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Monday, December 10, 2018

Structuring Satisfying Scenes

Last week I was going through some old scenes and reading through them rather quickly but still tweaking them here and there to be more effective. While some I thought were good, they didn't have the same zing to them, and I realized it was because they didn't fully follow a satisfying structure.

You can find a lot of articles about structuring scenes, and I won't have room to cover everything here (though maybe over time I can get them all on my site), but I wanted to start with same basics that can be helpful to everyone.

When we talk about overall story structure and strip everything away to the bare, bare bones, it should follow Freytag's Pyramid.

This was posted online a while ago, and I saw someone commenting and laughing how it was out of date and that for the modern audience, Freytag's Pyramid isn't going to work. This is like saying that because we now have hip-hop, dance doesn't work. But hip-hop is dance. All satisfying story structures embody Freytag's Pyramid even if they add more elements. 7-Point Plot Structure, the Hero's Journey, whatever. All of them follow Freytag's Pyramid because it's the most basic unit of story structure. Just as hip-hop adds more specificity, but is still dance.

And when you start working with scenes, you'll notice that most successful scenes also follow this structure, on a small scale. Like everything, there are exceptions. But as you actually genuinely work at writing a satisfying novel, you may realize that we use this simple structure everywhere--plotting, character arcs, dialogue exchanges, sometimes even within a paragraph. Never underestimate the power of the basics. As Leonardo da Vinci once stated, "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."

With that in mind, let's talk about how satisfying scene structure actually mimics overall story structure, which may include elements that are often added to Freytag's Pyramid.


Before worrying about scene structure, it's helpful to identify a few key elements of the scene.

Purpose - What is the purpose of the scene? It should be moving the story forward in some way. This might be obvious, like having the protagonist confront the antagonist, but other times it might be a little less obvious, like introducing the audience to a rule in a magic system, revealing a character trait, or stating a theme. But the point is that the scene has a purpose and it's not superfluous. Ask yourself, what is the audience getting out of this scene?

Goal - The main character (of the scene) should have a goal of some kind, something he or she wants. As a beginning writer, it can be easy to want to skimp out on this, but it's very effective in writing a good scene and practically a necessity. It may be something immediately obvious and direct, like defeating the antagonist. Other times it might be more personal or even indirect, like Bilbo Baggins wanting to be left alone in his Hobbit hole--that may not be the main purpose of the scene, but it's there. This is why "purpose" and "goal" are two different categories.

Let me give you another example. The opening of Harry Potter has the purpose of teasing the audience about the Wizarding World and Harry himself from a Muggle perspective. But the viewpoint character, Vernon Dursley has the goal of having a normal day via dismissing all of the peculiar things happening around him

Conflict - What kind of conflicts or potential conflicts (a.k.a. tension) will be present in this scene? Is it the physical wrestle between the protagonist and antagonist? Is it Vernon Dursley being bombarded time and time again with peculiar happenings and people? And him being afraid to call his wife and ask about the Potters? Is it Bilbo having to deal with people wanting to socialize?

Sometimes, all these things line up in scenes, especially toward the end of the novel.

For example,

Purpose: Protagonist defeats antagonist in a sword fight
Goal: Protagonist wants to defeat antagonist in a sword fight.
Conflict: Protagonist and antagonist want to defeat each other in a sword fight

Seems simple right?

But in other scenes, it might be more indirect or sometimes not seem to match at all.

Here is one from a scene in the first Fantastic Beasts movie.

Purpose: Introduce the audience to Newt's magical case and all the beasts/elements inside, while appealing to wonder.
Goal: While Newt does heal Jacob and care for his animals, his main goal is to see which animals are missing, so he can figure out how to find them (notice that healing Jacob allows him to have Jacob tell him about places in New York and that feeding the animals allows him to see who is missing.)
Conflicts: I'm going to argue that the main conflicts center on Jacob being a Muggle--first Newt has to figure out how to heal him when Muggle biology is a little different, then Jacob doesn't know how to interact with the creatures, and finally, he almost messes with the Obscurus and Newt has to stop him.

Ideally, most scenes have more than one purpose, more than one goal, and more than one conflict. In fact, it's practically a necessity.

So in my last example, another purpose of the scene is to foreshadow and introduce the Obscurus. Newt also reveals his goal to release the Thunderbird. And he doesn't want Jacob to be obliviated. He touches on other conflicts--Frank being trafficked, the Niffler always getting out, the last breeding pair of Graphorns. There are mini-goals that I already mentioned, healing Jacob and feeding the animals. And mini-conflicts, an Occamy tries to bite Jacob, and Pickett won't get off Newt's hand.

You'll notice that even if the main purpose, goal, and conflict don't line up directly, they will naturally overlap during the scene itself in some way because they are elements that have to be present and therefore have to be interwoven to be satisfying. In order to fulfill the purpose of the last example, Newt has to go in his case, which means he needs to have a need/goal for doing that, and to show off the animals in interesting ways, there needs to be conflict for balance.

So they overlap, but they aren't directly the same thing, unlike, say the final sword fight between hero and villain.

And this is where I think some beginning writers have a problem--they don't have to all be the same thing. And in many stories, in the beginning scenes, they won't be.


Remember Freytag's Pyramid? Great. Most satisfying scenes follow that same structure, but on a smaller scale. I don't care if your scene is about a character falling in love with another, a conversation about what the antagonist is up to, or a train ride to school. If it's going to be effective, it most likely needs the setup, rising action, and climax. I should have mentioned above that some say the denouement (falling action) is optional--I strongly argue that in stories, they should almost always be included for validation, but in scenes, I think that can vary a little more, somewhat.

I'm going to add one more element. The hook. And instead of "exposition," I'm going to call it "setup." So here are the basic parts of a satisfying scene.

Hook - Grab the audience's attention in some way. This doesn't need to be clickbait, people. Hooks work on promises--they give the audience something to anticipate. Often this is something to hope for or to dread. But sometimes it's just the promise of more information--the hook communicates to the audience that they need(want) more information.

In my Fantastic Beasts example, I'm going to argue the hook is Newt and then Jacob disappearing magically into the suitcase. Since we know he keeps creatures in that case, we anticipate seeing them.

Setup - Author David Farland calls this part "grounding." We need to ground the audience. Where are we? When are we? And who is present? Give us an idea. How much you need of this may depend on the prior scene(s). In the very first scene of a book, we usually need more grounding (and setup in the large-scale sense, which is one reason why openings are so hard).

The camera shows Newt in the case in the first room with Jacob. Great, they both turned up in the same place. Then later we follow them out and get a glimpse of this case having animal habitats.

Rising Action - Once readers are invested and know where we are, it's time to build rising action. What it is depends on the preliminary elements: the purpose, goal, and conflicts.

If the main purpose is for one character to fall for another, we might cook up sexual tension. If the purpose is to figure out who the murderer is via a conversation between two heroes, the heroes may start talking about conflicts and clues, stakes and goals, and suspects. In Newt's suitcase, the rising action is checking the animals--which appeals to the purpose and goal and incorporates conflict.

Like the middle of a story, the rising action of the scene escalates. This is why it's called rising action. This is what happens in our Newt example. Newt doesn't have too much trouble curing Jacob, then he goes to the Thunderbird, where he has to he warn Jacob that Frank doesn't like strangers. When he tries to let go of Pickett, it's more difficult than the other two things. He shows Jacob the Occamies, but one nearly bites off Jacob's finger. Eventually this escalates to Newt having to stop the most dangerous outcome of all, Jacob messing with the Obscurus.

Alternative to conflicts and tension, you can see the purpose of the scene itself escalate. First we briefly glimpse the Swooping Evil, then interact with Frank, then visit three Graphorns, then four bowtruckles, four Occamies (would be five, but one is missing, but Jacob and Newt both hold one), then a montage of a whole bunch of different animals with Newt and Jacob interacting with them.

(See what I mean about Freytag's Pyramid being used everywhere?)

Climax - This is the high point, where the purpose, conflict, and/or goal reach their max for the scene. This is the moment the character falls in love in our prior example. This is the line in the conversation where the heroes realize which of the suspects is the murderer. For Newt, I actually included the climaxes in the last example to illustrate. For the conflict, the climax is when Jacob is near the Obscurus. For the purpose, the climax is when we get that montage of loads of fantastic beasts. What about the goal? It's when Newt finishes counting the beasts at the Erumpent pen. You'll notice that this climax is much more subtle. That's okay. In some scenes the character's goal may not even climax, because it changes or remains unfulfilled or gets obstructed. You don't need everything to climax, but there should usually be some form of climax.

Denouement (Falling Action) - On occasions, some scenes will not have a denouement. But I think we sometimes misunderstand falling actions. They don't necessarily tie everything up if there is more to the story. This is the same thing with series books. The denouement may tie up the main elements of the novel, but it also keeps us looking forward to what happens next, in other words, it has a promise, a.k.a. hook, that gets us to anticipate, usually through hope or dread, what might come next.

In my hook section, I said the hook for Newt was him going into his case. Some of you might have realized that was actually the end (denouement) of the prior scene. It doesn't have to be structured like that. You can have hooks at both the end of one scene and the beginning of another--in fact, you usually should. But my point is that there should usually be some kind of hook to get us to want to keep reading.

Often naturally, in a scene, the denouement will get us to look ahead. Great, our heroine fell in love--but guess what? We know from the setup that this is a forbidden love, so now what's she gonna do? Our heroes figured out who the murderer is, great, so now how are they going to catch him? Newt knows which creatures are missing, so now how is he going to recover those?

In the overall story, the denouement may validate what happened to the reader. This may or may not happen in a scene. In our love example, we may have a few lines that validate that yes, our heroine did just fall for that guy. Or yes, that suspect has to be the murderer, because look at how this now all fits (and the heroes will be talking about that).

The falling action finishes the scene. In some cases, it may be cut to end on a cliffhanger. Just don't forget that just because you have a denouement doesn't mean you can't have the audience anticipating what happens next. Some beginning writers think you can only achieve that by axing the falling action. If you do that every time, it can get annoying, and make the story feel "gap"-ish as you never "finish" one scene before starting another.

Note - Scenes are much briefer than an overall story. Depending on the scene, these may take paragraphs or they may be as short as half a sentence. For example, you may have the hook and the setup in the same sentence. But whatever the case, they typically follow the same proportions. The rising action takes up the bulk of the scene, while the hook will be the shortest.

There are really so many ways to talk about how a scene works and other approaches, but this is a good one to start on. If any of this is paralyzing to you, relax. If you are an outliner, you can use this to help you outline scenes. If you are a discovery writer, go ahead and discover the scene, then if you are stuck or feel like it's lacking, go through these like checkpoints. This is meant to work for you, not for you to work for it.

I want to go on, but this post is getting rather long, so next week I'll be back to talk about how the character moves psychologically through the scene.

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