The 5 Essential Components of Scene Structure

table elements

Writing scenes can be daunting, but, as with all novel components, it just takes time and effort to learn how to become a master scene crafter. The first step is getting the big picture of a scene.

What do I mean by that? Instead of thinking about the minute details you want to put in a scene, you first want to step back and consider a few things.

The Point

Each scene in your novel should be moving the plot forward. Each scene should reveal some new information, but not just anything—the information needs to help move the plot forward. The bottom line? Every scene must have a point to it or it shouldn’t be in your novel.

If you’ve been following my blog for some time, or you’ve read my writing craft books in The Writer’s Toolbox series, you’ve heard me spout this. When brainstorming your scene ideas, it’s crucial that you first consider the point of your scene.

Ask: What do I need to have happen in this scene that moves the plot forward?

Depending on where this scene is going to come in your novel, that answer will vary. Opening scenes in a novel should be setting up your protagonist in his ordinary life. Around the 10 percent mark of your novel, some incident or opportunity should occur that shifts the character’s direction and/or focus. It interrupts that ordinary world. Through a series of events, the character is then moved into position by the 25% mark to launch his goal. From then on, all scenes orbit around this one purpose: to aid or hinder or complicate the protagonist’s pursuit of this goal.

So when considering the point to your scene, you need to know exactly where in the story that scene will occur. Instead of thinking “I wonder what I should have happen to my character next?” first consider what section (some think in terms of acts) of your novel this scene is going to be placed.

For example, the second act of your novel involves progress and setbacks for the protagonist as he goes after his goal. As you build to the big climax, you are making it harder and more hopeless for him, with more obstacles and complications. Keeping this in mind helps you determine exactly what the purpose of your scene will be.

Take Time to Learn Plot Structure

While this series on scene structure is not going to delve deeply into overall plot structure for your novel, if you aren’t aware of basic novel structure and the essential plot points and where they are positioned in a story, you should take the time to learn this. Why? Because if you don’t get novel structure clear, your scenes aren’t going to serve the plot’s interest. They will wander about aimlessly, confusing readers and accomplishing little to nothing of importance.

Later on in the year, I’m going to teach you my 10-20-30 scene plotting framework that you can use to ensure every scene in your novel serves your plot. But for now, I highly encourage you to buy some books on structure that break all this down simply for you. The best book for this is James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure. Other great books are The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson and Structuring Your Novel by K. M. Weiland. The time you take to learn novel structure will be invaluable to you in your writing journey, so don’t put this off.

And the best way to ensure your structure is solid is to get a thorough critique of either your rough or polished full draft or of your scene outline. If you haven’t finished writing your novel, you don’t have to wait to get help. I work with many authors at the outline stage. You can hire me to critique just the first few chapters to give an assessment of how the premise and characters are being set up.

If you’re struggling or unsure you’re on track, hire me! Contact me here to discuss your project and what concerns you have about your structure.

5 Essential Components

Let’s say you know exactly what the purpose of your scene will be. You may have your protagonist’s best friend turn on him. You may want to introduce an accident or some violence to upend things. You may be bringing a love interest on stage, or have an ally try to stop your character from making a bad decision.

Now that you have the purpose in mind for your scene, what next? Let’s look at the first five key components to crafting that scene.

  1. The high moment. Your scene has to have a key moment that encapsulates the point of your scene. Think carefully about what that moment should be. It’s usually a reveal—a clue, a new bit of information, a reveal of character that impacts the story. It can be big or subtle.

Moments aren’t about big action but about significance. What is significant to your POV character for that scene. A high moment can be a complication that shows up, a reversal (something happens opposite to what the character expected), or a surprise twist to the plot.

  1. Start in the middle of action. Last year on this blog we spend a month covering the fatal flaw of “nothin’ happenin’.” The popular term in medias res means starting in the middle of something. Remember last week I gave the scene example of character John waking up and getting dressed, then heading to work? That may sound like the scene is starting in the middle of things. John is waking up and getting going in his day, right?

Nope. The idea here is to start in the middle of something interesting that’s going on. Something that makes the reader wonder just what has been happening up till now.

Imagine walking into a room to find two people in the midst of an argument. You know you’ve missed something, but you’re intrigued to find out just what. That’s the feeling you want to get with your scene openings. I suggest thinking about that high moment, then starting about 15-20 minutes of screen time earlier. That time factor will vary depending on your scene, certainly, but it’s a good rule of thumb when considering at what moment to open with.

  1. Establish the POV character and stay in that POV. Make sure to be clear whose POV this scene is in by the first or second paragraph. It may be obvious, such as when writing in first-person POV. But even with first person, it can be easy to fall into explanation and lengthy narrative that feels out of POV. So make that character present to the reader right away.

“Rule” is: only one POV per scene. So stick with that one character, showing only what she can see, think, or feel. If you need to get into another character’s head, wrap up that scene, do a scene break (put a # in the middle of a blank line), and then start the new scene.

  1. Establish the setting. This is one component that is frequently ignored. Make it clear where this scene is taking place. Don’t do an info dump of details, but rather show the setting through the POV character. I’ve written dozens of posts on the importance of setting, and I have to emphasize here—it’s almost always undertreated in every manuscript I critique. You don’t need much, but it’s essential. That includes a feel for the weather, time of day and year. Sensory detail is critical in order to bring a scene alive, and the most evocative details are those dealing with setting.
  2. Consider the conflict. Conflict is story. Ideally, you want conflict oozing out of every page. So take some time to think about the conflict inherent in your premise and plot.

The character arc requires inner conflict, which is really the character’s struggle as he is forced to grow and learn and change through the story. The outer conflict is embodied by antagonists and nemesis characters who create interference and obstacles for the protagonist as he goes after his goal. Outer conflict can be incidents that impact any or all of your characters.

Just know this: if your scene is lacking conflict, it will fall flat.

James Bell likes to teach that every scene should have a death in it: the death of a dream, a job, a friendship, a hope, or maybe even a literal death. This is the essence of conflict and complication.

So for starters, drill these five essential scene components into your head, and as you are plotting out your next potential scenes, or revisiting ones you already have, be sure you’re including these.

Thoughts? Which one of the above five scene essentials do you struggle with? Which is the most important to you?

9 Responses to “The 5 Essential Components of Scene Structure”

  1. Robin January 11, 2016 at 9:37 am #

    i recently shared a descriptive scene in one of the writer groups i belong to. i got one feedback comment saying it was info dump. which then threw me into a tailspin to reword it. (which i did to an extent, with dialogue interspersed) i do write prologue (this series anyway) and am struggling to balance how much of previous storyline to include thus far. coincidentally (?) i am reading a trilogy—the third book of the trilogy—by Nora Roberts, and came across what could be described as info dump, giving some of what took place in the two previous stories.
    i guess my question is, what is the balance between describing the setting and info dump? or was this particular commenter off in her reaction (i posted only that bit of description)
    as a semi-newbie and an indie, i follow your posts with great interest, saving some, printing some even, for future reference
    thanks so much for all of your posts!

    • cslakin January 11, 2016 at 9:54 am #

      Hi Robin, we did a lot of posts last year on this topic. So check the section of Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing (or buy the book!) and look at the month’s posts on description deficiencies and excesses and the month on backstory (also the one on Nothin’ Happenin’ talks about info dumps). The Before and After passages help show you ways to fix this kind of flaw in writing.

      Hope that helps! And glad this blog is helping your writing!

  2. Harald Johnson January 11, 2016 at 1:42 pm #

    Really good post. Already printed and taped up (next to others from here :).

    One thing I do to help remind me of such things is to include them in my “scene summary,” which is my outline, scene-by-scene, summarized in 6-10 lines (per scene). For “The Point” or “High Moment,” I start with “MISSION: xxxx” (taken from Larry Brooks). The POV character name is color coded so I can tell instantly who’s scene it is. For “Setting,” I have one line each for “Location” and “Day & Time.” The weather naturally comes out of that. My main challenge is “Conflict.” Sometimes, my scenes are more like “Sequels,” in which there are reflections or moments of relief or time for catching a breath (especially after a Action scene). This is where a Reveal can come in, and I need to pay more attention to that.

    Again, thanks for a great post.

    • cslakin January 11, 2016 at 2:03 pm #

      Good ideas, Harald. Thanks for sharing. My scene outline template includes those elements (some called by different terms). Those are important details to set up and keep track of.

  3. Morgyn Star (@MorgynStar) January 11, 2016 at 4:46 pm #

    C.S. first, came over to the site to grab the URL & post it to our Google Plus page.

    Wow, oh wow! I love the header. Really love it! So you, so personal.

    Everything else, as always, spot on!

  4. Carrie Aulenbacher January 12, 2016 at 6:06 am #

    For #5, do I really literally want conflict on EVERY page? I’ve never heard this said and, looking at my contemporary romance, it doesn’t have that level of conflict going on. Does the amount of conflict depend on genre? I’m looking to revive my mob trilogy, which will be easier for me to write where conflict is concerned, but now I’m wondering HOW much conflict I should put in. Should I have 5-8 separate plot lines interspersed to insure that I have TONS of conflice going on? EEK – now I’m worried!!!

    • cslakin January 12, 2016 at 6:25 am #

      Hi Carrie, you don’t have to stress about it! Really, conflict can be subtle. It’s an underlying tension that things aren’t perfect, that all characters aren’t “happy people in happyland.” There should always be a bit of microtension on every page. In each scene, your character needs or wants something or is trying to do something or get somewhere. Conflict can be thoughts in opposition to each other. She wants to go see him, but she’s afraid he might think she’s too forward. That’s inner conflict or tension. Make sense?

  5. Jack Orchison January 23, 2016 at 5:27 pm #

    I tend to struggle with setting. Whereas I might know exactly where and when a scene is taking place, the reader may not. It doesn’t take much to put it right, but it is a failing that listeners will pick up. Thankfully the critique group I attend spot this sort of thing.

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