Dwight Swain, in his popular book TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER, defines scene as a unit of conflict lived through by character and reader. He tells us the big moments in our stories should all be in scene form. If something important happens to your characters or if you want some incident or part of the story to loom large in your readers’ minds, they must be in the form of scenes.
A scene moves your story forward while providing something interesting for the reader to read. It is action. It’s not flashback or back story or reflection, it is something happening. It’s physical and immediate. It’s the hero saving the town. It’s not him sitting in a bar telling everyone what he did. It happens here and now, on the page, not offstage.
Scene structure is simple, according to Swain. It consists of three elements:
Swain tells us that in every scene, the point-of-view (POV) character (the person through whom we are experiencing the scene) should have a goal. That goal should be one of three things. He should want possession of something, relief from something, or revenge for something. If the hero wants something, and it is easily given to him, there is no conflict. This makes for a boring story – which is not what you want. You want your readers to be engaged in your story. Thus whatever the character wants must be difficult to obtain (conflict) and something has to happen that will keep him from reaching his goal (disaster).
For instance, suppose our character wants to buy a house in town so he can tear it down and build a condo(goal). He could just go up to the owners and offer them a boatload of money and hope they bought, but what if the woman living there grew up there, it was a family home (conflict) and she didn’t want to sell, especially to him (disaster)?
A scene is made up of action, reaction, action, reaction revolving around one central character, though there may be other characters in the action with him. That’s the way to include dialogue and move the story forward faster. Plus, it’s a little difficult to have a fist fight with yourself. Adding other characters adds conflict and action. But the central problem of the scene should still be what the main character wants. It should be whomever has the most at stake, the most to lose. But it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes, it can be a quirky character who will give the reader a different, but more interesting perspective.
Just remember to end your scene with a disaster. According to Swain, this is a hook – “a device for catching, holding, sustaining, or pulling” the reader in. It puts your hero in jeopardy. Makes things worse. Ups the ante (okay, any more cliché’s here?). You get the idea. It upsets the hero and the reader and gives him a new goal to aim for.
Once you’ve figured out your scene, you start to write it and get bogged down. There are several ways a scene can fail:
- No focus character – your reader needs to know whose head he is in
- The goal is weak – there has to be a short-range goal and it has to be something important to the character
- The character is weak – if the goal is important enough, he has to be willing to fight for it
- There is no sense of urgency – a scene has to be immediate. There needs to be a time constraint (either real or imagined)
- The opposition is too vague – there has to be something for the hero to fight against
- The opposition is weak – like #2, there has to be something the villain is willing to fight for
- The scene is trivial, monotonous, or boring – there has to be trouble, and a lot of it
And now you know.
Start writing down ideas for scenes – major events in your story. Don’t worry about sequels – we’ll fill them in later. Right now, just hit the high points.
For further reading, I recommend: “Techniques of the Selling Writer” by Dwight V. Swain. It’s an oldie, but a very goodie.