This series of posts explores all you need to know about writing scenes. We’ll consider topics such as Scene and Sequel*, cause and effect, scene goals, and more. Today’s post focuses on: scene structure.
* We’re using Scene and Sequel (capitalised, italics) when referring to these specific terms and ‘scene’ (no capitals or italics) to refer to scenes in general.
A recap on conflict…
We previously defined the term ‘scene’ by quoting author Jordan Rosenfeld: “Scenes are capsules in which compelling characters undertake significant actions in a vivid and memorable way that allows the events to feel as though they are happening in real time.”
This definition reminds us to slow things down, zoom in on the action, and savour the drama as presented on the page. Scenes are your story’s highlights. Maximise their impact.
The ‘microstructure’ of conflict
In the previous post, we looked at two different methods for organising the detail of conflict: Jack Bickham’s ‘Stimulus, Internalisation, and Response’ method, and Dwight Swain’s ‘Motivation – Reaction’ units. These patterns direct the reader’s focus in a logical way: something happens, a character processes it, and then reacts accordingly. This microstructure keeps things linear and organised and avoids confusing the reader.
For example, the following progression is flawed. The stimulus and response do not immediately make sense:
(stimulus) John said, ‘hey, what’s up?’
(response) Mike hit John square on the nose.
Contrast this with Bickham’s method for organising conflict:
(stimulus) John said, ‘hey, what’s up?’
(internalisation) I’ll show you what’s up, thought Mike.
(response) He hit John square on the nose.
Adding the ‘internalisation’ gives context to Mike’s actions. This helps with the flow of cause and effect, which, as we have seen, is woven through storytelling on every level. Paying attention to this keeps things organised.
Around in circles…
However, there’s more to conflict than the minutiae. If you’ve ever listened to an argument between children (or drunks! And if I’m honest I’m uncertain of the difference…) you’ll know how irritating circular ‘it’s your fault’ / ‘no it’s your fault’ conflict can be.
Organising the microstructure of conflict combats this to some extent, but we still need to make sure the conflict goes somewhere. Repetitive arguments are dull and pointless. Matters have to develop to a satisfying conclusion.
Let’s consider the bigger picture: how should your story ebb progress each scene?
The origins of the 3-act structure
In her excellent book ‘Secrets of Screenplay Structure’, Linda Cowgill traces our understanding of the three-act structure back to Aristotle’s work ‘The Poetics’. Although an essay on the Greek tragedy, these principles also apply to drama:
‘A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion. A beginning is that which itself does not of necessity follow something else, but after which there naturally is, or comes into being, something else. A conclusion, conversely, is that which itself naturally follows something else, either of necessity or for the most part, but has nothing else after it. A middle is that which itself naturally follows something else, and has something else after it. Well-constructed plots should neither begin from a random point nor conclude from a random point, but should use elements we have mentioned (i.e., the beginning, middle and conclusion.)’
—Aristotle, Poetics (translated by Richard Janko).
It’s worth picking through this slab of text to understand it fully. Aristotle suggests a whole story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, where one flows into the next. To Aristotle, events within a story should not be coincidental or irrelevant; they should build towards a dramatic and satisfying conclusion. This is cause and effect once more.
Rising tensions over three acts
To Cowgill, the journey from dramatic question to dramatic climax should be one of rising tension. To begin, then, you must first pose a dramatic question. Similarly, story beginnings often deliver exposition – the information we need to fully grasp the story. This is our starting point.
From there, we encounter what Aristotle called complications. This includes important plot moments such as the reversal and the recognition – those moments where the protagonist gains knowledge and insight, leading to love or enmity between the story’s players.
As we approach the end of the story, tensions and drama continue to rise, leading us to the story’s climax. The protagonist’s problems must be solved – or not – in a way which brings about a resolution to the story. The dramatic question is answered, one way or another.
As above, so below
This journey, as sketched out above, gives us a basic 3-act structure. John York, in his book Into the Woods (2013), argues that this structure of beginning, middle, and end is not only found across whole stories and acts, but also within scenes themselves. He writes that scenes “mimic exactly an archetypal story shape”, and contain a set-up, a crisis, a climax and resolution.
To give your scenes shape, and therefore avoid circular, repetitive conflict, it seems important to pay attention to scene structure. Let’s look at another way of organising this.
The 8 point arc[bctt tweet=”You always come into the scene at the last possible moment.” —WILLIAM GOLDMAN”]
The late Nigel Watts (Teach Yourself: Writing a Novel) steps out a slightly different way of organising story events. He called it ‘the eight-point arc’:
• Stasis: once upon a time
• Trigger: something out of the ordinary happens
• Quest: causing the protagonist to seek something
• Surprise: but things don’t go as expected
• Critical Choice: forcing the protagonist to make a difficult decision
• Climax: which has consequences
• Reversal: the result of which is a change in status
• Resolution: and they all lived happily ever after (or didn’t)
Watts, echoing York, suggest this arc can be found within scenes, acts, and whole stories. It does seem to correspond to the 3-act structure. We know that Scenes begin with the POV-character’s pursuit of their goal (the quest) and end with a turning point (the character makes a critical choice, which leads to the climax).
It makes sense that the cause and effect flow of conflict should progress along the following lines: a quest, a surprise, a choice, and a climax.
Hitting these points means you’ll create focused, linear conflict in your Scenes. Again, it’s a question of rising tension.
Come in late, get out early
Review the 8-point arc above, however, and you’ll see it doesn’t quite fit snugly into a typical scene. For instance, Scenes begin with a character who’s motivated to achieve their scene goal. The Stasis and Trigger elements of the arc have already happened, perhaps in the previous scene (or Sequel). As noted above, Scenes often end with a turning point or ‘tactical disaster’, meaning the Resolution – the moment where the protagonist’s circumstances are concluded – is likely to be deferred until the end of the story.
Remove these elements and scenes tend to follow this pattern:
• Quest: causing the protagonist to seek something.
• Surprise: but things don’t go as expected.
• Critical Choice: forcing the protagonist to make a difficult decision.
• Climax: which has consequences.
• Reversal: the result of which is a change in status.
Reversals, disasters, and turning points
Here, the ‘Reversal’ refers to the moment John Yorke describes as a turning point – an unexpected reaction that changes things. To Yorke, scenes exist to portray these moments of change. These are the moments that show our character’s progression and tell our stories. Jack Bickham would refer to this as the Scene Disaster, which is a dramatic title – but perhaps that’s the point!
A formula for scene structure
Quest, surprise, critical choice, dramatic climax, reversal… Steer your scenes through each of these points, and you’ll both avoid circular arguments and guide your conflict to a satisfactory climax. Of course, this is a guide – not a hard-and-fast template – but it is well worth considering as you refine and hone your scenes.
And as with any formula, you can confound your reader’s expectations. By altering the flow of conflict you can unsettle your reader and lead them to places they’ve never been before!
Five take home points
• According to Aristotle, events within a story should not be coincidental or irrelevant. Stories should build towards a dramatic and satisfying conclusion.
• To reach a dramatic conclusion you first must pose a dramatic question. Stories are linear, and the journey from question to climax is one of rising tension.
• Rising tension is organised along the lines of beginning, middle, and end. This is not only found across whole stories and acts but within scenes themselves.
• The late Nigel Watts (Teach Yourself: Writing a Novel) steps out what he calls ‘the eight-point arc’, which is another way of organising the flow of your story – and the flow of conflict within your scenes.
• Quest, surprise, critical choice, dramatic climax, and reversal. Steer your scenes through each of these points and you’ll both avoid circular arguments and guide your conflict to a satisfactory climax.
In the next post of this series, we’ll look at Scene Disasters.
Do you have any helpful tips or techniques for writing scenes? If so please share in the comments below. Comments are encouraged!
And if you enjoyed this post, then please share it – you will help get more people writing. I am grateful to you for that!
GET YOUR FREE STORY: DO YOU REMEMBER?
(100% Spam free. We will never pass on your details)