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Monday, July 8, 2024

Writing Scenes Without Conflict: Incidents, Happenings, Sequels, & More

Ideally, nearly every scene in a story will have conflict, because nearly every scene should have these primary plot elements: goal, antagonist, conflict, and consequences. And nearly every scene should have a turning point, which will be its climactic moment. With these things in their proper places, nearly every scene will follow basic structure:

In writing, all of these elements work in fractals. Yes, the overall narrative arc should have these things, but so should each act, and so should each scene.

. . . Generally speaking, anyway, because every rule is made to be broken.

As long as you know why and how you are breaking it.

With that in mind, sometimes you may have a scene that has no conflict.

Or no important goal, or antagonist, or consequences.

And on rare occasions, no turning point (though almost always there should at least be a turning point).

But these are exceptions, and the writer should implement them intentionally, not out of laziness or ignorance.

And when I say that most scenes should have conflict, I'm not saying they need shouting matches or flying fists. Conflict is simply what happens when a character runs into and deals with resistance (antagonistic forces). 

In any case, let's go through some types of scenes that don't require much, if any, conflict.


This term comes from Dwight V. Swain in his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer, but his writing on the subject there is surprisingly slim. Swain simply says:

An incident is a sort of abortive scene, in which your character attempts to reach a goal. But is met with no resistance, no conflict.

Incidents still have goals and consequences, but they lack antagonists and conflict. They almost always have turning points.

As K. M. Weiland points out, you could turn an incident into a full-blown scene. You could put in antagonists and conflict, but sometimes that's not what the story is about. Sometimes your character needs to simply succeed in a goal in order to progress to the next part of her journey (which is what the story is really about).

For example, say your character needs more information on a mythical monster (goal) so she knows where to look for it. Your character meets up with a professor who knows the myths. Now, you could turn this moment into a full-blown scene by having the professor be antagonistic--he doesn't want to give this information away. Or, perhaps, a third party is getting in the way of the professor giving your character this information. Now you have a scene with conflict, as your character tries to overcome that.

Or maybe you don't really need all that, because it distracts from the main story by adding length and weight to things that don't deserve them. It would emphasize pieces that aren't critical to the plot. So you write an incident. Your character meets up with the professor, gets the myths with the info, then heads off into the Murky Woods to find the monster.

Of course, there may be other ways to handle this situation. You could try to fit the information into another scene, or summarize the character getting the information instead. But if the myths themselves are important, then probably this conversation needs to be dramatized in a scene.

The turn happens when the character gets the final information and resolves what to do next with it.

Incidents can also be action-oriented. Let's say our story isn't really about catching this mythical monster. It's about what unfolds once this monster is caught. So an incident may be our character heading into the Murky Woods and successfully tracking and trapping the beast--no obstacles, no resistance, no conflict. The turn is just that, trapping the beast.

Again, I could turn this into a typical scene, by placing antagonistic forces in it. Maybe our character encounters a ruthless thunderstorm, trips and sprains an ankle, and almost gets eaten by the monster. Now it has conflict. It also now takes up more space and carries more weight. It also now shows how our protagonist is struggling, and maybe that's not what I want.

Incidents can be used to show off a character's prowess. If the character easily tracks and traps the monster without a hitch, then I'm showing she's skilled and/or experienced in that.

Sometimes there are scenes that seem to arguably fit between an incident and a typical scene, where there are technically antagonists, but they are non-threatening, and the character navigates them easily. Ruthless thunderstorm? No sweat. The monster wants to eat me? It'll be trapped before it takes another step. These can also be used to show off the character's skills.

And other times such moments are nice, because you can then undermine them later. They lull the audience into thinking everything is fine or great . . . until something bad and unexpected happens, bringing the character to her knees.

Almost always, an incident will still progress the plot. And there will almost always be some sort of shift, a change from how things were at the beginning of the scene to how things are at the end of the scene.


As Swain writes, "A happening brings people together. But it's non-dramatic, because no goal or conflict is involved." Usually this is used to introduce characters who will be important later in the story, so in this sense, it's often also a meet cute

With that said, though, not all meet cutes are happenings, and not all happenings are meet cutes.

I like to think of this as sort of the relationship version of the incident.

In a relationship plotline, the character either wants to draw closer to or push away from the other person (or maintain the relationship as is)--that's the goal. The antagonist is what gets in the way of that, which can be something outside the relationship, within the character, or even the other person in the relationship. The turn happens when the characters grow closer or more distant (or in some cases, successfully fends off the antagonist to maintain the relationship) in a defining way.

In a happening, the characters are interacting, but there isn't any antagonism or notable objective really.

As K. M. Weiland points out, a happening may also be used to relay information (that the character isn't actively seeking) or work as a distraction (which can be great to use when you want misdirection).

It should go without saying, that happenings should still be interesting and somehow contribute to the story. Frequently they are setting up what will happen in the story later, which brings me to my next section. . . .

Setup / Prequel Scenes

Some scenes are simply setups for payoffs later. Usually for most stories, we want to integrate setups into full-scale scenes, but I'd be lying if I said setup scenes didn't exist, or didn't exist in some successful manner. Like incidents and happenings, they are likely to be short. You often can't sustain a scene that doesn't have the primary plot elements for very long.

In some ways, the setup scene overlaps with happenings, because happenings are often about establishing a relationship that will be important later. But sometimes what is being established, isn't related to people.

Comedies, like Seinfeld or The Office often use setup scenes to deliver humorous payoffs later. In one episode of Seinfeld, Kramer stumbles upon the set of The Merv Griffin Show in a dumpster and begins curiously looking through the items. There isn't any real antagonist or conflict. There is hardly a meaningful goal (arguably). The true purpose of the scene is to set up the humorous payoff of Kramer's apartment looking like The Merv Griffin Show later, and then him behaving as a television host when people come over.

In his book The Structure of Story, Ross Hartmann refers to setup scenes as "prequels." And he notes that they can also be used to provide the context needed to understand or appreciate an upcoming scene. In this sense, the scene is foreshadowing and making promises about what is to come. He gives this example:

In Outbreak, a team of virologists is about to land in a "hot zone" full of infected patients. Dustin Hoffman's character warns Cuba Gooding Jr.'s character not to be afraid of what he's going to see. If anyone panics, it'll put the whole team in danger. Gooding's character is book-smart but has never seen a nasty disease in the flesh. He acknowledges the warning and promises that he's ready.

This sets up the upcoming scene where Gooding's character does panic. It also gives the audience context, so they can better appreciate the situation with the disease.

If you aren't careful though, such scenes can easily turn into info-dumps. 

Almost always it's best to integrate exposition into a full scene, by following Robert McKee's adage: convert exposition into ammunition. That certainly leads to better writing. Still, it may not be realistic or possible to do that all the time. Sometimes you may want to insert exposition into a prequel scene.

Sequel Scenes

A sequel is a reactionary segment that follows a typical scene, but sometimes that reaction is important and long enough to make up its own scene. I already did a whole post on sequels, so you can learn about them in more detail here.

In short, they are made up of three phases: reaction (emotional response), dilemma (logical response), and decision (which leads to a new goal).

Because sequels are about how a character is responding to situation, they function a little differently. They often don't start with a scene goal, but are about the character finding a goal for the next scene. In some sequels, you can argue that the goal is figuring out a new goal, a new way of moving forward. If there is an antagonist and conflict, they will usually show up during the dilemma stage of a sequel. The character may be in conflict with himself, as he debates which path to take next. Or he may be in conflict with an ally where they argue the same thing. Or he may be seeking more knowledge to help him make up his mind, and find some resistance there.

Or maybe he doesn't, and there is no antagonist or conflict. That's okay too. In a sequel the character may simply be going through emotional and logical responses until he makes up his mind about what to do next.

Sequels are all about the reaction.

Thematic Scenes

Some scenes are only about exploring the theme. They may not progress the plot. They may not even relate directly to the character's arc. They may not have antagonists and conflict. 

Of course, most thematic moments will also have all those things.

But some don't.

In A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, Coriolanus must capture and cage birds to send back to the Capitol. So there is a goal, and I suppose you could say it's an incident, but it's really more about progressing the theme than about the plot. It actually doesn't contribute anything to the plot. It's about showing the birds, which are symbolic of humankind thriving on freedom, locked up. It's about discussing whether or not they are better off this way. Is it bad they can no longer fly free? Or is it good that they will now be kept safe?

In short, it's about exploring the thematic arguments.

Not every scene is about plot or character.

Victim Scenes

This is in some ways the dark version of the incident. In an incident, the character has a goal and meets no antagonistic resistance. As I mentioned, this is sometimes a good way to show off a character's skill. 

But a sort of opposite can also exist, where an antagonist simply blocks the character, who can do nothing but wait for a moment of mercy. This puts the character into a passive state, a victim state, which almost never works. Passive characters lead to poor plots, and as counterintuitive as it sounds, their victimhood actually makes them less sympathetic.

But "almost never" isn't "never." Like anything, victim scenes can work well if you know how and when to use them, and like these other types, they often need to be short, because the audience won't be interested in them for very long.

Showing your protagonist helpless as he gets pummeled by an archnemesis can go a long way in showing off the antagonist's prowess. This can be particularly effective if we show how greatly skilled the protagonist is earlier. It'd be like Moriarty leaving Sherlock running with his "tail between his legs."

Victim scenes can also be useful in establishing the passive pain and unfairness your protagonist suffers in his day-to-day life. Sometimes we need to show the protagonist is helplessly trapped in a situation before something like the inciting incident comes along and offers him a way out.

Sure, you can argue that victim scenes still have conflict, but it's not really much of a "conflict" if the character can't do anything to fight back, if they are just waiting for a reprieve. So, I call them victim scenes.

In closing, not every scene literally needs conflict, it's just that, more often than not, in most stories, the scenes will be better if what's happening is framed with a goal, antagonist, conflict, and consequences. Too many new writers simply write conflict-less scenes because they don't know any better yet, or haven't learned the skills they need to. While we all start at the beginning, conflict-less scenes are there for when they enhance your story, not take away from it. They aren't there for you to overuse and abuse. They're there to make stories better.


  1. Great post on an important topic not or only superficially touched upon by many other writing blogs.

    Perhaps you disagree but I think that there are countless examples in books, movies or series that don't tick *all* the boxes of a full-blown scene and yet are key scenes if not turning points or set-ups for turning points.
    Elle's first class at Harvard Law School comes to mind (Legally Blonde), or arguably Lucy being at comatose Peter's hospital bed for the first time (While You Were Sleeping).

    1. Thanks! And I do think there are more than what I probably make it sound like sometimes. Some genres and stories will have more of these than others. The problem is that in most unpublished stories these are usually overused and/or used poorly and/or scene-level conflict isn't utilized enough. Theory and checkboxes are really great and helpful--but only insomuch as they are improving the story and writer in the long run. I mean, they exist to help us write better stories, not worse ones. Anyway, I may be heading into a tangent with that . . .

      Elle's first class is a good example of a scene that works, but isn't really a "full-blown" scene. It certainly has a goal (attend class) and antagonistic forces, and a turn, but the conflict isn't very long and obvious, and I would say structurally, the proportions are atypical. But it's a great scene and fulfills its purpose well, and that's what we want. (My opinion anyway.)

      Thanks for commenting and sharing your thoughts!


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