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Writing your first novel is freaking hard. Actually, that’s an understatement. Sixty-thousand words. Hundreds upon hundreds of pages of story. A pure creative effort that can stand on its own. How does that even happen?
Think of all the things that go into a good story. Intriguing characters, a gripping plot, believable dialogue. Just pulling off one of those is hard enough. But all three? Seems damn near impossible.
Ok. Obviously, it’s not impossible. But, how do we get started? What’s the first step? Well, you can’t write an entire novel in one sitting. That’s just asking for an aneurysm. You have to start small. Begin by writing the basic unit of any story.
Start with a scene.
What is a scene?
A scene is a single slice of the action in the context of a larger story. Stories are made up scenes that interlock, one after the other. Each scene building on the work of the last and leading into the next. Like a long line of train cars, scenes drive the plot forward.
That’s a bad metaphor. I mean, the engine pulls the train so the cars don’t drive anything…
Whatever let’s move on.
So, how do we structure a scene?
Start with a goal
Just as characters should strive towards a goal in your story, they also need an objective in every scene. Maybe your hero is a detective pumping a witness for a key piece of information. One that will crack open their case. Or, flip it. Your character is a suspect trying their best to evade the probing questions of a savvy investigator. Just make sure that they have a goal that drives the action of the scene.
To get a handle on this we need to look at an actual scene. And because we’re talking about our first novel- an almost impossible task, let’s take a look at a scene from the Mission Impossible series.
Specifically, let’s look at the CIA vault heist from Mission Impossible. Tom Cruise plays secret agent Ethan Hunt. His goal- steal a NOC list from a highly guarded CIA mainframe. He accomplishes the daring theft by breaking it down into a series of small, actionable steps.
And our next step, after we’ve established a goal is to…
Introduce a conflict
Conflict. It’s a beautiful thing. Not only does it propel your story, but it’s also the engine of every scene. So, never go easy on your protagonist, even if they’re the world’s foremost secret agent.
In the Vault scene, Ethan has a number of conflicts to overcome.
First, there’s the setting.
The setting is a great tool for creating conflict. The vault is absurdly secure. The floor is pressure sensitive so our hero must repel from the ceiling never touching the ground. There is all manner of sensors that measure heat, and sound. Hunt must operate in complete silence. Even breaking a sweat will endanger his mission.
Another way to create conflict is through character.
Characters can interact in ways that create conflict. They can argue opposing philosophies, or just try to kill each other.
In Mission Impossible there’s a lowly bureaucrat manning the vault terminal. He has to be dealt with, and that’s easy enough, but there’s a deeper conflict. Hunt is putting his life in the hands of strangers. He’s forced to work with two disgraced, former government agents. Men he doesn’t know and can’t trust. One of whom is literally dangling Hunt from the ceiling by a rope.
His life is in their hands. And one slip may cause Hunt to fail at his mission. Which may not be a bad thing…
Let Your Characters Fail
Success is an elusive mistress. I’m reminded of that everytime I review the traffic stats for this blog… But I digress.
My point- have your characters make some mistakes.
Mistakes raise stakes.
I didn’t mean to rhyme there, but the point is valid.
If your character ends a scene in failure then they will have to try something even more desperate to achieve their goal. And, you’ll have somewhere to go with your story. So, end your scene with some sort of disaster. Have your character regroup, grow, and formulate an even crazier plan than before. That way you can…
Set up the next scene
People like to say that God never closes a door without opening a window. Well, as a writer, that’s what you need to do for your character. With every scene, you have to slam a door in their face, but also crank open a back window. Give them some small prospect for success. A plan so crazy it just might work.
Most scenes should end in failure, but you can’t make the failure so grand that your story stops dead in its tracks. Let’s say our Mission Impossible scene ended in a serious failure. Hunt is caught stealing the NOC list, rather than getting away.
What happens then?
Well, he’s carted off to jail, charged with espionage, and the fry him like Ethel Rosenburg. Kind of a downer ending, don’t you think?
Instead, Hunt is successful in his theft but soon learns that in an act of retaliation the government has arrested his mother. He must turn himself in or mom will spend the rest of her life in a federal penitentiary.
It seems like our hero has run out of options, when his former mentor, a man he thought dead, emerges from the shadows and helps Hunt hatch a daring scheme to clear his name.
Now, I’m not going to spoil the ending for you. Even if the movie is over twenty years old. So, let’s end this article with a recap.
Things to do in your scene:
- Give your character a goal- Something they’d like to gain by the end of the scene.
- Introduce a conflict- Something that gets in the way of your character achieving their goal.
- Have your character fail- You can either have them fail to achieve their goal or in achieving their goal experience some larger disaster.
- Set up the next scene- Through your character’s failure, they can formulate a new goal, a plan that will create the basis for your next scene. Thereby keeping the plot of your story moving
Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence by Lisa Cron
Scene & Structure by Jack Bickman
Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel by Lisa Cron
100 Scene Writing Prompts- Go Into the Story
4 Tips to Try When Your Scene Isn’t Working
How to Frame Scenes Like a Filmmaker
Writing 101: How To Write a Scene
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Anyway, I got to get out of here. it’s the holidays, so the annual office party is coming up. This year I signed up to make tapenade.
I don’t know why I did that.
I don’t even know what tapenade is.
I think it involves grape leaves, and maybe currants. I know it has lemon in it.
Party’s tomorrow, and it’s already 9 pm.
Oh damn, I am so screwed.
Listen, if you have a great tapenade recipe please drop it in the comments! You’d be doing me a real solid.
3 comments on “How To Structure a Scene”
Awesome advice. I hope the tapenade turned out well.
Thanks, KM! Turns out tapenade is not French for Pace Picante sauce as I was recently informed by several co-workers.