Scene structure is the backbone of strong narrative storytelling. Built properly, scenes effortlessly link one to another to create a chain of give and take, cause and effect, action and reaction, question and answer.
The whole point of scene structure is to create an ebb and flow that mimics how humans balance forward momentum with the necessary introspection to process that momentum (another analogy might be: extroversion and introversion).
Classic scene structure (as I discuss in my book Structuring Your Novel) looks like this:
Part 1: Scene (Action)
a. Goal (character wants something on the scene level that will ultimately help him reach his overall plot goal—and he tries to get it)
b. Conflict (character is met with an obstacle to obtaining his goal)
c. Outcome (usually disastrous, in the sense that the character does not achieve the goal or achieves only part of it)
Part 2: Sequel (Reaction)
a. Reaction (character reacts to the outcome)
b. Dilemma (character must figure out how to overcome the new complications and still move forward toward his main plot goal)
c. Decision (character decides upon a new scene goal to cope with the new complications and move forward toward the main plot goal in a—hopefully—more effective way)
>>For an even more complete discussion of scene structure, see my series How to Structure Scenes in Your Story.
5 Reasons You’re Confused About Scenes and Sequels
I receive a lot of questions from writers who seem to be confused about scene structure, but in fact, know a lot more than they’re giving themselves credit for. Here are five important facts about scene structure that can help you stop overthinking the process.
1. Structural Scenes Have Nothing to Do With Scene Breaks
Let’s just get this one out of the way right at the start: a structural scene is one that includes all of the structural pieces mentioned above. It has nothing to do with the popular concept of scene as a portion of the story divided from the rest of the story by a scene break or chapter break.
Several structural scenes can reside within one chapter or “scene.” Or a single structural scene can span many chapters.
>>More on that in this post: 7 Questions You Have About Scenes vs. Chapters.
2. Scene Structure Isn’t Always Exact
Even if you’ve already mastered the basics, scene structure remains a complex subject if only because it isn’t always a rock-solid principle. The idea is to create an overall framework within your story that follows this give and take of scene and sequel. But this doesn’t necessarily mean every single moment within your story must nail every one of these beats.
The various parts of scenes and sequels will often bleed over into one another, sometimes expanding, sometimes compressing, sometimes combining. It’s an often intuitive dance that authors have to be confident enough to feel their way through.
3. “Incidents” and “Happenings” Don’t Follow Proper Structure
Sometimes you’ll write a “scene” that doesn’t follow proper structure at all, but is still necessary to the story. If you’re trying to religiously follow proper scene structure, this may have you freaking out.
But actually, it’s totally acceptable to write the occasional scene that does not include the above-mentioned integers of proper structure. In Techniques of the Selling Author, the late great Dwight V. Swain defines two possible approaches:
An incident is a sort of abortive scene, in which your character attempts to reach a goal. But he meets with no resistance, no conflict.
A happening brings people together. But it’s non-dramatic, because no goal or conflict is involved.
You’ll want to use incidents and happenings sparingly and with care, since too many of them will quickly derail the forward progress of your plot. But neither should you be afraid of including them where necessary.
>>Find out more here: Incidents and Happenings: Scenes That Aren’t Actually Scenes.
4. Scenes and Sequels Can Be as Big or as Small as You Want
Harking back to the beginning of this section, your scenes and sequels can be so big they span many chapters or so small there are several of them within a single chapter.
This is especially true of the sequel portion of the structure. Very often, in the heat of action, characters will experience a disastrous outcome, immediately process their reaction, face the dilemma, come to a decision, and begin acting upon a new goal—all within the space of a few sentences. Indeed, the whole concept of action/reaction can be found in “Motivation-Reaction Units” on the sentence level.
>>Find out more about Motivation-Reaction Units (or MRUs) here: Motivation-Reaction Units: Cracking the Code of Good Writing
So, although you don’t need to particularly worry about the size of your scenes/sequels, there are two key things to keep in mind:
1. With few exceptions, you want to make sure all the pieces of the structure are present (at least implicitly), no matter how short or long your scene/sequel.
2. Scene structure controls your story’s pacing. Rapid-fire scene/sequel pairings, or even lengthy scenes with short sequels, will contribute to a fast pace. Longer scene/sequels or disproportionately longer sequel segments will slow down your pacing. You’ll want a good mix of both options.
The Thematic Way to Approach Scene Structure
Most of the questions I receive about scene structure are from writers who understand the structural aspect but are trying too hard to make it “perfect.” There’s no need to obsess about your scene structure. It’s there as yet another of those infamously piratical “guidelines.”
Solid scene structure throughout your story will help you create a cohesive narrative, in which you never have to wonder whether or not a scene is necessary or causal. But don’t feel there’s no room to breathe, to flex, or to let the narrative itself dictate the ebb and flow.
Previously, I talked about how one way to look at scene/sequel is to think of them as question/answer. Today, I’m going to give you yet another helpful analogy, this one inspired by a John Truby talk I listened to last year.
Scene = Action
Sequel = Lesson
I like this view because it emphasizes the importance of the sequel. We all get that stuff is supposed to happen in a story—action is supposed to happen, goals are supposed to be pursued.
But that’s not enough. And that is where scene structure becomes so powerful in linking plot structure with character arc. With this in mind, we could reinterpret the original approach to scene structure more like this:
Part 1: Scene (Action)
a. Goal (character wants something but tries to achieve it in a way that isn’t fully informed by the thematic Truth)
b. Conflict (because the character is not yet mentally or spiritually equipped to understand how to pursue his goal with the Truth-empowered tools he needs to accomplish it—he meets obstacles, which he either partially created himself and/or simply failed to recognize)
c. Outcome (when the character fails—partially or wholly—to reach his scene goal, he is presented with the opportunity for growth and learning)
Part 2: Sequel (Reaction/Lesson)
a. Reaction (character reacts to the outcome with the growing realization that his Lie-based tactics are failing him)
b. Dilemma (character is presented with the opportunity to learn from his failure: not just how to do better next time, but, more importantly why did he fail this time?)
c. Decision (depending on his thematic arc, the character will either learn something about his Truth or further reject it—and form a new plot goal that will help him act accordingly)
>>For more on character arcs, see: How to Write Character Arcs (Complete Series)
What Scene Structure Looks Like in Action
Once you know what scene and sequel look like, you’ll start spotting them in all your favorite books and movies.
Rule of thumb: whenever a character looks confused and/or suddenly has that “I got it!” look in his eyes, he’s probably in the midst of a sequel.
Not long ago, Wordplayer Becky Jones Fettig requested:
I would love to see a scene from one of KM’s books dissected into the Scene and Sequel format for instruction purposes. Is that possible something KM?
Below you’ll find an interplay of several different segments of scenes and sequels within a single chapter from my historical/dieselpunk novel Storming. (For context, you can read the story summary here.) I’ve created images of the text below, which you can enlarge by clicking on them.
Scene structure offers writers a reliable set of guidelines for crafting scenes that work. Understanding the interplay between scene and sequel can also help you open up the vast options for enhancing them within your plot and theme.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How do you feel about scene structure? Tell me in the comments!