Anatomy of a Scene


Scenes are the building blocks of stories. Every scene in a novel contributes to the
story in some way, whether through characterization, atmosphere, or plot progression. In examining the anatomy of a scene, we’re
going to start with the big-picture skeleton, then dive into the essential organs, and end
with the skin—the outward appearance of the writing itself. Although scenes can take an infinite number
of forms, the underlying skeleton largely remains the same: the character has a goal,
but they encounter an obstacle, so they respond by formulating a new plan of action or experiencing
a moment of change. This has been called the ABT formula—and,
but, therefore. Trey Parker, co-creator of South Park, has
explained this technique in detail: “Every story can be reduced to this single structure. I can tell you the story of a little girl
living on a farm in Kansas AND her life is boring, BUT one day a tornado sweeps her away
to the land of Oz, THEREFORE she must undertake a journey to find her way home.” That example describes the larger plot set-up,
but this formula can be used on a micro scale as well, such as in the scene where Dorothy
finally meets the Wizard. Dorothy’s goal at this point is to ask the
Wizard to grant their wishes, BUT the Wizard says that, in order to grant their wishes,
they must bring him the Witch of the West’s broomstick, THEREFORE Dorothy & Co. go off
to kill the witch. In the next scene, they travel through the
Haunted Forest, BUT the witch attacks them with winged monkeys and captures Dorothy,
THEREFORE Dorothy’s friends must rescue her. This formula provides a series of actions
and reactions—and that’s the very essence of story. Think of your scenes as miniature narrative
arcs. Sometimes the “THEREFORE” of a scene doesn’t
involve the main character planning their next move, but rather it indicates a change
in their mindset or relationships. For instance, at the start of a scene, a character
may be excited to start their new job, BUT then they hear that their boss is a jerk,
THEREFORE the scene ends with them wondering if they’d made a mistake in changing careers. Another scene might involve the protagonist
apologizing to their best friend, BUT they accidentally insult their friend’s mom,
THEREFORE the scene ends with the two of them on bad terms. Good scenes often end with the promise of
future conflict, whether external or internal. They leave the reader with a question, making
them wonder what will happen next. The short chapters in Somerset Maugham’s
1925 novel The Painted Veil show how scenes can build upon each other. Let’s take a brief look at the first three
scenes using the formula; I’ll omit the “AND” component for simplicity’s sake. In scene one, the protagonist, Kitty, is in
her bedroom, having an affair with her lover, BUT someone tries to open the door—and Kitty
thinks it’s her husband, THEREFORE she fears her husband has caught her in the act. Because of this fear, in scene two, Kitty
asks her lover what they should do if her husband confronts them, BUT her lover keeps
telling her not to worry and he leaves, THEREFORE Kitty is left alone to self-reflect. Scene three has Kitty reflecting on her desire
to be free of her husband, BUT she knows that her lover is also married, and to a woman
of high status at that, THEREFORE Kitty gets to thinking about her own social position
and how she came to marry her husband, which is what the next scenes are about. There’s not much outward plot progression
happening, but rather Kitty’s emotions and thoughts are what have shifted from scene
to scene. You can create these mini outlines for every
scene or chapter of your novel. In each scene, your character needs a goal,
an obstacle, and a source of conflict for the next scene. So that’s the skeleton of a scene, the bone
structure you can use as a base. But now let’s look at the delicious insides,
how different parts work together to create a functioning system. Like the various organs of the body, scenes
can and should accomplish multiple objectives. Author Michael Hauge said it best: “In each successive scene, something must
happen that has never happened before: a new situation for the hero; a new secret to reveal;
a new ally to join; a new enemy to confront; a new lover to pursue; a new (even bigger)
problem to solve; a new tool for solving it. If scenes are interchangeable, or if nothing
of significance changes from one scene to the next, you’re treading water.” Let’s take a look at a scene from Matthew
Fitzsimmons best-selling thriller novel The Short Drop. The protagonist, legendary hacker Gibson Vaughn,
is hired to investigate a missing persons case. In Chapter 15, George Abe, the leader of the
investigation, makes a surprise visit to Gibson. Here’s how it opens: George was waiting for him in a black M-Class
Mercedes. A long rectangular box wrapped in bright-red
paper with little white unicorns on it lay in the passenger seat. “What’s with the box?” Gibson asked. “It’s not for you.” “Well, now you’re just hurting my feelings.” George chuckled and put the gift in the backseat
and handed Gibson a sports jacket. “Put that on. We’ve got an appointment.” Immediately in this scene, there’s a sense
of anticipation. The unicorn wrapping paper and the promise
of an “appointment” create questions in the reader’s mind, just as they do for the
main character. The answers to those questions are slightly
delayed in order to create suspense. We soon discover that in order for Gibson
to officially join the team, he first needs to meet and prove himself to the investigation’s
benefactor, Calista. The unicorn present is for the birthday party
of Calista’s niece, a character who becomes significant to the plot later on. As the chapter continues, a number of objectives
are accomplished: In terms of plot, Abe updates Gibson on the
status of the investigation. In terms of character, Calista and her niece
are introduced. In terms of reveals, Gibson learns what really
happened to his father. In terms of foreshadowing, details that become
important for the story’s grand reveal at the end are provided in this scene. The chapter ends with Calista saying this:
“It was nice to see you again, Mr. Vaughn. Good luck in Pennsylvania.” The next step for Gibson is clearly laid out
for the reader—he’s going to Pennsylvania to continue the investigation. To reiterate: scenes can and should accomplish
multiple objectives. When planning out a scene or chapter, you
need to determine what you as a writer want to convey to your readers. What vital organs will give life and purpose
to this scene? How are you moving the story forward in terms
of character and plot? Then we need to go a step further. We need to explore the “but” of a scene. The last thing you want readers to think while
they’re reading is that a scene is slow, or boring, or pointless. You can avoid predictability by adding obstacles. Don’t let your character get comfortable. To create more tension, you could add: • A ticking time bomb
• A threat of violence • An uncomfortable setting or situation
• Disagreement between characters • Clashing goals
• Unexpected arrival of another character • Heightened stakes
• Any kind of surprise I’ll discuss each of these in more detail
in a separate video. You don’t want to add all of these obstacles
into a single scene, of course—just one additional element will do wonders. Now we arrive at the actual construction of
words on the page—the appetizing flesh that covers your skeleton and organs. How should a scene look, style-wise? You can manage the pace of a scene by blending
dialogue with description, action, and the protagonist’s thoughts. Crack open a novel, any novel, and examine
two random pages. I picked The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, and here’s how I dissected it: At
the beginning of this scene, we have a summary of what’s happened since the previous scene. Then we’re back in the present moment, with
some character movement. Then there’s dialogue, and in the middle
of the conversation, we have the character doing some internal reflection, then back
to dialogue, interwoven with more visuals. Some writers use dense paragraphs of description;
some writers rely heavily on dialogue. It usually depends on what the scene requires
and what the writer is trying to accomplish. When reading, stop to think about the reasoning
behind the writer’s choices, and pay attention to how the writer transitions from internal
thoughts to outward action. Once you have your scenes in mind, you may
want to turn them into chapters. Authors have wildly different styles when
it comes to chapter length. In The Painted Veil, for example, the chapters
are often less than 1,000 words and seem to be divided based on the small moments of conflict—the
mysterious visitor, a discussion between lovers, Kitty’s reflection on her lover’s wife,
and so on. The average chapter length of a high fantasy
novel, on the other hand, is 5,000 words or more. In longer chapters, there may be several scene
breaks, so a single chapter may contain three separate scenes. A scene can be as long as a single sentence
or fifty pages, but 750 to 2,500 words is a good range. Most writers use chapters to mark a setting
change or time jump, even if it’s only a small one (for example, in Chapter 1, the
character plans to go to the bank, so Chapter 2 opens with them already at the bank, skipping
over the whole “getting there” process). Of course, another reason for chapter breaks
is to shift to a different character’s perspective, if you’re writing a novel with multiple
points of view. Some writers don’t use chapter breaks at
all; some writers don’t even use scene breaks. It’s all a matter of preference, but personally,
I think that chapter breaks give the reader a mental rest and help to better organize
the story. With all these body parts in mind, you can
see the steps it takes to create a scene: + Open with a status update. What progress (or lack thereof) has your protagonist
made since the previous scene? Where are your characters and who are they
with? + Heighten the tension and the stakes. (That’s the “But” in the formula.) How can you make your character’s life harder? + End with a promise about the future. (That’s the “Therefore” component.) What conflicts will the character be facing
in the next scene? So, for a writing prompt, here’s what I’d
like you to do: Think of a scene from the middle of your story
that you haven’t yet put to paper. Write a one-paragraph summary of what you
want to happen, including how the scenes ends. Write the scene. Don’t worry about making it publisher-ready;
just write. Wait a week. One whole week. Then go back and revise the scene. Consider adding another source of tension. What questions does this scene answer and
what new ones does it create? What else could this scene accomplish that
it’s not already doing in terms of introducing important people, places, things, backstory,
or other plot elements? In the comments, tell me what scene you’re
most looking forward to creating. Whatever you do, keep writing.