Sunday, July 08, 2012

Brick by Brick: Scene

In Sandra Scofield's The Scene Book, she defines scene as, “ . . . those passages in narrative when we slow down and focus on an event in the story so that we are in the moment with characters in action."

She goes on to say, "It's not a summary of what happened." That's the key: Something has to happen in a scene, in real time.

Simple structure of a scene

Protagonist wants A.

Antagonist wants B.

The protagonist/antagonist gets what they want or they realize something else stands in the way of getting A/B, or both.

That's the mystery of a simple scene structure, but, of course, that's not what makes it complicated. There's a scene protagonist and a book's protagonist. Often they are one in the same, but you can have a scene antagonist that is not the book's antagonist. The best examples for this concept are stories that involve solving a mystery.

Jayne Ann Krentz's Smoke in Mirrors is a romantic suspense about Leonora Hutton and Thomas Walker uncovering the truth about the mysterious deaths surrounding the Mirror House. These two characters share an antagonist (for the book), an unknown person. Yet in the first chapter Leonora is the scene's protagonist and Thomas is the scene's antagonist.

Simple Structure of this Scene

Protag wants A: Leonora wants to pack up her half-sister's house and finally put the memory of her sister to rest.

Antag wants B: Thomas wants Leonora to help him find the money her half-sister stole from an endowment fund.

In this particular instance, Thomas literally stands in Leonora's way until she agrees to consider his proposition. He blocks the door, uses threats and speculates about her half-sister's death. The last part brings up more questions (more wants)for Leonora. By the end of the scene you know the protagonist doesn't get what she wants: to put her half-sister to rest.

You can write a novel in this episodic way. Someone wins or someone loses. What makes all the scenes cohesive for a novel is the overall goal. The first scene weaves it all in. Leonora and her half-sister have been friends since college. Her death bothers Leonora because of the manner—suicide.

Thomas needs to find the money to protect his brother. Also, his brother's wife died in the same mysterious and out of character way. Both Leonora and Thomas want to find out what happened. Both of them have separate needs and that's the seamless thread in every scene.

I'll admit, it's easier to find a scene's protag and antag when two people are arguing. What about when two people want the same thing?


Protag: Heroine wants to have sex with hero.

Antag: Hero wants to have sex with heroine.

If they both want the same thing what stands in the way? In Sophie Kinsella's The Undomestic Goddess this is the exact set up for a scene between Samantha and Nathaniel. Now what gives this scene conflict is that it shoots to the need of the book's protagonist.

Samantha needs to stop and smell the roses per se. In an earlier scene she says to the hero it'll only take them six minutes to get the deed done. The hero is not having it, but he doesn't say no to sex all together. Nathaniel simply wants her to help him garden later. By knowing the character's need I can change the simple structure of the scene.

Protag: Wants to have a quickie just to get the deed done because that's all she knows.

Antag: Wants to take the scenic route.

What the hero wants stands in the way of what the heroine wants, even though, in the scheme of things they want the same thing—to have sex with each other. The details can be the contention. In this example the hero embodied the need that directly conflicted with the heroine's want.

Finally, this last thought is debatable within fiction. In a scene the protagonist can be their own antagonist. This concept comes up when a protagonist is alone in a scene or even a book/movie. Castaway comes to mind. Who or what is standing in their way? The simple answer can be the classic theme of man vs. self, man vs. nature, etc.

So let's just say my opinion is that as long as there is something preventing the protagonist from getting what they want then it can work.

The Heart of the Scene

The heart, you can say, is like the overall goal except it’s the scene’s core. The next example comes from my second book, See Megan Run. The heroine, Megan, left town 12 years ago. She also left behind her high school sweetheart Aiden. Before this excerpt Megan is pulled over for speeding. She’s doing her best to get out of town as fast as she can. Yet, the purpose of this scene is to see Aiden’s unexpected reaction, which of course creates more wants. (I should say SPOILER!!!! All through these blog posts. Sorry!)


His day had been going pretty good until he saw the silver Camaro pull out of Dead Man’s Curve at eighty miles per hour.  He stared down into Megan’s eyes, dark as chocolate, keeping all her secrets from him like they always did. His stomach clenched when he noticed that her skin, smooth and radiant, had darkened, which made her seem much more beautiful than the eighteen-year-old girl he remembered. The same one he’d given his heart to and the same one who’d left him. Yup, it was turning out to be a crappy day.

His hand tightened into fist in his pockets. Aiden figured he could handle this two ways: play it cool and let her off with a warning, or–a smile tugged at his lips–give her hell.


Exacting a little revenge on your ex who broke your heart into a million little pieces is not the core of the scene, but it definitely made my character feel better. The next part comes at the end of the chapter when he’s decided it’s best to ditch the plan for revenge and just get away from her.


Out of instinct he reached to stop her and knew it was a mistake the moment his fingers brushed her forearm. He snatched his hand back, but Megan eyes widened, and he knew she’d felt it too. His day was getting worse by the moment.

You need to drive careful. If Shep had stopped you, he’d have had your car towed, just to make a point.”

A smile pulled at her plump lips, making his gut twist again. She shouldn’t have been able to get that reaction out of him. He crossed his arms to keep them from doing anything else on their own. He had to do some type of damage control.


Within the next few passages Aiden finds out that Megan isn’t aware of one fact: her mother is marrying his uncle. Forced proximity will ensue and he can barely keep it together as is. The heart of the scene shows Aiden isn’t over Megan as he should be.

Protag: Aiden wants to exact a little revenge on his ex-girlfriend.

Antag: Megan wants to get out of town.

Megan get’s what she wants. Aiden is left with the knowledge he’s not completely over her. He’ll have to find a way because soon she’ll be back in town.

Questions to ask yourself to get the simple structure of a scene:

What do the characters want to happen?

What does/could the scene reveal about the character?

What does/could the scene reveal about the story?

In the end, what happens?


This ends today's long-winded lesson on simple scene structure. Yes, there is tons, and I mean tons, more you can learn about scene structure. This is just the tip of the iceberg. But, this is what I use to write my scenes when I'm stuck. It's simple but helpful to know where I'm going when I've lost my way or I have no idea what comes. The thing is a big portion of writing is instinctual. Without thought you probably set up your scenes in a similar way. So, I'll say if it ain't broke don't fix it.
Anyway, next up I'll show you how to use simple scene structure to revise. As usual, I'm more than open to questions or outright disagreement. Do so in the comments.

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