Writing in Scenes, part 2

Last time I talked about writing in scenes: what they are and how they can discipline your writing. But not all scenes are equal.

We all know that some scenes need to carry more weight than others. But which ones? And where do they fit in a novel’s architecture? While there are competing views on what the scaffolding of a novel should be, I’m going to give you the leading one, and the one I use.

There are six crucial scenes that bring your story into focus. Each should be an emotionally charged packet of drama that turns the protagonist’s fortunes (a reversal.) For a detailed (however quite complicated) discussion of reversals, I recommend Story, by Robert McKee. But even if you don’t like his approach, it’s still important to put the protagonist’s success in doubt. When he’s been thwarted by obstacles, give him a lift from an unexpected quarter; or do a change-up: when she’s certain of her course, pull the rug and reveal the real stakes. To keep the novel from wildly see-sawing, you can afford only a few big scenes like this. That’s why many writers who plan their novels’ structures stick with six I mention below.

Another role key scenes can play is in helping you zero in on your plot, testing whether your story has an engine before you wade in to your 400 page novel. First, develop a loose plot outline and character cast. Then try writing a few big scenes. But not the first three scenes. Key scenes. Not only will you be able to road test your material before committing to a long manuscript, but you can generate conscious and subconscious excitement, having visited the primal material first.

The Six Big Scenes

Here are the time-tested structural scenes that you can use to frame your story.

  • The hook. Toward the beginning of the novel, ideally the first scene, sometimes the second, where you snag the reader’s attention, grabbing them emotionally or evoking intense curiosity.
  • Plot Point One or Inciting Incident. Where the status quo changes and the protagonist is challenged to do something, or is otherwise brought to engage with the story problem directly and decisively. Placement of the inciting incident is often at the end of Act One, but it can come earlier. If it is earlier, you then will need a climactic end of Act One, which then is called Plot Point One.
  • Mid Point Scene. A turning point at middle of novel. An event or revelation that is transformative to the protagonist. Good place for a death or a love scene. (Thanks to Robert Ray, The Weekend Novelist.
  • Plot Point Two. A major change-up in the fortunes of protagonist, for better or worse. According to Larry Brooks in Story Structure Demystified, Plot Point Two “puts a final piece of narrative information in play that gives the hero everything she or he needs to become the primary catalyst in the story’s conclusion; at this point the story shifts into resolution mode, based on this new information or some decision or action on the part of the hero or the antagonist.”
  • Climax. A book end to the inciting incident, where your character is tested to the maximum about the actions she has undertaken. This is where she brings forth inner resources that she has acquired in response to mounting opposition. If she is transformed at mid-point, let us see the result now.
  • Final scene. The novel’s exit scene. Leave us with a memorable emotional moment without sentimentality.

These key scenes comprise the frame of the novel. Is it a formula? No, because it tells you nothing about what to write. You still must develop character, drama, plot, story logic, archetypes, symbols, foreshadowing, meaning and a hundred other things. You merely lay out the fabric of your story on these supports, this skeleton.

For more on scenes, see my recent post on this topic: Writing in Scenes, part 1.

For in-depth discussions of key scenes, I highly recommend the ebook,  Story Structure Demystified and Robert Ray’s The Weekend Novelist Re-Writes the Novel.

4 Responses

  1. Nancy-Lou Polk says:

    Thanks for posting Part Two. It seems like a good scene is a mini-novel (or longer short story) with hook, arc, climax, etc. I also like the list of the additional components of a novel. Ideas are easy (blessed is ADHD who brings forth many ideas); chosing the best and fleshing it out is the trick.

    I endorse The Weekend Novelist series. Bob Ray was one of my instructors at the University of Washington. FYI he is teaching a re-write class at Edmond, Washington’s “Write on the Sound” writing conference this year.

    I haven’t read the other book you mention but it’s on my short list for purchase.

  2. Kay says:

    I didn’t know Bob was teaching at Write on the Sound. That will be worth going to. Here’s the link, for those following this blog.
    Write on the Sound.
    October 1-3, 2010

    Thanks, Nancy

  3. Tiyana says:

    What great advice! First time reading your blog, here, but so far I find it both insightful and inspiring.

    I’ve been working on a fantasy novel for, well, too long and am currently stuck on drafting the climax. Everything else is written–the hook, the middle scenes, the final scene, everything–except for this one pivotal section! (Apparently I don’t always think chronologically). I know what I want to happen, per se, but am just unsure as to the specifics.

    After reading this article, however, I think I realize what my problem is: Though my protagonist has learned many skills and has acquired useful knowledge against the opposition, I have not let her utilize these things in the culmination of the story’s major conflict. Instead, I’ve allowed her “mentor” to completely steal the stage! In an attempt to not make her seem too overly competent, I have, perhaps, overcompensated this to the point of committing some kind of storytelling sin.

    I see now that when writing in multiple POVs, even if it’s just two or three, it’s really tempting to zoom in on other interesting characters and lose focus on the one(s) that *should* matter most. Thanks for helping me see how I can get back on the right track again and get this novel finished! (Then it’s on to editing, which is a whole other beast…)


  4. Kay says:

    Tiyana, you’ve nailed it. You can’t give the thrust of the story away from the protagonist. If left at the climax with someone who saves her, readers will feel let down. This is also a bit sensitive for female protagonists, as you might imagine. I recently read the bestseller, “The Girl Who Played with Fire.” At the climax, the “helper” is rushing to save the female protagonist. He fails utterly to help her, but it was fun watching him try. Read this book to look at a deeply flawed female protagonist who is so competent it is scary.

Leave a Reply