Today’s post is excerpted from The Plot Whisperer Workbook (Adams Media, 2012) by Martha Alderson. Two lucky commenters were chosen to receive a free copy of the book: Tanette Smith and Mindy Halleck. Congratulations!
In a scene, a character acts and reacts to people, places, and events. In this respect, scenes are the basic building blocks of your story. But, as with any structure, if you have the wrong scenes or if they’re assembled incorrectly, your story can—unexpectedly—collapse.
Scene Structure Exercise
As a pre-writing exercise, it’s helpful to generate and analyze scenes for your story. If you have a draft of your story, use the scenes you’ve written. If you haven’t finished a draft, use what you have and generate the rest. It may also be helpful for you to try the exercise using scenes from a beloved book or story.
If you have no scene ideas, consider what your character wants and then visualize the steps the character will take to get what she wants. Imagine scenes that show her thwarted at every turn.
When generating a scene list, do not concern yourself with the specific elements in each scene. Simply generate scenes that show your main character moving forward for a specific purpose and the challenges she faces along the way. Resist the temptation to write the story as part of this exercise.
It’s also helpful if you give a very brief title to each scene—no more than one line. If your book is made up of many small chapters, each one encapsulating a scene, list events in the story by chapter.
The trick to this exercise is not to see how many scenes you can list. Instead, you want to identify and list scenes that advance the story on a multitude of plot levels. When you find a scene that does not advance the story, you probably need to cut it. More on that below.
The Seven Essential Elements of Scene
Whether you write short stories, novels, or memoirs and/or creative nonfiction, you will write countless scenes. Keep in mind the following elements when creating a scene. Just as plot has many different layers, every scene has layers of functions, too.
- The first layer of every scene deals with time and setting. Often this layer is implied or understood from the scenes and summaries that precede it. Time and setting is crafted to ground readers in the “where” and “when” of the scene.
- Dramatic action that unfolds moment by moment on the page makes up the next layer of scene.
- Embedded within layer two is a layer of conflict, tension, and/or suspense. The conflict does not have to be overt, but it must be present in some form. For a real page-turner, fill a scene with tension or suspense or something unknown lurking in the shadows. Setbacks and failure create suspense, conflict, and tension, unlike success and good news, which don’t.
- Conflict, tension, and suspense drive the reader to turn the page. The character’s emotional development—the heart of the story—motivates that action. Readers read stories to learn about a character’s emotional development. The word “development” implies growth or change. Therefore, character becomes a layer. The change or emotional development at the core of character is yet another.
- The protagonist hopes to accomplish a specific goal within the scene. Every scene where the character’s goal is clearly understood creates a question for the reader: Will she be successful … or not?
- Most stories revolve around a protagonist who goes after something, fails, and tries again. Each time life sends your protagonist reeling, she struggles to her feet and tries anew. Since at this point in the story it is best if the protagonist is in worse shape when she ends the scene than when she starts it, bear in mind that no matter how bad things get for the character, they can always get worse. Change is essential to keep your reader’s interest. A character and her emotional state should be constantly changing. If you write a scene where this is missing, chances are that the scene will fall flat and turn your story stagnant. The emotional change the character experiences within each scene does not have to be monumental, but she does have to feel and experience some sort of emotional reaction to the dramatic action in the scene. If not, you’ve done nothing to develop the character, which raises the question: why not?
- Thematic significance creates the final layer of scene and the overall spirit of your story. The key to the theme lies in your reasons for writing the story and what you want your readers to take away from it. When the details you use in the scene support the thematic significance, you have created an intricately layered scene that provides meaning and depth to the overall plot.