Hello writers! I’m delighted to welcome K.M. Weiland to the blog today to teach us how to structure a scene quickly. On September 25, Weiland will be talking to our Write Now! Mastermind class about Scene Sequences: Building Your Book from the Ground Up. If you’re not yet a member of the group, sign up for the class and join us. At the end of this post, check out how you can win a copy of Weiland’s brand new book, Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story. —Rochelle, the Write Now! Coach
You know my favorite thing about story structure? Actually, it’s a little hard to narrow down a list that includes such goodies as stronger stories, easier first drafts, and solid answers to the nebulous and frustrating question, Why isn’t this working?!
So let’s just say one of my favorite things about structure is how easy it is to grasp the basics. This is true of story structure as a whole (which I discuss, in depth, in my book Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys to Writing an Outstanding Story), and it’s true of structure on the smaller level of the scene.
If you’ve got five minutes to spare, then you have all the time you need to learn the basics of how to structure that most important of all story integers—the scene. Ready? Set your timer, because here we go!
6 Steps to Scene Structure
Every scene within your story has two halves: the scene (in which characters are acting) and the sequel (in which characters are reacting). These two mighty little pistons power the entirety of your story. We can further break these two halves down into three steps apiece. Take a look!
1. The Goal.
Every scene begins with a goal. Your character wants something. The scene goal will always be a reflection or a result of the overall story goal. Your character wants to defeat the evil overlord or win the fair maiden’s hand. To get there, he will have to enact a series of smaller goals. These goals will form the impetus for every scene. Identify your character’s goal early in each scene to give its narrative focus and dynamism.
2. The Conflict.
If your character were allowed to traipse right through your story, accomplishing his every goal, your plot would be over almost as quickly as it began. This is where conflict comes into play. Scene conflict is simply anything that prevents your character from achieving his scene goal. This might be fistfight, or it might be flat tire. Conflict is the meat of your scene. After you’ve set up the goal, the majority of your scene will focus on whatever it is that’s keeping your character from getting what he wants.
3. The Outcome (or Disaster).
Your scene will end with a decided outcome. Either your character overcomes the conflict to get what he wants, or, more likely, he fails either partly or wholly—and the scene ends in disaster. I like to place the emphasis on disaster as the final part of the scene, but this doesn’t mean something earth-shatteringly awful has to happen at the end of every scene. Rather, it means every scene must push your character sideways, instead of allowing him to advance, uninhibited, in a straight line to his main goal.
4. The Reaction.
After your character is hit with a disaster at the end of the scene, he will enter a reflective sequel. This is where he reacts to what’s just happened. This is an extremely important section. Not only does it allow a little “downtime” in between action set pieces, it also bolsters readers’ suspension of disbelief by proving that your character is a thinking, reacting human being. Scene disasters only matter in the context of the character’s thoughts and feelings about them.
5. The Dilemma.
Once you’ve recorded your character’s initial emotional reaction to the disaster, you have to allow his intellect to take over. The disaster will have presented him with a new dilemma. How will he move forward after this recent setback and its complications? The dilemma is where your character puts on his thinking cap and figures out his next move. This might be a lengthy section in which he ponders many options, or it might be just a quick sentence if the answer to his dilemma is obvious.
6. The Decision.
The sequel (and the scene as a whole) ends when your character caps his dilemma with a decision. He figures out what he has to do to continue moving forward toward his overall story goal. This brings the scene as a whole full circle and leads right up to the brand new goal that will start off the next scene.
Once you understand the six factors needed to create solid scenes, you will have the building blocks you need to assemble your story from the ground up. Put one solid scene upon another—and before you know it, you’ll have an entire story!
About the author. K.M. Weiland is the author of the epic fantasy Dreamlander, the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval epic Behold the Dawn. She enjoys mentoring other authors through her website Helping Writers Become Authors, her books Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel, and her instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration. She makes her home in western Nebraska.