Creating scene structure is a key writing skill. Great scenes go a long way toward great storytelling; weak scenes result in weak storytelling. Unfortunately, many writers often struggle with vague, sometimes contradictory approaches to writing scenes.
A scene should be a complete narrative unit. It should involve a relatively small number of primary characters—except when it doesn’t—in some action that happens in a specific location during a continuous period of time—again, except when it doesn’t. It should include conflict, dilemmas, decisions, and more—but perhaps it doesn’t. As I said… vague and sometimes contradictory.
Over the years, I’ve struggled with applying all this information to actually writing scenes. Trying to explain it to creative writing students is even more difficult. It was only when I began to study the structure of comic books and graphic novels that I began to get a picture—both literally and figuratively—of how to construct scenes. My first efforts were done in a graphic-novel style, but I soon figured out the approach also works well for text-based stories.
Narrative Arcs vs. Character Arcs
When writing scenes, understanding a narrative arc versus character arc is important. They are not the same thing. The narrative arc—a term I prefer over “story arc”—emerges from a series of events that occur over the course of a story (or in our case, a scene). A character arc, on the other hand, is the result of changes that occur in a character over the course of the story or scene. The best stories have both arcs.
Scenes should also have both arcs—the narrative arc’s scene events (aka, “actions”) and the character arc’s goals, dilemmas, actions/reactions, and decisions. The interplay of these elements across the two arcs drives the narrative, whether it is a scene, sequence, act, or entire story.
I’ve found that building a scene often involves identifying the main character’s scene goal and then setting up the narrative arc, basically writing “This happened…then this happened…then this happened…” until I reach the end of the arc.
The main character’s arc across the scene can then be developed by elaborating on the scene events. For example, “This happened… causing the character to do… then this happened… and the character did… then this happened, creating a dilemma for the character, who then did… causing this to happen and creating a new goal.”
Scene Structure & Visual Language
A framework for creating scene events that drive the narrative arc can help the writing process. I found that framework in research being done into visual language—how information in the form of pictures is structured. Neil Cohn has identified four key components that make visual scenes understandable. Cohn also identified a number of components that he calls “modifiers,” which provide additional information in visual scenes.
I’ve adapted these components into a framework that can be used by writers to create narrative arcs for both visual and text-based scenes. The four core elements are:
The first element in a scene introduces key aspects of the scene’s setting, characters, and significant objects. Its purpose is to introduce readers to the scene and help them understand the who, where, and when before the action begins. In visual terms, this could be considered an establishing shot that shows the environment and the characters’ place in it. In text-based stories, this element is often called the set-up.
For Example: A description of the bar, its clientele, the time of day; some reference to the key character, although the primary focus is on the environment.
The second element is often preparatory activity setting up action that will occur in later in the scene. It ratchets up the dramatic tension and provides readers with information needed to understand what is about to happen.
For Example: Our protagonist goes through the swinging doors, moseys up to the bar, and orders a drink, somehow offending another character in the process. The characters interact and words are exchanged. Tension rises.
This is the climax of the scene, where dramatic tension is highest. The Peak is when the scene’s pivotal action happens.
For Example: Suddenly guns are pulled and blam, blam, blam… the pivotal action happens. A brief dramatic pause leaves readers wondering who caught the bullet.
The final element is the Release, which wraps up the scene and shows the aftermath of the pivotal action. At this point, the dramatic tension is released, and the scene ends.
For Example: The bad guy slumps to the floor in a pool of blood, and the scene closes.
3 Additional “Modifiers” for Your Scene Structure
The Peak is the most important element in helping readers understand what is happening. Release is the second most important. The Initiate and Establish elements, while still providing important information, do not have as significant an impact on the readers’ ability to understand the scene if eliminated from the story.
The order of these elements—Establish>Initiate>Peak>Release—is important. Scrambling them reduces the ability of readers to follow the sequence of events and understand the scene.
Most sequential art and written scenes have more than just the basics outlined in these four elements. Cohn identified several “modifiers,” which I’ve condensed into three secondary elements:
Additional information about the setting, timing, or context of the scene that helps readers better understand the where, when, and who of the scene. It helps orient them to what is going on. This information usually follows the Establish element and elaborates in some way on what we have already presented to the audience.
Additional details about characters, settings, or significant objects. These details are usually part of an Initiate sequence but may also be used sparingly during the Release to provide necessary information.
Additional actions in the scene that prolong the overall action. A Prolong can be used to create suspense, which heightens the scene’s dramatic tension. Prolong will typically be part of an Initiate. If you use Prolongs in a Peak, do so sparingly. You don’t want to drag things out too long. Do not use Prolongs in a Release sequence. Once you’ve hit the Peak, the outcome should be presented without delay.
Scene Structure as a Writing Template
Writers can use these elements as a template to guide scene creation. When working with students who are struggling to write a scene, I have them begin by focusing on the Peak while temporarily ignoring all other elements in the scene. Once the Peak is drafted, then the images and/or text for the Initiate, Release, and Establish elements can be dropped into place.
The thought process I have them walk through is:
- What is the Peak action?
- What set into motion the Peak action? What is the Initiate element?
- What is the result of the Peak action? What is the Release?
- Where did this all happen? When? Who was involved? This is the Establish element.
When a draft based on the Establish>Initiate>Peak>Release framework is done, a preliminary character arc is easier to develop by then responding to the scene events. More details can be added to both the narrative and character arcs to flesh out the framework and add more depth to the scene.