This article is the first installment of a 3-part series on scene. The topic today is large-scale scene structure, otherwise known and “Scene and Sequel.” Today we will talk about Scenes, next week we will cover Sequels, and then we will move on to small-scale scene structure, or Motivation-Reaction Units. All of these concepts were first coined by Dwight V. Swain in his book Techniques of the Selling Writer.
Before we go into the nitty gritty of Scene and Sequel, let me just address all the free-spirited pantsers out there who are thinking, “Structure? I can’t limit my prose in such a way – I simply must express myself!”
You don’t have to use this to plot out every little detail of your scene before you write, though you certainly can if you’d like. You may also pants your way through the first draft, then use this diagnostically as you revise. It’s very helpful for when you know something isn’t working, but you’re just not sure what that thing is.
If you’re telling a compelling story, most of what I describe below will happen naturally. If your story isn’t as compelling as you like it to be, you can figure out if you’re missing any of the below components, and try to fix it.
What is a scene?
Before we can delve into Scene and Sequel, we first must know what a scene is. Note: “Scenes” and “Sequels” are both types of scenes, and to help differentiate between the two, I am going to copy this article from Advanced Fiction Writing and capitalize “Scene” and “Sequel”, but leave scene in lowercase.
So, what is a scene?
Many people will say it’s a continuous sequence of action that happens at one place in space and time, and they might even add that it contains the same characters from beginning to end. For the most part, these people are right, in my opinion. But I’ll add one more thing:
A scene should begin with one or more characters setting out to achieve a goal, and ends with them either definitively achieving or failing to achieve that goal. More on that later.
What are “Scenes” and “Sequels”?
“Scenes” and “Sequels” are both types of scenes. A Scene is comprised of a series of actions a character takes to achieve a goal, and the Sequel is made up of the character reacting to the events in the Scene. Both Scenes and Sequels are made up of three necessary elements. Next week, we’ll delve into Sequels, but for now we’re just going to focus on the make-up of Scenes, detailed below.
Scenes are more fast-paced than Sequels, and generally longer – how much longer will depend on the story you’re telling and the genre you’re telling it in. Usually, when someone summarizes a book, the points they detail are the Scenes – the action sequences, the parts where Things Happen – and forget about the Sequels.
There are three essential parts to every Scene: the goal, the conflict, and the disaster.
The goal is what the characters set out to achieve in the scene. Optimally, the scene goal should strive to get the characters closer to the overarching story goal – otherwise it has nothing to do with the main plot.
Example, taken from page 266 of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone:
“We’ve got to get to Dumbledore,” said Harry. “Hagrid told that stranger how to get past Fluffy, and it was either Snape or Voldemort under that cloak… I just hope he believes us.”
Analysis: Find Dumbledore to tell him that someone knows how to get past Fluffy.
The conflict is the (usually unexpected) turn of events that prevent or complicate the character(s) achieving their goal.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, page 267:
“What are you three doing inside?”
It was Professor McGonagall carrying a large pile of books.
“We want to see Professor Dumbledore,” said Hermione, rather bravely.
“See Professor Dumbledore?” Professor McGonagall repeated, as though this was a very fishy thing to want to do. “Why?”
Analysis: Professor McGonagall is complicating the trio’s goal of finding Professor Dumbledore.
The disaster, of course, is where things go totally wrong. Either the character didn’t achieve their goal and made things worse, or they did achieve the goal, but something unexpected happened that, well, made things worse.
Pro tip: never let your character’s have a perfect victory until the very end.
If you follow these guidelines, you should be able to summarize the Scene’s disaster by answering the question, “Did they achieve the Scene goal?” in either a yes, but… or no, and… format.
Did Frodo make it to the edge of the pit in Mordor? Yes, but he was unable to let go of the ring.
Did Forrest Gump find Bubba when their platoon was under fire in Vietnam? Yes, but Bubba died anyway.
Did Katniss achieve her goal of protecting Peeta? No, and he was taken by the Capitol.
See how that works?
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, page 267:
“Professor Dumbledore left ten minutes ago,” she said coldly. “He received an urgent owl from the Ministry of Magic and flew off for London at once.”
Analysis: Not only were they unable to find Professor Dumbledore, but they learn that he left, leaving Hogwarts unprotected.
If your Scene has all three of these parts, you are well on the way to well-structured scenes. But Scenes are only half of good scene structure. In the next article in this series, we’ll learn about the essential other half, the Sequel, which so many writers either get wrong or omit entirely.