07 October 2014

Scene Structure

Last time we had a craft session we looked at scene openings. So, we've opened our scene, now what? Our readers and anchored and engaged, but what about the rest of the scene? We've got a whole lot of blank paper and a need to fill it. It helps if you know the structure. The skeleton to hang the words on. 

I’d like to thank Randy Ingermanson for the structure that follows (and apologies where I’ve grabbed straight from his website). You can get more detail on Randy’s website – so go there, what I’ve got here is just the basics. I’d also like to say Randy’s an excellent speaker if you ever get a chance to hear him. Thanks Randy!

Randy breaks a scene down into two parts: The scene & the sequel. However since we’re talking about scene’s calling one part a scene is a little confusing (they're terms he got from Dwight Swain’s book, Techniques of the Selling WriterI like to think of moving through a scene bite by bite, so I refer to these two parts as Bite 1 and Bite 2.
Bite 1 has the following three-part pattern:
  1. Goal                2. Conflict                   3. Disaster

Bite 2
 has the following three-part pattern:
  1. Reaction          2. Dilemma                  3. Decision

What does that mean? Let’s break it down.


A Goal is what your POV character wants at the beginning of the Scene. The Goal must be specific and clearly definable. The reason your POV character must have a Goal is that it makes your character proactive, not passively waiting on events. 

Your character is going after what they want. It's a simple fact that any character who wants something desperately is an interesting character. Even if they’re not nice, they’re interesting. 

Your character’s goals don’t have to be big, “Save the President, or Catch the killer”, they can be small “Get the groceries and get home before favourite TV show, or “Eat lunch today instead or working through”. As long as they have a goal. Because, and this leads us to the next piece of the pattern..


Conflict is the series of obstacles your POV character faces on the way to reaching their Goal. If your character reaches the Goal with no Conflict, then the reader is bored. Your reader wants to struggle! No victory has any value if it comes too easy. 

Nalini Singh on her website says: Be mean to your characters.

When it comes to our characters, the easy way out is ALWAYS the wrong way. Our characters have to earn their victories and they have to earn the reader’s respect by fighting when things are hard. Readers need to care about the characters and the decisions they make, the outcomes.


A Disaster is a failure to let your POV character reach their Goal. 

When a Scene ends in victory, your reader feels no reason to turn the page. You can have success in a scene, you have to, or your character is never achieving anything. 

But you need to ask what else is happening in the scene. If things are going well, your reader might as well go to bed. Make something awful happen. Hang your POV character off a cliff and your reader will turn the page to see what happens next. 

Okay that’s Bite 1. (goal, conflict, disaster) Now let's look at Bite 2 . . .

Bite 2 has the three parts Reaction, Dilemma, and Decision. Why? Because when you've just been hit with a setback, you don’t just rush out and try something new. You've got to recover. That's basic psychology.


A Reaction is the emotional follow-through to a Disaster. When something awful happens, you're staggering for awhile, off-balance, out of kilter. show your POV character reacting viscerally to their Disaster. 

Show them hurting. Give your reader a chance to hurt with your characters. This is not a time for action, it's a time for re-action. Eventually, your POV character needs to get a grip. To take stock. To look for options. That let’s us to…


A Dilemma is a situation with no good options. If your Disaster was a real Disaster, there aren't any easy choices. Your POV character must have a real dilemma. This gives your reader a chance to worry, which is good. Your reader must be wondering what can possibly happen next. Let your POV character work through the choices. Eventually, let them come to the least-bad option . . .


A Decision is the act of making a choice among several options. This is important, because it lets your POV character become proactive again. People who never make decisions are boring people. They wait around for somebody else to decide. 

So make your character decide, and make it a good decision. Make it one your reader can respect. Make it risky, but make it have a chance of working. Or if you make it a bad decision, make sure your reader knows why your character is doing it. Do that, and your reader will have to turn the page, because now your POV character has a new Goal. 

So: goal, conflict, disaster…followed by…reaction, dilemma, decision.

I find this most useful if I’m struggling with a scene. 

NB: Your bite’s don’t have to follow one by one, they can be interspersed with the other scenes…other character’s POV etc… to add suspense. E.g. The reaction to the disaster can be held off as we flash over to another character, this leaves the first character in a state of disaster and the reader wanting to know what happens next.

Little example below, see if you can spot the pattern: goal, conflict, disaster… reaction, dilemma, decision


Bob pressed harder on the accelerator, he had to get to the hospital before Meredith gave birth or she’d never forgive him. 
Without indicating an SUV in the next lane swerved in front of him. Bob slammed on his brakes and swore out loud, berating the other driver.
The impatient SUV swerved lanes again and Bob’s eyes widened as he watched helplessly as the car behind the SUV failed to slow in time. Metal crashed and screeched as the two car’s collided. Bob’s foot hit the breaks again, as the cars slid partway into his lane.
Bob was trembling as his car came to a stop. He stared in horror at the mangled cars beside him. 
Shit, what was he going to do now? He should stop and check to see if anyone was hurt, call an ambulance, and wait to make a statement. He glance at his watch, but damn it he needed to get to the hospital. 
Reluctantly, he pulled around the smash and onto the shoulder. Parking the car, he opened his door while dialling 111, he needed to check for survivors.

Goal: hospital before baby born
Conflict: Stupid SUV in pulling in front & him swearing
Disaster: accident
Reaction: shock at accident
Dilemma: help or hospital
Decision: stay to help (this could well lead to the next conflict as he’s not going to be late to hospital)

Anyway that’s a little look at scene structure. 

I suggest you go to Advance Fiction Writing for more – Randy even breaks it down lower, the pieces within the pieces.
On top of all that, it goes almost without saying, if this doesn't work for you - don't do it! Writers have their own ways of doing things, this may not be the way for you. To be honest I don't really go through this as I work on a scene, the time I find it most valuable is if I'm stuck or if a scene isn't working.
Happy Writing.

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