Have you ever seen a child learn to use Lego bricks? The youngest child builds a tower one brick on top of another. An older child interlocks the first two or three bricks but ends up with unconnected towers. The older the child gets, the more he understands that interlocking the bricks makes a stronger structure. Her structures grow taller, sturdier, and more complex. So it is with understanding story structure. There’s the big picture that most everyone understands: the beginning, middle, and end “bricks.” Dive deeper into story structure and you learn about the three-act structure, the four-act structure, the five-act structure, and so on. Just like legos, some bricks have only two connectors, others have four. Some are thin and some are thick. Scenes are the interlocking “bricks” for building stories, the Lego bricks of story structure. And like Lego bricks, scenes come in all sizes.
What is a Scene?
“A scene is a unit of conflict, of struggle, lived through by character and reader. It’s a blow-by-blow account of somebody’s time unified effort to attain an immediate goal despite face-to-face opposition.” Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight V Swain
Swain’s definition tells you what the parts of a scene are. There’s an immediate goal, there’s face-to-face opposition, a blow-by-blow struggle, and the effort to attain that goal is contained in a time unified way.
But that’s the surface level of what’s in a scene.
The Scene’s Purpose
Every scene must have a purpose, preferably two or more. What purposes do scenes serve? The set up for what is about to happen is delivered in a scene. Scenes serve the plot with the “what comes next” step-by-step action. Character building through action and reaction happens at the scene level. Scenes put ground beneath the readers’ feet with time, location or setting, and backstory. Mood and intensity are built into the scene. Deepening of the theme or any of the story elements also happens at the scene level. Layering and interlocking scenes with these things creates a more complex and textured story.
Scenes have beginnings, middles, and ends. They begin with a hook and a set up that draws the reader in. The middle shows us the struggle and the end shows us the results of that struggle. The results of the struggle can be positive—the goal is achieved, negative—the goal is lost, or neutral—neither party won the goal. The end of the scene contains another hook, or prompt, that makes the reader want to turn the page.
The Emotional Impact of a Scene
If every scene ends the same way, the hero always wins the goal or the antagonist always wins the goal, the story loses emotional impact. The writer must balance give and take. If the first scene is a win, the next must be a loss, or neutral. The results rotating through win, loss, or neutral is part of what makes the story feel like it is moving forward. It’s in this struggle where your reader will find the most satisfaction. Your reader will be asking, “will the hero win the day?”
Scene, the Lego Brick of Story Structure
At the very basic, lego brick level, scenes convey the “what happens” in the story. But an interlocking, layered scene will convey so much more.
The “bricks” of story, scenes convey the face-to-face action.
Scenes begin and end in a hook.
Strong scenes build in tension, release a little tension, then crank it up again.
Scenes reveal the back story in tiny shards that expose the character’s motivation.
The time and location of a scene can increase the emotional impact of your theme, your characters motivations, and the characters’ successes and failures.
Scenes are the Lego bricks of story structure. Build scenes that work for you, work for your story. Use your scene’s structure to carry your reader deeper into the story. When you interlock your scenes, you create a solid story, and you have a happy reader who is ready to buy more books.