The Secret to a Great Plot Lies in Scene Structure

Do you want to know what the secret is to a great plot? If you read last week’s post, you already know the answer. No, it’s not having a fantastic concept and kicker. That’s not plot.

We’ve been looking at a special way to think of plot. Yes, it’s my way, but I’ve found this understanding of plot has helped hundreds of my editing clients. Too many writers have great plot ideas and elements, but few really have a clue how to take all those great bits and turn them into a great novel. They often succumb to the false belief that their cool concept will somehow convert into a great novel.

The Daunting Chasm

There seems to be a huge chasm looming in front of many writers—with no bridge across. On one side stands the writer with all these terrific ideas, characters, themes, and conflict. On the other side is this nebulous thing called a coherent, finished novel ready to jump to the top of the best-seller lists. This seems to be the drop-off point for most novelists—ending in a long, painful fall to the bottom of the chasm.

Writers, when facing this chasm, often just take a running leap with eyes closed and hope they make it to the other side. Really, this is just what their manuscript seems like. Scenes thrown together wishfully, the author hoping she will somehow fashion into a sturdy bridge that will span the chasm and, phew, get her (and readers) to the other side.

And sometimes it kind of works. She might end up with a partially functioning bridge that, if traversed carefully around the missing boards and weak materials, might allow someone to make it across—once or twice—before total collapse.

You Need a Well-Constructed Bridge

What’s the point of all this allegory? Swinging back to our course motif—construction—we have to consider structure. Building materials. Methods of construction. You don’t hammer nails into siding using a paintbrush. You don’t weld copper piping for hot water lines with Silly Putty. You don’t use paper towels for roof underlayment.

So, how does this apply to unfolding a plot? I spoke last week about scenes being strung together, one scene at a time, moving forward in time to tell a story. Plot is the vehicle for your story, and scenes are the vehicle for the plot. But like everything else in novel construction, scenes need to be structured in a way that ensures solid framework for your plot.

What’s the Problem Here?

I think what the biggest problem regarding scene structure in most manuscripts is writers feel they either 1) instinctively know what a scene is and how to construct one or 2) don’t know how to structure scenes but don’t think there is any specific “rule” to constructing them or 3) don’t really care to learn how to structure scenes.

I would like to think #3 doesn’t ever apply, but a lot of manuscripts seem to have scenes thoughtlessly plopped in here and there (or everywhere) without much forethought or purpose. However, most writers who are actually plotting their novels carefully ahead of time and have scenes that don’t evidence much forethought of purpose, I feel, fall victim to issue #2.

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If only someone had sat down with them before they spent years writing their epic novel and shown them scene structure. I can’t tell you how many clients I’ve had tell me they wish they’d understood this basic structure before they started writing. I can’t tell you how many because I long ago lost count—that’s how many writers plow ahead writing a novel without a clue about scene structure.

No, There Isn’t Just One Way

This may lead you to believe there is just one way to construct a scene. Of course there isn’t. Just as there isn’t one set way to write a novel. The fun part about being a novelist is you get to be creative and original and express yourself any which way you want. The difficult part about being a novelist is if you veer too far off from time-tested, traditionally accepted novel structure, you take the chance of novel failure.

The same is true regarding scene construction. I’m going to give you some very basic “rules” about scene structure that serve many successful writers well. That most great writing instructors agree on. That most commercially successful authors swear by. Now, once you learn all this, if you want to veer, go ahead—veer to your heart’s content.

Why I Think I’m Right

Every once in a while some reader of my blog complains that I act like a know-it-all, saying things like “you should” do this or “writers must” do that. It’s fine if you want to disagree with me, really. I’m pontificating on my blog for only one purpose, and that’s not to brag or shower my arrogance or superiority on you. I have no such grandiose opinion of myself. I am a fellow traveler on the road to knowledge and creativity.

So why do I spend thousands of hours a year teaching you all these things about novel writing? To spare you from making all the mistakes I made for more than ten years while writing novel after novel, without real guidance and essentially trying to construct buildings and bridges out of shoddy materials—because I didn’t know any better.

There’s Something to Be Said for Tried-and-True Construction

Oh how I wish I’d had someone like me to teach me all the things I know now! I would not have wasted all those years of my life spinning my wheels while writing and getting nowhere. I don’t mean in terms of publishing contracts or literary acclaim. I mean I failed to learn the basics of novel construction and hence none of my novels stood up under the weight of the story.

Even after six novels and six literary agents representing me and telling me what a great writer I was, I had no idea what I didn’t know. I never took the time to research how to construct a novel, and like so many of my clients, I felt I could just wing it, would know instinctively how to do it. I mean, I’d read thousands of novels. I thought that was all the education I needed. How wrong I was.

I know I’ve really veered off topic here, but for good reason. I’m about to share with you the “rules” to constructing scenes so that your novel will have the proper structure to convey your plot in the best possible way. I’m hoping that is why you are reading these blog posts—so you can learn the best construction methods.

The Best Definition of a Scene

So now that I’ve spent more than a thousand words here preparing to present my argument for my “rules” about scene structure, let me leave you with this definition of a scene, given by Jordan Rosenfeld in her book Make a Scene. It’s the best definition of a scene and the one we’re going to break down and look carefully at next week.

“Scenes are capsules in which compelling characters undertake significant actions in a vivid and memorable way that allows the events to feel as though they are happening in real time.”

I said before that the biggest problem with most novels I edit is the lack of proper scene construction. So many terrific concepts fall into the chasm because the author did not build a string of scenes correctly to convey the plot. That string of scenes is not only your bridge to a well-constructed novel; it’s also your lifeline to telling a terrific story.

Think awhile on that definition of a scene and next week you are going to, yes, be subjected to my “rules” about scene writing. If you can’t wait, I encourage you to read through some of the posts I wrote in 2012 in the category The Heart of Your Story. If you start with this one here, you can continue reading the many posts in order. I’ll be reiterating some of that information, as well as giving you much more in the upcoming weeks.

Here’s the Secret

Just know this: if you can really get the hang of scene structure, you will be well on your way to solid novel construction. It is one of the most important tools in your writer’s toolbox. Without it, you may as well piece your plot together with duct tape. Yes, I know you can use duct tape for pretty much anything, but trust me—it will not hold your plot together. This just may be the only thing duct tape isn’t good for!

Until next week!

Inspection checklists:

Inspection Checklist 1-concept with a kicker

Inspection Checklist 2-protagonist with a goal

Inspection Checklist 3-conflict with high stakes

Inspection Checklist 4-theme with a heart

Photo Credit: khalid almasoud via Compfight cc

3 Responses to “The Secret to a Great Plot Lies in Scene Structure”

  1. aniket June 25, 2014 at 8:22 pm #

    Hi CS,

    It’s good to find out your book is published. I’m waiting for it from many days. Also is it coming in paperback to india?

  2. Jon Simmonds July 1, 2014 at 1:56 am #

    This is a superb series of posts – as someone just going through the ‘final’ round of edits on my first novel, I thought I’d covered most of the angles. You’ve made me realise that I’ve fallen into exactly the trap you describe of not having known the essentials of scene construction. Yes, the scenes ‘work’ OK, but I’m somewhere between camps #1 and #2 – these posts have crystallised for me exactly what I need to review next. Thank you!

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