3 Things Every Scene Must Have

When writing fiction, there is lots of advice out there in books and on the internet. One of the most important pieces of advice you can take on board is understanding that story is made up of four elements:

Story Structure

Character – who is the story about?

Goal – what does that character want?

Conflict – what gets in their way to stop them?

Resolution – how do they overcome the obstacles?

Scene Structure

Every scene has internal structure, just as every story does. Think of a scene as story in microcosm. Each scene has a goal, it requires conflict, and every scene has a resolution, although unlike a story resolution, scene resolutions tend to go awry.

Graphic Layout Drawings by American artist and geometer Mark A Reynolds

When writing any dramatic scene it’s important to look at that scene’s goal, conflict and resolution. These are as important in individual scenes as they are in story as a whole. Scene goals don’t have to be momentous, they can be something as simple as finding out a piece of information, or travelling from A to B. In a similar vein, scene conflict can be as simple as a faulty hearing aid or a car not starting.

When it comes to resolutions there is one rule for all. The world is not the same at the end of the scene/story as it was at the beginning. With both scene and story, there’s no going back.

I’ve taken a short scene from my novel, Wolf Soul, to use as an example.

1. Goal identify the scene goal for the reader so they can worry about the character achieving it.

In the extract below, the scene goal is to get the mare across the river in a boat.

A boat was tied to a short jetty, strutting out into the turbulent flow of waters. It bobbed and juddered, snapping against the rope which fastened it. It looked big enough to take the horse, big enough to ferry in a smuggler’s load, but it wasn’t going to be easy getting the mare on board. The current was strong.

“Will it take the mare?” Maria asked.

2. Conflict – a scene with no conflict serves no purpose

In this scene the turbulent water, the mare’s unease and Maria’s lack of balance all create obstacles to the goal.

“I think so,” Slav said “You need to get in first. The mare will follow you.” He wasn’t certain that was true, but Maria seemed to have a way with creatures. Slav wished she could still the waters as easily. The boat was twitching worse than a fish in the sun. “I’ll try and hold the thing steady.”

Maria stepped down into the boat. She clutched the mare’s reins, and as her foot dropped below the level of the river her arm tugged the animal’s head low. The horse snorted as its nose was dragged down.

Slav didn’t know if it was the sudden movement or the sound of the river, or perhaps the mare even sensed the wolf soul in him, but the horse suddenly yanked its head up, tearing the reins from Maria’s hand. She toppled backwards into the boat. Slav swore at the horse. He grabbed the leather bridle, but the animal shied away, its hooves slipping on the planks of the jetty.

3. Resolution – at the end of the scene, things can’t go back to the way they were.

At the end of the scene things have changed. The horse has jumped in the river. It is no longer an option to get the animal safely across.

Above the din of the river, Slav heard a gunshot.

Splinters of wood exploded in his face as a musket ball struck the jetty. The mare yanked free its reins and bolted, leaping into the streaming torrent. Maria screamed.

If you’ve found this post helpful I’d love to hear from you, or you might like to use the Share buttons below to tell others about it.

pictures c/o hovercraft doggy

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16 thoughts on “3 Things Every Scene Must Have

  1. Sue says:

    A very useful post. Do you plan every scene? The problem I have is, do I do lots of little obstacles or one big one?

    • I tend to write the first draft any old how and then look at the structure on the second draft. Every scene is different. Some have multiple minor conflicts. Some have one big major one. Some can have a bit of both.

  2. While reading this excellent post, I was struck with the realization that by adding these same qualities to the visual arts, that snapshots would be elevated to fine art photography.
    Bart

  3. An interesting theory. I like the idea of pictorial goal and conflict.

  4. Brilliant post, Lorrie, and so true. Rummaging through the various websites with scene structure advice is arduous and at times can only lead to confusion, especially for newbie writers that aren’t educated in the field. You’re simple approach is perfect and so true. As long as writers stick to the basics of storytelling they should have a novel that flows smoothly and in turn that allows the reader to take it in much easier.

  5. This is very helpful. I tend to let my characters ramble when they should be getting on with the resolution. Thanks for the reminder.

  6. It’s not clear to me what the graphic has to do with the article, however, the content itself is solid. Thanks for sharing..

  7. Ashraf says:

    I like the Conflict the most….

  8. Well, then subconsciously, you’re telling us there’s only 12 different boxes, when of course as we know, there are in fact, 36 😉

  9. Really old post I know, but really helpful still so just wanted to say thanks. Finding the ‘resolution’ part hard to be certain of. I thought it meant that everything had to be solved by the end of the scene – the character had to have achieved his goal. Whereas mine doesn’t – he fails. Of course then he tries a change of tack, but that leads into the beginning of the next scene – another goal but with the same objective. I get so caught up in worrying about whether I’m getting the scene structure right that I end up completely losing confidence. Isn’t writing fun 🙂

    • Hi Frankie, the resolution needs to make things different, but not necessarily better. Sounds like you have things right with the resolution leading to the next story goal.

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