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.