Does that title give you the heebie-jeebies? Does the idea of imposing structure on your scenes make you want to run and hide? I felt the same way once upon a time, but that was back in the days when I wrote the beginnings of many novels, got bored with every one of them, and never wrote to the end. One of the most profound things I’ve learned about writing over the years is that stories need structure to work. Argue with me if you will, but it’s true. In a sad twist of irony, stories work best when that structure is invisible to the naked eye.
Learning how to structure a scene to achieve maximum effect takes time and effort, but it will greatly improve your writing. At least, it did mine. Not only have I finished more than 30 novels since learning about scene structure, I’ve sold every book I’ve written to “the end.”
So what are the top 5 things I’ve learned about scene structure? Here they are in no special order:
Lesson #1: Scenes need structure to control pacing and to give your work maximum impact. Structured scenes are focused scenes in which the character goals are clear, the motivation present and accounted for, the conflict at work and ongoing, and the scene’s disaster clear and sharp. In structured scenes, characters know what they’re after, and they set about trying to get it from the moment the scene opens until the moment the scene ends. Understanding what a scene is and what it isn’t helps a writer avoid open-ended “scenes” in which characters never actively pursue their goals, don’t engage in conflict, and seem to forget what they wanted in the first place. My #1 rule of fiction is that when the writer makes choices, the choice must always be made with the reader’s experience in mind. Does writing within a loose framework, making sure I’ve included the necessary elements take more work than just letting the words flow? Sure, but the work makes the experience better for readers.
Lesson #2: Moving from one character’s POV to another’s’ isn’t annoying if I break tension in the right spot. Readers are polarized on the subject of “head-hopping.” Some love it. Some hate it. I fall somewhere in the middle. I enjoy it when it’s done well. It makes me want to put the book down and never come back to it when it’s done poorly. Then again I don’t consider changing point-of-view to be “head-hopping” unless the change comes at the wrong moment and jars me out of the story I’m reading. There are places within the scene’s structure where I can seamlessly move from one character’s head to another, and places where I know I’ll leave readers scratching their heads or tossing my book aside if I make the switch. Learning how to identify those places has been like gold to me as a writer.
Lesson #3: Giving my scenes a solid framework keeps me from having to repeat myself. As a reader, I prefer books in which the author assumes I’m an intelligent being. That means I don’t like a lot of repetitive information. Making sure my scene’s framework is tightly drawn, using sequel to establish new goals and bolster motivation for upcoming scenes, keeps me from inadvertently drowning my readers in a sea of repetitive information. Let’s face it: you don’t want me to tell you 184 times in the book that the protagonist wants to solve the murder anymore than I want to tell you that. A clear-cut scene helps keep the writing tight.
Lesson #4: The best part of a scene is the disaster. Goals are great and motivation is necessary. Nobody wants to read about a character who’s just floating through life reacting to what comes his way. But for me, the bet part of any scene is the disaster–that critical moment when the point-of-view character realizes he isn’t going to achieve the goal he had when he walked on stage. Something happens that changes the situation and sends the character back to the drawing board where hell have to attempt to come up with a plan that will work. It’s the disasters, after all, that keep us plowing through a book or avidly watching a movie. It’s the disasters we recount to friends and family to explain either why we loved the story or why we didn’t. Without good, solid, rock-your-character’s-world disasters, the story will probably lose steam. Scenes without good disasters are a major cause of the saggy middle… but I digress. Not every disaster has to end in a fiery explosion. Some might be as mild as saying “yes” when the character had every intention of saying “no.” Every scene is different, but they all bring about the same thing: the character has to regroup. This regrouping can take 30 seconds, or 3 years (or more). That’s entirely up to me and the story I’m writing.
Lesson #5: I don’t have to apply the scene’s framework when I’m working on the first draft of my story. Ah! See? There’s the magic right there. I can write my first draft in a trace-like state of euphoria, letting the words flow like water from a fountain, paying absolutely no attention to form or logic if that’s what I want. I’m telling the story to myself at that point, and I often find that I have to write a lot of what the story isn’t to find what the story is. It’s no big deal to me. I’ve been doing it for years, and it works. Then later, I can go back and make sure the framework is intact. I can shore up the character goals, add another layer of motivation, wake up the conflict and put it to work, and drive the scene toward its final climactic moment.
And there you have them: 5 things I’ve learned about scene structure over the course of my career. Maybe they’re things you already knew. Maybe they’re not. If you haven’t ever tried structuring your scenes, you might want to give it a try one of thee days.
Now go…write something.