5/09/2016

How to Structure Scenes

Last week I took a little break from my regular posting schedule, because I've been working on a very exciting project. More news to follow. In any case, I'm back now, and I decided to take the next few weeks to feature some resources from the site. Most of what you'll be seeing over the next few weeks is permanently hosted here, but I'm going to feature a few selections that cover some of the most important issues I've encountered.

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If you've read my series on Story Structure, hopefully you feel confident about the types of scenes you can and should include in your story.

But what about structuring the scenes themselves? If there's a macro-structure to a story, surely there must be a micro-structure?

Thankfully, there is. Traditionally, what I'm about to discuss is known as Scene and Sequel, but I've always disliked that term.  K.M. Weiland did a series on this concept, and in it she differentiated between two definitions of scene: Scene, being the first phase of the Scene-Sequel model, and scene being what we commonly refer to as scenes, I.E. a series of related events that take place in a single specific setting.

Are you confused yet? Because I was. (No offense to Weiland, it's not her terminology!)

Despite the messy terminology, the Scene and Sequel model has enormous advantages. It helps you craft a story where each moment is a link in a causal chain. Great stories feel like they're going to keep moving with or without us, so we pay attention because we don't want to miss anything.

So let's redefine some terms. I'm a stickler for terminology, and any time I see a single term with two different meanings, I go hunting for a superior synonym to regain some clarity. I'm pretty sure I developed this habit as a result of reading the chapter on repetition in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.

For me, I like the little-s definition of scenes, because when I use the word in everyday parlance, that's what I mean. In my model, a scene is whatever happens in a single time and place. If the time, place, or point of view changes, a new scene has begun.

But Scene and Sequel comprises a group of related scenes, so what to call the whole model? Luckily, I paid attention in Film 101, so I remember that a group of related scenes is called a Sequence.

For the purposes of this model, a Sequence consists of two phases: the Action Phase (Scene), and the Reaction Phase (Sequel).

Sigh.

Now that we have our terminology out of the way, let's get into Sequence Structure. We'll look at the Action Phase first.

The Action Phase begins with a character that has some kind of goal. It could be as simple as getting a bagel at the local coffee shop, or it could be as complex as talking a room of government heavyweights into declaring war. Whatever it is, the first task in any Sequence is to demonstrate a goal.

Next, there will be some conflict that prevents the character from achieving that goal. Something happens to block their efforts, be it the actions of another character, a physical or social barrier, or their own incompetence.

And if there's going to be conflict, it's going to have some kind of outcome. If you want to keep the tension high, this outcome should almost always be bad. The character needs to encounter constant setbacks and diversions, whether minor or major. Occasionally, for whatever reason, the character will need to succeed in some goal, but if they do, you should always try to include some kind of secondary outcome that is a setback. This pattern should hold true right up to the end of your Final Showdown.

So that's the Action Phase:

  • Goal
  • Conflict
  • Outcome

The Reaction Phase begins with--what else?--a reaction. This is some kind of emotional response from the character. If they encountered a setback, maybe they're frustrated or angry. If they achieved some goal, maybe they're elated. These are the moments that will help readers identify wiht your characters.

Sometimes, the reaction will be implicit in the outcome of the Action Phase. And if the reaction is obvious, you don't always have to spend page time on it. But you should know what it is, just to make sure it's involved in whatever you do write. Color your character's thoughts and actions with this emotion. If they're angry, don't show them sniffing daisies and sipping herbal tea.

After the reaction, you have some kind of deliberation. The character reflects on the outcome, and examines their options on where to go next. Sometimes this deliberation will take the form of an internal struggle, sometimes it will be an argument with the character's allies.

Whatever it consists of, the deliberation will eventually reach some kind of decisionwhich in turn provides a new goal. In this way, the Reaction Phase lights the fuse on the next action phase.

The point is to create a domino effect, where every scene has a causal relationship with the next. This provides that feeling of momentum, and keeps the reader hooked.

So that's the Reaction Phase:

  • Reaction
  • Deliberation
  • Decision

In structuring a Sequence, each of the six items (goal-conflict-outcome, reaction-deliberation-decision) could be its own scene. It might feel a little choppy that way, but it's totally possible.

It's also possible for the entire Action-Reaction Sequence to take place within the space of a single scene. It might feel a little slow, but if you keep the stakes high, it can provide delicious tension. Quentin Tarantino is the undisputed master of slow, tense Sequences.

But typically, the Action Phase will be a single scene, and the Reaction phase will be a single scene. To return to an earlier example, the Midpoint Sequence of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows presents itself as two scenes.  The Action Phase happens at the Lovegood house:

  • Harry and co enter the Lovegood house with the goal of learning more about the strange symbol they've been seeing.
  • They encounter conflict when Xenophilius seems distracted and inhospitable toward with them.
  • The outcome of this is that Xenophilius has betrayed them and is stalling, and Harry and co must make a daring escape.


The Reaction Phase follows when they finally get back to their tent:

  • The group reacts by being distraught over what happened and disagreeing hotly about the importance of the Hallows.
  • They deliberate over what their next move is, and because of the disagreement, they cannot decide whether to look for the Hallows or continue hunting Horcruxes.
  • But eventually, Harry reaches the decision that the Hallows are of paramount importance, and acquiring them becomes his new goal, even though the others aren't on board.

Then, however, something odd happens. Rather than move forward with his decision, Harry is taken into captivity along with his compatriots and several others. A new Sequence has interrupted the flow of decision-to-goal, and Harry's overall goal of acquiring the Hallows is supplanted by the more immediate goal of keeping his identity hidden from the Snatchers.

This brings up an important point: Sequences do not always need to unfold unimpeded. One can interrupt another--in fact they should. The domino effect can survive a little chaos. Sometimes the outcome of an Action Phase should be a disaster that begins a new Action Phase right away, and the following Reaction Phase can do double duty.

Split streams every now and then, and have one Sequence crash into another. So long as everything flows into the same river by each of the three Turning Points, you're free to do whatever you want. At each of the Turning Points, a full Sequence should go uninterrupted.

A Sequence should nearly always straddle the Act One-Act Two transition. Act One should probably end with an Action Phase, and Act Two should begin with the corresponding Reaction Phase.

The Midpoint Sequence is one of the most important parts of your story, and should not be interrupted either.

Turning Point Three should also be a complete Sequence. The Low Point, Mounting Forces and Hero Gets a Boost scenes should make up the Reaction Phase of the Turning Point Three Sequence.

The last point where you should have an uninterrupted Sequence is at the very end. The Final Showdown should be an Action Phase, and the Denouement should be the corresponding Reaction Phase.

With these major Sequences in place, the most important points of your plot will be sound. Beyond that, Sequence structure is a wild and crazy business, and I advise you to make the most of it.