Tuesday, July 28, 2009

6 Tricks of Scene Structure - Part 2

My original post on Scene Structure drew a very interesting question from Kathleen McIver paraphrased:

Ah, pardon me ... what is a scene?

My instant reaction: "Um. Ooops."

So I dashed off a quick answer to the question in the comments section of 6 Tricks of Scene Structure


You'll want to read the comments, too because I had to fill in other gaps in what I'd covered.

But of course, my quick comments are not sufficient to really answer the question, "What actually is a scene and how do you identify a scene in finished works?" And perhaps more importantly, Kathleen asked:

"And does this mean that we, as the author, should be able to break down our entire novel into 3-page sections, each of which has these elements?"

Even more wisely, Kathleen noted how she didn't know enough to phrase a question the answer to which would provide the information she's missing. I truly respect that mental capacity! Wow, this is one sharp lady.

So I've been thinking about this for a couple of days.

It's funny what you forget you know, and how you can assume that others know it as well as you do.

But some people just grow up into the skill without noticing they learned anything. Others have to learn one painful lesson (scathing review) at a time. The ones who have to learn it make the best teachers of it.

Linnea Sinclair touched on this once again in her post on Worldbuilding techniques that are necessary even in contemporary Earth settings.


Contemporary authors do worldbuilding, too, and the better they do it the broader audience they reach. Really, audience is proportionate to this craft skill because, when added to a High Concept the worldbuilding is the tool that delivers the punch the High Concept hints may be there.

Also, the better the worldbuilding, the more concise and sharp the dialogue because the characters have something to talk to each other about besides the worldbuilding that each of them take for granted.

Careful worldbuilding helps avoid the expository lump. But it's a tricky tool.

The trick to using the worldbuilding tool is THE SCENE.

And the scene structure discipline also helps eliminate the lumpish aspect of exposition.

This was articulated by Blake Snyder in SAVE THE CAT! where he labels it the POPE IN THE POOL technique and describes it as an expository lump disguised as dialogue between two people sitting across an office desk. The window behind the desk is over an indoor pool in the Vatican. The Vistor Chair can see the Pope disrobing and diving into the pool. The Official behind the desk can't see that. (Blake's field is comedy, and mine isn't)

I haven't seen the movie that scene is from. But if it were my scene, I would start it when the Visitor enters the office, shakes hands, sits down and the Official opens with the subject of (the expository lump). Just where the lump gets boring, the Pope enters the swimming pool, and behaves as if not observed, taking his swim. Meanwhile, the conversation hits a snag.

Remember the key to great dialogue is that every spoken encounter (very often a scene is simply two or more characters exchanging words) is MORTAL COMBAT of some sort (even in Romance; sexy foreplay is mortal combat of a sort -- "I want you now." "Wait a while -- then again, maybe not tonight."

Every dialogue exchange (even in novels) has to advance the plot AND the characterization AND relationship, as well as the story.

Some dialogue exchanges lap over from one scene to another, and leave over punctuation comments for later. The dialogue in the film, Mr. And Mrs. Smith illustrates this technique.


A "scene" is not a discrete entity, isolated from the rest of the story.

Like atoms reach out and bond with other atoms (sometimes of different elements) to form molecules, so scenes reach out and bond with other scenes sometimes of different types, to become a story (novel or film; same rule)

Dialogue can be the binding factor.

One dialogue technique I particularly like is Pillow Talk.

If a couple has an issue arise over breakfast, separates to race through the day overcoming harrowing obstacles toward minimally rewarding goals, arrive home pulverized and exhausted, blow off excess energy in sex, then exchange comments about the morning's issue in brief, maybe one-word, comments, you get that binding force making a scene come full circle.

The morning breakfast scene raised an issue, the issue was discussed in the underlying theme of what each individual faced alone during the day, that harrowing experience changed their attitude or take on the issue, and after sex, with barriers down the couple is able to resolve the original conflict.

The couple re-binds during pillow talk, and the marriage becomes more sound because each took a beating during the day.

In Mr. And Mrs. Smith, we see a couple who keeps secrets from each other. The secret each keeps is that their day-job is to kill people, and each is really REALLY good at it.

They have marriage issues because of the reticence. They resolve those issues with dialogue snippets of an ongoing conversation that continues as they team up to fight against an overwhelming force trying to kill each or both of them.

So the conversation continues in bits of dialogue strewn through almost all of the scenes, and reinforced by the visuals chosen as background for those scenes (as Pope In The Pool).

So a "Scene" is NOT simply a conversation unit.

What exactly is the property that defines a "Scene"?

Is it an artform to identify scenes? Or just another of the cut and dried techniques anyone can learn?

Well, maybe a little of both, but Hollywood has hammered out this definition to a science. Some books on screenwriting go into it in detail.

Mostly, though, you learn it by reading and watching a lot of stories looking to see if each story follows "the rules" you've just learned about scenes.

Originally, the stage play worked out that a "scene" goes from when a character enters the stage, to when that or some other character leaves.

"Scene" is defined by who's on stage (or camera).

That's because in real life, a group dynamic is defined by who's there and what they know about whom, and what the other guy does not know about whichever issue is going on. What some character wants another to know, and what must be withheld (Conversation in the murder mansion does not flow freely when they know Columbo is in the room.)

Real life has scenes, too.

"Don't make a scene in the restaurant this time."

What does that mean?

It means "Don't wax dramatic and attract attention with hystrionics."

If you must fight, whisper?

And there you have the "Scene" defined as a unit of story.


It starts when a trigger for drama appears. The meat of the scene, the MIDDLE, delivers (as the middle of a story) a CHANGE that advances the PLOT and preferably the story too. The dramatic unit ends when explosion that's been triggered dissipates leaving "damage" or change behind. That changed Situation is the hook for the next scene in the chain.

As I've detailed any number of times in these writing technique essays, the backbone of the story is CONFLICT and the two (or more) units that conflict RESPOND TO EACH OTHER - so that the plot is the sequence of events along a BECAUSE CHAIN.

Because Mom grounded Michael, he climbed out his bedroom window, the trelis broke, he fell, broke his ankel, spent Christmas in the hospital, met the girl he would eventually marry and hated her on sight.

The trellis would not have broken had his mother not grounded him, etc, BECAUSE -- the plot is the chain of because events.

The story is the reason (character motivation) that the characters respond this way not that way to whatever event confronts them.

Michael, living a different story, would not have climbed out the window. He might have stolen Mom's car keys (before he got his license even) and stormed out the front door, driving off despite her effort to stop him. Maybe he then runs over her as he guns the motor out of the driveway?

THAT is the story - what grounding means to Michael, what his options are, which option he chooses and why, and what he learns from that choice so that when confronted with the same kind of choice toward the END, he chooses differently.

OK, given that plot and story, and the irresistible urge to write Michael's story -- do you have to "chop it up" into 3 page scenes?

NO! But also YES! At the same time, yes and no.

You don't CHOP it. You do like Michaelangelo, and you FREE the story from the shapeless block of marble in your head.

You, as an artist, are charged with the responsibility to show the reader or viewer the artistic beauty of the universe hidden within the amorphous mass of everyday life. They can't see it (because Hollywood and Manhattan have trained them from childhood to the 3-page scene) unless you show it to them in Scenes.

They'll never see it if they can't sit still through it, and by our frenetic culture and our relentless training, we can't focus and concentrate for longer than a 3 page scene. Deplorable but true, and the commercial artist doesn't rail against the deplorable, but rather just uses it as part of the artist's toolbox.

So you don't perform on your material an operation that is alien to that material.

You don't chop it. You don't cut it.

You know that because of a lifetime of watching movies and reading books and yearning to "be a writer" by actually writing something, you know that your subconscious has already arranged this story into "scenes" and then, because it's an eager puppy jumping all over to get your attention, subconscious has made a mess of all the supportive material.

Subconscious wrapped your story up in batting and gift paper and made it glitter, then gave it to you. But before you could open it in an orderly fashion, subconscious gnawed it open and flung wrapping and batting all over the place.

Inside that mess is your glowing, polished, beautiful, well structured story.

It's your job to find that story, and sweep away the mess to reveal those marvelously chained together SCENES.

As you do this over and over, subconscious will learn like a puppy dog, and bring you the story clean and shining so there's not much mess to clean up.

So how do you do that?

Start with the knowledge of the structure of a Scene as outlined in

As you write, watch your page count and word count. Really, make a habit to check it constantly.

If you reach 750 words or 3 script pages WITHOUT advancing the plot by delivering an explosive resolution to the scene's narrative hook, STOP WRITING.

Sit back, and start measuring, and rearranging the exposition (usually it's exposition that's the culprit -- stuff you oh so want the reader to know before something else happens so they'll understand the emotions is exposition. CUT IT. Save it in a note file. Dissect it and sprinkle it throughout the rest of the story. Never let exposition expand a scene beyond 750 words.)

You know what this Scene must do -- somebody has to learn something, get injured, have an idea. You know what CHANGE this scene must deliver.

Ask yourself why it's taking so long?

Usually, you can first draft a scene at say 1500 words, then just cut the middle out and make it the plot-mover of the next scene.

After you've done this process a few (or more) times, you will find that your subconscious will quit trying to write longer scenes that nobody will read. Subconscious wants its scenes read, trust me. It can be trained to do this for you, and increase your productivity to professional levels.

But you have to train your subconscious, and this process works.

Write it out, cut the middle, glue the ends together, use the left over material to construct (mind you CONSTRUCT via the 6 elements) another scene.

A "Scene" is a dramatic unit, but it can look like a plot unit in an action flick, or like a story unit in a slow sex scene.

Have you ever wondered why some readers claim a really hot-hot-HOT sex scene is BORING?

It's the 3-page effect.

Now a really great sex encounter can go on for 12 pages or so in a novel, even a whole chapter covering a weekend of hot stuff.

But if it's a 12 page encounter -- it will have to be 4 SCENES strung together.

And those 4 scenes have to have an over-all shape.

"Scene" is a dramatic unit, not a plot unit or a story unit. DRAMATIC.

What does that mean?



A scene has to start on a low emotional pitch (because the previous scene blew the energy of the previous scene's narrative hook to provide an ending, a resolution of a conflict).

A scene has to END on a higher emotional pitch than it started on.

BAM - that's the end of the scene. Huge blow-off of emotional energy.

That leaves the characters (you should excuse the expression) deflated, and thus ready to start another scene on a low emotional pitch.

Now if you string 4 sex scenes together non-stop, you start the first one on a LOWER emotional pitch than the last one ends on.

Draw a graph.

Think of a sine wave. Tilt it so the right side is higher than the left.

Each down point is higher than the last downpoint, so there is a RISING PITCH running through all 4 sex scenes yet each scene starts down and ends high, the emotional pitch changing during the scene. If the emotional pitch doesn't change, it's not a "Scene" yet. That's what scenes do; they change the EMOTIONAL PITCH, the dramatic tension. And the change, through a whole story must be up, up, up, DOWN, up up up, to the ending BAM. A "climax" (ahem, dramatic sort as well as the usual) is a UP TO DOWN in a BAM!

The final of the 4 sex scenes then BLOWS OFF HUGE -- and really flattens the characters.

That's the payoff, the resolution of the simmering emotional tension at the beginning of the 4 scenes, and it has to be huge after 4 scenes of it.

Now you can't let your BECAUSE LINE of the plot languish, stop dead, slack off even a bit, during these 4 sex scenes.

The plot must advance, right along with the story.

So BECAUSE they succumb to sex, something HAPPENS in scene one, that CAUSES something else in scene two, that CAUSES something new in scene three, that finally materializes big time in scene four, and hurles them back (willy nilly, ready or not) into the "real world" where they must fight for their couple-hood.

That's how you keep the reader not-bored during a long, complex, intimate interaction where there are only 2 characters in conflict for 12 whole pages.

So first draft the 12 page sex scene, then (like a knitter who's dropped a stitch) go back down and pick up the plot, and PULL that through the sex scene (an item caught on the TV news and ignored, not understood, or actually missed as they disrobe up the stairs leaving breakfast to burn to a cinder) and add a plot-CHANGE into each of the 4 scenes.

Now go back and find the STORY thread that you dropped, and PULL that through the sex scene. Perhaps a jealous lover knocks on the door? The owner of the mountain cabin drives up to evict them -- changes his mind. Drug runners they owe money to almost find them hiding in the basement (guess what they're doing down there!).

Now you've got the relationship, the plot and the story all beating like the heart-beat of a novel.

All of it simultaneously.

Now measure again, by page count, and cut, trim, condense, eliminate, or add or move to EVEN OUT THE PACING.

Remember the SCENE is your main pacing tool. Something has to CHANGE in the plot, the story, and the character arcs EACH THREE PAGES.


I've said that before, again and again.

This week, I finished my edit run-through of the 5 books on Tarot which will be availble (I hope soon) in PDF and other e-book formats, and eventually as POD. The volumes on Swords and Pentacles appeared in this blog and will be here for free reading. The volumes on Wands and Cups have never before been published (this was a project bought by a publisher which went bankrupt and I hate unfinished projects litering my desk).

Those volumes on Tarot are the precursor to the volumes on writing craft tentatively titled INSIDE THE WRITER'S MIND.

That's a whole lot of tedious editing yet to do, and it will take time.

You can subscribe to this blog, or see my FRIENDFEED box for the various social networks where I'll put the announcement when the volumes are ready.

Meanwhile, you can find the Tarot posts by searching TUESDAY (my posting day) here, or start here
and follow the directions to work backwards to the Ace of Swords (they are written to be read in sequence Ace to Ten.)

I'm very late getting this post written so it's not getting proofed very well. It should have gone up an hour ago! If anything here is unclear or not sufficient, please drop a comment and ask, or just say you don't get it.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg


  1. Thank you for this! This really helps me as well...especially the clarity of using emotional ups and downs to identify scene endings and beginnings. Emotion is why I write...the more powerful the emotional response, the better, so this is something I feel I can work with.

    I mentioned in my second comment on the other post that I'd found a movie where I could identify the scenes. (It's The Scarlet Pimpernel version staring Jane Seymour, Anthony Andrews, and Ian McClellen.) What you've said here helps me identify those even more.

    I've always loved that movie for a number of reasons, but the intricacies of the plot have always fascinated me. The whole plot hinges on a tiny note that popped out of the fire about fifteen minutes into the story. The heroine finds it and keeps it...and if she hadn't, the hero would have safely continued to rescue the innocent, the villain would never have come so close to catching him, and the romance between the heroine and hero would never have been in trouble.

    On top of that, it literally does move from one small section of action/emotion to another, the whole way through, and every single section is absolutely crucial to the plot. It's been my dream to write a story with a plot as well done as that one.

    So when I thought about that, I saw the demonstration of what you said about how scenes are your pacing tool. So this is DEFINITELY something I was looking for!

    Now to start actually working with it (and discovering what else I don't yet know)...

  2. Forgot to subscribe to comments! (You don't have to approve this comment.)

  3. I stumbled on this post on scene writing as a result of Brownian motion at it's finest. I'm glad I did. I just have one question. What is the difference between the story [thread] and the plot [thread]?



  4. Sharon

    I tried a quick answer to your plot/story question under the first part of this 6 Tricks of Scene Structure discussion.

    I know I've covered plot and story in great detail in previous posts, but digging them out of this active blog is a chore.

    That's why we've launched the project to collect them and make them available as an e-book volume, but that will be months from now.

    Here are some that may pertain




    And before that there is my series on Tarot and a 5 part series on Astrology, plus all of us here have been discussing Worldbuilding, and theme.

    In the context of discussing how to use these various tools, plot and story keep coming up because they are the skeleton and the rest is all the flesh.

    The secret to figuring out all the books on writing is to understand that most writers discover these moving parts of a novel or screenplay by themselves and give them names that make sense in their own minds.

    I learned from a lot of writers, and from courses and books, and from a lot of very heavy-handed editors. But mostly I learned from READERS.

    I learned also by teaching in the writer's workshops at Worldcons where 3 pros and 3 beginners analyze the 3 MS's from the beginners.

    I learned that ALL WORKING WRITERS know the difference between plot and story, but name these parts with different terms.

    The parts are sort of an absolute in structure analysis. The terminology varies wildly.

    But if plot or story don't work, or if they aren't differentiated properly by the writer in the MS, then the whole thing just won't sell. (or today it might to an e-book publisher, but it'll be a career disaster requiring a byline change.)

    The easiest way to follow these blogs is to sign up at http://blogger.com for a blog-owner's account (even if you don't own a blog) and subscribe to the blogs you want to follow.

    The most recent blog posts appear on the sign-in page for your blogger account.

    If you have any other questions, please just ask.

    There are a lot of other easy ways to follow blogs, and if you know of one we haven't installed, please drop a comment asking for it and we'll pursue it.

    Thank You,
    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  5. Jacqueline
    This bit which you wrote (which I copied -blush) may help slkpcme

    STORY is what those events mean to the characters emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, or in life. It's also linked to Because and is the result or cause (motive) behind (BEHIND) Events in the Plot.
    STORY is the character's personal experience and responses to the things that happen - the psychological and spiritual lessons learned. (The story of a man who falls in love with a thief only to discover the folly of attempting to reform her and decides to learn her craft and join her.)
    EVENTS. Events must be displayed in a because-chain to make a plot. PLOT = BECAUSE Because Obama was elected President, Stem Cell Research will be revived, and because of the research Somebody will be cured of paralysis, and then be elected President. PLOT. EVENTS. BECAUSE.

    STORY is what those events mean to the characters emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, or in life. It's also linked to Because and is the result or cause (motive) behind (BEHIND) Events in the Plot.

    Because Obama fulfilled his lifelong dream to be President, he has discovered that he doesn't know everything and can't do everything at once. Now, he doesn't know why he can't seem to hire enough of the right people to fully staff his administration. "Oh, why are the people I admire tax cheats?" The Events leading to his discovery of the answer to that question is is STORY. The Events themselves are the PLOT.

    The BACKGROUND is President and White House and Recession and Bank Crisis and Middle East. Everyone reading the story knows all that.

    The FOREGROUND is winning election, choosing and hiring people, admiring people, being admired, spending political capital, making risky choices, living with the HUGE consequences.

    I don't think it was in any of the blogs you listed. I usually note date and blog address but didn't this time, sorry.

    And I second her comments of thanks for all the wisdom you share.

  6. ozambersand

    Oh, gee! That's one of the ones I was looking for.

    Now if only I knew which post I wrote that in.

    If someone finds it, let me know.

    Sharon, did that help?

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  7. I finally found it Jacqueline it was in one of the comments you made in response to queries of mine on your "Trunk-ated" blog in Editing Circle .

    No wonder a blog search in Alien Romances on "Obama" didn't find it! LOL

    Tuesday, March 3, 2009
    WorldBuilding - Trunk-ated

    See the comments section. (I checked the date I created the file and that led me to it.)

  8. Ozambersand:

    You are hereby dubbed a card carrying GENIUS.

    For those looking for the comment excerpted here, it is on the writing exercise blog at

    SFWA.ORG has a new website design. You might want to look it over.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  9. I just looked at what I had written that ozambersand excerpted.

    Boy I wax loquacious on the teaching blog!

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg