Friday, August 19, 2011

Scenic Overlook

by Scott Rhoades

As writers, we tend to think in terms of chapters. We tell people we're working on the next chapter. We share chapters in our crit groups. When we read, we read a chapter at a time. But chapters aren't the basic unit of a story, as our near-obsession with them would indicate. Scenes are.

A scene and a chapter might be the same thing. Because we think in terms of chapters, we often wrap a chapter around a scene to create a logical break. Sometimes, a chapter contains multiple scenes. Or, a scene might span the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next. This is often the case when a chapter ends with a cliffhanger.

When we are creating our stories, especially those of us who struggle with plot or with other elements of structure, it might be better to concentrate on the scene and forget about chapters. We can go back and divide our stories into chapters later. Or, we could do like Terry Pratchett often does and ignore chapters altogether.

I don't want to go into a lot of detail about what a scene is. There are a ton of good resources that go into great detail. Most current discussions about scenes start with the pattern outlined in Dwight Swain's Techniques of the Selling Writer. For a thorough discussion, start there, or read one of the other good books out there about scene and structure, most of which cover the same territory as Swain, but maybe in more detail or slightly different terms. Or, Google "scene" and "sequel." You'll find a lot of stuff, some of it very good.

I just want to give a quick overview of Swain's scene and sequel technique. It sounds formulaic, almost paint-by-number, and it can be. However, the best writers know how to personalize and modify the technique so they get the benefits without losing the creative edge that makes them unique.

Basically, it goes like this: a story is divided into scenes, which contain specific elements. Scenes are followed by sequels--responses to the scenes--which also contain certain elements.

Broken down to it's most basic elements, a scene needs three things to make it work, according to Swain and those who follow his technique:
  • Goal
  • Conflict
  • Disaster
In other words, the character wants something, somebody or something wants the same thing or wants to keep the character from getting it for some other reason, and then, usually, the character doesn't get what he wants. In fact, things probably become even worse. One step forward, two steps back.

Then, the character needs to respond to what just happened. That leads us to the sequel. The sequel contains these elements:
  • Reaction
  • Dilemma
  • Decision
Your character reacts to the disaster, recognizes that things aren't going well, and decides what to do about it. This leads naturally into the next scene, and the pattern starts again.

Swain and other writing teachers break each of these elements down into further detail. Too much, obviously, for one readable blog post.

If you feel like your chapters aren't going anywhere, or your crit group or other readers say they like the writing but can't find the story, or that, despite all the stuff you put into the chapter, "nothing really happened," then you need to examine your scenes and make sure they contain the elements of a story. Using Swain's technique can help you solve those kinds of problems.

There are tools you can use to help you keep the structure of scenes in mind. Windows users can use the free yWriter program, or something similar. When you're laying out your scene, yWriter makes you think about and note the goal and conflict of the scene. Or, you can set up a template in your word processor that enforces the scene structure, with spaces for jotting down the elements of each scene and sequel.

If you plan your work on index cards or in a spreadsheet or in a notebook on or off your computer, don't write anything before you make notes summarizing the elements of your scene and sequel.

If, like many of us, you're a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of writer and don't plan ahead in any great detail, keep these elements in your head while you write.

Even if you prefer not to follow Swain's formula, learning as much as you can about scene and structure can only help. You can choose to go your own way better once you know as much as you can about the "standard" methods.


I've read all of the following, and found them useful. I'm listing them in order of my personal preference.
  • Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell
  • Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight Swain
  • Make a Scene, Jordan E. Rosenfeld
  • Novelist's Essential Guide to Creating Plot, J. Madison Davis
All of these books are based heavily on Swain's idea. I don't list him first, however, because his book contains much more than just the discussion on scenes, and because I found Bell's book more readable and more focused on today's topic. Every writer's library should have Swain's book, however, and every writer's mind should be filled with his techniques.


Danielle said...

This post beautifully summarizes Jack M Bickham's 'Scene and Structure.' Which also goes into detail about these organized ways of plotting scenes and sequels and gives helpful instruction on the structure of scenes and of novels in entirety.

Scott said...

Right! Bickham's book is also a classic, and I think it's where I heard this structure first, from a teacher who used it. But I don't have it on the shelf by my desk, so I forgot to add it to the Resources list. Thanks for the reminder. Any Bickham book about writing that I've read has been great.

Julie Daines said...

Very helpful. Thanks, Scott. I have the James Scott Bell book and I refer to it often.