Embracing Scene Structure in Story

Embracing Scene Structure in StoryEmbracing scene structure in story took me longer than it should. While I recognised the scene as the basic unit of story telling, I didn’t really know how to build stories with it.

For far too long I looked at scenes as a sub-component of a chapter, a time and location for stuff to happen. When it came to writing my own novel outlines, I realised scenes are the key unit by which you measure progress through the story. Chapters are far less important, mostly a good marker of when to put down the book and go to sleep.

I picked up Jack Bickham’s writing guide Scene and Structure on the recommendation of Daniel David Wallace. It contains a lot of the basics of story telling. More recently, editor Emily Golden of Golden May described scenes as the links in the chain from which story is built. And scenes have structure.

Consider this: scenes are not hunks of text where characters idly chatter, exposit backstory or set up context for the next action set-piece. Scenes are where progress happens, for good or ill.

Golden’s advice for scenes goes like this:

  • Open with a character goal
  • Encounter resistance or conflict
  • Block or divert the character from their goal
  • Force them to make a choice
  • Set up the consequences of that choice for later scenes

In this way scenes create the chain of choices, actions and reactions.

Golden’s formula for story becomes: goal, conflict, choice, consequences; repeat to end.

It’s similar to the Goal Motivation, Conflict, Resolution method (GMCR) I posted some time ago. But Golden’s USP is the Chain. If you can remove a scene without breaking the chain of choices and consequences, the scene is unnecessary.

The Chain will keep us together

Think about the character goal at the beginning of the scene. What is it they want? A tangible object? A raise? A promotion? A date? Some peace and quiet?

The plot comes along and stops them attaining that goal. What choice do they make? Abandon the goal? Try to push through or go around the obstruction? What are the consequences of doing or not doing something in pursuit of the goal? Success or failure? And what does this teach the character in the process?

Consequences tie together the external plot of events with the internal plot of character wants and needs. That’s Golden’s Chain. Consequences produce lessons, which produce the character’s arc of change; that’s story.

For each goal, conflict and choice, you have to seed the consequences in a later scene.

This might fundamentally change the way you construct a story. It made me think much deeper about the contribution of each scene.

Link by Link

Here’s a little piece of my story Chain from the Ghost and the Vipers.

Scene 38:
Event: Jo gets a new vision in which Varla dies during a risky mission.
Goal: Jo needs him alive for a specific task in her fixed and certain future.
Conflict: Varla wants to go, Jo has to stop him.
Choice: how does Jo prevent Varla’ untimely death?
Consequence: Jo puts herself in danger

Scene 39:
Event: Jo doses the tea with an anaesthetic.
Goal: Jo prevents Varla leaving for the mission.
Choice: Jo drugs Varla and goes on the mission in his place.
Conflict: Jo massively breaches Varla’s trust.
Consequence: Varla’s going to hate her for it.

Scene 40:
Event: Jo infiltrates the Viper’s camp.
Goal: Jo aims to kill Radek and escape.
Conflict: Tauber arrives and joins forces with Radek; she can’t kill them both.
Choice: abandon the mission.
Consequence: return to Varla to face the music, with even more bad news. Now Varla doesn’t trust her on solid evidence. It’s broken a relationship she believed in for ten years.

This series of micro-goals across scenes contributes to the character’s overall goal. Conflict, choices and consequences will take them from their want to their need and shape their transformation. Scene by scene, link by link, this is how you build the chain.

6 thoughts on “Embracing Scene Structure in Story”

  1. This is the kind of thing I need for examples. Too many writing blogs dribble on about theory but never show you. TY

  2. Schermer Dusenbery

    Too many authors think scenes are a way to get from one set piece to another but don’t add any value. Read ten pages then go “what was that about?” Nothing.

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