A scene has two levels of structure, and only two. They are:
- The large-scale structure of the scene
- The small-scale structure of the scene
Your reader is reading your fiction because you provide him or her with a powerful emotional experience.
If you fail to create these emotions in your reader, then you have failed. If you create these emotions in your reader, then you have succeeded. The better you create the desired emotional experience in your reader, the better your fiction. Perfection in writing comes when you have created the fullest possible emotional experience for your reader.
Large-Scale Structure of a Scene
A Scene has the following three-part pattern:
- Goal: A Goal is what your POV character wants at the beginning of the Scene.
- Conflict: Conflict is the series of obstacles your POV character faces on the way to reaching his Goal.
- Disaster: A Disaster is a failure to let your POV character reach his Goal.
A Sequel has the following three-part pattern:
- Reaction: A Reaction is the emotional follow-through to a Disaster.
- Dilemma: A Dilemma is a situation with no good options
- Decision: A Decision is the act of making a choice among several options.
The purpose of a Sequel is to follow after a Scene. A Scene ends on a Disaster, and you can’t immediately follow that up with a new Scene, which begins with a Goal. Why? Because when you’ve just been slugged with a serious setback, you can’t just rush out and try something new. You’ve got to recover. That’s basic psychology.
And now you’ve come full circle. You’ve gone from Scene to Sequel and back to the Goal for a new Scene. This is why the Scene-Sequel pattern is so powerful. A Scene leads naturally to a Sequel, which leads naturally to a new Scene. And so on forever. At some point, you’ll end the cycle. You’ll give your POV character either Ultimate Victory or Ultimate Defeat and that will be the end of the book. But until you get there, the alternating pattern of Scene and Sequel will carry you through. And your reader will curse you when he discovers that he’s spent the whole doggone night reading your book because he could not put the thing down.
However, it’s only half the battle. I’ve told you how to design the Scenes and Sequels in the large scale. But you still need to write them. You need to write paragraph after compelling paragraph, with each one leading your POV character smoothly through from initial Goal to knuckle-whitening Conflict to bone-jarring Disaster, and then through a visceral Reaction to a horrible Dilemma and finally on to a clever Decision.
Small-Scale Structure of a Scene
Writing MRUs correctly is the magic key to compelling fiction. I don’t care if you believe me or not. Try it and see.
You will write your MRUs by alternating between what your POV character sees (the Motivation) and what he does (the Reaction). This is supremely important. Remember that Swain calls these things “Motivation-Reaction Units”. The Motivation is objective but it is something that your character can see (or hear or smell or taste or feel). You will write this in such a way that your reader also sees it (or hears it or smells it or tastes it or feels it). You will then start a new paragraph in which your POV character does one or more things in Reaction to the Motivation. There is an exact sequence you must follow in writing your Reaction. The sequence is based on what is physiologically possible. Note that the Motivation is external and objective. The Reaction is internal and subjective. If you do this, you create in your reader the powerful illusion that he is experiencing something real.
The Motivation is external and objective, and you present it that way, in objective, external terms. You do this in a single paragraph. It does not need to be complicated.
Here is a simple example:
The tiger dropped out of the tree and sprang toward Jack.
The Reaction is internal and subjective, and you present it that way, exactly as your POV character would experience it — from the inside. This is your chance to make your reader be your POV character. To repeat myself, this must happen in its own paragraph (or sequence of paragraphs).
The Reaction is more complex than the Motivation. The reason is that it is internal, and internal processes happen on different time-scales. When you see a tiger, in the first milliseconds, you only have time for one thing — fear. Within a few tenths of a second, you have time to react on instinct, but that is all it will be — instinct, reflex. But shortly after that first reflexive reaction, you will also have time to react rationally, to act, to think, to speak. You must present the full complex of your character’s reactions in this order, from fastest time-scale to slowest. If you put them out of order, then things just don’t feel right. You destroy the illusion of reality. And your reader won’t keep reading because your writing is “not realistic.” Even if you got all your facts right.
Here is a simple example:
A bolt of raw adrenaline shot through Jack’s veins. He jerked his rifle to his shoulder, sighted on the tiger’s heart, and squeezed the trigger. “Die, you bastard!”
Now let’s analyze this. Note the three parts of the Reaction:
- Feeling: “A bolt of raw adrenaline shot through Jack’s veins.” You show this first, because it happens almost instantly.
- Reflex: “He jerked his rifle to his shoulder . . .” You show this second, as a result of the fear. An instinctive result that requires no conscious thought.
- Rational Action and Speech: “. . . sighted on the tiger’s heart, and squeezed the trigger. ‘Die, you bastard!’”
Forget all these rules. That’s right, ignore the varmints. Just write your chapter in your usual way, putting down any old words you want, in any old way you feel like. There, that feels better, doesn’t it? You are creating, and that’s good. Creation is constructing a story from nothing. It’s hard work, it’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s unstructured. It’s imperfect. Do it without regard for the rules.
When you have finished creating, set it aside for awhile. You will later need to edit it, but now is not the time.
Later on, when you are ready, come back and read your Great Piece of Writing. It will have many nice points to it, but it will not be perfectly structured. Now you are ready to edit it and impose perfect structure on it. This is a different process than Creation. This is Analysis, and it is the opposite of Creation. Analysis is destruction. You must now take it apart and put it back together.
Analyze the scene you have written. Is it a Scene or a Sequel? Or neither? If it is neither, then you must find a way to make it one or the other or you must throw it away. If it is a Scene, verify that it has a Goal, a Conflict, and a Disaster. Identify them each in a one-sentence summary. Likewise, if it’s a Sequel, verify that it has a Reaction, a Dilemma, and a Decision. Identify each of these in a one-sentence summary. If you can’t put the scene into one of these two structures, then throw the scene away as the worthless piece of drivel that it is. You may someday find a use for it as a sonnet or a limerick or a technical manual, but it is not fiction and there is no way to make it fiction, so get rid of it.
Now that you know what your scene is, either Scene or Sequel, rewrite it MRU by MRU. Make sure every Motivation is separated from every Reaction by a paragraph break. It is okay to have multiple paragraphs for a single Motivation or a single Reaction. It is a capital crime to mix them in a single paragraph. When they are separated correctly, you may find you have extra parts that are neither Motivation nor Reaction. Throw them away, no matter how beautiful or clever they are. They are not fiction and you are writing fiction.
Examine each Motivation and make sure that it is entirely objective and external. Show no mercy. You can not afford mercy on anything that poisons your fiction. Kill it or it will kill you.
Now identify the elements of each Reaction and make sure they are as subjective and internal as possible. Present them as nearly as you can from inside the skin of your POV character. Make sure they are in the correct order, with Feelings first, then Reflexive Actions, and finally Rational Actions and Speech. Again, eliminate everything else, even brilliant insights that would surely get you a Nobel peace prize. Brilliant insights are very fine, but if they aren’t fiction, they don’t belong in your fiction. If you can contrive to rearrange such a thing to be in a correct fictional pattern, then fine. Keep it. Otherwise, slit its vile throat and throw the carcass to the wolves. You are a novelist, and that’s what novelists do.
When you reach the end of the scene, whether it is a Scene or a Sequel, check to make sure that everything is correctly placed in an MRU and all carcasses are thrown out. Feel free to edit the scene for style, clarity, wit, spelling, grammar, and any other thing you know how to do. When you are done, pat yourself on the back.
You have written a perfect scene. All is well in your world. You are done with this scene.
Now go do it again and again until you finish your book