Tips for Writers—Scene Structure

phone and bookAs I mentioned before, this isn’t a writing blog. However, because this blog is about me, and I write books, it is somewhat inevitable that the subject of writing will come up from time to time. Today I’m going to talk about structure. Not the structure of a novel as a whole (we’ll cover that another time), but the structure of an individual section within a novel. (I am resisting using the word “scene” for reasons that will be clear in a moment—bear with me.)

Often, we writers focus on the big picture—characters, plot, setting—but when it comes down to actually writing a specific section of the story, sometimes we draw a blank. When I’m in this situation, I find it helpful to remember a basic structure that can be applied in most situations in a novel.

I did not come up with the following structure. I learned it from a book by Jack Bickham, an American author and writing teacher who, in addition to writing a bunch of novels (75 of them, according to Wikipedia), also wrote a book called Scene & Structure, which was published by Writers Digest Books in 1993. I’m only going to touch on Bickham’s ideas here. For more depth, you’ll need to pick up his book. (And I do recommend it. Scene & Structure is one of the more practical craft books out there, covering the nitty gritty of writing, right down to sentence structure.)

Scene & Structure

Scene & Structure, one of the more practical craft books out there

In his book, Bickham describes a structure he calls “scene and sequel.” (This is why I have avoided using the word “scene” throughout this blog post—Bickham assigns a specific meaning to that word that differs from its common use.) To very roughly paraphrase Bickham, a “scene” is the section in which a character acts, and a “sequel” is the section following the scene, in which the character reflects on what happened in the scene. Bickham maintains that you need both, and that one follows the other, alternating throughout the book.

Bickham breaks down the components of a scene and sequel as follows:

Components of a Scene:

Goal: As the scene begins, the reader is told the viewpoint character’s goal. There should be no ambiguity. Just go ahead and say it: “Jessie needed to reach her gun before the man in her apartment could kill her.”

Conflict: The character seeks the goal but encounters an obstacle. The conflict is the character’s struggle to overcome the obstacle and reach his or her goal. In my Jessie example, the gun is on a high shelf in the bedroom closet, and the killer stands between Jessie and the closet. She tries to get around him.

Disaster: Unless this is the end of the story, the character’s struggle ends in disaster. The writer has a handful of options here. For example, the character can fail to reach the goal, or reach the goal but discover that the goal presents even greater problems. Example: Jessie gets past the man, races to the closet, and gets the gun—but the man takes it away from her. Now she’s in an even worse position than when she started, because her attacker now has a gun.

Usually, a scene flows immediately into a sequel.

Components of a Sequel:

Emotion: The character is reeling from the disaster. There’s no logic or reasoning yet, just pure emotional turmoil. In my example, Jessie would be feeling terror as she looks down the barrel of the gun.

Thoughts: The character gets past the emotion stage and starts to think, applying logic and reasoning. Jessie would start thinking about how to survive against an armed attacker. Maybe if she could shut off the lights, plunging the apartment into darkness, she could escape.

Decision: Thoughts lead to a plan, which the main character decides to pursue. The light switch is only two feet to her right. She could lunge for it.

Action: The character takes the first step in the new plan. Jessie makes a move for the light switch.

From here, you cycle to the next scene. The character states his or her goal, and so on.

Obviously, this is a very clinical way to approach writing. I DO NOT suggest that writers consciously apply this structure as they write, filling in the proper pieces step by step. It’s better to give your creativity more freedom than that.

However, if you get stuck in the middle of a section, or if you’ve written a section but it doesn’t seem to be working, Bickham’s structure can be a very useful map to help you find your way forward. That’s how I use it.

Here’s an excerise: Pick a random book and open it to a random section. Does the author follow Bickham’s basic structure? I’ve done this exercise and been surprised by how often the answer is yes.

Let me know your results in the comments section below.