::crawls up from dark hole in the earth with pens and candy wrappers sticking out of the snarl of her hair::
I fell off a bit of a cliff with this blog the last couple of months, but that’s because I was finishing Veil of Thorns. The first draft is officially DONE! I’m letting it simmer for a bit before I dive into revisions, and concurrently I’ll be working on the SSS (super secret steampunk) project that I’m hoping to have ready in time for Pitch Wars. So, there is my mini writing update. Now let’s dig right in to this Writing Wednesday post!
Last summer, when I discovered #bookstagram, I started meeting a ton of fellow readers and writers, and I was lucky enough to glom on to the fabulous Kelsea Yu (@anovelescape), a local friend and fellow writer. She started the #writingbookwednesday hashtag for writers to share recommendations for writing books. It’s such a great idea, so today I want to talk about Scene & Structure by Jack M. Bickham. It’s part of the Writer’s Digest Elements of Fiction Writing series, and it is one of the 2 books that I hold responsible for helping me level up my writing (see this post for the other one).
The book is out of print, but you can still get the ebook, and I understand it has been updated with more current examples. Scene & Structure is dedicated to Dwight Swain who wrote the ever-popular but far drier (and more outdated) Techniques of the Selling Writer, and he is credited with developing the main concepts discussed in depth in Scene and Structure.
The main tools demonstrated in this book are called scene and sequel. These are the building blocks of a fiction book. Loosely defined, a scene is sequence of action that drives the plot forward, and sequel is exposition that builds the reader’s bond with the character(s).
Usually, we think of scenes as they exist in a movie or stage play: the scene is set, the characters come on, they perform their lines (and action), end scene. But in a novel, we are not restricted by the location of our characters or what they say or do. In books, we get to live inside a character’s head and heart and move with them freely through their world. Because of this ability, “scene” begs for another definition.
Swain broke scene down into 3 components:
At the outset of any scene, the character has a goal. Not their main story goal, but their “goal of the moment” i.e. the next step on their journey. Example scene goals are to get from point A to point B, to meet someone, to find a clue, to confront an enemy, seduce a lover, etc. The scene goal is never “save the world”, at least not until the final climactic scene.
We all know that without conflict, there is no story, so the next ingredient is obstacles that get in the way of the character’s scene goal. For example, getting from point A to point B could be impeded by traffic, or a car accident. Obstacles can be simple or complex and are often layered upon one another and begin to pile up.
At some point, these layers of conflict or one single blow will knock the goal completely out of reach. We, as writers, can’t resolve these obstacles (at least not all of them) because conflict = story, so instead we go the opposite direction. This is the moment when, after the traffic jam, which were created by car accidents, our wary driver finally sees the UFO in the sky that is causing all the chaos. It needn’t always be such a jump in scale, but the point is things go from bad to worse. Ending a scene on a disaster ensures that the reader will stick around to find out what happens next.
So, what is next? After the disaster, at some point the character will need to regroup, and Swain defined this aspect of the story as a sequel. Sequels don’t necessarily immediately follow a scene. Sometimes you may have multiple scenes between sequels (especially if you are alternating points of view–note that each character has their own thread of scene/sequel in a story).
Sequel breaks down into 3 components:
- VISCERAL/EMOTIONAL REACTION
- DECISION/NEW GOAL
After the scene disaster, the character should be reeling. They will have an immediate emotional response, or even a physical one, if the disaster resulted in physical harm. This is when the driver who just saw the UFO gets out of their car, pukes, and then wanders into the street to stare up at the sky with everyone else. What are they feeling? This is also where your reader connects, so I cannot stress the importance of it enough. Without sequels, your characters are just set pieces.
Once the initial shock wears off, the character must now figure out what to do. The nature of sequels is that they are generally heavy on exposition, because your character is (most likely) not going to walk around talking out their feelings and brainstorming with everyone they meet. Sequels can also be much shorter than scenes for this reason. I think of it like Morse Code, where scenes are dashes and sequels are dots.
The sequel ends when the character has finished weighing their options and decides what to do next. This decision is now the goal for the next scene.
Scene and sequel are very malleable, and I think the most important thing to take away is the sequence. To review, the general sequence is: GOAL, CONFLICT, DISASTER, REACTION, DILEMMA, DECISION (repeat). Understanding these concepts will help you analyze what is off in a scene you are struggling with, because you will know where you are in the sequence and therefore, where you are going next. It’s also an amazing editing tool and my go-to measuring stick for plot cohesion and flow. Once mastered, scene and sequel are also the two most powerful ways to control your story pacing.
That’s all I have time for today, but the concepts are also explored in-depth in Part 1 linked from this post by K. M. Weiland if you’re hungry for more.