Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Structure of a Scene

"Structure?" you say. "Never heard of it. I start my scenes where I feel like it, make whatever I feel like happen, and end them when I feel like it. I mean, that's what all author's do, right?"

Not the published ones.

There's one basic structure that every writer needs to know--and master. Thankfully it's pretty simple. Here it is:
  1. Goal (stated or implied)
  2. Action (usually taken by the hero)
  3. Opposition (hero encounters resistance)
  4. Disaster (the cliffhanger)
All these things, and as little else as possible, need to happen for a scene to be a scene. For your book to read like a novel. Essentially, your hero decides to do something, takes action, encounters resistance, and fails. Or succeeds--only to uncover a deeper, more unsettling problem at the end of the scene. Think of murder mysteries where the detective finally gets the witness to talk, only to realize the criminal is, in fact, way more insane and twisted than he could have imagined.

Let's examine this four part structure in a scene:

“In the woods, you say?” said the deputy.
“I can show you where,” said Aaron.
“A body?”
“Justin Gorski’s, there’s a hole drilled through his head. They’re going to hurt Amber next,” said Aaron, fearing what they might have already done to her.

Although Aaron hasn't stated outright that he wants the deputy to investigate the body, it's pretty obvious that he does. Or at least he needs his help. We've established Aaron's goal, the first part of the scene. See Laura's post, Character Goals: Why they are Essential to any Good Book for why and how to give your hero goals. In our scene, Aaron has also taken action. He's in a police station asking for help, so we've also nailed the second part of a scene.

The deputy scrunched up his eyebrows. “How old are you again?”
“I’m eighteen.”
“Are you jealous or something? Where’s your half?”
“There's a body,” Aaron repeated slowly. “Casler murdered Justin Gorski, and he’s going to hurt Amber next.”
The police officer regarded him for a moment then rubbed his sleep-deprived eyes. “You're going to have to give me more than that,” he said. “Our community values the contributions of Dr. Selavio. I can’t start a criminal investigation based off a crack-pot story from a jealous seventeen-year old.”
“Eighteen,” said Aaron.

So we know Aaron's goal, and he's taken action toward achieving it. Now we have the opposition: the officer resists helping him. The third part of a scene. This part can go back and forth, with your hero trying and retrying, only to be met with more and more difficult resistance. Sometimes, the resistance can turn violent. You know the drill.

“Maybe you should spend some time with your half,” said the deputy, and his eyes flicked to the picture frame on his desk.
Aaron followed his gaze to a photo of the deputy’s half and their kids. A normal family. Except something in the picture was off.
Aaron glanced at the other photos behind the deputy, also of the same woman, then back to the one on his desk—and he felt a chill.
In each photograph, the deputy’s half had the same blank look, like there wasn’t anything behind her eyes.
The officer saw where he was looking and twisted the picture away from him. He stood. “Let me show you out, Mr. Harper.” 

Notice what happens here. Not only does Aaron fail to enlist the deputy's help, but he also realizes that there's something much more sinister going on. I'll let you read the book to find out what:) This is the disaster, the cliffhanger, the fourth, and most important, part of your scene. The part that makes your readers turn the page.

What next?

Your hero has an emotional reaction, reflects on things, and comes up with another goal. And the cycle repeats. I told you it was simple:)

For an in-depth study of scene structure, read Scene and Structure, by Jack Bickham. In my opinion, he is the absolute authority on the subject. 

Also make sure you check out my YA thriller, Entanglement, to see how this scene plays out.

Thanks for reading!
Dan Rix, author of Entanglement

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