Saturday, June 15, 2013

Story Structure -- Joists (Scenes)

Hi, folks. I'm continuing my series about story structure. I'm using analogies to structural elements of buildings to shed some like on some structural elements of stories. This week I'm comparing the scenes to joists. Joists are load-bearing boards or girders that run from beam to beam or from floor to beam. They carry some of the weight of the building insuring that the structure is sound. Scenes also carry some of the weight of each story. They fit within chapters, and they glue your story together, like the joist's job in a structure. There are various kinds of joists, and there are various kinds of scenes. I'm going to describe the basic structure of the scene then talk about a few variants. Hopefully this discussion will help you create much more "sound" stories.

The scene is the basic load-bearing element of the story. A basic scene works like this. First, action and dialogue mix, followed by the main character's emotional reaction to the action and dialogue, and then the character thinks about the action and dialogue, and finally the character decides what to do next. The basic scene will appear over and over in your story unless you are seeking something very avant-garde.

HINT: Don't move on to the avant-garde until you can easily produce fluid basic scenes that all connect and move seamlessly from one to the next.

You will use a few variations of the basic scene in your story, especially for action sequences. You might have an action/dialogue, emotion and then action/dialogue/emotion and finally cap that with a basic scene action/dialogue/emotion/thinking/decision. This set-up is generally one chapter. Chapters contain one to three scenes or a hybrid like described. If you try to put more in a chapter the thing implodes. I have found that stories that don't use enough of the basic scene generally collapse.

HINT:  Action/dialogue sequences need breaks to give the reader a chance to breathe and process. If your action and dialogue goes on too long you will lose your reader. Find those long sequences and break them up.

One kind of special scene starts inside the main character's head -- I calling this a hook scene. I see this start in books a lot. The action and the dialogue happen off scene. We start with emotion and the thinking of the character wrapped together and that leads to first basic scene of a story. A hook scene must be shorter that a basic scene and  is generally used to connect the reader with the main character emotionally and intellectually. The author uses this short scene to hook the reader. You have to tap into a universal emotion and/or intellectual depth to make this one work. Also this emotion and thinking must lead to a real problem in a basic scene. Put a row of hook scenes together and lose your reader.

Now I'm going to touch on the passing scene. This scene is used for transition, usually from one setting to the next. Use it sparingly These scenes are very short. Something like:"Our journey from Earth to Titan took weeks. My emotions ran the gamut. I thought about leaving my father, my pony, my boyfriend, and my favorite burger joint behind, but now I must look forward. The engines fired up as we approached the landing base on Titan." This passing scene gets us from point a to point b, and we have some deep emotional connection, more than in a basic scene. 

HINT: Use passing scenes to bring your reader close to the bone of your main character.

There are special scenes that happens toward the end of stories. I'm calling these the bank scenes. One bank scene generally shows up in all books as the "darkest moment." The events of the whole book leads to this scene of revelatory emotion and thought from your main character. Your character feels deeply failure, remorse, agony of decision, pain, brokenness -- no feeling that we like to feel. Your character thinks deeply about the cosmic consequences of her journey  Another bank scene is comes after your climax. This scene again is in response to all the scenes in your story. The main character feels deeply, thinks thoroughly and comes to her truth. 

Check out your scenes and make sure that your interior structural story elements are sound. Look at your scenes and make sure they are complete or purposeful hybrids. Create a strong story.

And now the doodle:  "Alien landscape"

You need a quote for your pocket too!  Here's a good one:
Whatever satisfies the soul is truth. Walt Whitman


Leandra Wallace said...

Thanks for the tips! I like the doodle, it reminds me of Christmas...

MollyMom103 said...

You are welcome for the tips. It is always interesting to me when a doodle skews far from my thinking. I was thinking cool alien world with striking trees, instead Christmas in June! Makes me smile.

Vijaya said...

I've never even thought about the different types of scenes, Molly. I learn something new here every time I visit.

MollyMom103 said...

I think it's the screenwriter bit of me that has got me into thinking about scenes.

I like Scene and Structure by Jack Bickman.

Cate Macabe said...

I wanted to let you know I nominated you for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award. Though I don’t usually comment, your posts on writing are always practical and encouraging. Please check out my June 14 post at for the rules of accepting the award. Thank you!

MollyMom103 said...

Hey, thanks, Cate! I'm glad that you like my blog!