Structuring Your Story’s Scenes, Pt. 6: Variations on the Scene
If writers have one complaint about the whole notion of story structure, it’s that it makes them feel boxed in. But the great thing about structure is that it provides a solid framework for your story, while still presenting endless possibilities. This is just as true of the Scene* as it is of the three-act structure that guides your story as a whole.
Now that we’ve concluded our exploration of the first part of the Scene—the scene—let’s take a minute to explore some of the variations upon that standard model of goal/conflict/disaster. You’ve already probably thought up some successful scenes, in your own stories and in popular books and movies, that don’t seem to quite fit the proposed structure. How exactly does that work? Is it one of those “if-you’re-famous-you-can-get-away-with-anything” instances, or are there credible exceptions?
Well, undoubtedly, there are a few of the former lurking about. But, in truth, Scene structure can flex to fit just about any proposed situation in your story. As with just about anything in writing, the key to breaking the rule is, first, knowing the rule and, second, knowing why you’re breaking it.
Variations on the Scene Goal
The goal belongs to a character other than the narrator.
Most of the time we want our scene’s POV character to be the one with the most at stake. But there will be occasions when he’s just an observer. He will always have a scene goal, but his goal may not always be the one that drives the conflict and disaster. For example, he may want nothing more than to make a PB&J sandwich, while his sister wants to get the attention of the cute TV repairman working in the living room. Your hero may be just an observer to the greater stakes of love and war. However, his observation and probable input must either immediately or eventually relate back to his story. If you can tie in the other person’s goal and conflict with the narrator’s, so much the better (for example, perhaps his sister’s flirting interferes with his lunch).
The goal is discovered after the scene begins.
Although your character will usually have decided upon his goal at the end of the previous sequel (more on that in future posts), this won’t always be the case. Sometimes he’s going to enter scenes without yet knowing what he wants. Don’t ever let a character wander aimlessly for too long, but if you need to introduce certain events to set up his goal, don’t be afraid to give a scene a little time to develop its objective.
The goal is implied instead of directly stated.
Stating your character’s goals at the beginning of a scene grounds readers and helps them focus on the point of the scene. But subtlety is never to be overrated. Sometimes your character’s goal is just gonna be plain obvious—both from the context (for example, he runs into a bank with a hood over his head and a gun in his hand) and/or from the decision at the end of the previous sequel. If you feel your character’s scene goal is obvious, you may be able to get away without ever referring to it outright.
Variations on SceneConflict
The scene opens with the conflict instead of the goal.
Beginning a scene in medias res is a great way to hook readers into the action. Instead of dawdling about with set-up, we’re often better off cutting to the chase. This variation can go hand-in-hand with that of the implied goal, discussed above. However, you can also put it to use in situations in which a direct statement of the goal is still necessary. After opening in the middle of the conflict, slow down for just a sentence or two to let readers know what the character is after. You’ll want to use this variation carefully, since readers need to be oriented in a scene as quickly as possible; you don’t want them floundering around, trying to figure out what in thunderation is going on.
Conflict doesn’t have to mean guns blazing—or even tempers flaring. Sometimes you’re going to want your scene’s conflict to remain understated. Ernest Hemingway’s classic short story “Hills Like White Elephants” offers an apropos example, in which the characters’ small talk hides a deeper conflict brewing under the surface.
Variations on Scene Disasters
The scene ends before the disaster.
Sometimes you will need your disaster to occur off-screen or merely through implication. This might be either because you don’t want to show the disaster in detail (the ol’ cut-and-fade used in the movies to avoid unsavory details) or because the disaster will need to take place in a different time and place, effectively distancing it from the current scene. You can get away with this, no problemo, so long as you close with the threat of disaster. Readers will fill in the blanks and get the same bang for their buck as they would if you included the disaster full-on.
Variations to the Sceneas a Whole
The entire scene is skipped, implied, or summarized.
One of the easiest ways to control pacing is to manipulate the length of scenes and sequels. Emphasis on scenes speeds things up; emphasis on sequels slows things down. Although sceneand sequel are both integral halves of the Scene, we can sometimes perform a sleight of hand with either of them. In the case of the scene, you may sometimes feel your story will be better off for downplaying certain events. The scene may take place entirely off-screen, or it may be summarized briefly at the beginning of your sequel.
This is an important technique but always one to be used with caution. Your scene is your story. Avoid too many, and your story will teeter.
The scene is interrupted by a new scene.
Sometimes the introduction of new information or events will stop the current goal/scene before it plays out and, in its place, begin a new scene dynamic. Your character may begin a scene with a specific goal, only to be interrupted by a new catalyst that causes him to abruptly change goals. Maybe he wants to apologize to his wife with a huge bouquet of roses. But when alien lasers take out the flower stand, his priorities are going to change in an instant. When possible, you’ll eventually want to return to the original goal, just to tie off loose ends, but this might not happen until the end of the story.
A POV switch interrupts the scene.
If you’re using more than one POV narrator, you may sometimes find it necessary to switch horses midstream. Because a POV switch is indicated on the page in the same way as a normal Scene break, we tend to think a new POV always means a new Scene. But this isn’t necessarily so. For example, in one Scene in my historical novel Behold the Dawn, I switched POVs smack in the middle of a dialogue exchange.
Annan swallowed and brushed his hands across the front of his tunic. “That is what he has deceived himself into believing.” He stood, and he could sense more than see the tension that swept over her. She was suddenly like a hare, tensed, ready to run if the hound came but one step nearer.
“What?” She spoke breathlessly, and he could almost hear the heavy beat of her heart.
“You’re afraid of me.”
Mairead’s breath caught so hard that pricks of light studded her vision. So here it was. She had hoped that if she kept him in the conversation, if she made him think of other things, that perhaps the night would pass.
But no. He was only a tourneyer, a man with the blood of countless knights upon his hands. What was one defenseless woman to him? He could crush her backbone in his arms without trying, and the deed would never darken his thoughts.
This is all part of the same Scene. The setting hasn’t changed, the characters’ individual goals haven’t changed, and only a few seconds separate the break. The switch was made in order to get inside Mairead’s head, since she was now the character with more at stake. But both POV halves are part of the same scene, which means they must still adhere to the proper three-part structure. The only difference is that the structure is now divided between two characters’ perspectives, with the emphasis on both their goals.
Don’t be afraid to play around with scene structure, but always do so with purposeful intent. If you’re going to stray from the stability of the standard arc, you need to know whyyou’re doing it and be convinced the aberration is creating a better story.
*For the purposes of this series, “Scene” with a capital S will refer to the scene in general (which can include in its definition the sequel). I’ll use a small s and italicize scene and sequel to refer to the two different types of Scenes.