided upon his goal at the end of the previous sequel (more on that in future posts), this won’t always be the case. Sometimes he’s going to enter scenes without yet knowing what he wants. Don’t ever let a character wander aimlessly for too long, but if you need to introduce certain events to set up his goal, don’t be afraid to give a scene a little time to develop its objective.

The goal is implied instead of directly stated.

Stating your character’s goals at the beginning of a scene grounds readers and helps them focus on the point of the scene. But subtlety is never to be overrated. Sometimes your  character’s goal is just gonna be plain obvious—both from the context (for example, he runs into a bank with a hood over his head and a gun in his hand) and/or from the decision at the end of the previous sequel. If you feel your character’s scene goal is obvious, you may be able to get away without ever referring to it outright.

Variations on Scene Conflict

The scene opens with the conflict instead of the goal.

Beginning a scene in medias res is a great way to hook readers into the action. Instead of dawdling about with set-up, we’re often better off cutting to the chase. This variation can go hand-in-hand with that of the implied goal, discussed above. However, you can also put it to use in situations in which a direct statement of the goal is still necessary. After opening in the middle of the conflict, slow down for just a sentence or two to let readers know what the character is after. You’ll want to use this variation carefully, since readers need to be oriented in a scene as quickly as possible; you don’t want them floundering around, trying to figure out what in thunderation is going on.

The conflict is understated.

Conflict doesn’t have to mean guns blazing—or even tempers flaring. Sometimes you’re going to want your scene’s conflict to remain understated. Ernest Hemingway’s classic short story “Hills Like White Elephants” offers an apropos example, in which the characters’ small talk hides a deeper conflict brewing under the surface.

Variations on Scene Disasters

The scene ends before the disaster.

Sometimes you will need your disaster to occur off-screen or merely through implication. This might be either because you don’t want to show the disaster in detail (the ol’ cut-and-fade used in the movies to avoid unsavory details) or because the disaster will need to take place in a different time and place, effectively distancing it from the current scene. You can get  away with this, no problemo, so long as you close with the threat of disaster. Readers will fill in the blanks and get the same bang for their buck as they would if you included the disaster full-on.

Variations to the Scene as a Whole

The entire scene is skipped, implied, or summarized.

One of the easiest ways to control pacing is to manipulate the length of scenes and sequels. Emphasis on scenes speeds things up; emphasis on sequels slows things down. Although scene and sequel are both integral halves of the Scene, we can sometimes perform a sleight of hand with either of them. In the case of the scene, you may sometimes feel your story will be better off for downplaying certain events. The scene may take place entirely off-screen, or it may be summarized briefly at the beginning of your sequel.

This is an important technique but always one to be used with caution. Your scene is your story. Avoid too many, and your story will teeter.

The scene is interrupted by a new scene.

Sometimes the introduction of new information or events will stop the current goal/scene before it plays out and, in its place, begin a new scene dynamic. Your character may begin a scene with a specific goal, only to be interrupted by a new catalyst that causes him to abruptly change goals. Maybe he wants to apologize to his wife with a huge bouquet of roses. But when alien lasers take out the flower stand, his priorities are going to change in an instant. When possible, you’ll eventually want to return to the original goal, just to tie off loose ends, but this might not happen until the end of the story.

A POV switch interrupts the scene.

If you’re using more than one POV narrator, you may sometimes find it necessary to switch horses midstream. Because a POV switch is indicated on the page in the same way as a normal Scene break, we tend to think a new POV always means a new Scene. But this isn’t necessarily so. For example, in one Scene in my historical novel Behold the Dawn, I switched POVs smack in the middle of a dialogue exchange.

Annan swallowed and brushed his hands across the front of his tunic. “That is what he has deceived himself into believing.” He stood, and he could sense more than see the tension that swept over her. She was suddenly like a hare, tensed, ready to run if the hound came but one step nearer.

“Lady Mairead.”

“What?” She spoke breathlessly, and he could almost hear the heavy beat of her heart.

“You’re afraid of me.”


Mairead’s breath caught so hard that pricks of light studded her vision. So here it was. She had hoped that if she kept him in the conversation, if she made him think of other things, that perhaps the night would pass.

But no. He was only a tourneyer, a man with the blood of countless knights upon his hands. What was one defenseless woman to him? He could crush her backbone in his arms without trying, and the deed would never darken his thoughts.

This is all part of the same Scene. The setting hasn’t changed, the characters’ individual goals haven’t changed, and only a few seconds separate the break. The switch was made in order to get inside Mairead’s head, since she was now the character with more at stake. But both POV halves are part of the same scene, which means they must still adhere to the proper three-part structure. The only difference is that the structure is now divided between two characters’ perspectives, with the emphasis on both their goals.

Don’t be afraid to play around with scene structure, but always do so with purposeful intent. If you’re going to stray from the stability of the standard arc, you need to know why you’re doing it and be convinced the aberration is creating a better story.

*For the purposes of this series, “Scene” with a capital S will refer to the scene in general (which can include in its definition the sequel). I’ll use a small s and italicize scene and sequel to refer to the two different types of Scenes.

Stay tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about the Three Building Blocks of the Sequel.

Tell me your opinion: Can you think of a successful scene that varies from standard structure?

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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.


  1. Great. Thanks for this sum-up. I needed to hear it right now, when a few critiques suggested I had too many pov switches in the chapter. In this case, I did because three characters were carrying out different actions separately.

  2. POV switches must be handled with care, and you probably don’t want to switch all over the place in *every* chapter. But when it’s necessary in certain sections of the story, don’t be afraid to do what you need to.

  3. This is great advice to keep scenes interesting. I especially like what you said about allowing content to speak for itself. I think that is one of the most important keys to writing. I haven’t noticed with some modern young adult fiction that the writer panders or even talks down to the reader as if we can’t understand what is going on without their constant confirmation. Thanks for the post.

  4. I tend to think authors talking down to readers isn’t so much the author’s doubt in the reader being able to understand what’s going on, as it is the author’s doubt in himself being able to make things clear. Either way, you’re absolutely right, it doesn’t do a book any favors.

  5. WOW,

    really interesting post K.M.

    When I read about your POV change in the same scene my brain went berserk! HAUNTINGS of DON’T HEAD HOP playing through my mind… I guess if you the rules and break them it is okay. When I wrote my first novel I did many POV switches and was reprimanded CONSTANTLY because of it. It had a similar feel to what you wrote. So WHY in some cases it’s acceptable and at other times it isn’t? Is it only acceptable in the occasional scene? Or can you do it throughout a novel? I’d really like to know your view…

    Thanks for a terrific post.

  6. What you’re seeing in the Scene I’ve quoted from here isn’t head hopping. Head hopping occurs when you’re switching POVs (usually multiple times) within a single Scene without any indication of a Scene break. So if I had jumped into Mairead’s head without using the three asterisks to signal a Scene break, *that* would have been head hopping. The key to successful POV switches is switching POVs for large chunks of time. In the Scene I’ve quoted from above, both characters’ POVs got half a chapter. If I had switched back and forth every few paragraphs, that would have been way too much, even with the asterisks to signal the Scene breaks.

  7. The way I vary it a bit, is to have a global introduction in media res, but scene by scene the goal is directly implied.

    For example: We open with a character robbing a bank.

    But then with added depth the character narrates: I did not originally want to become a robber…

    The novel Starship Troopers did this real well as an opening hook for chapter II, after the start in the future prologue.

  8. I tend to prefer scene openers like that, as well. You get both the punch of in medias res and the slowdown to impart goal info.

  9. Oh I’ll add, I find structure important. I’d like to have a box, or I won’t know what box to think outside of.:P

    I’ve sort of been experimenting with a non formal outline. Its more rough dictionary and explanation of what specific events are. For example if I don’t know what a shelter looks like, I write down a rough definition of what the inside and outside looks like. A lot of writers block is more lack of orientation in the surroundings.

  10. I know of an author who constructs his outline via research. He makes a list of all the subjects he’ll need to research for each chapter and leaves it at that.

  11. Its sort of like that, but rather lets say I wanted to describe a Victorian mansion to someone who’s never been to England. I would write down: Term – Description.

    The drawback being one sometimes has to invent new terms.:P How would I describe a term to a time traveler if he has not heard of the word before.

  12. Judith McKenzie says

    Here is one thing that always pops into my mind when I read discussions like this. [By way of confession, I tend to me something of a “lurker” in writers blogs, etc].
    When I write a book (and I’ve written a few) I got through multiple stages of revision. Many of the issues discussed here are things I consider well into that process: seventh, eighth, ninth revision. Or more.
    All of the thoughts, concerns etc. expressed above occur to me at some point in this process, and I always, always struggle with the same thing. How am I going to address these issues of craft and structure while maintaining the truth of the story?
    As writers, we deal with that dcihotomy regularly: art vs. craft; craft vs. art.
    It’s not an easy question. When something comes up that needs to be fixed, but the “fix” is contrary to the essential nature of the character – what wins? The reader’s clarity, or the truth of the character? Of course, it’s never exactly that clear cut, but sometimes it feels as though it is.
    There was a discussion recently about gray characters (a few posts back) that fascinated me for similar reasons: how much do we consider the impact of the reader’s experience of the character as believable (or, to use a godawful new word: relateable) vs. the fundamental truth of an essential character?
    I work both inside and outside of structure in the pieces I write, know the rules and break them, and struggle over and over with changes I know that I should make with my editor-brain, but my writer-brain resists them on behalf of the truth of the story.

  13. OMG, I don’t know a thing about writing. Glad you’re here to hold my hand. It seems the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know.

  14. @Sarah: Ooh, time travel! I love stories like that.

    @Judith: Great thoughts. That balance of art and craft is what makes fiction such a challenging medium. If we were to adhere entirely to the craft aspect, the process would be (relatively) easy. It’s that right-brain, creative, often amorphous art angle that marvelously complicates everything. And, you’re right, choosing one over the other in problem areas is always a case-by-case decision. Sometimes the clarity of craft must become more important, sometimes the power and emotion of art must be given more weight, even if it means breaking some rules.

    @RF: Join the club. 😉 Just when I think I know it all, I realize I’ve barely scratched the surface.

  15. Could a scene perhaps have no conflict like for example a brief scene like having a character interacting with someone who will be important to the plot whilst trying to head somewhere.

    Of course the purpose of this would be to introduce him and foreshadow his importance since I have no other organic way to introduce him until late in the story which would be too late in my opinion since he will be a very important character

  16. Hello ^^ I’m outlining for November. One of the things that is still tripping me up with scenes is when you have multiple characters and each has a goal in a scene. Can you combine them and then have separate sequels? For instance, the first scene is an argument between a couple. The father of the main character is there and the scene is from his perspective. His goal is to just go about his business, not get involved. But eventually, he has to intervene as it’s getting too heated. So the disaster is them getting angry with him as well as still being angry with each other, tension in the camp, etc.

    I was toying with an idea of a sequel broken into parts with all of them having their own recreations. Then the next scene would happen afterward. Is that viable? I tend to overthink things. But there are times that I just stop in the middle of a outlining a scene because I can’t figure out “is this a scene, a sequel? A new scene?” It tends to get in the way of continuing on.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, if the fallout for each of the characters’ goals is different enough to be interesting in each character’s viewpoint, you can definitely split them into multiple sequels.

  17. How would you suggest adding conflict to scenes that have importance, such as developing characters, yet no real need as it seems for ‘conflict’ such as a group sitting around a campfire, getting to know one another? It may only include a humorous conversation that communicates that the characters are getting to know each other better and warming to one another. It’s scenes like this where I find myself staring at my manuscript, trying to find a way to add conflict because I want every scene to have conflict so that the story is the best it can be. But I find myself at a loss for how to incorporate conflict into a scene like this.

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