Writing Craft

Scene Structure

This week I was working with a friend who was considering a professional line edit and wanted my opinion if the cost was worth it. Normally, I encourage anyone who wants to hire an editor, but in this case, I said no. The reason: a line edit wouldn’t have fixed the real issue. The problems with the sample scene were structural.

What is a structural problem?

The structure of the scene is the logical progression of meaningful moments that creates an event in a story.  Sounds simple enough, but many writers interpret this to mean “a list of what happened during a specific time in the character’s life.” The problem with this approach is two-fold: first, the moments included in the scene aren’t meaningful, and second, info-dumping on the reader.

Meaningless moments

These include little life moments with no effect on the plot: waking up, getting dressed, brushing teeth, etc. Writers include these because they happened, but they only pad the story with useless filler. These moments don’t have a defined purpose. Cut these bits without mercy!

Info-dumping scenes

Info-dumping (or the magic fix-it scene) is more difficult to identify and fix. This is one place where “show, don’t tell” gets writers into trouble by creating dead-dull, convoluted scenes.

Types of info-dumping scenes

  1. Character building scene– this is the scene that exists purely to “show” the reader some aspect of the character’s personality. (Your normally bad-ass UF heroine spends five pages playing with her dog so she can be more “likable,” for example?)
  2. World building scene– This is a scene that exists purely to “show” the reader some aspect of the world building. There is no reason for the character to sit at her desk and think through all the reasons her government is corrupt. If it doesn’t cause her to do something, then it’s info-dumping.
  3. Backstory– This is the most difficult for writers to identify and fix. This scene happens at or near the beginning of the story. (Every have a beta tell you your story begins in the wrong place?) In this version, the writer intends to “show” the critical event that started the character’s journey. Normally, this would be the correct choice, but in this scenario the character did not have agency (the ability to effect change in their story). This lack of agency or choice means the event really belongs in the character’s backstory.

Let’s look at a few scenarios: 

A lottery winner becomes disillusioned with her new life 

You may be tempted to show the scene where she sees the numbers flash up on the screen one-by-one and she realizes her life is about to change forever. The problem with this scene is that the character is passive through the entire sequence. She doesn’t have a choice to make, so there’s no tension. Unless there is a reason she might not choose to cash in that ticket, the story actually begins after she’s settled in her new life.

Hiker gets trapped on the mountain

We don’t need a scene showing her packing for the trip, or even her deciding to go. The story begins with her choice to go despite the bad weather report.

Two teens escape from post-apocalyptic work camp

We don’t need to see what led up to their arrest.

In these scenarios, the opening doesn’t effect the outcome. On the surface, that statement seems false, but the distinction is the lack of agency and conflict. In the first two scenarios, there’s no conflict. The character didn’t make a decision, so the entire scene does nothing except relay information to the reader. In the last scenario, the chain of causation is broken by the arrest. The girls want to escape from prison, the reason they got there is irrelevant to the goal. In all three scenarios, the beginning scenes are actually backstory.

How to tell if your scene is necessary

If you are still not sure, Jami Gold’s scene goal worksheet can help you evaluate wether you are heading in the right direction.

In her worksheet, she states that a scene must have one of the following: plot point, character goal, action to advance plot, action to increase the tension/stakes. I’m going to edit this slightly and suggest that every scene must have a character goal, which results in: a plot point, an action to advance plot, or an action to increase the tension/stakes.

Jami lists several secondary goals on her chart such as characterization, world building, etc. These cannot be the primary purpose of your scene. If they are, your scene will not engage the readers. Editors will tell you that these elements should be “sprinkled in” other scenes. These types of scenes do nothing to move the action forward. This is why they are considered info-dumping. Even showing can be info-dumping. Scenes must have story-driven goals.

Structuring a scene

Make sure your scenes have these components: (or download my scene planning worksheet)

  1. Beginning: The POV character needs to have a goal
    • What does your main character want at the beginning of the scene?
    • What will happen if she doesn’t get it? (stakes)
  2. Middle:
    • What does she do to achieve this goal?
    • What stands in her way? Show this conflict
  3. End: Results
    • The character wins, but the solution causes a new problem (advance plot)
    • The character loses and the situation is worse because… (increase stakes)

Let’s look at an example:

Beginning: Dorothy wants to go back to Kansas (goal) Never see her family again (stakes)
Middle: She asks the wizard to help her (action to achieve goal) Wizard is a jerk and doesn’t want to help. (conflict)
End: Wizard agrees to help, (win) but only if Dorothy kills the Wicked Witch (new problem, advances plot)

All three components must occur to create a cohesive narrative that tells the story of an event. The event must change something. Either it changes the character’s goal (advance plot), or it increases the tension (stakes). If your scene does not tell a cohesive narrative, then it likely isn’t working.

The structure of every scene should be designed to tell the story of that scene’s goal. A scene that changes nothing, but only relays information to the reader, is info-dumping. Don’t fall into this trap. Scenes are miniature stories. Make sure you structure yours properly.

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M.L. Keller is a freelance writer and editor. Her blog "The Manuscript Shredder" is focused on helping emerging writers hone their craft.


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