Structuring Your Story’s Scenes, Pt. 5: Options for Scene Disasters

The disaster is the payoff at the end of the scene.* This is what readers have been waiting for, often with a delicious sense of dread. This is the answer, at least partially, to that all-important question, “What’s gonna happen?

The final act in the three-part structure of your scene is the outcome. The first two parts of the scene (the goal and the conflict) asked a question. The outcome answers it. If the character in our previous examples asked the scene question, “Will I be able to go out with the boy next door?,” the answer—the outcome—will be either yes or no.

Some authors dislike the use of the word “disaster” for this final part of the scene, since it seems to indicate every scene must end with a Perils-of-Pauline-esque cliffhanger. However, the disaster is a master of disguises and can come in just about any shape or size necessary to fit the needs of your specific story and scene.

The important thing to keep in mind is that disasters move the plot forward. If everything turns out hunky-dory and characters gets their scene questions answered exactly as they hoped, the conflict withers up and dies and the story peters to an end.

This is why I prefer the emphasis on disaster. At the end of every single scene, you should be looking for a way to thwart your characters’ hopes and make their lives miserable—to at least some extent. This does not mean characters should never gain ground toward achieving their goals. They can achieve part of their goals, while still experiencing setbacks. The point is to keep the pressure on and the plot progressing.

From the book Structuring Your Novel: Revised and Expanded 2nd Edition (Amazon affiliate link)

Options for Scene Disasters

Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story

Structuring Your Novel (affiliate link)

Scene disasters are probably the easiest of all scene components to spot. If it causes difficulties, even if just momentary, it’s a disaster.

Disasters come in every variety imaginable, but we can attempt to narrow them down into the following basic categories:

1. Direct obstruction of the goal (e.g., the character wants info which the antagonist refuses to supply).

2. Indirect obstruction of the goal (e.g., the character is sidetracked from achieving the goal).

3. Partial obstruction of the goal (e.g., the character accomplishes only part of the goal).

4. Hollow victory (e.g., the character reaches the goal, only to find out it’s more destructive than helpful).

These disasters can manifest in any and every way your imagination can dream up, including:

1. Death.

2. Physical injury.

3. Emotional injury.

4. Discovery of complicating information.

5. Personal mistake.

6. Threat to personal safety.

7. Danger to someone else.

Make Your Disaster Disastrous

This is where the fuse on your scene’s firecracker runs out. Are you going to give readers a bang or a fizzle? Don’t skimp on disasters. This is not the time to play nice with your characters. A weak disaster can leave readers feeling dissatisfied. Worse than that, a piddling disaster leaves you with a soggy foundation for your following sequel and scene. Each scene’s disaster is the set-up for the next scene’s goal.

Weak disaster=weak following scene.

The intensity of any given disaster will depend on your character’s personal desires and needs within your plot. A burnt cake may be inconsequential in a spy thriller, but it might be calamitous in a YA story about a teen who’s pledged a spectacular three-layer cake to her school’s bake sale, in order to get in good with the cheerleading squad.

If your story demands a burnt cake, don’t settle for one that’s slightly overdone. But by that same token, why settle for plain ol’ charbroiled? Why not consider the implications of an oven fire that turns the kitchen into a war zone and gets the attention of the whole town when the fire engine comes clanging up to the teen’s front door?

Push the envelope every chance you get. But don’t forget to use common sense. Disasters must be logical within the context of the story. An atomic bomb landing smack on the teen’s kitchen is probably going a smidge overboard. If it fails to make sense within the context of the story, it will smack of melodrama.

The “Yes, But…” Disaster

Sometimes in order to advance the plot, your disasters are best left incomplete. The “partial obstruction of goal” and “hollow victory” disasters we talked about in the section above are two examples. In his book Scene and Structure, Jack M. Bickham refers to these partial disasters as “yes, but…” disasters.

“yes, but…” disasters occur when your characters get a qualified or even total “yes” in answer to the scene question. They fulfill their scene goals… but there are unforeseen complications.

In a partial obstruction of the goal, a character may achieve part of a scene goal (e.g., the neighbor boy agrees to go out with her), but not all of it or not exactly as planned (he only agrees to grab a quick cappuccino instead of dinner and a movie).

In the hollow victory disaster, characters may get exactly what they want, only to discover they would have been far better off without it. For example, our cake-baking teen might finish icing her gorgeous three-layer cake, only to have her mother show up and reveal the teen just used the last of the flour and now the whole family will starve (melodramatic, but you get the idea).

Questions to Ask About Your Scene Disasters

Once you’ve identified your scene’s disaster, ask yourself the following questions:

1. Does your disaster answer the scene question, as posed by the scene goal?

2. Is your disaster integral to the scene (e.g., is the disaster a direct culmination of the scene conflict)?

3. Is your disaster disastrous enough?

4. If your character partially or totally reaches the scene goal, is there a “yes, but…” disaster waiting to create a slowdown?

5. Will your disaster prompt a new goal from the character?

Scene Disasters in Action

What do successful scene disasters look like? Let’s examine our chosen books and movies.

Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen: The first chapter ends with an apparent defeat when Mr. Bennet refuses his wife’s plea to visit Mr. Bingley. As far as Mrs. Bennet and the readers can tell, this is a total disaster. She didn’t get a thing she wanted out of this conversation. What she doesn’t know, of course, is that Mr. Bennet is just being a pill, since he already made up  is mind to do just what she asked. In essence, this is a variation on the “yes, but . . .” disaster. However, it’s one to be used with caution, since in most instances it will appear to readers as an authorial lie used to create false suspense.

The first scene outcome in Pride & Prejudice is cleverly low-key: Mr. Bennet frustrates his wife’s goal by refusing to meet the new neighbor Mr. Bingley, even though he intends to do so all along. This characterizes Mr. and Mrs. Bennet (and their marriage), while creating interest in a scene that otherwise might have been boringly straightforward. (Pride & Prejudice (1995), BBC1.)

It’s a Wonderful Life directed by Frank Capra: The opening scene with the angels doesn’t properly end until the beginning of the Third Act when Clarence shows up in Bedford Falls to rescue George, and even then it’s only implied. Technically, the entire movie up to this point is part of that first scene, since it’s simply a dramatization of Joseph’s summarizing George’s life for Clarence’s benefit. The scene’s disaster, therefore, would be the end of Joseph’s story, in which George decides to commit suicide for $15,000 life insurance.

It’s a Wonderful Life offers an interesting example of a scene outcome that is shown much later than the previous two components of its scene (goal and conflict). (It’s a Wonderful Life (1947), Liberty Films.)

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card: The first chapter ends with a bravura disaster, in which the conflict with the bullies forces Ender to take brutal action. He beats up the lead bully Stilson so severely that it is implied (and later confirmed) that the boy dies. Although Ender achieves his immediate goal of escaping the bullies, he will be haunted by Stilson’s death for the rest of the story.

The first scene outcome in Ender’s Game is riveting in its unexpected brutality and perfectly sets up character, plot, and theme. (Ender’s Game (2013), Lionsgate.)

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World directed by Peter Weir: After the low-key conflict in which Midshipman Hollom struggles to decide whether or not he should beat to quarters and call the captain to deck, disaster strikes dramatically when the French privateer Acheron fires on the Surprise from within the fog. A tense and bloody battle, which tears up the ship, ensues.

After a comparatively low-key opening goal and conflict, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World ends with a scene outcome that (literally) blows everyone out of the water. (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), Miramax Films.)

Once you’ve created a solid disaster that evolves naturally from your scene goal and conflict, you will have created the first of many solid scenes. Piled one upon another, these three-part building blocks will create your 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 Variations on the Scene.

Complete Series:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What is the disaster in your most recent scene outcome? Tell me in the comments!

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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. I tend to write in a style similar to television, and I find a lot of my scenes follow the pattern of TV serials (especially in my current work, and I talk about this a bit more on my blog, which I’m totally not plugging right now). Obviously US TV shows have a lot of time to fill, with 40 minutes of airtime per episode and 20-something episodes per season, so they throw a lot of hurdles at their characters to keep up the suspense and frustrate the short- and long-term goals of the protagonists. The X-Files was able to draw Mulder’s quest out for 9 years! I find that kind of pattern to be very useful to keep in mind when writing scenes for stories. If you were watching your characters on TV, what could the writers hit you with at the end of that scene to make you absolutely need to see what comes next?

  2. The disaster in my latest scene is a boy casting a love spell without knowing if it will work–and it does, with dire consequences! Dum dum DUM.

    But I was catching up on the TV series Lost Girl, Season 2, last night and was so frustrated with how they played out the season finale. They built up to this huge confrontation, which didn’t go as they planned and ended up as a major setback. Okay, I was on board with that writerly choice.

    But then the characters proceeded to mill around rather than regroup. For the next 2 episodes! I thought I was being overly critical because I’d been working on revisions and perhaps my editor-brain hadn’t turned off. But my husband said he thought the same thing.

    YOur “Weak disaster=weak following scene” point in action! Or should that be inaction? 😉

  3. @Mike: TV shows are masters of the disaster. It’s so much easier even to switch the channel than to put down a book, so they have to make certain viewers are coming back every ten minutes after the commercial breaks. It’s a good pattern for us to observe and learn from.

  4. @Anjelica: TV shows can also teach us a lot about what not to do. One of the major drawbacks of the medium is that the story has to come second to the attempts to drag that show out for as many episodes and seasons as possible. The result is often weak or manipulated plot twists.

  5. I love this scene series! Thank you for writing it. My scenes are becoming a whole lot stronger and better at “getting to the point” because of it.

  6. I find scene structure so exciting. Once we understand it, it brings such clarity to story mechanics. Glad you’re enjoying it too!

  7. I have not figured out the disaster exactly, as I’m still trying to figure out what the exact beginning is. Largely cause I have several choices of where to begin. For example, whether the beginning should be right after the bomb blast, or right when the group settled their first hunting settlement. Or even just before the strike during the war. Sometimes I just roll the dice and get on with it.

  8. Or rather, the phenomenon of being able to end a scene, but not begin the scene.

  9. Outstanding advice, thanks. In my most recent scene, my MC beats up the bad guy, seemingly averting the disaster of getting his own tail whipped. However, its a hollow victory as this induces consequences far greater than a butt kicking.

  10. @Sarah: It’s true that we can easily end up over-thinking our writing, especially in the first draft phases. Rolling the dice and getting on with is often exactly what we need to do. Once the words are on paper, we can always go back and edit for optimization.

    @RF: The classic “yes . . . but” disaster!

  11. I used to write two (or three) different versions of the same scene, and then pick which ones actually have the best disaster thats neither random, or completely mellow dramatic.

  12. That’s not a bad idea at all. I recommend that authors write several endings to their stories, just to push past the first and most obvious solution. Might take quite a bit of time to write multiple choices for *every* scene, but if you’re struggling to find the right fit, it would certainly be helpful.

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. Oh by the way, that Gene guy that wrote for the site is pretty cool. I might check out one of his comedy writing book.:3 Although I not intending comedy, it might be good to figure out how to nail a story with a punch line.

  15. Glad you enjoyed his post!

  16. I’ve never had it explained that way. Thank you so much for this great and informative article.

  17. This approach to Scenes was eye-opening to me as well when I first encountered it. Glad you enjoyed the article!

  18. If a novel is 3 disasters and a conclusion and the first disaster can be a natural disaster but every disaster afterwards is caused by what the protagonists does to fix the first disaster then maybe I’m having difficulty with my Sci-Fi story. A micrometeorite hits the space elevator and it’s destroyed. My character was working there and now has nothing to fix since it was completely destroyed. It feels weak to me.

    He has a goal to be less constrained by society and more free as an individual as per the theme of individual vs society. He takes the sub from the Marine Stage Platform in the Pacific where the space elevator used to descend and on the way at one of the intermediate islands has an altercation with a minor character. Charters a plane and arrives in Yokohama Headquarters for the space elevator. That gives me a chance to show the world he lives in. His next boss reprimands him for tinkering on the improved exoskeleton he’s trying to invent. The G-20 nations form an alliance to take over the world and now it’s imperative he finish his invention to protect individuals from the abuse of a robot army and the cyborg chasing him for his invention. Is this a strong enough segue from the first disaster?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If I’m understanding you right and you’re saying your story only features three disasters, then this would technically mean your story only features three scenes. This is unlikely, so perhaps if you look closer at the events between these big disasters, you’ll be able to spot the smaller scene-by-scene disasters. As for how disastrous the disasters have to be, that really depends on the story and the pacing and tone. A disaster can technically be something as small as a paper cut – if it drives the plot forward.

  19. Sophia Zervas says

    I’m curious–could a disaster be a incorporeal, a faulty belief that a character picks up in a scene? For example, my protagonist’s scene goal is to discover what gives another pianist an edge in competition. Over the course of the conversation, he gathers that he must practice incessantly. This belief proves disastrous later, when he contracts tendonitis, but would it suffice as a scene disaster?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The point of a scene disaster is two-fold: 1) it creates interesting pacing that holds the readers’ attention, and 2) it creates the impetus that leads into the following dilemma, decision, and new goal. As such, it needs to be something that’s evident in *this* scene and which has an obvious impact on the characters. This isn’t to say that disasters with prolonged effects aren’t excellent and important, but there also needs to be something that moves forward the current scene.

  20. Hiya – I’ve been using goal / conflict / disaster followed by reaction / dilemma / decision for a while now and found it one of the biggest breakthroughs in my writing, but recently I’ve been getting a bit tangled trying to work out how they sit with scenes. In my current book it doesn’t always neatly fit that goal to disaster goes in one scene, followed by a scene with reaction to decision. In one recently I felt it best to go: goal / conflict / incident / disaster.
    I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on this.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Here’s an important thing to understand: “Scenes,” in the structural sense, are not bound by the common understanding of the scene as a division within the story (separated from other scenes by a scene or chapter break). As such, the structural Scene can spill the bounds of any and all divisions in a book. For example, I usually structure my scenes so they cross chapters. I like to end with the disaster and open with the sequel reaction.

  21. Can you help me here? I know that my ending (so far) is the The “Yes, But . . .” Disaster” type, but I’m not sure what one. I’ll try and keep this as short as I can.

    Throughout the first few chapters, Merryn is lead to believe that the awoken god is basically evil incarnate (and I hope the readers too), But little by little (starting in chapter four even.) I have things shift just a little (I hope I’m doing it right, otherwise it’ll just be confusing.) and show that the god as not quite as evil as once thought.

    While he is a total jerk and cruel, he’s not totally evil. At least that’s been the plan once this occurred to me so, fast forward to the chapters leading up to the ending, I’m working towards. Much happens and they finally are separated. (at a cost) And during the story, it gradually occurs to her that it is Maxwell that is the real problem, not the god.

    So she finally gets what she wants, to be free of the god. Kind of. Her first “want” was to bring the god back home to be disposed of but that went all wrong and kickstarted the story. Later on, she just wanted to be free from it. She finally gets this but realizes that the god in its own sick way was trying to help her. (Well he did occasionally, other times he just messed with her head. )

    The god had taken her body transforming it what he wanted and gave her a made one. (I might just cut this out as I’ve no idea how to fix this. I didn’t just put myself into a corner here; I poured cement on top! Gah.)

    Maxwell does and about face and sucks unnamed into a magic box.

    This and that happens. She gets controlled by the dark spirits, realizes that DUH she’s THE spirit adapt and sticks them on Maxwell. Maxwell tries to kill Pacrivil her friend and would be love. (she rejected him) So duh-duh-duh battle and Merry stabs Maxwell in the chest. But Maxwell anticipated this and cast a lock spell on her so she’s stuck to the dagger. Maxwell dies pulling her down with him, they both sink into a sink hole on the hill they are all on.

    Now um what kind of Disaster is this? (Thank you if you take the time to answer this sorry it’s so long. Boy, I didn’t realise so much stuff was going on up to the ending. Is it possible to have too much going on?

    Oh, ya and Han (another character) are missing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yep, sounds like a “Yes, but…” disaster to me. She gets rid of the antagonist, but dies herself.

  22. Ianic Soledade says

    I’m still a little confused, I’m afraid, about disasters. Everyone says each scene needs to end with the protagonist in a worse position than where they started.

    But if the main antagonist of the whole story needs to be much stronger than the protagonist to be a credible threat, then doesn’t the protagonist need to also get stronger in order to believeably defeat the antagonist in the climax?

    For example if in a fantasy story a hero needs to stop a powrful evil wizard or something, then doesn’t the protagonist need to be growing stronger by gaining the power (magic or fighting skills or something) throughout the story in order to have any chance against the evil wizard?

    Or in a crime mystery. Doesn’t the detective need to be getting more powerful (in the form of collecting evidence and info about the case) in order to finally put the bad guy in jail?

    Or one of these intrigue stories about a conniving gangster or noble’s rise to power? Doesn’t the protagonist need to be steadily getting stronger in those so they can rise to the top?

    Maybe it’s something I’m missing or not understanding, but if anyone thinks they can explain it to me I’d be grateful.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Think of it this way. What is really meant by the idea of “putting the character in a worse place at the end of each chapter” is that “at the end of each chapter, the character will be getting closer and closer to the final confrontation with the antagonistic force.” Even if the character is growing in power, he’s still on a collision course for that final confrontation.

      Another thing to keep in mind is that a “disaster” doesn’t necessarily prevent the character from gaining his scene goal. It just means that *in* gaining it, he creates big complications that will then roll over into his goal for the next scene.

  23. I have a question. Now would the second scene have a disaster in the ‘Yes But’ category?

    First Scene: MC tries to protect his comrades but ends up getting captured and not knowing where his comrades are
    Second Scene: MC tries to escape imprisonment and ends up doing so but he still doesn’t know where his comrades and still needs to find them

  24. Could a disaster be something related to a more inner conflict like
    MC has a friend who has been acting suspiciously and have others told him about it so MC decides to get to the bottom of it but his friend denied the suspicions. MC half heatedly believes it and leaves him alone. Still suspecting him but trusted him anyway simply due to being great friends would be the disaster here.

    Then since nothing of relevance to plot happened there would be a time-skip to perhaps three days later where this time people told the MC that his friend was spotted with a dead body in his house.
    Due to previous disaster of how the MC had trusted him despite his own suspicions but his friend lied to him anyway, MC is angry and decides to barge into his friend’s house rather than hear him out. This leads to discovering his friend’s true agenda.

    Would the disaster between the first scene and the following one connect them?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Disasters need to drive the plot. Doesn’t matter if they’re inner or outer, big or small, as long as they create a change that prompts the character’s new goal in the next scene.

  25. Thanks so much for these posts – I have your audiobook Structuring Your Novel and was afraid I’d have to try to transcribe your wisdom!

  26. Kenneth Alexander says

    I refuse to believe I missed this on the over 253 books I’ve read, or maybe I didn’t. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!!!

    Ending scenes with disaster isn’t what my doctor ordered, but without even trying it yet, I know this is exactly what I need to give that sense of ‘completeness’ to my book. Everything is starting to fall into place, now.

  27. I’ve just discovered your website and already have learned a great deal, so I really want to thank you!

    I’m curious, though, whether every scene needs to end in disaster. For example, in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy arrives in Nepal to find the headpiece to the Staff of Ra (goal); the Nazis also arrive and they get into a fight (conflict); then Indy gets the headpiece and Marion as a partner — which seems like a victory.

    The only disaster I can think of is that the Nazis also get a copy of the headpiece — but we don’t find out about this until later. I suppose that makes it sort of a deferred Partial Obstruction / Hollow Victory, but that still seems to violate the spirit of ending each scene with a disaster.

    In fact, Raiders seems to be full of scenes where Indy achieves his goal, but then suffers some sort of setback later. He finds the idol… but then Belloq takes it. He finds the headpiece… but then the Nazis also get a copy. He finds the Ark… but then the Nazis take it. He disables the airplane… but then they load it onto a truck. He steals it from the truck… but then they catch up with him.

    It seems to me that this works because (1) every victory is followed by a setback, and (2) the idea of one guy going up against the Nazis in a race to find the lost Ark of the Covenant seems impossible — but each victory brings us closer to believing it will happen.

    Is a film like Raiders an exception? Or, am I not understanding the scene structure properly?

    Many thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s been a while since I’ve seen Raiders, so I can’t remember the exact timing of things. But I think probably the setbacks you’re talking about *are* the scene disasters. That said, although I prefer the term Disasters, because of its reminder to keep the scene focused on forward momentum, what’s most important is that scene end with an outcome that creates a new scene Goal for the next scene.

  28. Your website is so helpful! It has helped me get past many obstacles, but I am getting hung up on scenes. Do you remember Goonies? The main goal was to get the treasure. On the way, they encounter several situations. Each is one trap that they solve and get past. It is like a typical “quest” type story. Get from point A to point B while solving challenges as they come. There never seems to be a disaster. The conflict was a struggle, but the character always continues on. I may have overlooked it, but do you have an example that spans the whole scene and sequel cycle? Maybe my problem is I never see an example with a “quest” type plot.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Disasters can be of the “yes, but…” variety, in which the character gets past the obstacle to reach his scene goal, only to encounter a new complication. From what I remember of Goonies, it used that formula throughout.


  1. […] she made a list of things she wanted to accomplish by age 25. My first scene finished with a disaster: lovemaking with her husband was interrupted by a phone call, and she feels rejected now. […]

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