8 Different Types of Scenes

8 Different Types of Scenes

Any story will require many different types of scenes. Some of this variety will come from content (romance vs. action vs. humor vs. tragedy). However, much of the variety in types of scenes will arise from the needs of pacing.

Authors can find great value in understanding some of the different types of scenes, so they can choose which are best at any juncture of a story. Most authors instinctively pace their stories by through the selection of different types of scenes but then question their instincts when they read guidelines that suggest all scenes are supposedly the same.

To some extent, this understanding isn’t incorrect. All scenes offer the common features and arcs that create their definition as distinct dramatic units within the story. However, just because all scenes bear commonalities does not mean they all look the same, function in exactly the same way, or offer the same challenges to writers.

Recently, I received a question from Elena Singleterry, asking for tips on writing “happy scenes.” This is a common enough question among writers. So much emphasis is put on the importance of conflict within scenes (because it is important, especially when you fully understand what is meant by the term) that writers sometimes feel blocked when it comes to writing scenes in which the whole point is that characters are getting along and aren’t in conflict.

Elena wrote:

If possible, I would like to ask a question about writing a happy scene. In my book, the plot calls for a number of such scenes (every time the two lovers reunite, which does not happen often, but does happen throughout the book). My characters are not reuniting in a way where they are enemies becoming lovers or anything like that, but already as lovers, so these scenes are mostly dialogues and happy times together—so no real suspense or conflict there.

There is a conflict that unfolds in between their get-togethers and serves as an external force (such as, heroine’s complicated family situation), but because their get-togethers happen out of direct reach of the external force, their meetings are largely conflict-free. The characters spend these precious days talking, exploring foreign cities (a different city for each of the meetings), getting to know one another more and more. These meetings are meant to show their compatibility and discovery of self, of themselves as two parts of this couple, and the physical/cultural world around them, not as a major source of conflict.

 If you feel it would be of interest to your other readers, could you please give a few suggestions on how to make happy scenes engaging?

Next week, I will be addressing this question more specifically by offering five pertinent tips and techniques you can use to fully satisfy readers with your happy scenes. This week, I wanted to address the core of this question, which is really pointing out that there are different types of scenes—so how can standard structure apply to them all?

What Writers Sometimes Miss About Classic Scene Structure

Every single “rule” for writing (or at least the ones that actually work) comes down to the recognition of a simple basic pattern. The very simplicity of this pattern is what allows it to be endlessly applicable in so many varied story situations. However, taken too literally these patterns are quite obviously limiting. It is important to view the “rule” as the foundation and then to understand how nuance and variety are layered on top.

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Techniques of the Selling writer by Dwight V. Swain (affiliate link)

Classic scene structure was popularized by Dwight V. Swain in his 1973 book Techniques of the Selling Author. His model divides scenes into two halves (action and reaction), then further divides those halves into three parts apiece:

1. Scene (Action)

a. Goal

b. Conflict

c. Outcome (Disaster)

2. Sequel (Reaction)

a. Reaction

b. Dilemma

c. Decision

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>>Click here to read 4 Reasons You’re Confused About Scene Structure (With Examples)

Even a cursory examination shows how these six elements comprise an infinitely repeatable cycle in which one scene neatly creates the cause and effect necessary to lead into the next scene, and so on throughout the book. You can also see there is a great deal of variety explored throughout this cycle. Arguably, it offers space for just about any type of moment a story might feature.

The major takeaway comes down to the definition of “scene.” This word can require different definitions in different situations. Often, in discussions of scene structure such as this one, “scene” will refer to the complete structure—from goal through decision. However, in more common parlance, “scene” often refers to any distinct dramatic unit within a story. Usually, these units are delineated for readers via scene breaks and chapters.

>>Click here to read 7 Questions You Have About Scenes vs. Chapters

However, and here’s the key point, chapter and scene breaks do not affect scene structure in any way. You can insert a chapter break in between a character’s reaction and the subsequent decision. For that matter, you can insert a break smack in the middle of any one of these beats. This often happens in stories with multiple POVs, such as romances, in which a scene break might be inserted in the middle of the conflict in order to switch from one character’s perspective to the other.

Taken further, you can see that each beat of scene structure could in fact be stretched out into a full chapter or even more. This does not endanger the integrity of the dramatic structure. As with all structural questions, the effect of the pacing upon the audience is the primary metric of effectiveness.

When you understand and look at scene structure through this flexible perspective, you can see how there is room within the model for just about any type of scene. Happy scenes and other more emotional or reflective moments within the story don’t necessarily have to bear the load of scene structure’s demand for “conflict.” They might instead be featured in the reaction section.

This is not to say that even slower and comparatively conflict-free scenes don’t still require dramatic techniques to advance the plot and maintain the audience’s sense of forward progression. One aid for this is recognizing that “goal” and “conflict” don’t always have to be played out so literally or aggressively; sometimes, they can even be subtextualized as “intention” and “obstacle”—or even just “possibility of an obstacle.” Next week, we will talk more specifically about techniques you can use in slower scenes to make sure readers are just as riveted (if not more so) than in more obviously conflict-oriented scenes.

8 Types of Scenes—or 4 Polarities

Not all types of scenes are built to do the same thing in a story. Understanding some of the main polarities found in types of scenes can be helpful in recognizing which choice is right for your story at any particular moment. Following are four of the main and most important polarities found in scenes.

1. Conflict vs. Tension

Much of modern storytelling focuses on conflict and forward momentum in the plot throughline. Conflict offers the ability to drive plot forward. It is a powerful technique that, when wielded well, engages readers with a solid and believable sequence of cause and effect.

Too often, however, conflict is thought to be simply confrontation—two characters arguing or even physically fighting. Although this is a form conflict can take, conflict itself is perhaps best understood as simply whatever obstructs the character from moving forward toward a goal. On the scene level, this could be as simple as a character whose goal is to get to work on time discovering a detour sign in the middle of the road. This creates the need for the character to adjust either the goal or the method for achieving it—and on and on throughout the story until the ultimate goal is either reached or thwarted.

The flipside of conflict is tension. We can think of tension as the “promise of conflict.” If conflict is two forces of energy colliding, tension is that energy before it is released, still coiled and waiting. In story, tension is just as powerful a technique as is conflict. In fact, as horror and suspense readers know, sometimes the tension is the entire point. Depending on how tightly the tension is wound, the conflict can seem like a release or even relief more than something to be avoided.

Conflict is most appropriate for scenes in which something is happening that moves the plot externally. Tension provides a necessary counterbalance to conflict. Ideally, conflict and tension will be balanced within the story, with one beat focusing on conflict and its subsequent partner beat building the tension for the next scene. Because tension creates the unspoken pressure of “what happens next,” it is crucial for maintaining audience interest.

2. Action vs. Reaction (Scene vs. Sequel)

Closely related to conflict and tension is the pairing of action and reaction. Swain created the often confusing terms “scene” and “sequel” to discuss these two progressions of story momentum. However, simply thinking of them as “action” and “reaction” is often more intuitive and helpful.

Creating Character Arcs

Creating Character Arcs (Amazon affiliate link)

Within their most basic definitions, action refers to the external aspect of the story (often equated with “plot”) while reaction refers to a more internal aspect of the story (often thought of as “character”—and applying to character development and arc—which is what I talk about in my book Creating Character Arcs).

These days when we hear the phrase “action scene,” we think of car chases, shootouts, and explosions. However, “action” within a story may refer to anything that happens within the physical reality of the story. In a romance, the “action” will be dating, dancing, and making love. In a mystery, the action will be investigative. In literary stories such as David Guterson’s East of the Mountains or Tony Morrison’s Beloved, it might be traveling through the countryside or making pies (respectively). If the character is doing something that affects their external world, that’s an action scene.

By contrast, reaction is the beat in which characters take stock of what they (or others) have just done. Even in plot-heavy stories, this is a crucial beat. In most stories, this is where the bulk of the character development will revealed. Turns out characters are less defined by what they do and more by how they respond to it. Reaction scenes are often introspective- or dialogue-heavy, offering insight and perspective about why characters were motivated to take the actions they did and how they have been affected by the results.

These scenes can be some of the most powerful and poignant in any story, and even the most plot-oriented stories risk their integrity by neglecting reaction beats. However, it should go without saying that these scenes should not be dumping grounds for explanation. Just like their action-oriented partners, they must utilize all the tricks and techniques of good drama to develop the characters’ reactions in a way that authentically leads into their next action.

3. Setup vs. Payoff

Foreshadowing is one of the most important techniques for drawing audiences into a story’s forward momentum and balancing cause and effect. Foreshadowing is made up of two parts: setup (sometimes called “plant”) and payoff.

Usually, when we think of “big scenes” in a story, we’re thinking of payoff scenes. These are the scenes in which something major happens, something memorable that defines the entire story and changes everything for the characters. However, these scenes don’t work without previous setup scenes.

Although setup can take many forms—conflict, tension, action, reaction, et al.—it will always be presented in a way that is dramatically “smaller” than the following payoff. Tension is a key factor in most setup scenes, since it offers the ability to create indirect foreshadowing that may not offer any specific clues to audiences. Instead, the story’s tone promises that something specific is going to happen later on—whether that something is horrible or wonderful.

If you know which scenes in your story will feature payoffs, you can then work to create earlier scenes in which you plant the setups. These setup scenes will often offer the potential for low-key character dynamics that don’t necessarily require full-on conflict or action.

4. Vignette vs. Scene

All the beats we have discussed so far are likely to appear as part of a proper structural “scene”—one designed to play a role in moving the plot forward. In any plot-oriented story, these structural scenes are crucial and should be featured throughout the majority of the story.

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165

Structuring Your Novel (Amazon affiliate link)

However, some moments within a story will not obviously act as “scenes.” Rather, they act simply to show audiences something of value. I think of these moments as “vignettes”—snapshots of the story world or the characters’ lives. In my book Structuring Your Novel, I discuss Swain’s terms “incident” and “happening” for two different types of vignettes. Basically, these are story moments that are not intended to create obvious conflict or tension. They are often description-heavy and may summarize as much as they dramatize. (A montage in a movie may be used to create the effect of a vignette.)

Recognizing and using a vignette in your story allows you to include little moments or extra information that may not explicitly advance your plot but still offer interest and context to readers. However, even though vignettes will necessarily stand a little apart from the rest of your story (unless you’re telling highly literary or experimental fiction entirely comprised of vignettes), their presence in the story still needs to accomplish a specific aim. For example, a vignette that simply shows a couple sharing a happy day together may not directly impact the plot, but it should still supply either important information or context, subtext, or contrast that deepens the audience’s relationship to the rest of the plot.

Needless to say, without direct access to the story’s conflict, tension, action, and reaction, vignettes must artfully employ other techniques to keep audiences engaged.

***

Variety is the spice of stories. Understanding the many types of scenes and how you can approach them in your story can help you create nuanced layers for your audience’s enjoyment.

Stay Tuned: Next week, we will dive into “5 Tips to Make Happy Scenes Interesting.”

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What types of scenes have you been writing lately? Tell me in the comments!

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