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Monday, September 27, 2021

Scene Structure According to Swain

While I've talked about scene structure on here before, I haven't covered one of the most famous approaches to scene structure, which comes from Dwight V. Swain, who categorizes the unit into "scenes" and "sequels." I've been introduced to this approach from various resources, but I wanted to wait until I read it straight out of Swain's book, Techniques of the Selling Writer, before covering it on here.

In the past, I've talked about how all structural segments really fit into this basic shape:

Whether it's a scene, sequence, act, or whole story. Nearly every scene should have a climactic moment, which is also called a "turning point." The bigger the structural segment, the bigger the turning point--meaning an act's turning point is going to have more ramifications than a scene-level turning point.

This is a great place to start understanding scene structure. 

But I've found that sometimes it doesn't feel specific enough to meet my needs. That's when I turn to Swain's approach.

The term "scene" can be a bit ambiguous in the writing world--people define it in slightly different ways (something worth keeping in mind whenever someone talks about scene structure). Typically, a scene is defined as a unit of action that takes place in a single location and continuous time. But this definition is certainly not perfect and the boundaries can get blurry fast with the right examples. However, I think most can agree that a scene is one of the smallest recognized structural units in a story. 

In his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer, Swain recognizes two types of the smallest structural unit. The first he calls "scene" and the second he calls "sequel."

"Scene" is where action takes place.

And "sequel" is where reaction takes place. 

And if you are already confused, don't fret. I'm going to break down each part. And if you don't get everything the first time, you're probably normal. I had to revisit this approach several times before it finally clicked. 

Let's talk about Swain's "scene."

Part One: Scene

"A scene is a unit of conflict lived through by the character and reader" - Dwight V. Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer

Earlier I talked about how a scene changes the direction of the story with a turning point. Swain echoes this assertion by saying the purpose of a scene is to move the story forward. 

He then breaks scene down into three pieces: goal, conflict, and disaster


Everyone pretty much wants something all of the time, and so does your character. We usually think of our character's goal as being overarching and taking the whole story to achieve--and while that's often certainly the case, the character should also have scene-level goals. Often the scene-level goal fits into the overarching plot goal. 

For example, in Spirited Away, Chihiro has the plot goal of saving her parents and returning to the human world. But within that goal, there are smaller goals along the way. In order to succeed in doing that, she has to get a job at the bathhouse first. After she gets hired, she has to prove herself worthy to stay. And to do that, she must succeed in cleaning a bath and serving a client. In order to clean the bath, she has to get an herbal soak token.

Sometimes the scene goal isn't obviously linked to the overarching goal, and a character may want multiple things. For example, in a later scene, Chihiro has the goal of remembering Haku's real name. While that's important to the relationship and thematic plotlines, it doesn't really affect her main goal of saving her parents and getting home, but it is another want she has.

In any case, I'll say that the goal should have significant stakes. This means that obtaining or not obtaining the scene goal affects the direction of the story--it has ramifications. It shouldn't be a goal whose outcome doesn't really change anything (generally speaking, as all rules have exceptions). Because Chihiro is able to remember Haku's name, Haku is able to leave the bathhouse himself. So meeting that goal still has significant consequences. However, if remembering his name didn't help him or change any outcomes, then it wouldn't be important and would probably be cut from the story.

Goals are important because they give the audience context for the plot. If there isn't a goal, then the audience can't measure whether what happens is progress or a setback. They are just watching things happen. Or, perhaps as the Cheshire Cat says, if you don't know where you want to go, then which way you go doesn't really matter. 

Because of this, almost always the audience should have a sense of the character's goal in the beginning of the scene. In some cases, the goal may be implied, because of what happened in previous scenes. Of course, there are situations where you may want to break this rule, such as when you want to write a teaser or create a sense of mystery, but let's keep this simple today.

Goals should almost always be concrete and specific. For example, cleaning a bath and getting an herbal soak token are things the audience can "see," and therefore measure the success of. If the goal is abstract, it should (usually) have concrete manifestations. For example, if a character wants to prove he loves someone (abstract), he may decide to send flowers and write a love letter (concrete). Successfully doing this is a smaller goal within a larger goal.


Now that the character has a goal, he'll run into some form of opposition, which creates conflict. This makes up the middle or rising action of the scene. I emphasize "opposition" because the conflict isn't just any problem, it's something in the way of the goal.

The opposition may be obvious and direct. For example, Wonder Woman may be confronting Ares, who is fighting directly against her goal of saving humans. Or perhaps, Frodo may be trying to escape the Ringwraiths, who want to take the Ring.

Other times it may be unobvious and somewhat indirect. It might be that a character wants to confess his love, but keeps getting interrupted by phone calls, his dog, or a wild wind that seems to steal his words. The opposition isn't necessarily trying to make him fail; it's just something in the way. But notice that it's still something that impedes his goal.

There are eight types of conflict, and any of them can be used to create opposition: person vs. self, person vs. person, person vs. society, person vs. nature, person vs. god, person vs. fate, person vs. the supernatural, person vs. technology. (Though of course, you need to use good judgment and pick what best suits your scene.) 

Because this makes up the rising action of basic structure, it's usually best if the conflict escalates. There needs to be complications and developments. Have the opposition get bigger and stronger as the scene progresses. Rehashing or lengthening the exact same thing isn't interesting. In our example of a character trying to confess his love, having his phone disrupt him the exact same way over and over gets boring (and annoying). Instead, it's more interesting if his phone disrupts him, then his dog jumps up and starts kissing his love interest, and then when he finally starts breaching the confession, a wild wind blows away his words, so he has to bring himself to say them again. Escalation.

Swain points out that conflict is important because it tests the character's dedication to the goal. It shows the audience how bad the character wants the goal. If the character gave up right away, he obviously doesn't want it very badly. But if he's willing to fight and struggle for it--that's much more interesting. And whatever is that important to him, is usually important to the story--it helps make up the plot. 


Eventually, the conflict comes to a close (if only on the scene level), and disaster strikes. 

While it's called "disaster," it need not always be earth-shattering. It just needs to be significant (i.e. the potential to change important future outcomes, meaning it has stakes). This is (almost) always something unanticipated. 

I admit that the way Swain himself describes "disaster" sounds a little vague. While his book is amazing and I recommend it, he has the tendency to explain concepts primarily through examples rather than by giving actual explanations. In any case, the disaster part is essentially what others refer to as "No, and . . . " and "Yes, but . . ." If you've never heard those terms, let me explain.

The character has a goal.

He faces conflict.

Does he get the goal?

If the answer is "no," then we add to the problem.

If the answer is "yes," then we add a new problem.

For example, say our character tries to confess his love. The wind steals his words, and in fact, it gets so wild that it completely ruins the moment, and they have to seek shelter. The character doesn't get the goal, and now he has another problem--a "disaster"--which is he needs to find shelter for himself and his love interest. 

Alternatively, say the wind steals his words, but he succeeds in his next attempt, confessing his love and winning the person of his dreams. Suddenly, the love interest's ex pulls up, gets out of his car, and aims a gun at him. New problem. Disaster. 

These might not sound like the most amazing examples, but they prove the point. A disaster throws the character toward a loss. The audience wonders, What will the character do now? Translation: The audience will want to keep reading. 

The disaster is essentially the outcome. But whatever the disaster is should (once again) have stakes/ramifications. In my "success" example, a wild wind may not be the greatest choice unless the wind actually threatens a serious outcome. Maybe it threatens to ruin something valuable that the love interest needs to deliver. Now getting out of the wind becomes more important. Obviously, an ex pointing a gun at the character has big stakes.

Swain acknowledges that not every scene needs to end in disaster. Sometimes the potential or promise for a disaster to come, is enough. He also says it's possible for the character to end the scene on a positive note . . . to set her up for a disappointment that's coming next. However, the tricky thing with doing that, is that the audience is now waiting for the antagonistic force to make its move, rather than anticipating what the focal character is going to do next. And waiting for something to happen isn't as interesting as having to deal with a new problem.

The main idea is that you want the conflict to end with a hook--something that makes the reader look forward to a near-future point in the story (probably the next scene) and keep reading.  

Example: Chihiro passes to the spirit world in Spirited Away

Goal: Chihiro must get across the river before nightfall (or she'll be stuck in the spirit world). 

Conflict: Chihiro runs back to her parents, but only finds pigs. Confused, she begins running around trying to find them, but the spirits are starting to come out. She tries to go back toward her car as the sun is setting, but the river has seemingly flooded.

Disaster: With the river flooded, she has no way to get across, and night falls ("No . . . ); she looks at her hands and realizes she's turning transparent ("and . . .")

Next we will talk about the second part of this, what Swain calls the "sequel." It also has three pieces: reaction, dilemma, and decision. Read about it here.

Read more articles on Swain's scene and sequel

Writing Patterns Into Fiction: Scene and Sequel

How To Write A Gripping Scene

The Basics of Scene Structure: Action and Reaction

How to Structure Scenes in Your Story


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