3 Smart Tips for Structuring Powerful Scenes, by Rachel Starr Thomson
It’s common wisdom that in structuring powerful scenes, we should open in media res—that is, while something is happening. And it’s generally best to bow out while things are still happening: close the dinner conversation with the last line of dialogue, not after everyone has fallen silent, gotten up from the table, washed the dishes, and gone to bed.
But once we get into a scene, what do we do there? What does a scene need to accomplish? What constitutes a scene, anyway?
Tip #1 for Structuring Powerful Scenes: Think of Scenes as Miniature Novels
Honey felt a tug on the line.
“Reel ’er in slow,” Grandpa said.
It was a slow, lazy afternoon on the river, the kind Honey loved. Grandpa was in a chatty mood, and they whiled away the hours fishing—sort of—while he shared memories from the past.
“Grandma and me used to come do this,” he said. “The other girls thought it was strange that she liked to fish, but I guess she did. Or else she just liked to spend the time with me.”
Honey smiled. She understood her grandmother. There was nothing nicer than spending time with someone you loved on a sunny day on the river, feeling the cool breeze and the splash of the water when you tried to bring a fish in. Not that it ever seemed important to really catch one.
“Well, I guess it’s time we go home and get dinner,” Grandpa finally said.
As an editor, I regularly see passages like this one in rough drafts. But this example is not a scene. It’s a snapshot. Although it opens in media res and ends with a sense of closure, it goes nowhere in between. If you were to cobble together a hundred snapshots like it, you would not have a story at the end.
In fact, a scene is not just a building block for a novel; it’s something of a novel in miniature. Like novels, scenes begin with a status quo, move through an incident that changes that status, and then build to something—a reveal, a confrontation, a climax of some kind. Often they will dip down into a resolution as well, though not always.
Scene structure mirrors that of any drama:
- Status quo (Act 1)
- Inciting incident
- Challenge(s) (Act 2)
- Resolution (Act 3—optional. Since scenes are only smaller parts of a bigger story, they can end in cliffhangers, whereas a novel cannot.)
Fixing Scene Structure
If Honey had caught a fish (inciting incident), and then struggled hard to land it (challenge) but finally won out (climax to resolution), we would have a scene.
If Grandpa’s conversation had turned into something deep and meaningful, such that he revealed a secret about Honey’s past, or professed love for his family for the first time in his life, or admitted he had cancer, we would have a scene.
If their fishing trip was interrupted by aliens descending on the river, and then Honey and Grandpa hid in the woods and managed to escape, we would have a scene.
A good scene has forward motion—not only in the sense that something actually happens but also in that it moves the whole story forward. By the end of a single scene, the story world is not the same as it was before.
Tip #2 for Structuring Powerful Scenes: It’s All about Change
Ultimately, stories are all about change, and so are the scenes that make them. Change doesn’t have to be big and dramatic, but it must be there. After beginning with the status quo of fishing on the river, Honey’s life could change in several different ways:
- Grandpa reveals a secret about Honey’s past—her perception of her entire life changes.
- Grandpa professes love for his family for the first time—a relationship alters.
- Grandpa admits he has cancer—the future changes.
- Aliens land and Honey escapes—the universe changes!
Good scene structure begins with a status quo, moves through a few obstacles, and finishes at a climax—where something, in the character’s situation or life as whole—is changed.
Tip #3 for Structuring Powerful Scenes: Move the Story Forward
In the scheme of things, the particular climax of a scene may not be anything major. Maybe it’s just a slight alteration in the way two characters perceive one another. But it moves the story forward. The inciting incidents and climaxes within a particular scene do not have to be high-level events: they might be the tug of a fish on a line, a set of keys found, a minor confession made, a friendship struck up. But they must change something—something that ultimately builds the whole story by one more block.
Scenes that use dramatic structure within themselves and then link together to create the larger dramatic structure of the novel: these are what truly make a story come together.