This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?” The rest of the series is here. You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book 🙂
This time, we’re going to talk about basic scene structure.
Very nearly every professional-level scene that you read has a basic structure in Western fiction. There will be some exceptions (especially when it comes to highly literary or experimental books), but…this is mostly just it.
- The beginning sets up the scene.
- The middle shows the main character of the scene trying to do something, and the results thereof.
- The ending sets up another scene.
Like many great big truths in writing, it’s pretty prosaic (which literally means to be “like prose”). The wonders and delights and inventiveness of the most creative books are mainly based on those three elements. Over and over and over again.
The main exception is at the end of the book, in which the ending of the scene does not set up anything else, but gives the reader a kiss-off, or feeling of satisfaction at the conclusion of the book. Some people call this a validation.
I’ve been working with some authors who struggle to grasp how straightforward and dull the crafting of scenes is (it’s the content of the scenes that is exciting, not how they’re put together). It’s like they can’t believe that this is literally all there is to it; these are often writers who don’t type things in and are still captured by the illusions that writing creates.
In our memories, books are endlessly inventive. In practice, they really, really aren’t. Human brains are, for most people, fundamentally the same, and are affected by the same techniques. We are so used to overlooking these techniques that we forget they’re being used on us. It’s like watching commercials on TV. You don’t actually notice that there’s an audience in mind or that the commercial is identifying benefits of using that product or service for that audience. You might notice something clever about the ad, but you’re completely missing the point that there’s a specific group of people being sold to, or that the information in the commercial is presented in such a way as to make sense to that audience.
The structure of a scene is there to make readers’ brains do something specific.
- Explain why the reader should care about what’s happening in the scene.
- Increase the tension in the scene/story.
- Move the reader to the next scene.
That’s it. At the end of the book, you stop moving the reader forward and instead give them a sense of satisfaction. That sense of satisfaction is the biggest advertisement for your next book (not a cliffhanger for the next book in the series!).
The beginning of the scene should contain all the information the reader needs to know in order to care about what’s happening. No more, no less, no surprises. Don’t withhold clues from the reader; they are part of what sets up the sense of satisfaction at the end of the book! Hide the clues instead–bury them in other information.
The middle of the scene should contain the main character (who may or may not be the point of view character, as in Sherlock Holmes stories, where Watson is the POV narrator) trying to take the next step to resolve whatever is going on in the story. As a general trend, whatever the main character does has to make things worse somehow, either by failing or by succeeding in a way that triggers something bad to happen. This is how you increase tension.
The end of the scene should set up the reader for the next scene. Generally, this means wrapping up the current “try” that the main character is attempting and letting us know the fallout, or promising to tell us later. Foreshadowing for the next scene is hinted at, new information is revealed, and dramatic escalations of danger (cliffhangers!) are introduced.
It’s like one of those flip books where there are sixteen heads, sixteen chests, and sixteen tails: pick the ones you like and make an “original” scene!
I’ll go into beginnings, middles, and endings in more detail next. But here are some signs that you’re missing on scene structure:
- “This is an interesting scene but I’m not sure what it’s about.”
- “This scene is full of infodumps.”
- “I think I’m missing some pages.”
- “Cool story, but I had a hard time getting into it.”
- “You have to read the first five chapters before you can decide whether you really like the story.”
- “I liked the beginning but the middle got boring.”
- “OH MAN THE END PISSED ME OFF.”
Some of these issues refer more to the overall structure of the story, but you have to grasp scene structure in order to understand the reasoning behind overall structure issues.
When I first started studying structure, I felt offended that writing was nothing more than a “craft” in which predictable pieces were glued together in certain predictable patterns–it felt like there was very little art involved. But every art has a phase like this, I think, where one studies one’s materials and how they’re put together, so that it’s easier to take flights of fancy and to follow one’s intuition.
You won’t always be so self-conscious about scene structure, I promise.
Next time, I’ll talk more about beginnings. What information needs to be in your beginnings? What do you do if you tend to sprinkle that information throughout your scene instead of putting it in the front? How do you keep the beginning of a scene from turning into an infodump?
Until next time…
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