Structure Part 8–Balancing the Scenes that Make Up Your Novel

Welcome to Structure Part 8. We have spent the past couple of months studying the fundamentals of what makes up a novel, and today we are going to discuss the actual scenes that make up a novel and how to keep track of them. It is easy to get lost when dealing with a structure as complex as a novel, so I hope to give you a nifty tool to keep everything straight. As a fiction author, you will often feel like an acrobat spinning plates while standing on your head and juggling fiery chainsaws. There are so many components to keep track of, lest you end up down the Bunny Trail of No Return. Organization is key when it comes to being a successful novelist.

First, let’s talk about scenes.

According to James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure, scenes do four things. Bell calls these the four chords of fiction:

The two major chords are: (1) action and (2) reaction.

The two minor chords are (1) setup and (2) deepening.

Back when I used to edit for writers, I was known to draw flies on the page when the writer lost my interest. This became known as my infamous, “Fly on the Wall of ‘Who Gives a Crap?’” The reader is a fly on the wall when it comes to the world we are creating. Make them the fly on the wall of something interesting at all times. How do we accomplish this?

All scenes need conflict. Conflict is the fuel that powers the story’s forward momentum. “Scenes” that are merely back-story, reflection (rehash of what the reader already knows) or information dump, slow down the story and make the reader either want to skim ahead or put the book down. Bad juju. We want our readers hooked from the beginning until we finally let them go on the last page. How do we accomplish this? We add lots of conflict.

Scenes, according to Bell, need three components, collectively known as HIP—Hook, Intensity & Prompt.

Hook—interests the reader from the get-go. This is why it is generally a bad idea to start scenes with setting. Waxing rhapsodic about the fall color is a tough way to hook a reader. If you do start a scene with setting, then make it do double-duty. Setting can set up the inner mood of a character before we even meet him. Setting should always be more than a weather report. Try harder.

Intensity—raises the stakes. Introduce a problem. Scenes that suddenly shift into reverse and dump back-story KILL your intensity. Cut scenes at meals unless there is a fight. If your characters are in a car, they better be in an argument or a car chase. Also cut any scenes that the sole purpose is to give information. Have a scene that’s sole purpose is two characters talking about a third? CUT!

Prompt—leave the scene with work left undone and questions left unanswered. If your character is relaxed enough to go to bed at the end of a scene, that is a subconscious cue to your reader that it is okay to mark the page and close the book.  There should always be something unsettling that makes the reader want to know more.

Going back to the chords of the writing. Every scene should involve one of your key characters in pursuit of an interesting goal that is related to the overall conflict of the story. Each of these scenes are stepping stones that take your character closer to the final showdown. Most of the time, it will feel like two steps forward and one step back.

Your POV character (protagonist) sets out to do X but then Y gets in the way. Your character then will have some kind of a reaction to the setback.

So we have the major chords I mentioned earlier:

ACTION–> REACTION to the obstacle

Now when we add in the minor chords, it might look something like this:

Setup–>ACTION–>obstacle–>REACTION to the obstacle–>deepening

Setup and deepening need to be short and sweet. Why? Because they don’t drive the story, conflict does. We as readers will need a certain amount of setup to get oriented in what is happening, but then drive forward and get to the good stuff. Deepening is the same. We want to know how this conflict has changed the course of events, but don’t get carried away or you risk losing your reader.

Every scene should have conflict and a great way to test this is to do a Conflict Lock. Bob Mayer teaches this tactic in his workshops and if you get a chance to take one of his classes, you will be amazed how your writing will improve.

The conflict lock is a basic diagram of what the conflicting goals in the scene look like. Here is one from the fiction I am currently working on. My protagonist’s sister has just been taken, and protag and the love interest are clearly in conflict:

Riley wants to pursue the trail of the kidnappers deeper into Mexico.

Tank wants to return to Texas and call the FBI.

Even though these two characters are allies, it is clear they want different things. Riley wants to plunge ahead and take her chances pursuing the bad guys who have her sister. The love interest doesn’t want Riley hurt or killed. He wants to take the safer route and let the pros handle the kidnapping. Both have reasonable goals, but only one of them, by the end of the scene, will get his/her way. One path takes Riley closer to finding her sister. The other ends the adventure.

So how do you keep track of all these elements? The note card is a writer’s best friend. We will discuss different methods of plotting in the future, but I recommend doing note cards ahead of time and then again after the fact. I stole a very cool tactic from screenwriter Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

On each note card, I write the location, then a one-sentence header about what the scene is about. Then there is a neat little symbol for conflict (><) I use to show who is in conflict in this particular scene. Then I do a micro conflict lock. Who wants what? I also use an emotional symbol to note change +/-. Characters should be changing emotionally. If your protag enters on a high note, crush it. Enters on a low? Give some hope. If a character is constantly okey dokey, that’s boring. Conversely, if a character is always in the dumps, it will wear out your reader and stall the plot. I also note any facts I might need to keep up with. Has my main character suffered an injury? Lost her weapon? Gained a bazooka and a pet hamster?

I have an early scene where my protagonist’s adolescent half-sister shows up unannounced to stay for the summer. Riley’s father has secretly arranged with Riley’s uncle for the sister to spend the summer at Cougar Valley to get her away from a bad element that’s getting her in trouble. Riley is home from Afghanistan and not emotionally up to tending an out-of-control teen.

So the card might look something like this:

Cougar Valley Tactical School

Riley’s sister shows up unannounced to stay for the summer.

>< Riley and Dizzy

Riley wants sister to leave.

Dizzy wants sister to stay.

+/- Riley was hoping for a summer of quiet to heal, but Dizzy forces the issue and sister is there to stay

Riley concedes and grudgingly makes room for sister in her trailer (decision), but then bad guys show up (prompt).

I used this system to keep up with all the scenes in my book. When I finished my first draft, I went back and made a new set of cards. Using this system made it painfully clear what scenes were in need of a total overhaul. If I couldn’t say in one sentence what the scene was about, then I knew my goal was weak, nonexistent or unclear. Too many people in conflict? Conflict might be muddy. Go back and clarify. If there wasn’t any emotional change, then that was a big red flag that nothing was happening–it was a “Fly on the Wall of ‘Who Gives a Crap?'” If I found a scene that’s sole purpose was information dump, what did I do? I had three choices. 1) Cut the scene totally. 2) Fold it into another scene that had existing conflict. 3) Add conflict. Notecards also made it easy to spot bunny trails–goals that have nothing to do with the A or B plot.

This tactic can help make a large work manageable. If you are starting out and outlining? Make note cards for each scene and who you foresee being in conflict. If you already have your novel written, but you want to tighten the writing or diagnose a problem you just can’t see? Make note cards.

Keeping organized with notecards is an excellent way to spot problems and even make big changes without unraveling the rest of the plot. There are, of course, other methods, but this is the one I have liked the best. Note cards are cheap, portable and easy to color code. For instance, each POV character can have a designated color. Using these cards makes it much easier to juggle all the different elements of great novels—characters, conflict, inner arc, plot, details.

Have any questions? Are there other methods that have worked for you? Please share so we all can learn. What is the biggest challenge you face when it comes to plotting?

Check in on Wednesday for Blogging Part 3.

Happy writing!

Until next time…

Give yourself the gift of success for the coming year. My best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media is recommended by literary agents and endorsed by NY Times best-selling authors. My method is free, fast, simple and leaves time to write more books!


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  1. Another great post on structure. I’m loving these.
    I think HIP structure is something I’ve understood for a while on an instinctual level, but it’s good to see it down in black and white. Now, instead of looking at a scene and saying, “Something’s not quite right here, but I don’t know what,” I can ask myself “Where is the Hook? Is there Intensification? Is there a Prompt at the end?”
    Thanks for making the complex world of writing a little more understandable.

  2. The notecard idea is really good!! I’m going to use that once I finish the second draft of my novel (my first draft is going through major surgery right now! LOL). Should you also make sure that each scene stays true to the overall theme of your work? I think that you can have a great scene with the right amount of conflict but if it doesn’t contribute, or worse, goes against the theme of your book, the scene may have to go. What do you think?

    1. Your scenes should stay true to the theme, but I think that goes back to supporting the big goal of the book. If a scene doesn’t support “Love conquers all” then it might be a bunny trail. Take a deeper look at it.

      1. I gotcha! I will keep that in mind while going through my WIP. Thanks so much! 🙂

  3. As a fledgling novelist in the throes of my first draft, I thank you! I found your blog about a week ago and have been diligently combing through it when I have time – your ideas are wonderfully helpful, and I appreciate the time you’re taking to help other writers.

  4. Yeah, I have a question Kristen – what happens when you are totally a ‘fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants’ gal and can’t plot to save your life? 😉

    Another great blog. Finally got round to buying your book (and Bob’s) so I am hoping to learn some great things and maybe some discipline!


    1. I am going to start teaching you guys how to plot probably next week. I recommend buying “Plot & Structure” and “Save the Cat.” I was a total pantser who just ended up lost when I tried to plot. These books were lifesavers. That’s why I am working to write these blogs about structure. I know that there are a lot of great writers who might never be published because they don’t know how to effectively plot. I would also (if you haven’t already) recommend that you read all the blogs on structure. These are basically the Cliff’s Notes of all the best writing books. I boil everything down to make it super simple.

      For pantsers I recommend going back through what you have written. Break it up into scenes and then use the cards to ckeck your work. Is there a goal? Does the goal relate to solving the overall story problem denoted in the one-sentence log-line? Is there conflict? Is there change? Etc.

      Thanks for buying my book and I hope you enjoy it, :D.

  5. You rock! You always have the best advice!

  6. I am totally addicted to my outlines. but that only keeps the plot and subplots in order, and does nothing to ensure what I’ve plotted is actually interesting. I love that you take the time to break things down for those who want to write. I can tell you appreciate the craft of writing and want to keep it on track.

  7. This is a really good system explained well. I think I just found some reason why I keep going off onto tangents. I take a scene where there is a “leading to conflict” scene, and make it a full on “conflict” scene, and then I have another plot hole to fill.

    Have to admit, even though you wrote it very well, I’m going to have to read over this post several times to get all the meat out of it. Thanks so much for the lightbulb moment!

  8. Your blog is always incredibly timely for me. I’m on the second draft of my novel and the discussions on structure are such great reminders. I love your idea of cards – it makes so much more sense to me than trying to go back and re-outline. I’m going to get a pack of multi colored cards today- later, after I finish working for the day.

  9. Your blog is always so timely for me. I’m on the second draft of my novel and the weekly discussion on structure is a wonderful reminder to stay focused and clear. I love the colored cards idea and am going to go get some today- right after I finish my work for the day!

  10. Better than classes I’ve paid to attend! Thank you!

  11. I’m working on my second draft now (into chapter 3). I need to learn how not to end each chapter with the my hero and heroine trying to sleep. I don’t want to write conflict just to write conflict. I think that conflict should be because of the issues of the two characters and not because I wanted to add them.

    1. Conflict has to do with a lack of resolution when it comes to the main problem. The protag will “feel” like every move forward is taking them backward. In the book I am working on, every scene has Riley pursuing those who kidnapped her sister, but the steps are never truly successful. See if you can do the same with your story.

    • Shellie on December 20, 2010 at 8:39 pm
    • Reply

    Another great blog! Thank you so much. I am neck deep in the middle of your WANA book and will be setting up my blog and twitter accounts next week. Headed to the Library to borrow “Plot & Structure” and “Save the Cat”.

    Thanks again for all you are doing. Have a Merry Christmas!

    1. Make sure you gather your content FIRST. Will save you a lot of hassle and duplicated efforts.

  12. Great post. Conflict! Conflict! Conflict! How many times have I read a scene I had been working on only to find there was no conflict. The flies were on those scenes like roadkill. Thanks.

  13. Such practical, useful, hands-on information…

    • Kathleen on December 20, 2010 at 11:49 pm
    • Reply

    Great post Kristen! As a belly dancer, I especially like HIP 😉 Love the notecard idea too, simple and clear.

  14. I’m in the planning phase for a new novel and was thinking of purchasing some note cards today. Someone I read (cannot remember who now) suggested using them for story “beats”. That way you can easily reorganize your plot elements. I like your suggestion, though. Very succinct. Easy to implement.

    • Thaddeus Dombrowski on December 21, 2010 at 6:28 am
    • Reply

    Good information. I have been doing note cards but I didn’t have a good system to keep them uncluttered. This helps.


  15. Best post yet! I would suggest to anyone who has a habit of misplacing small things, to keep note cards in a photo-bragbook. I have one that holds up to 240 photos, and has two slots per page. So I can just turn the page to the next set. Makes plotting a lot easier. I don’t have wall space to tape them to, and it seems like cards get misplaced or out of order. This keeps the order how I had it unless I wish to change it on my whim.

  16. Hello Kristen. Another great post. Congratulations!

    I would like to make a sugestion to you. I think it would be helpfull for the series you write here, like this on about Structure Part and others : Please, give us the link to the previous post. It´s kinda hard to find the others. Well, it´s not hard, hard, but you know, it could help and increase your views 😉

    Thank you


  17. Oops. Actually it´s very hard to find previous posts. Have you ever thought about adding a search widget on your blog? I´m trying to find the previous post you wrote about “Structure”.

    1. Inserted the widget, and I hope that helps. Just redid the background and had to redo all the widgets too and apparently forgot a couple LOL. I am happy you are enjoying the blogs, :D.

  18. Hello Kristen!

    Thank you very much. I changed the lay out of my blog too and I forgot to put a lot of things I had before.

    Anyway, I found the previous post and they are really helping me. I also found that book “Plot and structure” and I´m reading it. Really nice.

    Whenever you decide to come to brazil to make an workshop or something, let me know! 🙂


    • A.J. Zaethe on December 26, 2010 at 6:59 pm
    • Reply

    I make a huge suggestion to writers to invest into a writing program called Scrivener. It has these types of note cards and beyond. It also chops the project down into little segments, making it easier to manage. Gross I sound like a commercial. Anyway, they have a special on it, going till the end of this month. It’s on their website at the end of a tutorial video. Currently, the program is $45, something that is already an eye opener already since others can be twice that and then some. The coupon offer makes that $36. It is well worth your time. I love this program. Also, it is for Mac and PC, though on separate websites. Type Scrivener into google and you are sure to find both versions.

    1. I have been recommending that program to my workshop members. I have the Beta version for the PC, but I thought it wasn’t going to be out until February. I will go see if I can get it. Thanks!

  19. So darn useful! Sorry, but I couldn’t really put that any other way. I’m just starting on editing my NaNoNovel this year. I don’t know whether you’ve ever seen one as badly structured as mine, but … yeah. I am currently destroying it. It’s quite good fun.

  1. […] Structure Part 8 — Balanciung the Scenes That Make Up Your Novel This is the eighth installment in a series by Kristen covering plot structure. This one specifically addresses the internal dramatic structure of a chapter. […]

  2. […] fifteen page synopsis based off what you did when you were plotting with the index cards (discussed last week). Every scene card had a one-sentence summary, so writing a synopsis now should be a piece of cake. […]

  3. […] Balancing the Scenes that Make Up Your Novel (Kristen Lamb) […]

  4. […] Kristen Lamb, Structure Part 8–Balancing the Scenes that Make Up Your Novel […]

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