The Building Blocks of Story: Scenes

Ciao, SEers. Last time, we discussed Dwight Swain’s concepts of scenes and sequels. (If you missed that post, you can find it here.) Remember, a chapter’s scenes can be one of two things, a scene or a sequel. Today, we’re going to go deeper into the concept of scenes.

What are scenes?

Scenes are the “proactive” units of a story. They introduce and advance goals, conflicts, and disasters. Scenes should have all three items before advancing to the following sequel. Why must they include all three? Because all three are necessary for tension. And without tension, there’s no reason for a reader to turn the page.

Goals:

A goal is simply what your POV character desires. It could be:

  • an object (the Holy Grail)
  • a position (POTUS)
  • a state of being (overcome an injury)
  • a change in status (going from captive to freedom)

Whatever the character’s goal is, it has to be clearly recognized by the reader. Make it as specific as possible. Without a goal, the character isn’t acting; he’s reacting. And scenes are all about forward movement, taking charge, advancing the narrative. Goals rescue characters from being passive observers in their lives. (And believe me, readers do not want to read about passive characters.)

Conflicts:

A conflict is the roadblock to the goal. This is where the tension comes from. Without conflict, the goal is easily attainable. And a character who doesn’t have to work to achieve his goal is a boring character. Easy triumphs aren’t triumphant.

  • He wants the Holy Grail, but he has to answer a life-or-death riddle to get it.
  • He wants to win the election, but he’s being blackmailed to drop out of the race.
  • He wants to heal, but the therapy is too difficult.
  • He wants to escape, but he’s chained to the wall.

Without those conflicts, the character simply gets the Grail, coasts through his campaign, starts walking, or leaves the creepy dungeon. With the struggles, we have tension. And tension is what makes stories interesting.

Disasters:

A disaster is what happens when the goal can’t be reached. This is what keeps the story moving. When characters overcome the conflicts and reach their goals, the story is over. And that’s fine if you’re at the end of your novel. That’s what you’re shooting for. But if you’re in any other scene in your story, you need disasters.

  • He answers the riddle incorrectly and now is facing his demise.
  • He chooses not to drop out, then damaging photos are leaked to the press.
  • He stops going to therapy, and his lack of movement makes him develop a blood clot.
  • He pulls the chain free of the crumbling wall, but his captor hears the rattling chains and returns to the room.

Now, obviously small scene-level conflicts must be overcome and small scene-level goals must be met. But not always. Remember, we’re working on building tension. If you don’t let your characters overcome early conflicts and reach early goals, the story won’t advance. And as much as we need tension, we also need momentum. So, let a character win now and then, but on the heels of each victory must come a disaster. That’s what keeps the story moving.

Next time, we’re going to discuss Dwight Swain’s sequels. But for now, let’s talk about scenes. Do you consciously write them? Do you always follow them with sequels? Do you even think this is how a scene should be written? Sound off below.

Staci Troilo Bio

62 thoughts on “The Building Blocks of Story: Scenes

  1. Pingback: The Building Blocks of Story: Sequels | Story Empire

  2. This is an excellent post, Staci! Without goals to reach, roadblocks to prevent the character from reaching them and disasters along the way, there would be no story. One writing class teacher said every scene you write should turn the story. If it doesn’t cut it. I thought that was good advice. Thanks so much for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve heard that same thing, Jan, and I think it’s sound (whether it’s a scene or sequel or doesn’t follow Swain at all). I know I’ve had a few darling scenes that were just fun bits for me, and I didn’t cut them. I decided they revealed character and left them in. No one ever complained, but I always wondered if the stories would have been stronger if I had cut those darlings and used them as supplemental promo pieces, instead. I guess I’ll never know, but I am trying to be better about those things moving forward.

      Thanks for visiting and sharing that advice.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I believe I muddle my way through them. I have rough points that I want to hit, but I can’t be too focused or I lose what little creativity I have. I have tried to be more regimented, but that seems to be a stumbling block for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You can get in your own way if you focus too much on mechanics. It’s a fine balance between creativity and craft. You’ll find the method that works best for you by writing more. (Yes, sis, that’s a not-so-subtle hint.)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. As a plotter, I tend to create these scenes, but once I start writing, I go with the flow of the story and take my characters where they lead me. Then, in editing stage, I think I come back to scene creation. I doubt my scenes are as clean as this format seems to be, though. Lol!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think our processes are probably pretty similar. I plot carefully, but I don’t go into detail as I outline because I need the freedom to explore on the page. Then, when I begin revisions, I go back into editor-mode and look critically at my structure. I know I don’t follow Swain’s model to the letter, but I think I flirt with it.

      Having read your work, I can say with confidence it doesn’t matter if you follow his rules or not. You have an excellent grasp of story structure. I know you kept me turning the pages.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I used to read a craft book once a year just to refresh myself on all the things I read when I first started writing. Now, I rely mostly on reading other writers’ blogs to make me rethink the nuts and bolts of writing. I find their advice more personal, and Story Empire does a great job of reminding me of the skills that go into writing.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Aw, that’s the nicest thing you could have said. Thank you. I’m glad to know we are living up to our mission statement.

      You know I love your work, so keep doing what you’re doing. It’s clearly working for you.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I think I may follow this rule without knowing it. I’m very strange that once I concentrate on the nuts and bolts of writing (like goal, motivation, conflict), my creativity goes out the window. So I write and let the scene lead where it wants to go. Probably subconsciously, I’m following that path, but I can’t think about it or strive to make it happen or I become stymied. It’s also why I haven’t read a craft book in years, er…decades. I have a true and overwhelming fear of becoming hung up on the nuts and bolts.

    Decades ago I devoured craft books and hit a stone wall when I realized I was concentrating too much on craft. I lost my “voice” as a writer. I know it sounds silly but now I almost superstitious about focusing on techniques of any kind. Yes, I’m odd. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I go in spurts. There are times I devour craft books, then there are long stretches when I ignore them. But I agree with you—when I focus on craft as I plot or write, I lose the creative spark and it sounds wooden.

      Lately, I’ve been watching authors on YouTube. I still love hearing how other people write. But I think I let it all simmer in the background like a big pot of soup. All the ingredients meld and come together, but I don’t stare into the pot. I just enjoy the meal when it’s done. I know my writing has changed over the years. I think it’s a combination of life, writing experience, and yes, studying the craft. But I don’t think about that stuff when I compose. I let the magic happen in some corner of my brain that I never analyze and hope for the best.

      And not that you asked, but you’re a master craftsman. Whatever your process is, it clearly works for you.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Aww, wow–thank you And that’s back’atcha, you know?

        I love the way you described magic happening in a corner of your brain that you never analyze. I think a lot of that goes into writing!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you. 🙂

        You know, you may be right about that. No matter how many rules we follow or how much study the craft, there probably is a bit of magic involved in taking things to the next level. Following a blueprint may make the structure sound, but it doesn’t mean the work will be pretty when it’s done. I think we do need a little magic for that.

        Like

  7. Reblogged this on The Write Stuff and commented:

    Another thought-provoking Building Blocks of Story post from Staci Troilo over on Story Empire today. This time, it covers the three basic elements each scene should have. Check it out and see if you’ve been using all three elements, or if you need to work on it a bit (like me). Super information here, so be sure to pass it along so others can learn, too. Thanks, and thanks to Staci for making me think! 😀 ❤

    Liked by 2 people

  8. It all makes sense when you lay it out like this, Staci. Not sure if I’ve been doing it or not, as I sometimes provide scenes just for “entertainment” value, I suspect. But I’ll be very aware of it going forward. And I do like to end scenes on a note that compels the reader to turn the page, so perhaps that’s either “disaster” or “hinting at disaster?” Either way, though, this is a thought provoking post, and I’m sharing it over on TWS. Thanks for making me work my brain, even this early in the day! 😀

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I’ve been peripherally aware of this for years, so this is like a refresher course. I doubt that I follow all the rules. Sometimes I think I string scenes together before including a sequel. I’ve also extended the sequel phase and when that happens, I try to introduce some kind of tension at a lesser level.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. I don’t write sequels as such. Each chapter will contain resolution, from the previous chapter, then will introduce new conflict and struggle and growth. Sometimes a chapter contains the resolution to that trouble, but I usually like to leave the tension for the reader to have to wait for just a little bit. Great post and series, Staci 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t believe I actually plot out sequels, but when things have been going a breakneck speed, I throw in a slower passage so the characters, and the reader, can catch a breath. So, I suppose I do this subconsciously. When I read Swain’s process, it reminded me of what I do, so I thought I’d pass his info along. It’s always fascinating to me when I write a post like this because then I learn how everyone else works. Thanks for sharing your process.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. In a fiction writing course I took years earlier, the instructor talked about scenes having “Crisis, Struggle, and an Ephiny,” Not sure I actually agree with that, but many scenes with no conflict make a dull story. Some may not be as obvious as others, however each scene should have a purpose. I’ve cut scenes and even chapters from my books on the advice of critique partners. As Stephen King said, it’s like “killing your darlings,” but in the end it made the book stronger.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Killing darlings is one of the hardest things to do, I think. I was watching King on YouTube recently, and he referred to the “kill your darlings” rule. He said even he can’t help but keep a few of his favorites in. That made me feel a little better.

      I think the “crisis, struggle, epiphany” structure could also work, presuming the epiphany is revelatory enough to make the reader want to know what comes of it down the road. I was watching another writer on YouTube (Brandon Sanderson) where he recommended something similar, saying ending each scene on a hook is too stressful for a reader. He likes to end at a natural break so readers are comfortable putting down the book and walking away. His point is that it’s not only kinder to give them natural resting points, it’s a test of a good book. Readers will only pick it up again if the story is good. Interesting how the viewpoints can differ between writers, isn’t it?

      Liked by 2 people

    • I don’t think I could plot a novel so carefully that I’d do all these things for each scene, either. Though I do suspect my scenes follow this loosely. If you end your scenes with hooks or cliffhangers, you’re probably doing it and don’t even realize it.

      Like

  12. I don’t consciously write scenes like this, but on reflecting, my scenes (or waht I’ve been calling ‘parts’) contain all the elements described above. Guess I kinda do know what I’m doing after all… who’d have thunk it??!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m a firm believer that people who “know” story do a lot of things inherently without giving it much thought. My kids used to get frustrated because I could tell them who was guilty a few minutes into a show. (It later became a game with them, and after that, I refused to say so I didn’t ruin endings for them.) But over the years, they got better at guessing, too. I think it’s because they grew to understand what makes a good story. And they don’t even study the craft. If they’re picking up on these clues, those of us who live and breathe fiction are bound to internalize what makes good writing good.

      I always knew you knew what you were doing. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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