Advanced Storytelling


Scene Structure

Read the following excerpt from the book Writing Novels That Sell, by James Bickham. (pp. 107–113)

Scene provides excitement, involvement. Its structure is threefold: goal, conflict, disaster.

Just as a story starts with statement of a character's long-term goal, so every scene starts with a character, the viewpoint character, saying very specifically what he wants to accomplish in the confrontation that is about to take place. This subsidiary goal relates—is a steppingstone somehow—to the long-term story goal. So just as the reader forms a story question from story goal, and worries about it, he also forms a scene question, realizes the link between this stated scondary goal and the big goal, and worries about the scene question, too.

The scene goal can be stated by having the character say it out loud beforehand:

"Mickey, I'm going in there and I have got to convince Bigley to let me off early so I can go to night school two nights a week."

Or it can be stated in character thought:

Walking into Bigley's office, Cliff knew he had to convince Bigley to let him off early two nights a week.

Or it can be stated or paraphreased in the opening lines of the scene after earlier notice to the reader:

"Mister Bigley, I'm here to convince you that it's vital for me to get off work early two nights a week. I think it will be a good thing for the company, too."

Sometimes (although without elaboration this is risky), the goal can be decided in what preceded the scene, so that the reader understands clearly what the goal is all about. But please notice this: however the specific, short-term goal is stated, it must be absolutely clear to the reader!

Good novelists never write a scene where the goal is vague or ambiguous. They never make the mistake of trying to be subtle about it. The reader has to know what's wanted in no uncertain terms. So good writers leave no doubt about it. They write so that the goal in every scene is perfectly clear, specific, and obtainable now.

It's obvious, but so many new writers would like to be subtle or clever, when all one needs to do is to be clear and specific. This is no place to be subtle.

Imagine that the next time you went to a football game, you climbed into the stands and were confronted by an endless gridiron, extending over the horizon to the south on your right, the north on your left. Time would come for the start of the game, and maybe the kickoff would come within your field of vision. But then suppose the opposing team mounted a drive—and drove right out of sight to the north.

You would sit and wait, totally uninvolved and confused.

Maybe a little later you would see one of the home team's halfbacks churn over the the far horizon, chug past the stands, and then disappear over the horizon to the south.

"What is this?" you would cry. "I don't know what's going on! This is crazy! I'm getting out of here!"

Why? No goals in sight. So the game could not possibly make sense.

That's the way it works in a scene, too. The goal must be stated specifically, clearly.

What about the conflict part of the scne? Actually, it's 95-98 percent of it. Once the goal has been stated, someone has to come along at once and say, in effect, "Huh-uh. You're not getting that, and I'm here to stop you." This antagonist, too, is strongly motivated because he sees how this scene fits into his book-long struggle against the hero, how the outcomes of this confrontation fit into his game plan. And so a struggle starts.

How is it developed? Moment by moment, with no summary. Like in real life.

How do you develop moment by moment?

Through stimulus and response transactions.

The two fighters feint and parry, maneuver, try variations of their game plan, try to gain advantage, reveal their character in what they say and do under pressure, and fight to win.

Finally all the maneuvers have been tried, and the scene is to end.

How does it end?

If cliff goes into Bigley's office intent on getting permission to leave early two nights a week, should we end the scene with his getting what he came after?

Absolutely not! In storytelling terms, good news is always bad tactics, bad news always good. After all, if events in this novel have downstream effects, and everyting is tied tightly together, and the goal in this scene relates to Cliff's story quest, then (if he gets his goal) he's happy, everything is going fine, he's on his way to getting what he wants in the long run, and there is no reader suspense or tension.

And maybe the story just ended.

So the scene cannot end well for poor Cliff. There must be a setback—a disaster.

What is a disaster? It's a logical but unanticipated turn of events by which Cliff, by struggling to attain something good and worthwhile, and as a result of having tried so hard, gets anything but what he wants.

So as a result of having struggled manfully he is farther behind the eight ball than ever.

"This is awful!" the reader thinks. "I feel bad for Cliff! I feel sorry for him! Damn, I want him to win, but I don't think he can,now! I feel terrible and filled with suspense!

"What a great novel this is!"

To work well, however, the disaster cannot just be any bad news the lazy writer wants to shovel in.

Suppose Cliff goes in and tells Bigley he wants time off. Bigley says no. They argue and maneuver. At the end, you need a disaster. So you have somebody rush in and say the plant is on fire.

No, no, no.

No good at all.

Why? Because this disaster is an alligator over the transom. It has nothing to do with the fight that just took place.

To work, the disaster must be organic. That is, it must grow logically out of what has been going on in the scene.

To put it another way: every scene starts with a goal, and the goal statement raises a scene question in the reader's mind. This question must always be one which can be answered simply in terms of the gaoal. The only possible answers are:

  • yes
  • no
  • yes, but
  • no, and furthermore

We've already seen that, while possible, the "yes" answer destroys all reader tension and probably kills off your story because the hero is suddenly fat, dumb, happy, and on his way to see the Wizard. So the scene question has to be answered

  • "No,"
  • Yes, but!"
  • "No, and furthermore!"

And this answer has to be logical but unanticipated, and it has to put the viewpoint character in a worse position.

Want an example? Fine. Let's look at poor Cliff again.

Suppose that a central value of Cliff's life is that he must be a good provider for his young sister, whom he supports. His concept of himself is of a responsible, hard-working older brother. His entire life script centers around being a good provider and fulfilling family responsibilities.

Cliff has decided that, in order to be this person, he has to have a good office job with Bigley Wrench Company. But to get a good office job, he has to become an accountant. In order to become an accountant, he has to go to night school. In order to go to night school, he has to have two evenings off early each week. In order to get the time off, he has to convince Bigley.

So he goes into this meeting dedicated to his goal. And it all ties together. This is mandatory!

He tells Bigley what he wants. Bigley demurs. Cliff argues fervently. Bigley grows irritated. Seeing his dream slipping away, Cliff presses the fight, becoming eloquent. The two men struggle, argue, maneuver.

Finally comes the climax of the scene. We want a disaster.

We can have Bigley say:

"Cliff, I've heard enough! For the last time, my answer is no! Now get out of this office!"

Fine, you say.

Yes, it's good. But not great.

Why? Because, when you examine the situtaion, Cliff leaves in no worse shape than when he went in. Not much has changed. His problem has grown no worse. He is no more desperate, in no additional trouble. There really hasn't been much dramatic "progress."

So a "no" answer is good, but often you need even more than that.

Let's play the scene again. Same stuff. At the end, let's have Bigley become cunning and say:

"Okay, Cliff. I'm not convinced. But let's put it this way. I'm a reasonable man. My answer is yes, but you have to work twelve hours both Saturdays and Sundays to make up for it. Which means you'll never get to spend any time with your sister, or studying."

This is better. Did Cliff get what he wanted? Yes, but! He staggered out of the office in worse shape, and with more problems, than when he went in to fight the good fight.

A lot of scenes end this way in working fiction. Usually they have the added impact of giving Cliff some new scene or series of scenes (new plot) as he tries to cope with the dimensions of the new and unexpected disaster.

But perhaps there is even a stronger way.

Same scene. Bigley gets more and more impatient, finally angry. At the end he shouts:

"Damn it, Cliff! For the tenth time, the answer is no! And furthermore, you have made me so angry with your arguing that I've had it with you. You've pushed me too far. You're fired!"

All right! Now we've done something really good. Cliff staggers out a wreck, having lost everything because he tried to work toward a worthwhile goal. He brought on his own disaster. He not only failed to reach the short-term laudable goal, but he made his situation worse. Now he has no job—which really threatens his self-concept as a good breadwinner.

This is "progress."

The best and most dramatic scenes work like this.

We make our story go forward by pushing our hero backward, father and farther from his ultimate gtoal, through scene disaster. The reader reads excitedly, roots for the hero—then is crushed with him. The novel flies along, lifelike, dramatic, suspenseful, hard to put down, filled with twists, surprises, and setbacks—and more and more tension as well as admiration for the battered hero who simply won't quit.


Instructions for the Quiz

Answer the questions.