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 Cares?’” 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 one of my earlier fiction pieces. My protagonist’s roommate has just been taken by bad guys, and protag and the love interest are clearly in conflict:

Jane 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. Jane wants to plunge ahead and take her chances pursuing the bad guys who have her friend. The love interest doesn’t want Jane 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 Jane closer to finding her roommate. 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?

Let’s look at an example from the movies. Romancing the Stone.

So the card might look something like this:

Jungles of South America (Location)

>< Joan (protag) and Jack (love interest/antagonist)

Joan wants a guide to get her to Cartejena, Columbia to trade the treasure map for her sister.

Jack wants to recapture the exotic birds he lost when the bus crashed into the back of his truck.

-/+ Joan finally convinces Jack to take her to Cartejena. (Note she started on a low. She was lost, in a crash and far away from Cartejena. She ends on a high note. Jack agrees to guide her to her destination)

Joan and Jack decide to go to Cartejena (decision), but then bad guys arrive and start shooting at them (prompt).

Yes, Blake Snyder’s system is designed to keep up with all the scenes a movie, but it can do wonders for novelists, too. When I finish my first draft, I go back and make set of cards. Using this system makes it painfully clear what scenes are in need of a total overhaul. If I can’t say in one sentence what the scene is about, then I know my goal is weak, nonexistent or unclear. Too many people in conflict? Conflict might be muddy. Go back and clarify. If there isn’t any emotional change, then that’s a big red flag that nothing is happening–it’s a “Fly on the Wall of ‘Who Cares?'”

If I find a scene that’s sole purpose is information dump, what do I do? I have three choices. 1) Cut the scene totally. 2) Fold it into another scene that has existing conflict. 3) Add conflict. Note cards also make 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 note cards 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? I love hearing from you!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of November, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

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  1. I haven’t gotten to the point where I use note cards yet – my technique is still pretty chaotic – but I have started going back to my earlier scenes and looking for some of these issues you’ve mentioned. Although I have Bells’ book and highly recommend it, I haven’t yet gotten around to thinking about the emotional changes. That’ll have to be next on the list of things to do. Thanks for the reminder, Kristen.

    My biggest fear is that no matter how many times I go back and fix problems with my scenes, I’ll still always be able to find more problems the next time I check. Just hope I’m not caught in an infinite loop here.

  2. Oooh OOooh OOOooooh!
    Note cards! Just the ticket for when I finish my ‘zero’ draft of my nanowrimo novel!
    Thanks so much, Kristen. I’m LOVING this series.

  3. Thanks, Kristen, for laying it out so clearly. This is a lot of information, but presented in a way we can grasp (and use)!

  4. Great post! Just what I needed to read at this point of my life. I have the book-of-my-heart hidden under my bed waiting for yet another revision. Your post made that daunting task seem a little more doable. Thanks so much for sharing all the tips & lessons you’ve gathered!

    • Prue on November 21, 2011 at 12:00 pm
    • Reply

    What a generous offer! Not only are you doing this great blog course but you’re offering the unvarnished truth to the winner. Probably what I could do with at this stage so…I’m leaving a comment.

    I find it useful in each scene to remind myself who the protag is, what they most need in that scene, who the antag is (and their, usually opposing, need), what the conflict is (I find it strangely difficult to get a handle on that), and then the little bit at the end which swings the reader forward to the next scene.
    It’s a lot to keep control of while also keeping overall plot in mind, character development and all those other things. Which is why I’ve taken to writing short stories; there’s a whole lot less to keep in my head 🙂

    Thanks Kristen. I’m off now to mention you on my site and see if I can link through to here.

    • alvaradofrazier on November 21, 2011 at 12:07 pm
    • Reply

    Most useful and succinct info I’ve come across that I can apply to revisions of my MS’s. I’ll definitely bookmark this one and use on my NNWM story. Thanks for all you do for us and the expert way in which you lay everything out in understandable terms.

  5. More brilliant advice on the toughest part of novel writing. Love the fly! Writers tend to get into a trance where we’re listening to the characters and writing down every word, whether it’s essential to the story or not. We also tend to get hung up in transitional scenes that may not need to be there at all. Romancing the Stone is such a great example of how to do it right.

  6. I really like this, and I took notes…. BUT

    I tend to think that the H-I-P thing does not always apply to every scene, nor disqualify scenes that do not follow it. By and large, it is VERY sound advice.

    I look at it that every scene must have a purpose, or else it must not exist. However, I don’t always have obvious conflict in a scene, because some scenes have a key purpose but not necessarily the H-I-P protocol, especially a scene that MUST happen but only involves one character, and not an exchange.

    The overall idea that scenes must have purpose is VERY sound, but the idea that every single scene in a 100,000 word novel must have the exact same sequence of three elements, well… that might not always hold water. Perhaps H-I-P could be a rule that should be generally followed, but also allowed to be occasionally broken if clearly appropriate, especially for smaller scenes that are more brief.

    I am no expert on the matter, but thats my take. Are there more structure blogs you are doing? Can you do them before NaNoWriMo is over? I am 30K in and heading for 50!

  7. This is good stuff, but way too overwhelming for me at the moment. I am hoping to get Plot and Structure for Christmas and intend to study it over and over. I think I need to practice a few of these techniques on other books before I attempt to apply them to my WIP. A fear I have is that I will try something (like the notecards you describe) without fully understanding how to do it and I will end up making things worse because I used the technique incorrectly. I’m probably overthinking it. Thanks for another great post, Kristen!

  8. Have to come back here as WWBC goes on. When NaNo started I just kept writing and many scenes are all a jumble, but at least ideas are out there. Now I have to figure out the right order and make them all flow. Oy.

    P.S. Like the photo…is that you juggling all of your endeavors this holiday season? Cool ponytail.

  9. Haven’t used note cards but I do have a chapter-by-chapter “outline” on Word that does much the same thing. I also include in caps who the VP character is for each chapter. And a separate note page for those add-ins (pet hamster) moments and suchlike.

    THIS is a blog that I’ve printed and added to my Kristen-Must-Keep file. *s*

    • Rosemary on November 21, 2011 at 1:45 pm
    • Reply

    I’m just about ready for some unvarnished truth!

  10. Hi Kristen…. ok, you’ve convinced me to try the note cards:>) One thing that will probably help this is that as I write my novel I keep a word table at the end that tracks, for each chapter, word count, pov, timeline and… conflict/issue. It has helped me both as I write (no crisis…. immediately fix chapter before I start going too far down the wrong path) and as I edit (multiple chapters with same crisis… get to point faster).

    Thanks for your lessons…. please keep them coming, it inspires my writing all the time.
    Deanne Wilsted

  11. I use note cards and they are handy–especially since I accepted the truth in your EDITING–ARE YOU BUTCHERING YOUR CREATIVITY post.

    Without that loosely structured outline, I produce what I call HazMat (Hazardous Material). It takes longer to clean up the mess than it would have taken to edit as I wrote.

    Timely post, too. I read this before diving in to finish an early HazMat scene. I have a few sentences in there that JUST DON’T NEED TO BE THERE. But, I want them because I like the words and cadence and wit. Gotta kill those babies. ARGH! I prefer to believe the fly would be there–but, with a wink. “Nice. But, no. Kill it.”

  12. Kristen: You know you sold me on this technique. I can’t imagine doing it any other way — and it has helped to keep away the little darlin’s, too.

  13. Kristen, I’m glad you mentioned doing the notecards AFTER you’ve written your first draft. I do notecards for brainstorming and figuring out the BIG scenes, but I always fall short on coming up with 50-60 scenes for the book — usually one card will read: another bad thing happens OR: questions asked. I don’t have all the scenes until I’ve gotten the first draft down — now I don’t feel guilty about it!

    Once I’m done I will absolutely notecard and then figure out what goes, what stays, what gets maximized and/or minimized. Thanks!
    P.S. Love Blake Snyder

  14. “Organization is the key to becoming a successful novelist.” Tell me about it. And even then the juggling is a nightmare. Thanks for the tips. I do outline but haven’t done the card thing. What about Scrivener on your new Mac? Have you tried it? I heard is fabulous for organization.

  15. I like the idea of using note cards AFTER a first draft to straighten everything out and cut boring scenes. Thanks!

  16. >>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? I love hearing from you!<<

    I'm a non-outliner, as in I really absolutely, positively cannot work with any kind of outline. That being said, I did try Holly Lisle's How to Revise Your Novel, which required similar techniques. What I found is that I absolutely, positively cannot work with notecards. They start annoying me, and then I throw them away. Nor can I work with writing up a sentence per scene using Scrivener's cards. I end up focusing on trying to make the sentence work instead of making the story work, so it becomes a detail (did I mention I'm really, really, really bad with details?) that gets in the way. I'm not sure if I can explain well what I do instead — I just need to know in my head that I need X, Y, and Z, and it happens.

    My biggest challenge? Subplots don't evolve naturally for me. At various times, I've given up getting them into the story at all — I think I might have tried twenty different ones and ended up removing all of them (yes, I actually had to manually insert them into the story). Please, please, please no one tell me they're a piece of cake and to just use the characters' personal lives to build them. This has NEVER worked for me.

    The one that I finally got in the story was the result of a series of four scenes — all action — that got orphaned by the changes in the revision. It's an action novel, so if the scenes were removed, I would have to come up with a replacement. Instead, I was able to come up with a solution that turned into a very minor subplot. Guess where I was in the revision when I came up with this? Final revision, near the end.

  17. I love this idea (almost as much as your “No Editing” post, which kept me from quitting NaNo this year).

    I don’t like to use paper because my handwriting is a scrawl, so, I’m going to try this substituting PowerPoint slides for note cards. I can color-code to my heart’s content (I have color-coding disease) and slide scenes around to my heart’s content. In addition, they’re searchable, so I will be able to find scenes that may be hiding by using key words.

    I have three WIP in varying stages of development. It’ll be interesting to see where in the revision chain this process will work best for me.

    Kristen, your advice is fun to read, often makes me laugh and is useful too. Thank you.

      • Liz on November 6, 2013 at 9:43 am
      • Reply

      hmm, index cards on ppt sounds like a great idea to me. I like to see everything at once and rearrange but constantly revise everything. That will be much easier to do on ppt.

  18. Sub-plots, I need sub-plots…………… I’m coming back to read this one in the daytime. 🙂

  19. I like the tips you have here. I’ve been reading a lot of writing craft books lately, though, and I’ve begun to wonder if we are writing books like movies in our head. And not just movies, but action-adventure films. For instance, no meal scene unless there is a fight? Could it be that there is a meal scene with subtle but building tension? Or the way the characters engage in the meal tells someone about them (like social class or quirks)? Perhaps a description of the diner where they usually eat gives insight into the character? I’m just wondering if a slower pace is okay for certain genres. Tension and conflict, absolutely; but how intense must it be, especially if the plot is character-driven. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

      • Prue on November 22, 2011 at 11:17 am
      • Reply

      I sure hope having a meal together is ok because that’s what I have. It’s short but it’s also where my protag and love interest begin to relax and they are both seen in a different light.

    1. Conflict isn’t necessarily a fight–it can be tension or a setback or an introduction of a new problem. Sure there need to be short periods of peace to give the reader a breather, but SHORT. Fiction is the path of greatest resistance. If everything is smooth-sailing, not very interesting. Remember the scene is the action sequence of the novel, the sequel is the transition. Action needs traction and traction is impossible without resistance ;).

      1. Thanks for clarifying that, Kristen. Absolutely no “smooth-sailing”! Snooze time with that plan. I was simply wondering about more veiled tension and conflict. Good to know.

  20. Reblogged this on Of a Writerly Sort and commented:
    I always feel super lazy when I reblog someone’s post, but this one is too awesome to keep to myself!

  21. Cards! Cards! Awesome idea and just what I need right now. Need help getting my elephantine novel slimmed down and corsetted into something close to 100,000 words.

    Thank you!!!

  22. The article you describes polarity to start/end scenes with, yet isn’t there is room for more complexities in human emotion? For instance, a scene that starts out sad, then is endearing, and ends on a melancholy note.

    Thanks, great article!

    • Shawndra Russell on November 28, 2011 at 11:45 am
    • Reply

    Great post! Thanks for sharing. My question is, I have two first person narrators which means they are sometimes discussing the same scene from a different pov. Is this too close to information dump? Part of the driving conflict IS their opposing views though. Thanks for your insight!

  23. Cards are the best. Using them has saved me so much time.

  24. Love this. Thank you for writing exactly what I needed. the note card idea is perfect for the mess Im in right now with book two in my TELESA series. And the conflict set up thing is magic.

  1. […] us a steady stream of tutorials on structure (thank you Kristen) and this week she delved into the mastery of scenes. As she points out, it’s easy to get lost when dealing with a structure as complex as a novel so […]

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