Back to Basics: Scene Structure

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If you’ve ever dabbled in screenwriting, you may know that screenplays have a unique advantage in structure over novels: the manuscripts are divided into scenes. For whatever reason, when the gods of the literary world decided to create novels, the arbitrary “chapter” was decided upon for a novel’s division. But chapters are not scenes (though they may be the way you divide your chapters). A chapter is a division, but the way the author decides to divide their novel into chapters is completely up to them. It can include multiple scenes or even divide a scene in half. Which begs the question:

What is a Scene?

If a novel tells the story of a character’s journey, it’s useful to think of scenes as the “mini-stories” within that journey. Characters should start each individual scene at point A and end at point B. This can be a change in location, of course, but it’s much more than that. In each scene, the character should be presented with conflict and end with resolution. The character must grow or change by the end of the scene. Here’s more on character development: The Intersection of Plot and Character. And, most importantly, the main plot must be advanced.

A scene shows an event in your character’s journey which changes their situation, emotions, or direction in a way that is important to your story.

Even if you don’t write with a lot of planning, it’s incredibly important to be able to identify what the purpose of each scene in your novel is. If your scene has no or little purpose in advancing the character’s growth or the main plot, cut it. Every scene must have purpose or it risks disengaging your readers. The last thing you want your readers to close the book at the end of a scene without wondering what’s going to happen next. So how do you make each scene purposeful?

Nailing Scene Structure

The best way to figure out how to write scenes is to learn to dissect them. As an example, let’s think about a scene that most people are familiar with: the thunderstorm bedtime scene from the Sound of Music.

It’s late at night. Maria is in her room trying to figure out how she’s going to win over this group of seven difficult children and their difficult father. While she’s praying, Liesl sneaks in and Maria catches her. Rather than punish her, Maria allows Liesl to take confidence in her and helps her clean herself up. Then, one by one, a thunderstorm brings each of the other six children running into her room, frightened. Maria isn’t sure what to do, but she draws upon her use of song and positivity to distract the children and help them be happy again. They sing and dance and then, the Captain steps in. Immediately, the children revert to their stiff behavior around adults and go back to their rooms. But…Maria’s started to combat their prejudice. Maria tries to convince the Captain to introduce some fun into their lives, but fails. Undeterred, Maria sees the curtains hanging in her room and starts to hatch a new plan to introduce fun by making play clothes from the curtains.

That’s a basic scene summary. If you haven’t taken the time to do this for every scene in your novel, I encourage you to. It’s really important to helping you identify a scene’s purpose. Let’s look at this more deeply:

Questions to Dissect Scene Structure

  • What’s the most important thing that happens in this scene?

In the case of Maria, she starts to win over the trust of the children. Also, she learns the value of song with them (which ends up being really important in this particular story).

  • What’s the conflict and resolution of this scene?

Maria must figure out how to win over a wary group of children (she succeeds) and their father (she fails). Despite her failure with the father, Maria hatches a plan based on her success with the children.

  • What change do the character/characters experience?

For Maria, she starts to come up with new ways to reaching out to the family. In the case of the children, they start to see her as someone they can trust.

  • How is the plot advanced?

Maria’s relationship with the children and their father starts to develop as she begins to grow into a person they can trust and love and, for the father, someone who can help him rediscover the joy he’s pushed out of his life. Maria moves closer to her true purpose.

There are many other parts of a scene including the introduction of backstory, setting, and world-building. But if you can answer these questions with every scene in your book, you’ll find your scenes starting to grow in purpose. For the sake of summary, I’ve put them more cleanly below. Remember: making each scene purposeful is the key to making your entire book riveting.

Questions to answer for Scene Building:

  • What’s the most important thing that happens in this scene?
  • What’s the conflict and resolution of this scene?
  • What change do the character/characters experience?
  • How is the plot advanced?

Do you have a topic you would like us to cover? Let us know about your suggestion. 

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About Author

Annabelle McCormack is a writer and photographer from Baltimore, Maryland. When she's not busy writing, she's chasing around her four kids and enjoying life in the country. To follow her journey, check out @annabellemccormack on Instagram, where she posts regularly about her adventures.

2 Comments

  1. Michael van der Riet on

    The most important part of a novel is that it must entertain. Don’t leave your best writing on the cutting-room floor.

    • Annabelle McCormack on

      Yes, of course, don’t leave your *best* writing on the cutting-room floor. But that’s sort of the point, no? Your best writing will drive the plot forward and introduce conflict and rising tension in an entertaining way. Entertainment value alone is so subjective that it’s hard to measure. But if you create conflict within a scene and build your plot, it should help make that scene entertaining.

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