Some Thoughts on Scene Structure

Posted by on Nov 30, 2011 | 9 comments

I was minding my own business one day when a piece of wisdom floated by on my Twitter feed: “What’s the precise turning point in your current scene? Make its trigger more dramatic—or less obvious.”  It was from the agent Donald Maass, who I follow because of his wonderful book: Writing the Breakout Novel.  (All this year, he’s been tweeting Breakout Novel prompts from @DonMaass which you can find here.)

As it happened I was about two thirds of the way through writing a scene and it was starting to bore the life out of me.  (Perhaps this is why I was checking Twitter in the first place?)  I read Maass’s tweet and thought: “Oh doy.  I forgot the turning point.”

Now, I had been writing a long time—an embarrassingly long time—before I figured out that a scene needs structure in the same way that a complete novel does.  (In my defence, you’d be surprised how many books on writing—even books on plot—don’t mention this.)  I knew that a character needed to have a goal, and I thought that the purpose of an individual scene was to provide an obstacle to that overarching desire.  This isn’t exactly wrong (or at least, it isn’t always wrong), but it wasn’t until I learned to see scenes on a micro level—as needing goals, obstacles and turning points of their own—that I became a publishable writer.

Not every scene needs to be a novel in miniature, mind you, but I’ve found that is a scene isn’t working, it might be because I haven’t asked myself one for the following three questions:

What is the character’s micro-goal for the scene?

What are the obstacles or attacks to this micro-goal?

What is the scene turning point? (The place where change takes place—either for the reader or for the main character.)

I write books with a lot of back story, so info-dumping is a common problem in my first drafts.  In an outline, I’ll often have a scene summary that looks something like this:

Cynthia and James are talking.  Cynthia tells James an important piece of information.

Zzzzzzzz.   Not very dynamic, is it?

But when I apply my three questions, see how I can give the scene some drama and tension:

Cynthia doesn’t want to tell James her secret (micro-goal).  He tries different tactics to get her to talk (attacks to the micro-goal).  She relents and the secret is revealed (turning point).

A key thing to remember when writing your turning point is surprise.  I’ve written about “minding the gap” and making your reveals “surprising yet inevitable”. The scene turning point is where most of these reveals occur.  This is the place to reverse expectation and pull the rug out from under your characters (and your readers).  In the example above, you can bet that when Cynthia reveals her secret, it won’t be the one the reader is expecting, and knowing it won’t have the effect that James thinks it will.




  1. Very helpful advice, Lena. When you’re finished your current WIP, maybe you should do a book on writing?

    • Ha ha! Oh boy, thank you, Jocelyn. I really just post about stuff I’m trying to figure out myself. Something to think about, though.

  2. Fantastic post sends this writer right back to revision.
    It’s never a good sign if one’s own writing begins to be boring to self. Make a note.

    • Yes, that is NOT a good sign. I’ve learned to write the scenes I want to write now instead of getting too hung up on writing chronologically.

      • skJrvei:rag minns faktiskt inte hur jag hittade hit, men det är längesen, Theo var liten skorv dÃ¥ bara. Har läst här sen dess, och jag älskar allt du gör, sÃ¥ himla fina saker. Ha en riktigt god jul! Kram!

  3. Thanks for this Lena. I hadn’t been following Maass, but I will. And I’ll pick up a copy of his book.

  4. It’s a good one. I’ve also heard that his The Fire in Fiction is really good. And Mahtab Narsimhan told me that there is a workbook for Writing the Breakout Novel that she and many authors have used.

  5. Great post. These are all good points to remember. When a scene falls flat and bores the writer, it definitely won’t keep a reader’s attention. I like using surprises, as you mentioned. It’s funny that you tend to use too much backstory because I feel like I don’t use enough. I expect my readers to just know things and my beta readers point out that they can’t know what I don’t tell them. Great point there.

    • That’s funny because with the book I’m writing now I seem to be plowing ahead with the front story and leaving the back story to be filled in later. It wasn’t like that with my first book, though. I guess the process is different for each one!

      Everybody check out Kelly’s new blog for her YA and middle grade work!

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