Just as words are the building blocks of sentences, and sentences are the building blocks of paragraphs, and paragraphs are the building blocks of scenes, so too, scenes are the building blocks of fictional works. Scenes, however, aren’t simply a collection of paragraphs; they must have a structure to be effective. A scene is a complex undertaking requiring a degree of planning.
The major problem that many writers face in developing a new scene are ones of not knowing the character sufficiently or not getting inside the head of the scene’s POV character when they write the scene. Mentally picture the characters acting out the scene (as if they are on stage) and focus your attention on the POV character so that you are writing what that character sees and feels.
Then when something happens, you’ll know what his thoughts are and what his motivation is, hence you can predict how he should react to the stimuli and thus build the emotional arc. Granted this isn’t easy at first, but through continued use, it becomes easier and more natural.
ELEMENTS OF SCENE DESIGN
Goal: As part of this structure, scenes must have a goal that should be satisfied or, at a minimum, show progress toward the goal before the scene ends. This goal must be designed to advance the story toward the ultimate aim of solving the plot problem In short stories, the scene goal is often the same as the plot problem.
Typical goals in longer works include: obtaining information, reaching a destination, finding a witness, uncovering a clue or buying an engagement ring.
Time and Place: The structure of the scene restricts it to a specific time and place with a defined set of characters. Thus, if the scene is set in Manhattan during the morning rush hour, a different scene will be necessary to show action taking place in Baltimore late at night. A different scene may also be necessary to show the characters in Manhattan’s evening rush hour. The point here is to emphasize that scenes have geographical and temporal boundaries. Scenes cannot be endless.
Characters: A scene should start with the scene’s main character — not necessarily the story’s main character, but always the scene’s viewpoint character — facing a situation with a definite goal that appears to be attainable. This goal doesn’t have to be attained within a single goal, but the scene must show progress toward the goal.
Conflict: A scene must contain conflict of some sort. It doesn’t have to be a ferocious fistfight. It can be inner turmoil, but the physical or emotional conflict must be real to the characters. This conflict produces tension and that maintains the reader’s interest.
Emotional Arc: Another requirement for a scene is that it must include an emotional change in the scene’s POV character. If the character’s emotion is positive at the beginning of the scene, it can move to more positive or less positive by the scene’s end. It could also turn negative. The larger the change the better. As an example, Character A feels good at the start of the scene. Everything is going his way and he is confident that he will solve the scene problem. By the end of the scene, he must be in a funk because an unexpected obstacle arose and derailed his scheme to fix things. Similarly, if the character’s love life is grand at the scene opening, it should be on the rocks at the end of the scene. If the couple starts out fighting or arguing, they should be smooching by the end of the scene, or at least be less hostile toward each other.
The purpose of these arcs is to put the reader’s emotions on a roller-coaster so that her emotional reaction is never stable for very long.
OTHER SCENE DESIGN CONSIDERATIONS
Cause and Effect: Scenes are made up of snippets of action. These snippets have a stimulus that demands a response. If something happens in the scene — a stimulus — then a character has to respond to it. If the character doesn’t respond, the reader will recognize that something is wrong. Similarly, a character can’t react to an unspecified stimulus. An example of this problem is a character who grins, smirks, laughs, curses etc. without a reason being given for the reaction. If these disconnects happen repeatedly, the reader will put the story down and cut the lawn. Another requirement is that the cause and effect occur in the proper order; stimulus first followed by the reaction.
Some simple examples will illustrate the stimulus-reaction process.
Terrible example 1: John threw a punch at Joe’s head, but missed. “What are we doing tonight,” Joe asked.
Obviously, Joe should react to the punch by ducking or swinging back, not wondering what was going on that night.
Terrible example 2: Joe dove behind the barrel. The bullet smacked into the wall over his head
Here, Joe reacted before the stimulus occurred. The proper sequence would be: Joe heard a shot and dove behind a barrel. The bullet smacked into the wall over his head.
Terrible example 3: Sally filed her nails while Joe drove. Joe pounded his fist on the steering wheel. Sally continued to file her nails.
We see a reaction in Joe, but not any stimulus and we see a non-reaction in Sally. What angered Joe? Why isn’t Sally concerned?
While this cause and effect principle may seem self-evident, it is frequently violated by even experienced writers.
Scene Dependency: A scene isn’t an isolated piece of the action. It must proceed from the previous scene and lead to the following scene within the same plot or subplot. This doesn’t necessarily mean that scene 15 must follow the action in scene 14 and lead to scene 16 if scene 15 is part of a subplot. In this case, scene 15 may follow scene 8 and lead to scene 21. This dependency implies that it may be wise to write some scenes out of sequence, especially with subplots. Similarly, a character’s emotional arc in a new scene picks up where the emotional arc ended in the character’s previous scene.
Sensory Information: Sight is always included in the scene (the characters are using that sense to describe the action). Other senses should also be included. Hearing, smell, feel and touch all have a place in the scene. It isn’t necessary to overwhelm the reader with information about every sense, but try to use one sense other than sight. Examples are a character smelling wood smoke or exhaust fumes from traffic; hearing a lawnmower or birdsong; feeling sweat run down her neck or touching rough skin during a handshake.
The author must provide answers to six questions in each scene:
- Starting Emotion?
- Ending Emotion?
- Sensed Used?
Handbook of Short Story Writing: Page 81 to 93: Writer’s Digest
Handbook of Short Story Writing Volume II: Page 43 to 44: Writer’s Digest
Scene & Structure by Jack Bickham: Writer’s Digest
The material in this article is based on my Build a Better Storybook. After critiquing hundreds of short stories and novels, I realized that many fiction writers make the same mistakes. Build a Better Story is aimed at eliminating those common mistakes and improving the content produced by fiction writers. For more information, go to Strange Worlds Online