Blogging Through ‘Scene & Structure’–Chapter 4: “Structure in Larger Elements: The Scene”
Have you scene it? I’ve scene it. And yet I still sometimes fail to make sure my scenes have all of the elements that Bickham discusses in this chapter.
Let’s dive right in, shall we?
Just as causes result in effects and stimuli result in responses, the scene inevitably—if written correctly—leads to another scene.
What is a scene? It’s a segment of story action, written moment-by-moment, without summary, presented onstage in the story “now.” It is not something that goes on inside a character’s head; it is physical. It could be put on the theater stage and acted out.
(Bickham, p. 23)
Even though I haven’t read this book cover to cover, this may be one of the chapters I’m most familiar with, as I have quoted from it often here on the blog. It’s in this chapter that we get to the crux of what this book is about—scene flow. As writers, we want our stories to flow like rivers—twisting and turning from time to time, but always moving inexorably forward.
However, a lot of the time, we get stuck in whirlpools—having our characters meet with the same conflict over and over and over and never moving forward at all. To illustrate this “circularity,” Bickham gives the example of two little kids having a “did not” “did so” “did not” “did so” type of argument. Although he doesn’t include it here, I would argue that scenes that take place mostly inside a character’s head would fit into this, too—after all, conflict comes from external sources, and it’s conflict that moves the story forward.
Chapter Section: “The Goal”
Bickham further defines the scene as “a dynamic structural component with a definite internal pattern which forces the story to move forward as the scene plays—and as a result of its ending” (p. 24).
As Carol pointed out in a comment on the previous chapter, it was starting to remind her of Goals, Motivation, and Conflict. And, yes, that’s a very apt comparison. Because that’s how each scene should be structured.
The scene should start with the POV character who has a definite, clear-cut, attainable goal: Anne is going to show George potential sites for (what she thinks is) his engagement party. George is going to reveal the identity of his employer to Anne before the man shows up at the site for the party (Stand-In Groom). Meredith is going to the pet store to buy food for the puppy she found. Major is attending his employers’ New Year’s Day open house because they’ve asked him to come to talk to him about something (Menu for Romance). And so on.
Each scene should start out with a goal that is an important step in the character’s game plan—a small goal that gets them one step closer to attaining the main goal of the story (or what the character thinks is their main goal for the story—that’s where the conflict/disaster part comes into play). But the goal cannot be easily attained; it’s your job as the author to make sure your characters suffer.
As far as making your characters suffer . . . that’s something we’ll get into later in the book.
Chapter Section: “Ending the Scene”
Back in 2001, when I was writing what would become my first complete manuscript, after giving the first half (what was at the time completed) to my mother and grandmother for Christmas, I started sending them each chapter as I finished it. Having something of a devilish streak and wanting to elicit a reaction, I started ending each chapter on a “cliffhanger.” I wanted a reaction. I wanted my readers clamoring for more, more, more—emailing me, I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU LEFT IT HANGING LIKE THAT!!!! and WHAT HAPPENS NEXT??? By doing this, I taught myself to structure my scenes this way—to build up to something (a hook) that would leave the reader hanging and wanting to turn the page to find out.
Bickham calls this a “tactical disaster” (p. 26).
“Disaster” in this usage does not often denote an earthquake, a flood, a plane crash, or anything like the things we often term disasters in real life. But use of the term is justified because the character—and the reader—experience the final twist in a scene as thoroughly bad—disastrous to the attainment of the immediate scene goal, and so a terrible setback in the quest for the story goal.
(Bickham, p. 27)
It’s so tempting to really start digging into this here, but I know how much more Bickham delves into this in the remainder of the book. So, instead, I’ve made a flow chart to go with this chapter:
And don’t worry . . . if you don’t quite get it yet, we’ll be going into a lot more detail as we get further into the book.
Chapter Section: “Scene Length”
Bickham gives something of a “wibbly, wobbly, timey, whimey” discourse on scene length here. So I thought it would be a great time to share a post that I wrote about scene length to put my oar in.
Finally, although the point has been stated repeatedly and implied even more often, it’s well to emphasize a point that invariably is asked during lectures on the subject of scene structure and its essential component, the conflict.
The question: “Do I have to have the conflict outside the character? Can’t I have the character at war with himself inside his head”
Answer: The conflict has to be on the outside. If you remember the example of writing something which could be put on the theater stage, you will not forget this principle.
(Bickham, pp. 29–30)
Bickham, Jack. Scene & Structure. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books. 1993.
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