How To Structure Compelling Scenes
Every phenomenal story unfolds in a series of scenes.
If each scene in a book is a link in a chain, one weak link can threaten the overall power of a story. By learning how to craft better, more compelling scenes — scenes that are irresistible in their interest and emotional pull — we learn how to craft better, more compelling stories. But what exactly makes for a spellbinding, well-structured scene?
To answer that question, we must first ask another...
What is a scene exactly?
I've often heard it said that a good scene is a story within a story, that it should have an arc of its own. I don't disagree with this statement entirely. Compelling scenes should have strong hooks, contain or introduce conflict, and lead readers on a physical or emotional journey. But good stories have strong resolutions, and that's one factor that many scenes do not contain.
What all compelling scenes do boast, however, is movement. Remember, stories unfold in a series of scenes. That means some measure of unfolding must happen in every scene you write, a figurative page turned as surely as the literal.
For this to happen, each scene you write must serve a purpose. It must progress the plot or characters' development, building upon what came before and leading into what's coming next. Though scenes may vary greatly in their content, there are six elements that nearly all well-structured, purposeful, and compelling scenes contain. Let's break them down today:
Element #1: A strong sense of place & atmosphere
Compelling scenes do not take place in a vacuum. They need backdrops, or better yet, full-blown sets with props that allow characters to interact and engage with the world around them. The more interactive and purposeful a setting, the more it will come alive in readers' minds.
With setting should come a strong atmosphere. How are readers meant to feel as the scene unfolds? How can you evoke this through your scene’s setting and the way in which your characters engage with it?
Element #2: A grounding character
Every scene needs a grounding character, someone to whom readers can cling. Otherwise, readers are left adrift in a story in which they have no personal stake.
Most modern novels make use of point-of-view characters to ground readers in each scene, often deepening the connection through Deep POV. But even stories that utilize narrators or alternative frameworks need an emotional lightning rod. Who will readers connect with? Who will pull them through the scene?
Element #3: An intriguing hook
A narrative hook is the source of intrigue that draws readers into a story or scene. Most often, hooks pose the question "What will happen next?". The easiest way to introduce this question is through a classic piece of writing advice: First, get your hero up a tree. Then, throw rocks at him.
A hook may also promise resolution: the reunion of beloved characters, a celebration following victory, the first culmination of romantic chemistry. But regardless of whether you pose a question or a promise, the art of the hook lies in a tease. How can you make the reader ask what or will it happen?
Element #4: a bit of turmoil
Every scene should take place somewhere within the pacing cycle, the general movement from external conflict to external consequences, internal consequences, acceptance, and back again.
These events may at times overlap or be skipped altogether, but even the happiest of scenes should contain rising or falling action based around turmoil. Your characters are reuniting, but did they last part on bad terms? Your characters are celebrating a victory, but what losses did they suffer along the way?
Whether you're introducing or resolving conflict (and whether that conflict is internal or external), bear in mind that turmoil must serve a purpose. Conflict for conflict's sake is not conducive to plot; it's just drama. How does the turmoil in each scene you write feed into a larger plot or character arc?
Element #5: Emotional weight
A fast-paced sword fight or a first kiss has just as much potential to be boring as it does thrilling, all depending on whether you've given readers good reason to care what happens next. And caring comes from a place of emotional connection.
Using a well-developed character to ground readers in a scene is a great way to create emotional weight, as is developing a strong hook and compelling turmoil, but emotional weight can also come from callbacks.
How can you pull characters' backstories into the present? Can you highlight threads of tension from scenes gone by? How can you make use of foreshadowing? The more interwoven your scenes and developed your characters, the stronger the emotional weight your scenes will bear.
Element #6: a strong sense of Movement
Every scene should unfold a new page in your story's arcs, but it should also lead into unfolding the next, creating a sense of movement that draws readers from scene to scene. This doesn't mean leaving each scene on a cliffhanger. It simply means proposing or highlighting questions that remain in need of answering, creating turning points that pull threads of tension taut.
Remember the pacing cycle. How will your characters deal with the physical and emotional consequences following an instance of conflict? What new conflict will loom on the horizon after those consequences have been addressed? Is there a threat that yet lurks in the shadows?
Even the happiest of scenes should fall within the context of a larger thread of tension or should lead into a new, with only the final scene in your book resolving all the questions and conflicts you've proposed.
Ultimately, a good scene is more than an interesting concept or round of witty banter, more than shock value or titillation. Where dull scenes are self-indulgent, compelling scenes are crafted with care to fit inside a larger framework.
Remember that well-structured scenes contain turning points. This means they can often be summarized within a sentence or two that hinges upon a but or though or until. For example:
•Katniss hopes to avoid being chosen as a competitor in The Hunger Games but volunteers as tribute when her sister's name is called.
• Though the presence of Mr. Darcy initially delights the residents of Hertfordshire in Pride and Prejudice, his proud demeanor at the assembly soon spoils their interest.
• In The Notebook, Allie remains at bliss in her passionate reunion with Noah until her mother warns that her fiancé has come to town.
With each turning point, these scenes introduce movement in the plot. Combined with the remaining elements we discussed, this movement lends itself to a powerful and well-structured scene that compels readers to keep on turning pages. So what do you say, writer? Shall we go craft a few compelling scenes of our own?