Scene Structure: Elements of a Scene

So what all goes into writing a scene? Let’s find out.

As mentioned in the first scene post, these posts are ordered from the macro to the micro (more or less), so this post is mostly another overview post: We’re getting a sense of all the elements that make up a scene, with a focus on the structural elements. So, below, I’ve listed all the craft master quotes that touch on the elements and structure of scene, and then I put together a master scene structure tool.

Basic Structure

Going from vague to more specific, here are the elements the craft gurus say make up the structure of a scene:

Beginning, Middle, End

“Scene structure mimics plot structure, so, with a few exceptions, each scene needs to have its own beginning . . ., middle, and end,” says Jordan Rosenfeld.

“Every scene has a structure: a beginning, middle, and end,” says Sandra Scofield, “An alternative way to think of the scene structure is this: There is a situation at the beginning, a line of action, and then there is a new situation at the end.”

Alicia Rasley says, “Think of each scene as a ministory with:
– a beginning (Character enters scene with some goal or agenda)
– a middle (Character tries to attain goal and encounters obstacles.)
– an ending (Character either achieves or doesn’t achieve goal, or something else happens: a disaster or surprise she didn’t plan on.)”

“A scene is constructed in terms of beginning, middle, and end,” says Syd Field. “Or, it can be presented in part, a portion of the whole like showing only the end of the scene.  Again, there’s no rule–it is your story, so you make the rules.”

Setup, Turning Point, Payoff

“Many scenes have a setup (done with prior context), a confrontation, and a resolution,” says Larry Brooks.

“Structurally,” says David Corbett, “each scene possesses three key elements:

  • The setup: This lays out the situation among the characters as the scene begins. It routinely poses a question, presents a dilemma, or otherwise sets out the groundwork for the conflict that defines the scene.
  • The Turning Point: This is an unexpected turn of events–an action, decision, or revelation–that in some way forces a significant change among the characters.
  • The Payoff: The climax of the scene, presenting the new state of affairs created by the turning Point. This often creates the Setup for the following scene (or the next scene in this plotline).”

Goal, Conflict, Disaster

“So you can envision the basic structure of your scene this way,” says Rubie and Provost, “Here’s a character, here’s his prize, and here’s what’s trying to stop him from achieving that prize.”

“Successful scenes, good scenes, well-written scenes are built in a particular way which enables them to do their job. Such scenes contain a goal, conflict, and a resolution,” says Deborah Chester.

Mr. Corbett says, “From the viewpoint of character . . . three elements are crucial:

  • Objective: What the character wants in the scene. . . .
  • Obstacle: The force within the scene that stands between the character and his objective. . . .
  • Action: the tactic the character employs to overcome the obstacle and continue pursuing his objective.”

Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy say, “A typical proactive scene looks like this:

  1. Goal: At the beginning of the scene, the POV character has some goal that he hopes to achieve by the end of the scene.
  2. Conflict: During the middle of the scene, the POV character tries repeatedly to achieve his goal, but he runs into obstacle after obstacle as the scene unfolds.
  3. Setback: At the end of the scene, the POV character hits a nasty setback.”

“Scene structure is as simple as a-b-c: a. Goal. b. Conflict. c. Disaster,” says Dwight Swain. “It’s a basic approach; a springboard to help launch you into fiction. Once you’ve mastered the elements of the form, experience and study of published copy will teach you how to vary it in terms of your own taste and judgment. Remember just one thing: As a tool, the scene is designed to make the most of conflict. To that end, it organizes conflict elements. It telescopes them. It intensifies them.  Without such a tool, even your best material may come forth diffuse and devoid of impact.”

“Once the story is underway,” says Les Edgerton, “the structure of most scenes is as follows:

  1. The protagonist enters the scene with a goal. That goal is to begin some action designed to resolve the story problem. The scene itself can take many forms. It may be a scene in which the protagonist attempts to gain information to help him resolve the problem. It may be a direct action intended to resolve the problem.
  2. The antagonist also enters the scene with a goal. The antagonist’s goal will be in conflict with the protagonist’s.
  3. The scene ends in disaster for the protagonist. Leave your protagonist in worse shape than when he entered the scene and further away from resolving the story problem. Basically, you get your protagonist in a miserable place and then make it worse. Get the character up a tree (in trouble) and throw rocks (obstacles) at him. Don’t let him off the hook even for a second. He can get close and even gain part of the answer, but he can never fully resolve the problem by the end of a scene–until the final scene. The first time a scene ends in success–resolution of the goal–the story is over. The protagonist can achieve a partial victory–in fact, most scenes do end with a partial victory. But only the final scene of the story can end in total success.
  4. The story continues after the scene ends. Once the scene ends, you can then go into backstory, exposition, sumary, character rumination; all that stuff most of us are dying to do. That’s called sequel, and it follows scene.”

“What is the pattern of a scene?” asks Jack M. Bickham, “Fundamentally, it is:

  • Statement of goal.
  • Introduction and development of conflict.
  • Failure of the character to reach his goal, a tactical disaster.”

“Within the scene, the characters acts on his Scene-Objective by choosing under pressure to take one action or another. However, from any or all levels of conflict comes a reaction he didn’t anticipate. The effect is to crack open the gap between expectation and result, turning his outer fortunes, inner life, or both from the positive to the negative or the negative to the positive in terms of values the audience understands are at risk,” says Robert McKee. “When a gap opens between expectation and result, it jolts the audience with surprise. The world has reacted in a way neither character nor adience had foreseen. This moment of shock instantly provokes curiosity as the audience wonders ‘Why?'”

Steven James includes sequeling in his scene structure, but mostly agrees with the above: “In each scene the protagonist will move from goal to setback(s) to a decision that drives things forward. Your character will seek something, fall in a way that makes things worse, process what just happened, and then proceed into the next scene of the story.”

5-Stage Structures

Scenes have “an orientation, a calling or crisis event, escalation of conflict, a choice that leads to a discovery and a new normal,” says Mr. James.

Every scene “has an Inciting Incident, progressive complications, a crisis, a climax and a resolution,” says Shawn Coyne.

“The structure of scenes is a microcosm of five-stage dramatic structure,” says Elizabeth Lyon, “a character with a goal runs into opposition, which creates conflict that builds greater suspense through repeated thwarted efforts, until finally the character succeeds and reaches the goal, or fails. The scene ends with change: a surprise, twist, setback, or disaster relative to the goal. Emerging from the scene, the character has an insight–about the plot or himself.”

7-Stage Structure

John Truby says, “A scene is a ministory. This means that a good scene has six of the seven structure steps: [weakness and need, desire, opponent, plan, battle, self-revelation, and new equilibrium] the exception is self-revelation, which is reserved for the hero near the end of the story.  The self-revelation step within a scene is usually replaced by some twist, surprise, or reveal.”

Change as Structure

“The structure of a scene is straightforward,” says Mr. Coyne. “A scene must move from one value state to another. From a positive expression of a value like ‘love’ to a negative expression of that value ‘hate.'”

Elements of a Scene

I’ve been wondering how best to present this material. Many of the craft masters give long lists, and many elements repeat, but some don’t. I thought of quoting everybody and then compiling a final list at the end, but that seemed like a lot of extra work for nothing more than redundancy. Then I thought about breaking up the quotes, attributing the elements in parentheticals, and building the final list as I go, but a lot of the quotes don’t break up so neatly, so that didn’t work. In the end, I’m just going to list the quotes and bold each element and then, as mentioned earlier, we’ll incorporate these more fluid elements into a master structure tool.

So, what all does a scene need?

“If a scene’s going to succeed,” says Ms. Chester, “it’s because it serves up a clear goal, strong stakes, and intense conflict.”

According to Ms. Rosenfeld, “Every scene needs the following:

  • physical action to mimic time passing and show characters demonstrating behavior
  • sensory imagery to fully flesh out the scene and incorporate readers’ senses
  • setting details to plant readers (and the character) in physical space
  • dialogue, when appropriate to the plot, to let characters reveal themselves and their intentions
  • plot information–a consequence or revelation from a prior scene that pushes the story forward

For Rubie and Provost, the “four main elements of a good scene [are:]

  1. Cause and effect relationship exist all the way along. Each scene should cause a subsequent scene to occur. 
  2. A scene has a goal. . . . The scene is important and relevant because it’s driven by the character’s needs and wants. He’s trying to get something; there’s a reason he came to that room on that particular day.
  3. Each main character in a scene has a strategy. That strategy is what the character says and does, in terms of dramatizable actions, in order to get what he wants. Within that scene, a character may try a number of strategies to get what he wants before he succeeds–or fails.
  4. The ending of the scene must move us forward in some way. The movement of the scene is important; the character must have changed his position, relative to the end of the story, for the scene to be worthwhile.”

Adam Skelter says he uses the following “list of essential [scene] dynamics . . . to make sure a scene is working:

  • Entering emotional state. What is the character feeling when they enter a scene?
  • Character objective. What do they want in this moment?
  • Conflict. What impedes the character?
  • Motive for Antagonism. If the force of opposition is another character, we should have an idea of what they want. If the opposition is nature, we should have some understanding of the rule of the world the character’s grappling with.
  • A character’s worldview: What belief system is a character operating from?
  • Tactic. What action is the character taking to achieve their objective?
  • Turn. Does the character get what they want in this scene? What comes out of the conflict? What causes their emotions to change?
  • Objective achieved? Yes or no. How?
  • Exiting emotional state. What is the character feeling when they exit the scene and how does it contrast with the emotional state when they entered.”

For Chuck Wendig, “Each scene is different. They have different functions. But they also have some traits in common that generally make them more effective and these traits should be kept in mind:

  1. A scene always has characters. . . .
  2. A scene always has a purpose. . . . You need to know why this scene exists . . . why the audience needs to see it. . . .
  3. The characters in a scene also have a purpose. . . . Make it a point to identify what every character in a scene is doing and what their priorities are: What are their goals? Do they serve a role true to themselves, and do they also have a role in the action on the page or on the screen? . . .
  4. The scene always has a problem . . . conflict, question, or drama. A scene without conflict is a scene without tension . . .
  5. A scene has a beginning, a middle, and an end. . . . It starts, it gains momentum and complexity, it has stakes and problems, and then it ends, carrying us to the next scene. . . .
  6. The scene should begin as late as possible. Meaning, it doesn’t begin until something happens. It begins when it needs to. . . .
  7. A scene should end in a way that entices us to keep going. . . .
  8. A scene only works if the audience has the necessary information to continue. . . .”

Martha Alderson and Jordan Rosenfeld say, “In every scene you should find:

  • The protagonist and her goals.
  • Antagonists and allies–characters to thwart and support her goals.
  • Momentum–also known as action, which often appears in the form of small actions or dialogue, and creates a sense of movement through time and space. Arguably, if you have no momentum, you have no scene, or, at most, a highly contemplative one.
  • New plot information–either given as a consequence of the last scene or a new plot goal, so that each scene adds to the last.
  • Setting and time period–revealed in sensory details and perceptions as conveyed through character interactions rather than summary.
  • Thematic imagery–the overarching meaning of your story conveyed in images and sensory details throughout.
  • Tension–a feeling of conflict and uncertainty that keeps the reader wanting and guessing. Tension occurs when a writer has paid attention to all three layers–action, emotion, and theme–in every scene.”

Alicia Rasley says, “The important elements of a scene are:

  • Action: Something is happening! There is movement and progress and change during this time. Where there is action, there is conflict or risk of some kind.
  • Interaction: The POV character is interacting with other characters and the environment. This will cause sparks. The interaction will force more action on the POV character.
  • Real time: A scene usually takes place in a continuous span of time with a starting point and an ending point. This sounds basic, but it’s essential. Unless the reader sees the action unfolding through the real-time perspective of a POV character (that is, not in retrospect or summary), she will lose that important sense that this event is really happening.
  • Event: Every scene should center on an actual event, something that happens–not a dream, not a flashback, not a passage of introspection. A character is doing and experiencing something, not just in her mind, but in the external reality of the story. That can mean she’s taking an action, discovering a secret, encountering another character, having a conversation, creating something new, enduring a trauma. You as the author, should be able to identify what event has taken place in this scene. (If you can’t, your readers definitely won’t.)
  • Plot development: Events are important because they are concrete and have consequences. Most important, they have an impact on the plot. Events and scenes should cause a development in the story and some sort of change for the POV character.”
  • Also, “POV is important in scenes in order, first and foremost, to provide the reader with a way to experience the action close up, through a character or characters experiencing the action. But POV also lets the characters establish goals, if only in their own heads, and react mentally and emotionally to the obstacles.”

Laura Whitcomb says, “[F]our things that make a scene a scene:

  1. Characters do and say things in real time. If it weren’t real time, if the actions were explained outside of real time, it would be a summary.
  2. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end. . . . A good scene sets up a goal, builds to a conflict, and leaves something unfinished. . . .
  3. A scene must have a purpose. . . . A good scene is multipurpose and does several of these things.
  4. A scene needs to move the story along. . . . You need to add something to the story (a revelation, a new obstacles, a turning point, a new clue in the mystery) with each scene.”

Sandra Scofield lists “Four basic scene elements…

  1. Every scene has event and emotion.
  2. Every scene has a function.
  3. Every scene has a structure.
  4. Every scene has a pulse.”

Mr. McKee says, “No matter locations or length, a scene is unified around desire, action, conflict, and change.” And “the components of scene design: Turning Points, Setups/Payoffs, Emotional Dynamics, and Choice.”

Ms. Rosenfeld says “The recipe for a scene includes the following basic ingredients:

  • Protagonist: The main character, who has goals and is complex and nuanced, and who undergoes change throughout your narrative demonstrated in ‘words and deeds’
  • Antagonist and Allies: The characters who thwart and support your protagonist
  • A Point of View: The lens through which the scenes are seen (either a limited, internal POV or some form of omniscient POV)
  • Momentum: Beat-by-beat action that allows the story to feel as if it is unfolding in real time
  • New Plot Information: Events, discussions, discoveries, epiphanies, etc., that advance your story and deepen characters, usually as consequences of prior scenes, so that scenes weave together
  • Tension: Conflict, suspense, and drama that test your characters and ultimately reveal their personalities, and line-by-line intensity that keep readers reading
  • Setting and Time Period: A rich physical setting that calls on all the senses and enables the reader to see and enter the world you’ve created
  • Thematic Imagery: Also called ‘sensory imagery,’ details evoking the five senses and often symbolic visual analogies and metaphors that reveal themes, emotion, and subtext
  • Narrative Summary: A spare amount of narrative summary or exposition, ‘telling’ language that cuts to the chase when needed”

Ms. Rosenfeld also lists four “more complex scene considerations:

  • Dramatic tension, which creates the potential for conflict in scenes
  • Scene subtext, which deepens and enriches your scenes
  • Scene intentions, which ensure characters’ actions are purposeful
  • Pacing and scene length, which influence the mood and tone of individual scenes”

Further Ms. Rosenfeld says, “In every scene, just as in every plot, there are three key layers, known as Action, Emotion, and Theme. . . . In each scene, you have to create opportunities for your characters to reveal and enrich themselves (Emotion) and to drive their stories forward in connection with your plot (Action) in a way that allows them to transform and make meaning (Theme).”

A Master Scene Structure Tool

I’m going to do this similar to how I did the master plot post: by layering things in and color-coding.

Color Key

  • Black: Organization Labels (Helpful to wrap our brains around the information, but don’t really have any substance themselves.)
    • Elements are nested; those beneath create those above.
    • [Brackets]: Technically not ‘scene’ proper but still found in or after scenes.
  • Blue: Structural Elements (Sections of stuff that happen in the listed order to create a scene)
  • Green: The Tools (The tangible elements used to build the Structural Elements. You can point to their words, and you can learn them.)
  • Purple: Details (Used to fill out the structural elements or the tools. They’re tangible; you can point to the words, but they don’t necessarily come in any particular order.)
  • Red: Meta (Intangible stuff that’s in a scene but is generally between the lines and therefore can be hard to point to, though sometimes you can. Includes created effects/results that may or may not be in a scene despite having included all the tangible elements.)

Structure and Elements Outline

MACRO META

  • Scene Purpose(s) / Function

BEGINNING

  • Setup/Orientation
    • Who: Point-of-View character with an emotional state and a world view (antagonist and allies)
    • Where: Setting (sensory details/imagery)
    • When: Time of day, year, etc.
    • What: Goal/Object/Agenda/Desire (for all characters)
    • Why: Motivation/Stakes (weakness and need) (for all characters’ goals)
    • Scene Question

MIDDLE

  • Introduction of Conflict/Obstacle/Opponent(s)/Opposition/Problem (Introduction of conflict moves us into the middle)
    • Inciting Incident
    • Strategy/Tactics/Plan to Overcome Conflict/Obstacles
  • Battle / Interaction / Development/Escalation of Conflict
    • Progressive Complications / Counter Obstacles
    • Pulse/Momentum/Escalation
      • Beats
    • Real Time
      • Motivation-Reaction Units
        • Action
        • Dialogue
        • Interiority (Thoughts, Emotions)
        • [Summary, Exposition]  
    • Micro Meta
      • Tension
      • Subtext
      • Pacing  
      • Theme

END

  • Payoff
    • The Main Event 
      • Disaster/Setback
        • Turning Point (the last and worst obstacle/complication)
          • Crisis Question (the answering of which moves us into the ending)
            • Action or Revelation (often a surprise)
          • Climax / Crisis Decision/Choice (often a surprise)
      • Change (the crisis itself and/or the response/decision creates a change)
        • Change in Value Charge (life to death, love to hate, etc.)
          • Internal Change / Change in Character’s Emotional State and/or Worldview
          • External Change / Change in Character’s Circumstances
    • New information/insight
    • Scene Question Answered
  • Resolution
    • New Normal
    • Consequences/Unfinished Business (which develops the plot and causes a new scene)
    • [Sequel]
  • Hook

And there you have it: a master scene tool. Sorry about the formatting. (Can’t say I’m loving WordPress Blocks.) If you would like an easier-to-read pdf of the Master Scene Tool, sign up for the newsletter and you’ll get the Scene Tool and the Character Development Workbook. (And if you’re already subscribed, check your email. The worksheet is in the latest newsletter.)

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Up Next

We’re done with the major macro, but we’re not getting to micro just yet. I think we’ve got another scene prompt post, and then, next Monday, we’ll look at some Meta Macro before moving on to the Beginning. See you then!

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