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Scenes are the building blocks of a novel. We know that. They are the very things that push our work forward. But what elements comprise a scene? This is a tougher question. The simple answer is this: a series of events. But what do those events have in common?

Dwight Swain describes scenes in terms of scenes and sequels. This fundamental idea of writing has changed my style for the better. Planning has become simpler. Also, seeing my scenes as units that progress the story forward have become clearer.

What he describes is that scenes must have 3 essential elements: a goal, a conflict, and a disaster. Think of the goal as what the character intends to accomplish.

Let’s say you have Pete wanting to figure out why his father abandoned him as a child, so Pete goes to his father’s house unexpectedly at night.

This is the goal. It’s the setup for the scene. It’s the reason that the scene exists. So the reader looks at this scene-premise and thinks, “Hmm…I wonder what’s going to happen when Pete arrives at his father’s house.”

The conflict is the next step. There must be something that happens in a scene that makes things awkward or challenging for Pete.

Now we’ll say that as Pete is heading to his father’s house, and he hears arguing and gunshots from inside.

See the tension that is being built here? Pete is going to his father’s house. As he approaches, there’s something that escalates this trip into the realm of the unexpected.

The final element is the disaster. This is the event that makes the goal unattainable. It’s the springboard to the next step of your novel.

Pete peeks into the window of the house, and a man is dead, being dragged by another man with a gun. The man with the gun is his dad.

Now the goal crumbles. Pete wanted to know why his dad left him, and now he is faced with the unexpected: his dad is a killer.

At this point, the scene ends. The reader is hanging on the edge of her seat, mindlessly chewing the stale piece of gum that she’s had in her mouth for the past three hours that she’s spent reading your thriller. The page turns, and she wants to know more.

Come back tomorrow for the continuation. Thanks for stopping by.

6 thoughts on “SCENE-IT

  1. Layla

    That’s a very clear and concise way of putting it. But do you think this needs to happen in each and every scene in some form or another?

    1. William Stadler Post author

      I wouldn’t say that every scene absolutely has to have this, but I will say that a very large amount of scenes should. I can tell when these elements are missing within a scene because it feels like something that could be skipped and not missed. These elements arise in dialogue also. Just remember that a character motives for wanting to talk with another character. If you can keep these elements in mind, then you’ll always be in the habit of building tension. Will some scenes not conform? Of course. But, I’d say that this is a hard rule that should be followed.

  2. Pingback: SEQUENTIAL ORDER « Stadler Style

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