Thursday, July 30, 2009

6 Tricks of Scene Structure

This post is reposted from

There is a PART TWO to this post now available, delving deeper into the definition of the concept "Scene." It is available at

But here on Editing Circle, you may create a scene and post it as a comment to get direct input on whether you've assimilated the techniques discussed here.

The material you post here should NOT be from anything you might ever want to sell. Just offhandedly, freehand, and without thinking much, invent a scene and nestle it into a universe broadly sketched (like a Japanese Brush Painting). This is part of your "million words for the garbage can" -- it's just playing scales on the piano when warming up to practice for a concert.

A musician's fingers do scales absently, an artist doodles, and a writer creates scenes, outlines, and more words. Practice-practice-practice.


The "scene" is, once complete and wholly integrated into the story, an invisible unit, with nicely blurred edges. You can't learn scene structure just by reading completed stories, novels or screenplays.

It is especially hard to learn scene structure from very well written stories. The scene "edge" is not always or only where the camera cuts to a different location.

This was brought to my attention recently when I read a very good story that had major scene-structure problems. This novel would be a candidate for mass market paperback distribution if that scene structure problem were solved. As it is, it's winning prizes in self-publishing, indie, and small press venues.

But I don't know what to say to this author. There's so much RIGHT with this novel, but the scenes FAIL.

I've been trying to remember (with little success) when and where I learned scene structure, how to fix a failed scene, how to avoid failing to begin with, and how to teach these skills.

Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT! and SAVE THE CAT! GOES TO THE MOVIES provide serious clues about "Primal" storytelling and accessibility that would make sense even to a "caveman" (no offense). Follow Blake's blog at

Here's how I put the whole "what's a scene" problem together after reading Blake's books on screenwriting.

Let's start with an analog of the story constructing process.

The hot desert sun of July edges the distant horizon, rising steadily into a cloudless sky. Night puddles behind bright outlines etched against the desert.

A pile of cinder blocks in an empty lot with a tarp casually thrown over the top grows a long shadow.

An old truck full of workmen with dirty, hard-used tools in the back drifts to a lazy stop before the pile of blocks. One guy gets out and unrolls a huge paper onto the hood of the truck, squints at the blocks, at his paper, and nods.

Then a cement truck pulls up.

Before sundown, low walls have grown up in the desert outlining a building where there had been nothing.

Now, weeks later, there's a whole building with an inside and outside, windows and doors, even a roof. But the cinder block walls are bare, the mortar outlining the cracks, starkly visible.

Go into the living room. Bare cinder block walls, raw cement floor.

It's going to be a place where characters live. But right now you can see every structural element including the plumbing, electric conduits, fiberoptic cables, telephone lines, even rebar hanging out in spots.

It's easy to see what this thing is and how it was created.

Now along comes the plasterer and puts up chicken wire, insulation, then smears gooey stuff all over, then comes the guy with the textured towel and makes ridges and bumps in a low-relief pattern, and then the painter with lovely colors.

Then comes the inhabitants of the house to make it a home, and they add light fixtures, drapes and curtains, pictures, and macrame hangings, carpets and deep chairs, mirrors, TV-game console, magazine rack, umbrella stand.

That completed room is a novel or screenplay. It contains the characters.

You watch the characters go through the antics of their lives, but you aren't aware of the CINDER BLOCKS hidden inside the WALLS.

Without those cinder blocks, there would be no antics.

Those cinder blocks are the SCENES.

A good, well structured scene is held to other scenes by "rebar" -- the metal rods that hold cinder-block construction together (in earthquake prone areas rebar is code because without it the wall will fall down if shaken).

You can hammer away at a well constructed story and never find the scene seams.

To understand how the building that showcases your characters is made, you need to see it "under construction."

And that's why it is so very helpful to read books or manuscripts that just don't quite measure up -- that have something "wrong" with them. You can see the raw construction hanging out.

This is a hard point for many writers to grasp.

Every scene in your novel or screenplay HAS THE SAME IDENTICAL STRUCTURE.

There is a thing called 'THE SCENE' -- and that's all it is, a cinder block.

It's virtue and usefulness lies in the fact that it is identical to all other scenes.

Now, we know how a standard cinder block is constructed, with holes in a nice rectangle. (yes, they come thin, with patterns, and so on, but those are other things made out of the same material, not what you build walls out of).

We also know that from these rectangles, you can build a huge variety of shapes and sizes of buildings or architectural elements like garden walls.

They're all the same, but you can make a thousand different shapes out of them.

That's the quality of a well structured scene.

So what is the standard "scene" shape?

1. Like an entire story, it has a BEGINNING, a MIDDLE, and an END. Each of these points has a clear, defining formula for what it must contain.

2. Like an entire story, it clearly demonstrates the characters ARCing, or changing in a way that can be identified and verbalized. In screenwriting, this is designated by a + or - sign for the increase or decrease in emotional TENSION that the scene produces.

3. Like an entire story, the scene must ADVANCE THE PLOT. At least ONE PLOT MOVING EVENT must transpire. One of the classic 6-things-that-have-to-be-fixed must move toward being fixed.

4. Like an entire story, the scene must ADVANCE THE STORY. Something has to happen (be learned, be said, be extracted from evidence or testified to) that changes what life means to the main character in the scene.


6. We'll get to this last item at the end because you really won't like it and I want to run for cover before you throw this all back at me.

I've never seen that list anywhere that I can remember. I just made it up from bits and pieces I've learned here and there, so I may have left out something really important.

But for sure, count on it, every item on that list is absolutely essential in order to have a "scene" at all.

When I see a scene that violates one of those essential parameters, I generally don't bother to finish the book (there are exceptions).

In art, there are always exceptions. In highly commercial art exceptions are extremely rare and if successful usually start whole new genres. (Urban Fantasy; Cyberpunk; Acid Rock -- all started as "exceptions." But remember that the BEETLES had a grounding in classical music and that was their key to success.)

Also note that each of these 5 essential elements of a scene is not at all specific to any genre, story format, delivery medium, style, or historical period.

All cinder blocks are identical, and that's the property that makes them useful.


So to analysis.

Every scene must start with a Narrative Hook (just like any novel must)

The Mid-Point of the scene must (in Blake Snyder's words) RAISE THE STAKES, just as the mid-point of a screenplay or novel must.

The middle point of the scene must be as pivotal as the mid-point of the whole story. The EXACT MIDDLE (by word-count) must be the point where SOMETHING CHANGES.

The END of a Scene must be a cliff-hanger matching the Narrative Hook that started it and planting a set-up or foreshadowing of what will happen at the beginning of the next scene.


Like as if I were artificially forcing this exact and unvarying structure upon all hapless beginners.

No, far from it.

These are not artificial rules imposed on story structure by some all-powerful gatekeeper publisher.

These rules have been discovered by trial and error since the first caveman tried to hold the attention of his terrified kids and tribesmen during a thunder storm. HOLD THE ATTENTION -- that's the key, and it is (as Blake Snyder keeps saying) PRIMAL.

This BEGINNING - MIDDLE - END structure of a scene is like the square corners of building blocks. It has to be that way to be able to join together with the other scenes and hold the whole structure up.

2. ARC -- characters must somehow act, interact with each other or the environment, and react during a scene. The character's attention focus, emotional pitch (from complacency to terror is one example) or maybe relationship to other characters must CHANGE. That change must be CAUSED BY CONFLICT TUMBLING TOWARD A RESOLUTION.

Characters don't just jump up and fulminate for no reason. As in the whole story's structure, characters have internal conflicts that they project into their external environment (just like real people).

3. The plot is the sequence of events that happen in the story. The first event happens. The next thing happens because the first thing happened. And onwards to the last thing that happens, which happens because the first thing happened in an unbroken line of consequences.

In really sophisticated fiction, it can sometimes be hard to see the connecting links between events. The harder it is to see the connections, the smaller the potential audience and the less those people will actually talk about and recommend this story.

Each scene must contain a PLOT EVENT that connects the beginning scene to the ending scene.

It doesn't have to be a straight line, but the straighter the line of cause and effect the bigger the audience.

4. EACH SCENE starts with a narrative hook that pulls the reader/viewer into a CONFLICT, a sub-sub-conflict of the over-arching conflict the story is hurtling on to resolve. WITHIN THE SCENE the conflict of the whole story must advance THROUGH the mini-conflict of this scene.

The END OF the scene resolves the scene's conflict and hands the momentum on to the next scene.

The "cliffhanger" is a good model, though not as widely known as it was in the days when every feature film in a theater was accompanied by two or more "serials" -- Buck Rogers comes to mind. Each serial installment would end with a (sometimes literal) cliff hanger.

The new STAR TREK movie played on that motif graphically with people falling off the edges of things and hanging by one arm for a while.

Living On The Edge might have been the theme of that new STAR TREK MOVIE.

The NEXT SCENE starts with the character inching back up off the edge of the cliff and going on with the story.

It is that gasping TENSION the pure anticipation of disaster, or of the mere fact that SOMETHING must "happen next" that makes the final line or image of a scene.

The END of a scene must IMPLY action, not deliver it.

The Narrative Hook has to promise that something will happen. The Ending has to have it actually happen (fall off the cliff), but promise that SOMETHING ELSE will "happen next" -- i.e. either fall all the way or get pulled back by a friend, or muscle back up, or "with a mighty leap" solve the problem.

When there's nothing that can "happen next" that originated in the beginning of the story -- then you're at the end and you better stop writing scenes.


That's the biggie and the one that divides the professional from the amateur.

This is where the size of the potential market for a story is determined.

You can "get away with" including whole scenes that do nothing but convey exposition, set the atmosphere, characterize the characters, fill in back story, lend artistic resonance, or describe the location.

But every time you do that, you narrow your potential audience, and you shed readers you did hook because they get bored.

You will be left only with readers who already are interested in your characters, backstory, history, artistic lyricism, gorgeous flowing prose.

If that reader happens to be an editor with money to invest, you could sell this thing. But will the reviewers be able to get through it?

That's not to say that this shapeless fluff of exposition, backstory, character depth, words for the sake of pure art, or location for the sake of strange-places is not the SUM AND SUBSTANCE of what you have to sell.

Atmosphere, style, ambiance, rich detail -- all that is what readers actually read FOR.

But all those nebulous things are the cement and gravel out of which your cinder blocks are made, and sometimes ingredients in the mortar that holds the whole story-structure together.

They are ingredients, shapeless in themselves and useless for story telling until you add that personal element (like water for the cinder blocks) and bake them to structural hardness just like cinder blocks. Mix and pour your ingredients into a mold, bake them good and hard, and you will have a scene.

The 5 item list I've sketched here describe the shape of that mold.

That mold is the same shape for every scene. The ingredients sometimes differ a little, just as some cinder blocks have a higher quality than others, some tend to crumble around the corners, some have a rougher texture than others.

And like cinderblocks, some have a Lacy pattern and are thin, just for decorative purposes (poems, epigraphs, vignettes, episodes, even COMMERCIALS).

Your completed story is like the wall of that room we started with. Once you get done painting the texturized plaster, nobody but another writer will know that the wall stands up so nice and vertical because it's made of many identical blocks.

So, now you're ready to write an actual scene, to practice putting those 5 requirements together all in one scene. You think walking and chewing gum is hard, just wait until you try writing a scene that fits all these requirements. Pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time while skipping rope!

But you're ready to try it now -- so the first thing you will think to ask yourself (if you're a professional writer) is, "Well, how LONG does this have to be?"

So we come to that dreaded #6 on this list of parameters that govern scene structure.

Every fiction market has a specific preferred length for the whole story.

6. Scene Size
That length is governed by the parameters of the marketing process. The length of books is governed by the cost of a signature. A signature is that folded sheaf of papers they glue together at the binding to make a book. If you go ONE WORD over the end of the final signature, it costs the price of an ENTIRE SIGNATURE to include that one word.

Hence writers learn the discipline of "right sizing" their work.

I discussed the practical marketing problems for fiction in several posts including this one:

Words are elastic. You can say the same thing in less space by choosing synonyms that are shorter (Anglo-Saxon origin rather than Latin), by restructuring sentences with fewer modals, and there are myriad tricks for shortening (or lengthening) text to fit the signatures.

Another sizing trick is to choose shorter names for characters you mention a lot -- or nickname them. Saves tons of trees if you're in print media.

E-books don't have that problem, but there is a "handy" number of K's for an e-book that sells better than longer ones or shorter ones.

So if your genre dictates a total, overall length to aim for, what size should your scenes be? All the genres are different lengths, right? So the scenes should be different lengths, too?

Think hard about this.

What is the main purpose of a scene?

I don't mean "to advance the plot" -- though that is a purpose every scene must achieve.

But why must a scene advance the plot? What's the purpose of an ironclad requirement to include a plot-advance in every scene?

A scene does not have to fill backstory, create atmosphere, explain character motives, or lay clues to the mystery. You don't have to include exposition in every scene, explaining the politics the characters are embedded within. But you MAY do any or all of those in any given scene.

What is the purpose of having SCENES? Why not one long flowing narrative?

And what has that purpose to do with figuring out the length a scene has to be, the size of your cinder blocks?

Look at that wall again. Do different walls of different heights and lengths have different size cinder blocks in them? How versatile that one common size structural element, the cinder block!!!

We know the purpose of the cinder block. It's rectangular because that makes it strong. It's actually 2 squares stuck together. It has holes to make it light. The holes are all in the same place in each block so you can thread the blocks onto rebar, then pour cement down and solidify that wall so it won't fall on you if the earth quakes.

The purpose of a cinder block is clear from it's STRUCTURE.

So what's the purpose of breaking your narrative into scenes?

Here's a clue. The purpose of a scene is the same as the purpose of a commercial on TV.

That's right: a) grab attention, b) hold attention, c) deliver a message, d) make the viewer remember that message (only the part you want them to remember).

Look at our list of 5 essential ingredients in a scene again.

Narrative Hook (grabber), Character Arc (holder), Advance Plot and Story (deliver message), cliff hanger ending (seat that message good and hard - make them want the next message).

The purpose of having scenes at all is to a) GRAB ATTENTION and b) HOLD ATTENTION, then TEACH SOMETHING, and MAKE THEM REMEMBER IT AND WANT MORE.

Who is "them?"

Human beings.

So scene length has a purpose founded in the essence of human behavior.

There are parameters that describe the fundamental essence of human attention in terms of the nervous system, and the brain.

If your fiction is to "entertain" (i.e. grab attention of) human beings you must work within the parameters of the human attention span.

And that's pretty elastic, actually. It's different for different people at different ages and from different cultures, or in different nervous states (a person about to get married isn't going to sit still for tedium).

So, since caveman days, we have developed a kind of average or median, an artistic estimation of attention span.

Lately, that has been encoded into some very commercial ventures (Sesame Street comes to mind - founded on the idea that you'll get more information across to children if you use the attention span of the child at the age when they want to learn this particular fact.)

The film industry invests millions upon millions to make a film. Making their money back plus a profit depends on holding audience attention. Major amounts of scientific research (but also mostly trial and error) has gone into determining how long a scene should be in order not to lose the audience's attention.

Lose attention in scene 3 and scene 5 won't impress this audience. Lose my attention in scene 3 and you aren't going to get a review from me. Lose your editor's (or producer's) attention in scene 3 and you did all that work for nothing.

Likewise, way back in the 1940's, as films were really taking off as a preferred entertainment vehicle, WRITERS figured out how to emulate that scene length that is most likely to hold the attention of the most people.

What is that secret scene length?

Oh, you are going to hate me. Boy are you gonna hate me for this one.

You see, all 5 of the ingredients I've mentioned above are actually pretty easy to do -- but they are nigh to impossible to accomplish within this attention-span determined limit.

And since your attention span (being as how you are either a writer or an inveterate and eclectic reader or I would have lost your attention before this) is likely much longer than the average person's, you won't believe me either.

And if it's not true, why do it -- because it's hard.


But how short must a scene be?

This is what I learned directly from A. E. Van Vogt

when I was in (on paper) correspondence with him (and I've since lost those historic letters).

A narrative scene must be NO MORE THAN 750 words.

That's about 3 manuscript pages.

A screenplay scene must be NO MORE THAN 3 pages.

Isn't that an odd coincidence?

The narrative scene is "3 pages" because when you create manuscript for a publisher, the "page" should be set up with margins and line spacing so that it has a 60 character line and 25 lines per page, which gives you a "page" of 250 "words." And it supplies enough room for editing and copyediting and book designing squiggles in the margins and between lines. Your WORDS aren't all that will ultimately be on your "page."

OK, today, with electronic files, it's not quite like that, but that's where the 3-page limit on a scene came FROM.

Also remember that way back, publishing only used the "fixed font" because that's all a typewriter could do - but also because the spaces between the letters has to be FIXED in order for length to be determined by the book designer. (figuring the printed length is called doing a "cast off.")

Screenplays must even today be submitted in COURIER, a fixed-font, for exactly that reason. RUN TIME can be determined as 1 minute per page if the page is in FIXED FONT.

So why 3 pages of narrative = 3 pages of script that is mostly white space?

A "word" in publishing isn't a grammatical unit. The word "a" is a single character plus the space after it (right, spaces count as characters).

But if you have a 100,000 word manuscript, in English, on average your words are "6 characters" -- or a printer's word, not a grammatical unit.

The purpose of all this old typewriter driven calculation is simple.

The editor has to be able to look at the final page number of the manuscript and KNOW instantly what the cover price has to be if they buy this manuscript. Then reading the first page, the middle page, and the final page, the experienced editor can tell whether the company can make a profit selling this book by estimating the size of the book's potential market.

It all has to do with "signatures" as noted above. If the editor knows they are dealing with a seasoned professional writer, and the MS seems too long for current pricing -- they KNOW they can depend on that writer to shrink the manuscript to the "right size" in a jiffy and without argument by subtracting SCENES.

Likewise if the manuscript is too short. A professional writer can "right size" it up without "padding" by adding SCENES.

Because the manuscript was constructed of SCENES, the writer who knows which holes the rebar went through can pull out a scene and move essential information to another scene, or pull out information from a scene and create another scene to convey that information.

An amateur writing on pure inspiration would be stumped by this rewrite order and it would take more than a weekend to achieve the adjustment. And then the result would introduce incoherencies into the story line.

Your reputation and your next contract depend on being able to do these things FAST.

You achieve that by making your original construction out of well constructed scenes.

So why do 3 pages of narrative = 3 pages of script?


That's what they have in common.

An average reader will cover about 250 words a minute (1 page) overall when fully engaged.

Fast readers can top 800, and slow ones might be more like 100 words a minute. But a real person reading VARIES speed according to the kind of material -- so on average over a 450 page novel, it'll come out to about 250 words a minute (maybe including interruptions like phone calls and the baby crying).

A good director will bring in a film at about 3 minutes per scene -- some a little longer to fondle a beautiful moment, some a little shorter to "get on with it." But about 1 minute per manuscript page is the average over a 110 page screenplay.

Commercials have shrunk to 15 seconds. Twitter is 140 characters (which most readers can grab without actually "reading" each word).

Multi-tasking is the core training of our 3 year olds.


If your writing can hold attention for 3 whole minutes to convey a scene, you are really REALLY good!

So now I'll duck and run for cover. 5 elements in 3 minutes -- that's miraculous! But you gotta do it.

So go concoct a scene from those 5 elements, any old scene, and trim it to 3 minutes or 750 words and post it (may take 2 posts to fit in the little comment box). You may want to do 2 or 3 scenes until you get one you think is perfect and post that. I'll see if I can find any holes in it.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg