Like most writing novices, I set out to write my first manuscript while having no knowledge of how to structure a novel. My first attempts focused on characters who walked and talked, but generally accomplished nothing. Like robots without programming, they turned in circles, bouncing off of furniture, lacking motivation to push them in a concrete direction. After researching why I couldn’t make anything happen in my book, I learned about this amazing thing called a scene.
Scenes are the bricks that build your story. They provide a framework for your characters to encounter conflict and make decisions to move them forward (or backward), and solve (or complicate) their problems. On an instinctual level, this makes sense, but there’s still the question of how are scenes structured.
Elements of a Scene
A scene is made up of the five elements outlined below:
- Inciting incident: The event that sends your character into action—some incidents are major, while others are subtle—but either way, they must force your character to do something.
- Complication(s): A situation that makes life more difficult for your character.
2a. Turning point(s): Possibly the most important aspect of a scene, the turning point is where something unexpected happens, minor or major, forcing your character to react.
- Crisis choice: Now your character has to make a decision; how will he or she react?
- Climax: The action moment where your character makes their decision, thus answering the crisis choice question. It’s the most dramatic moment of the scene.
- Resolution: Most often a one to two sentence finish (with the exception of your final scene), the resolution allows the reader to digest what’s happened.
While these elements make up a scene, there are millions of ways you can apply them. The goal, however, is to change your character’s situation. Ideally their exterior world is affected, as well as their interior emotions.
Breaking it Down
Let’s break it down now by analyzing Chapter 2 of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling. Just in case you need a refresher, the story goes like this: After Harry’s parents are killed when he was a baby, he is sent to live with his aunt and uncle. Ten years have passed since that time, and that’s where Chapter 2 opens.
If you’d like to read the scene and follow along, the excerpt is available through the following link:
- Inciting incident: Aunt Petunia wakes up a sleeping Harry with her shrill voice and an insistent knock on his cupboard door. Just as it should, this moment throws Harry into action. He can’t roll over and go back to sleep. He can’t ignore his aunt. He has to get up. On the scale of subtle to pulse-pounding, this inciting incident is on the gentler side, but Rowling really turns up the drama as the scene proceeds.
- Complication(s): Harry remembers it’s Dudley’s birthday. This isn’t a normal day for Harry, but a worse than normal day; not only does Aunt Petunia want everything to be perfect for Dudley, but Harry is forced to watch his spoiled cousin open all his presents.
2a. Turning Point(s): Mrs. Figg has broken her leg and can’t take Harry for the day, so he gets to tag along to the zoo with the family; however, he’s warned by his uncle that he’ll spend the rest of the year in the cupboard if there’s any “funny business,” which often happens in the form of strange phenomena when Harry is around. In a second turning point at the zoo, a boa constrictor in the reptile exhibit slithers over to Harry and winks at him. These two moments turn the scene in a new direction. If Mrs. Figg was able to take Harry, he wouldn’t be at the zoo. If he wasn’t at the zoo, he couldn’t have the encounter with the boa. The scene couldn’t proceed without both of these elements in place.
- Crisis choice: Does Harry ignore the boa’s wink, or does he talk to it? Given the previous warning from his uncle, Harry’s decision is important. He wants to be “good” so he doesn’t get in trouble, but he identifies with the boa trapped behind glass.
- Climax: Harry looks around, and seeing no one paying him any mind, decides to risk chatting with the boa. Drawn in by the sudden activity, Dudley wanders over and presses against the glass, which suddenly disappears, letting the boa loose and causing him to howl with horror. The boa slithers away after thanking Harry for setting him free. Remember that the climax is the action moment where the character answers the crisis choice question. In this sample, Harry decides to wink back at the snake, which leads to the most dramatic moment of the entire scene—the boa getting loose.
- Resolution: At home, Harry is blamed for the incident and is sent to his cupboard. This resolution is about a paragraph long, but it can be shorter, even one to two sentences. The point is to put an endcap on the climax. There are also times when you might choose not to add a resolution, such as when you have a scene that ends on a cliffhanger.
As you can see from the example above, this scene hits all the marks. Each moment is like a wave propelling Harry forward, forcing him to act and complicating his story, which engages the reader. As each scene ends, it sets up the next; working together, they build your story.
Putting it Together
Now that we’ve been through an example, try teasing out the five scene elements in Chapter 1 of the Harry Potter excerpt, or look at another novel you have on hand. Once you’ve gotten the hang of finding each one and understanding how they work together to propel the main character’s actions, take a look at your own manuscript. A funny thing will happen—you’ll begin to see the scenes that aren’t working. You might find you’re missing an element altogether, which is why a scene meanders, or that a scene has no real climax, so it fails to change your character in any significant way.
Applying the elements of a scene will help guide your characters into conflict and keep the plot moving. If you want to read more about plotting and structuring novels, I encourage you to get a copy of The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know by Shawn Coyne. I continue to use this resource as one of my writing guides.
Now that you’ve seen my method, I’d love to know yours. How do you structure scenes to keep a story moving?