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Writing: Scenes

I think I’m about ready to start writing the scenes in my novel. So before I actually tackle that momentous task, I thought I should take a trip down the rabbit hole to find out how scenes should be structured and what information I should figure out before I start writing.

As usual, there are a few tips that everyone has in common: before you write your scenes, it’s good to know your POV character’s goal or purpose—both in the story as a whole and in the scene specifically, what the scene conflict will be, and how the scene will end.

All of the writing advice I read reiterated the importance of making sure that what happens in any given scene is relevant to the story as a whole—the character’s goals should be relevant and the conflict should be relevant (both internal and external conflict). 

Also, they all recommended making sure that each scene ends in a way that propels the story forward—each scene needs to be part of a cause and effect chain that will carry the reader to the story’s conclusion.

A few of them pointed out that a scene is basically a miniature story, so the same elements that are needed in the overall story are needed in the scene: a character wants something, there are obstacles, there is a turning point, there is a climax, and there is a resolution.

So what were some of the interesting differences? Here are the things I found particularly helpful:

From Lisa Cron’s book Story Genius, I liked the idea of including the context of each scene and of paying attention to why what happens in the scene matters to the protagonist’s internal story arc. She has a very handy scene card templet that forces you to think about not just the external actions and consequences of the scene but also the scene’s connection to the internal conflict.

From Diane Callahan’s video, “Fiction Writing: Anatomy of a Scene,” I liked the ABT formula. ABT stands for And, But and Therefore. She suggests writing out each scene in this formula: Character wants to (Goal)    , but     (Obstacle)   , therefore    (Change)   .

From Adam Skelter, I liked the emphasis on the change in emotional state in each scene, indicating the change with a positive (+) and negative (-) sign. I feel that it would be a small thing visually to add to my scene outlines, but it would have a big impact on how I think of the scene.

Shawn Coyne, at his website Story Grid, uses a spreadsheet to track the elements of scenes, one of which is similar to Skelter’s use of positive and negative signs. On Coyne’s spreadsheet, he uses the positive and negative signs to track what he refers to as the “polarity shift” of the “value shift” in each scene (which is also tracked on the spreadsheet). So if the values in the scene changed from approval to disapproval, the polarity shift would be noted as +/-, and a shift from formal to intimate would be +/++. 

From Leslie Watt’s Writership podcast, Episode 131, “Analyzing Your Scenes,” I liked the use of the terms literal and essential when discussing the actions in a scene: the literal action is what’s happening on the surface, while the essential is what’s happening beneath the surface—what’s motivating the characters.

From Randy Ingermanson’s article, “Writing the Perfect Scene,” I like the idea that there are two types of scenes: Scenes and Sequels. A Scene has a Goal, Conflict, and Disaster; a Sequel has a Reaction, Dilemma and Decision. What I liked about this is the idea that some scenes are about dealing with what happened in the previous scene. Until I read about Sequels, it started to feel as if all scenes were supposed to be action packed. Of course, being an avid reader, I know this isn’t true, but it was hard to reconcile the quieter, more reflective scenes with the description of scene structure. A Sequel seems to give a structure to those quieter moments.

Now, Ingermanson turned out to not be the only one who brought up Scenes and Sequels. In Ellen Brock’s series of videos on scene structure she also discusses these two types of scenes, and I really like her label for them: Proactive and Reactive scenes. I like this because it feels more descriptive of what is really happening, making it easier to keep the distinction in mind.

K. M. Weiland also discusses scenes moving from Goal to Conflict to Outcome to Reaction to Dilemma to Decision, but she doesn’t separate them into separate scenes. I think this could also be helpful to think about for times when the reactive part doesn’t really require its own whole scene.

C. S. Lakin had a good reminder: keep your genre in mind because it might have its own standards for style, length and structure of scenes.

After reading and watching and listening to various writers and editors, I became a little overwhelmed, to be honest. It is amazing how detailed one can get in the analysis of a scene. For instance, Ingermanson breaks his discussion of scenes into large scale and small scale elements, and the small scale gets pretty small scale, breaking scenes into smaller “motivation-reaction units” (MRU). But that’s not all, because while the motivation in the MRU is pretty straight forward (motivation is an external stimulus that sparks a reaction), the reaction happens in three parts: an emotion, followed by an unconscious reflex, followed by a conscious action and/or speech.

Wow. That’s getting pretty detailed. And this doesn’t even include how detailed some of the larger scale scene outlines can be, some of which suggest (in addition to the basic Goal, Obstacle and Outcome) including the who, what, where, when, why, how, setting, date, time and duration, context, characters in the scene and all of their agendas!

In order to save my sanity, I have decided I need to think of some of these things as what to look for during the editing phase to make sure my scenes work rather than things to figure out before I start writing. If I try to map out all of this minutiae ahead of time, I’m afraid I’ll never actually get to the writing part.

I guess now there’s nothing to do but to put this into action and see how it goes. Wish me luck!

Lisa Cron, Story Genius:

Diane Callahan, “Fiction Writing: Anatomy of a Scene,”

Adam Skelter, “Scene Dynamics,”

Shawn Coyne, Story Grid,

Leslie Watts, Writership, Podcast Episode 131, “Analyzing Your Scenes,”

Randy Ingermanson, “Writing the Perfect Scene,”

Ellen Brock, Scene Structure playlist:

K.M. Weiland, “How to Write a Scene Outline You Can Use,”

C.S. Lakin, “8 Steps to Writing a Perfect Scene—Every Time,”


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