We’re about to look at the “10” in my 10-20-30 Scene Builder concept. I suppose I should come up with a better name for this, but haven’t taken the time yet. Maybe you can help me come up with a better name.
But what I’m going to be doing is showing you how you might structure your novel in a practical way. While these thirty scene types represent solid story structure, keep in mind—and I’ll reiterate this numerous times—that this is only one (hopefully fun) way for you to put some structure to all your great ideas for your novel. Or maybe to use as a measure to hold up to your rough (complete or incomplete) draft to see what possible scenes might be missing from your story.
While this doesn’t help to point out the possible superfluous scenes you have that aren’t advancing your plot in a significant way, it will at least show you what scenes you probably should have. Those other scenes—well, they might be just the right transitional scenes. And then again not.
Having a professional critique of your story outline or rough draft is going to be the best way for you to know if you have all the scenes you need and if they’re in the right place and accomplishing something important in your story.
How Many Scenes Do You Really Need to Start Writing?
Elizabeth George, in her terrific craft book Write Away, talks about how a writer should have about ten to fifteen scenes figured out before starting in on writing. That’s going to vary from writer to writer. Some writers, like me, want to have about thirty to fifty scenes roughly figured out (and put on index cards) before diving into writing. I always allow for spontaneous character takeover. Meaning, my characters, as is the way with most well-developed characters, often go riding off in some direction I hadn’t planned. And most of the time they know what they’re doing and I go along for the ride.
It’s important to be flexible, to allow for new scene ideas to pop up. But I’m a stickler for strong structure. So whether you can pull a great novel together with laying out only a dozen key scenes before you start writing, or you need to work up more scenes, know that it’s going to be a tremendous help if you do this “laying out” work before you start writing.
Stop “Pantsing” Already!
You pantsers out there: I don’t know how you are still following my blog (she says, laughing). You know how opposed I am to winging it when it comes to writing a novel.
Seriously, you writers out there who just “can’t plot.” You can. You just don’t want to.
And maybe you love to suffer through wasted months or years of your life throwing out draft after draft and agonizing all the way through (what is supposed to be a fun process!) your novel writing wondering if your story is any good.
So I’m inviting you all—pantsers too—to try this on, this scene building concept I’m presenting. You will find it so much more fulfilling to have efficient and productive writing time so you can actually have a life. Go on trips with your family. Watch the NBA finals. Take hikes with your dog. Smell the roses. You get to do all that with all the time you save when you plot instead of write by the seat of your pants.
Well, I hadn’t gotten up on that soapbox for a while, so I just had to do that. Okay, it’s out of my system now. Let’s move on.
Arbitrary But . . .
The first ten scenes in this layered process are the key ones. Many writing instructors have variations of this. I decided the 10-20-30 sounded well-rounded, balanced. It’s arbitrary. I could give you thirty-seven key scenes or twenty-three. I like round numbers and things that are easy to remember.
The number 9 isn’t arbitrary here.
Solid stories have five major milestones, and they unfold in four parts. Do the math . . . that’s nine things—specific turns and essences—that need to be identified, and then broken down into individual scene treatments.
In this post I’m quoting from, he breaks down The Hunger Games into nine sentences, which represent those nine key scenes in the book.
The Five Key Turning Points
Those five major milestones he’s talking about correspond to the five key turning points story master Michael Hauge emphasizes so strongly.
So now that we’ve taken a look at the midpoint and the two pinch points (that’s three turning points, if you’re counting), and we’ve talked about the inciting incident, which you probably already knew something about. That incident comes near the start of the book and is the initial disturbance or “opportunity” (Hauge) that pushes the protagonist in a direction that leads to the formation of the goal for the character (the plot goal for the book).
If I’ve already lost you and you’re new to the story structure game, be sure to take some time and read some blog posts and writing craft books to get a good understanding of this. Be sure, also to read my posts preceding this one so you’re on the same page with the rest of us here.
So let’s look at the first key turning point:
Point 1: “Opportunity.” Yes, this is the inciting incident. Hauge puts it so nicely: “An event occurs that creates desire in the protagonist. Reader gets a glimpse of their longing or need.”
Ah: core need. How often I harp on this. Protagonists (and all main characters) need motivation. We do things for a reason, and your protagonist needs a strong reason to chase after her goal. We bond with characters whose needs are clear. We see what they care about, what they’re passionate about, what they love to do, what they believe in. But underneath all that is the need. A basic, maybe even primal need.
Every great story has this. Scarlett O’Hara needs love. She sure hasn’t a clue what it is or how to get it. But it’s her core need.
Katniss Everdeen needs to protect and care for her family. Her core need means she has to be courageous and self-sacrificing.
What’s your protagonist’s need? If he doesn’t have one, you’re in trouble. I’ve written dozens of posts and chapters in my writing craft books on the protagonist and his core need. Just type in “core need” in the search bar if your core need is to understand this and why it’s crucial to your story! A protagonist without a core need is like a day without sunshine.
Where Does the First Turning Point Occur?
The other thing so important to understand is this inciting incident or opportunity needs to come at the beginning of your story. At about the ten percent mark. If you have a four-hundred page novel (well, you may not yet know how many pages your book will end up having, at this point), that incident is going to show up around page forty. Or sooner.
Too many manuscripts I edit and critique are either lacking that important incident or it’s way far into the story. There might be a hundred pages of backstory first, setting up the characters and premise. Or a lot of unimportant scenes that show the protagonist in his ordinary world. Don’t spend forever getting to that first turning point.
Writers often ask me: Where should I start my story? Easy-peasy. Start right before the inciting incident. Next question?
You don’t need to take all that much time for setup, even in a fantasy novel. You just need enough to introduce the protagonist, her core need, the stakes and conflict for the story (personal and public), and the other key players in the story.
The Hunger Games is a great example. We have the opening scenes showing Katniss with her family, showing the world situation, showing her skill at hunting, showing the two key male characters that will be her love interests. And, boom! The reaping takes place, her sister is chosen for the deadly games, and Katniss volunteers as Tribute in Prim’s place.
So, that’s our first of five key turning points. Since this is already a long post and I’ve given you much to think about, I’ll continue with the other four next Monday.
What is your first turning point in your story? Want to share in the comments? Try giving us first your one-sentence story concept. You can do it!