Novel Writing 101 – 7. Scene Structure

In the last post, we looked at the sixth part of my Novel Writing 101 series titled: Novel Writing 101 – 6. The Three Act Structure. In this post we’ll look at how to properly structure your scenes and take a better look at just what scenes entail. In a nutshell, Scenes are the best way to help your chapters flow easily. A scene in a novel is not a set change like in a movie. A scene is an element of action (plot) and reaction (character story) to sustain novel structure and retain dramatic tension.

What is Scene Structure

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The way I like to look at Scene structure is almost like the coding for a website. You may never see the coding, but it’s there, and it’s what makes everything look good and work well. Scene structure is basically a formula that ensures your novel flows well. It comprises of two things: Action and Reaction, or Plot and Story, or Physical and Emotional or External and Internal. Put simply, a Scene is how your Protagonist experiences the events in the novel and how they react to it, and on and on it repeats from the start to the finish of the novel. I’m going to talk you through each section in a scene and demonstrate how these scenes lead into each other.

Step 1 – Objective (Physical)

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Let’s say you have a chapter. In this chapter there will be a number of scenes depending on how long the chapter is. A Scene will begin with your Protagonist aiming for an Objective. This Objective can be anything really. As long as it’s relevant to your Protagonist’s Overarching Goal, a Scene Objective can be anything. Having an Objective in a scene ensures your Protagonist remains active and isn’t sat around doing nothing.

Everything that happens during the Objective must be a Physical part of the Scene. Show the Protagonist outrightly pursuing their Objective, and don’t just tell the reader what the Objective is.

As an example, we’re going to follow a scene with a character called Sam. In this first Scene, Sam wants to buy a box of cereal at the supermarket. Seems like a relatively normal thing to do, but let’s move into Step 2 to really spice things up.

Step 2 – Obstacle and Conflict (Physical)

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An Obstacle, or Conflict as it’s sometimes known, is the second part to a scene. Your Protagonist can’t just strive for an Objective and get it. That story would be very boring. The Obstacle in a scene is designed to push your character away from obtaining their Goal, prolonging the outcome, creating drama and playing on tension. An Obstacle is very important and every scene MUST have one.

Like the Objective, everything that happens during the Obstacle and Conflict must also be a Physical part of the Scene. Stay out of your Protagonist’s head and physically show the Protagonist experiencing the Obstacle and Conflict, and don’t tell the reader what the Objective is.

Going back to our example, Sam wants to buy a box of cereal at the supermarket (Objective). But it’s the last box on the shelf and as he grabs it, someone else grabs it at the same time and won’t let go. They then tell Sam to get lost. (Obstacle and Conflict)  

Step 3 – Emotional Change (Emotional)

After the Objective and Obstacle of a Scene, you now have the Emotional Change. Unlike the first two parts of the Scene, the Emotional Change exists to give the reader your Protagonist’s view on the Scene so far. This is an internal emotional part of a Scene and is used to portray what your character is thinking. It has to also be in line with your Protagonist’s Flaw, since the Obstacle and Conflict are a direct attack on that Flaw.

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The Emotional Change begins with your Protagonist’s reaction to the Obstacle and Conflict, followed by their thoughts on what’s just happened. Without an Emotional Change, your reader will feel very disconnected to your main character and the Scene itself will feel very flat.

Let’s look back at our Example: Sam wants to buy a box of cereal (Objective). But it’s the last box on the shelf and someone else rudely grabs it at the same time (Obstacle and Conflict). Sam is taken aback by this person’s rudeness. He can’t understand why a box of cereal is such a big deal for this rude person (Emotional Change).  

Notice how much more emotional and connected this Scene is starting to feel. The funny thing is, this Scene is also starting to sound very natural and organic, and that’s a really good thing, that’s what you want in your scenes.

Step 4 – Stakes (Emotional)

This step is a little more optional, but it’s recommended. Right after your Protagonist’s internal Emotional Change to the Scene, it’s usually a good idea to have them contemplate in their mind what negative thing could happen should their Objective not be met.

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I tend to have this hinted in each scene as a precaution so the reader is aware of the value of the Scene. It’s all well and good having an Objective and even better when there’s conflict and Obstacles to get in the way followed by an emotional response, but none of it means a thing if something worse would happen unless that Objective was met. Let’s return to our example.

Sam wants to buy a box of cereal (Objective). But it’s the last box on the shelf and someone else rudely grabs it at the same time (Obstacle and Conflict). Sam is taken aback by this person’s rudeness. He can’t understand why a box of cereal is such a big deal for this rude person (Emotional Change). Sam knows if he does not buy the cereal his dad likes so much, his dad will get really angry at him. (Stake)

Step 5 – Effect on Plot (Physical)

We have now pretty much come full circle. Your Protagonist has dealt with all the elements of a Scene and must now decide on their next course of action. This is now physical action once again and no longer internal or emotional. You can of course have a somewhat internal moment where your protagonist decides what their next move will be, but this can sometimes ruin the surprise of the next Scene and can also be classed as telling instead of showing.

So to finalise our Scene example, let’s put our Scene into a proper format as if it were from a chapter in a book:

With one hand holding the shopping basket, Sam outstretched with his other to reach for the last of the honey clusters. A smile formed as his fingers grasped the last box of cereal, though the grin had vanished when he noticed another person’s hand immediately on his find.

“Get lost,” said the other shopper. “This is my cereal, get your own.” Sam could barely believe what had been said to him, his lips opening and closing to find words. It was just a box of cereal, why did the other shopper have to be so hostile about it? But perhaps they too also had a father like him. Sam knew if he didn’t get the cereal to his dad later that day, his dad would hit the roof like last time.

Sam yanked the cereal box right out of the grasp. “I found it first, why don’t you get your own?”

And that there is one Scene in an entire novel come full circle. The above is just an example of how a scene can be laid out, the order in which a Scene must be written in and even the average length. The length can vary of course depending on your style of writing and the Scene’s nature, but now you have an idea of how to plot a scene before it’s written.

Now there’s a good chance something simple like that could have been written without having planned it in a Scene Structure first, and don’t get me wrong, not all writers like to Scene Structure before writing their manuscript. But the best thing about structuring your scenes is that it’s much easier to diagnose a Scene element that may be missing, even if the Scene you’re writing is super simple.

Controlling Scene Pacing

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So you now have a good idea how to structure your Scenes and plan them out, I’m going to teach you a cool technique you can apply to your Scenes in order to control your novel’s pacing. If you want to Speed up the Pace, your Scene must have more Physical detail, such as more emphasis on the Objective and Obstacle. However, if you want to Slow down the Pace, your Scene must have more Emotional detail, such as more emphasis on Emotional Change and Stake.

  1. Objective (Physical) – More of this Speeds up the Pace 
  2. Obstacle & Conflict (Physical) – More of this Speeds up the Pace 
  3. Emotional Change (Emotional) – More of this Slows down the Pace 
  4. Stake (Emotional) – More of this Slows down the Pace 
  5. Effect on Plot (Physical) – More of this Speeds up the Pace

Why This Is Necessary: When writing a novel, you have to get a balance of action and emotion. When you have physical action, like the Objective and the Obstacle and Conflict, it helps the novel feel exciting, fast paced and on the edge. Have too much of this Physicality however, and your novel may feel rushed.

Building up the emotional elements of a scene however, like the Protagonist’s Emotional Change and their thoughts about the Stake, really helps to calm your novel down and give your readers time to digest and think about what has just happened in the Objective and the Obstacle and Conflict. However too much Emotion can cause your novel to feel slow and arduous.

Building Scene Suspense

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Scenes are also a great way of building the suspense in a novel. Suspense is a really good tool for making your readers stick around to find out what the outcome of the scene will be, but there’s a certain technique for getting this right.

Building suspense is mainly through ending the emotional elements of a scene without an Effect on the Plot, because the reader wants to know what’s going to be the protagonist’s next action after their Emotional Change. Either that or you can end the Physical elements of a Scene without the character’s emotional reaction. Let’s look at a couple of examples where you omit either the Emotion Reaction in a Scene vs omitting the Effect on the Plot.

Ending a Scene “Without an Effect on the Plot”

Jason knew the gun was heavy, he knew everyone was watching. Should he fire? Should he kill Harry with just a pull of his finger? God it would be so easy, and he knew Harry’s life was literally in his hands.

Notice how that scene was left? Since we left the Scene without an Effect on the Plot, we as the reader want to know what Jason does? Did he do it. He thought about it long enough, ahh the suspense!! Now let’s look at ending a scene without any Emotional Change.

Ending a Scene “Without an Emotional Change”

Jason pressed the gun to his best friend Harry’s tearful face, the barrel between Harry’s eyes. With a twitch of his hand and a dry swallow, Jason pulled the trigger.

If this scene ended at the end of the chapter, then your reader is very likely going to want to turn the page to find out what happened next. Since we had no Emotional Change from Jason, we have no idea what he felt after just shooting his friend, that’s if he really did shoot him.

Conclusion and Check list

As you can see, just like the Three Act Structure, Scene structure can also be pretty in depth and heavy. But once you’ve mastered Scene Structure, the process of writing a novel becomes instantaneously easy and fluid and you wonder how you ever managed to write anything without it.

To summarise:

  1. Give your Scene a valid tangible Objective / Goal
  2. Place an Obstacle in the way of that Objective to create Conflict
  3. Have your Protagonist digest the Conflict and describe their Emotions
  4. Have your Protagonist think about the Stakes should their Goal not be met
  5. Control your Scene’s pacing – The more Physical, the more exciting your scene / the more Emotional, the more digestive your scene
  6. Build scene Suspense by omitting either the Emotional Change or the Effect on the Plot
  7. Try your hand at plotting out your entire novel’s scenes. You’ll be surprised at just how many you may have. Don’t worry if you end up with hundreds of them.

That concludes Part 7 of my Novel Writing 101. You can read Part 6 here: Novel Writing 101 – 6. The Three Act Structure. I’ll try and get something like this done often to give you all a better understanding of how I write my own novels.

If you have any questions or want to discuss the ideas above, either drop me a message, or leave a comment below so we can chat about it! Other than that, what things do you do to get your creative juices flowing? What do you think creates a good pace and structure for a Scene in a novel? Do you like working with a structure like this or do you prefer to let the story develop naturally? Let us know in the comments!

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