As I think I mentioned in another post, for many years I’ve been a regular judge in writing contests, usually for unpublished writers. One problem I often find in entries is that beginning writers don’t understand scenes.
When you’re writing a novel, the fundamental building block of the story isn’t the chapter. It’s the scene. As a novelist, you stack scene upon scene, building your story with each step until you finally arrive at the end of your story.
If you do it right, you’ll find this results in a gorgeous story structure that keeps readers turning pages because they can’t bear to stop reading until the very end.
How long is a scene?
A scene varies in length of course, from as little as a single sentence, to 10 or 20 pages. But if I had to come up with a ballpark average length, it would probably be around 5 to 7 manuscript pages. For the sake of argument, let’s suppose they average around 5 pages each. That’s probably right around 1,250 to, maybe, 1,500 words of text.
Okay, so if you’re writing a 100,000-word book, that means you’ll need between 67 and 80 total scenes. It sounds like an awful lot, and maybe you’re intimidated by the thought of writing 70 or 80 scenes. But you get through that the same way you’d eat an elephant…one bite (or scene!) at a time.
Please also don’t think that every scene in your book has to be the same length. Some will be very short, some quite a bit longer. But if you know you typically write scenes about 5 pages long, you can guesstimate the number of scenes you need based on that average.
What makes a scene a scene?
Here’s where things get tricky. A scene is not just something that happens at a particular location or time. Instead, every scene has a structure to it. I credit Jack Bickham’s fabulous book SCENE & STRUCTURE for helping me figure out what constitutes a well-constructed scene. Believe me, if you haven’t read this classic, run out and get a copy. Study it. You won’t be sorry.
Okay, so what is this mysterious structure? It’s actually very easy:
- The POV character has something specific he or she needs to accomplish within this scene. This is called the “scene goal.”
- The POV character encounters obstacles in trying to accomplish that scene goal.
- At the end, the POV character (usually) experiences a disaster–he or she does not generally accomplish that scene goal. OR, the scene goal is achieved, but it doesn’t result in what the POV character expects, leaving him or her worse off than before.
Explaining scene structure
Several points to note about this structure. First there is one POV character in one scene. Yes, if you’re Stephen King, John Grisham, or Nora Roberts you can violate this. If you’re not at the top of the NYT Bestseller list, and if you have a decent editor, you can’t. I’ll do more on staying in POV in another post, but for now, just recognize that if you can’t hold POV within the scene you need to learn how to stay in control of POV.
Remember: one and only one point-of-view character in each scene. When you’re an NYT Bestselling author, you can violate this. Until then…one per scene. Period.
Second, note that the scene goal is specific to this scene. Maybe your sleuth needs to convince a witness to be truthful about what she saw on that dark and stormy night. Maybe he’s breaking into the bad guy’s office to find that essential clue. Maybe he’s trying to get out of that cavern where he’s trapped with the river rising. Whatever it is, the scene goal defines the action within these 5 or so pages. It’s what the POV character hopes to accomplish in that very short period of time.
The thing to remember about scene goals is that the only things that go into the text of the scene are those actions and dialogue that promote the scene goal. Don’t stray. Keep the focus on the attempt to accomplish that goal. If your characters are just chit-chatting and making nice-nice with each other–cut it. It doesn’t belong in the scene. (Not in any scene, actually.)
Third, in trying to accomplish that scene goal, the POV character encounters some kind of obstacle. This is the scene conflict. It is what makes the scene interesting. That conflict can come from trying to do something against the clock, or from opposing another person or persons, or from trying to overcome a natural obstacle: cross that river, escape from that army, get out before the bomb goes boom…
Every single scene has to have scene conflict. Every single one. No exceptions!
The unexpected part of the scene basics is that the scene ends in disaster not success. You’d think that the point would be to let your POV character (who is probably your hero, of course) accomplish that scene goal, right?
How it works.
Surround her with hostile natives around the tree throwing poison darts up at her [scene goal: don’t get hit with the darts].
Have them start a fire to burn down the tree [scene goal: don’t get fried].
Okay. I bet you’d like to read that series of scenes, right? (Me, too!) The point is, you keep making things worse for the character because that leaves the reader wondering how the heck she’s going to get out of this mess!
Imagine if, when the heroine was stuck up that tree, you simply had her climb down. Dull. Boring. Blah. You just killed the interest in your story. The reader puts down your book and forgets to ever pick it up again.
By constantly making things worse for your character you build a page-turner.
The reader cannot stand to stop reading because you’re ratcheting up the tension big time. She’s constantly wondering how on earth the hero is going to get out of this fine mess. That’s how you keep the reader reading. Only at the very end of the book when you resolve the story do you finally let the hero achieve that scene goal. Until then…nope. Not a chance.
Summarizing scene basics
So that’s the structure of every single scene:
- Scene goal
- Scene conflict
- Scene disaster
Go back and check every single scene. Can you underline or highlight where you’ve stated the scene goal? Can you find identifiable conflict opposing that goal? Do you end the scene with a disaster?
If you can answer yes to those three questions you at least have the basics of good scene structure down pat.