Scenes are the basic building blocks of stories, but I haven’t found much succinct, useful information out there about how to structure a scene. So I was very excited when my brother Larry, an avid reader and plot-buddy extraordinaire, started telling me about patterns he was seeing in scenes that consistently worked in book after book. With his permission, I’m going to share his insights with you because I think he’s really on to something.
First, there must be real peril in the scene, either physical or psychological or both. If the scene’s protagonist is simply observing something but has no risk, the scene probably won’t work. Given that, here is Larry’s basic scene structure guide.
- Stage the scene: Let the reader know what the scene’s major character is doing immediately before the scene starts. This may take only a sentence or two or a couple of paragraphs but should rarely take more than half of a page.
Example 1: The protagonist is speeding down the highway with the setting sun glaring right into her eyes as she’s trying to get home by curfew.
Example 2: Our protagonist is cleaning the goat pen–on an alien planet that’s being terraformed by human colonists.
Example 3: She’s walking the family dog in the park along the river at 6:00 a.m. There are one or two other distant dog walkers but no one close.
Example 4: She’s firing her starboard thruster to adjust her spaceships trajectory.
- Anomaly/Irregularity: Something small but unexpected happens. It’s not something that’s been happening all along that the character suddenly notices. It’s a new thing that attracts the character’s attention.
Example 1: An old pickup with a flapping tarp pulls out in front of her, and something flies out the back.
Example 2: She feels a tickle on her left forearm.
Example 3: The old dog plants its feet, refusing to budge, its rheumy eyes fixed on a cluster of bushes swaying in the breeze twenty feet away.
Example 4: She catches a whiff of burnt wire.
- Investigation/Discovery: In action/emotional gut-punch scenes, this phase can be ultra-short or simply implied and simultaneous with the next steps—plan, action and failure—or it can take pages and make up the bulk of the scene. It may only be the character glancing aside, or it could involve sleuthing through an office after dark. In an abrupt scene, investigation/discover can even happen after plan, action and failure.
- +/- Plan: Once the character has identified the irregularity, she comes up with a plan to deal with the situation. Her plan can be anything from a subconscious, reflex reaction to a full-fledged decision weighing pros and cons.
- Action: The protagonist acts. Acting can include freezing.
- Failure: The character’s plan/action fails.
Though investigation/discovery, plan, action and failure generally happen in that order, they don’t have to. They can even be inter-twined.
Example 1: She smashes down on the brake, but there’s an ugly thunk sound and a jolt as the debris connects with her car. Only after she pulls to the side of the road does she realize it was a piece of rotted two-by-four, complete with rusty nails—and that the left front tire is toast. (In this case, her plan to avoid the oncoming projectile is subconscious and occurs simultaneously with action. Then, only after failure, does she go through the discover/investigation step.)
Example 2: She’s already brushing at the thing when she recognizes the velvety purple and green markings of a cow-killer, an alien bug armed with venom potent enough to drop a bull to its knees. It stings her. (Action, then discovery/investigation, followed by failure.)
Example 3: She peers into the brush, but doesn’t see anything. The dog is older than dirt and half blind, but still, the girl is cautious as she creeps forward, dropping the leash. (Since this one’s a suspense it will take time to develop, but you get the gist.) Pushing aside the vegetation, she sees a grubby man hunched over the body of a little boy. She thinks runaway, runaway, runaway, but her legs aren’t working. She can’t move. (Plan, action, discovery/investigation then failure.)
Example 4: She powers down the ship and goes in search of the source of smoke, discovering a fried circuit in the navigation system. After getting out the ship’s tool kit, she finds that half its normal contents are missing. (Discover/investigation, plan, action then failure.)
Rinse and repeat plan, action and failure until you get to the worst moment of the scene, the apparent defeat.
- Apparent Defeat: The lowest point when it looks like the scene’s protagonist is in the greatest physical and/or emotional peril. The risk doesn’t necessarily have to be real, but the character needs to think it is real.
Example 1: After swearing, she goes to call her parents, but can’t find her phone. Oh crap, she left it behind at Patty’s. Finally, she goes to the back of the car, and opens the trunk. While she’s standing there, staring at the pieces of the jack, trying to figure out what the heck to do with it all, a car pulls in behind her. A nice guy gets out and says he’ll change the tire for her, but when he gets close, he grabs her and puts her in a headlock. (Plan, action, plan, action then apparent defeat.)
Example 2: She goes down, curling into a fetal position, her muscles spasming.
Example 3: Behind her, the dog growls. The man’s head whips around, and he starts bellowing at her.
Example 4: She scavenges parts and improvises until she thinks she’s solved the problem, only to find that now the ship won’t start back up. All the electrical systems are dead.
- Reaction: This time, there is no plan. The protagonist simply reacts.
Example 1: She flails, and her hand lands blindly on the lug wrench and bashes the guy’s head with it again and again.
Example 2: She’s rolling around in the goat muck, cradling her arm.
Example 3: She rabbits.
Example 4: She loses it and bangs on the control panel with her palm.
- Success, Failure or Escape: One of those three things happens.
Example 1: She uses her attacker’s phone to call the police. (Success)
Example 2: But the goat poop and urine she’s wallowing in numbs the pain, somehow neutralizing the venom. She’s discovered a treatment!
Example 3: She rabbits and makes it halfway down the beach before she realizes what the man behind her is yelling and what is really going on. He’s yelling for her to call 911. The guy isn’t a killer, he’s doing CPR on the kid. He’s trying to save him. (In this case, it was a false sense of jeopardy.)
Example 4: The lights wink back on.
Of course, not every scene needs every step, and if the scene you’re writing is already working, don’t worry about it. But if a scene feels dead-on-the-page, try giving Larry’s scene structure a go. And make sure to include peril! Without peril—whether physical, emotional or both—there is no scene.