Story & Scene Structure

Stories have been told since people first established communication with each other. Throughout history, the media in which a story is presented has evolved, however, the structure of plot has essentially remained the same; the oldest (or oldest remaining) written stories, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh (written on tablets carved in cuneiform over four thousand years ago), are still readable and relatable. In longer narratives, individual scenes, as well as a story’s plotline, have evolved in complexity, but not so much structurally. Within this essay, a selection of novels from a span of almost 200 years — from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in 1813 to Wiley Cash’s A Land More Kind Than Home in 2012 — will illustrate this evolution.

Each well-crafted story follows certain guidelines for cohesion that the reader can follow and understand. Literary fiction is more flexible, while genre fiction — mystery, fantasy, romance, to name just a few — generally follows a more rigid, formulaic pattern. The basics of structure for all stories are discussed in this quote:

So what exactly makes up story structure? Well, a story has to have certain plot points. Events have to take place, otherwise there would be nothing to tell and the audience would lose interest. Without conflict, there is no reason for the characters to do anything and the events would have little to no meaning. If an author writes, “The king died and then the queen died,” there is no plot for a story. But by writing, “The king died and then the queen died of grief,” the writer has provided a plot line for a story.

A plot is a causal sequence of events, the “why” for the things that happen in the story. The plot draws the reader into the character’s lives and helps the reader understand the choices that the characters make. (www.learner.org)

In particular, moviegoers and readers alike should be familiar with the Three Act Structure, the arrangement of events that form the beginning, middle, and end of the film. This traditional structure is comprised of three basic sections – Act I (One), Act II (Two) and Act III (Three).

3 Act Structure(www.musik-therapie.at)

Act One: This is the beginning of the story, where the familiar world of the protagonist falls apart. This is also when the reader learns about one or more of the characters, possibly including some backstory, and most importantly, what the main character (the protagonist) wants to obtain or achieve. If the character has a goal worth striving for, as well as an obstacle preventing his/her attaining it, the reader will be interested to find out if the character succeeds. For example, readers would likely grow bored if they read Pride and Prejudice and there were no problems for Mr. and Mrs. Bennet marrying off each of their four daughters. There is no excitement. One of the reasons the reader continues reading is to find out if Mr. Darcy will succeed in keeping his friend, Mr. Bingley, away from Jane Bennett.

Plot Point One: At the end of the first act, this is the inciting incident, during which the story shifts to a new direction, and at least one obstacle is presented to the protagonist that threatens his or her goal. For example, in Memoirs of a Geisha, the protagonist Sayuri (first known as Chiyo) meets Mr. Tanaka; she is attracted to his suggestion that someone may adopt her, as her father is old and her mother is gravely sick and will not live much longer. Nine-year-old Chiyo is both excited and afraid:

That night while laying on my futon, I tried to picture the whole confusing situation from every angle to persuade myself that things would somehow be all right. To begin with, I wondered, how could we go on living without my mother? Even if we did survive and Mr. Tanaka adopted us, would my own family cease to exist? Finally I decided Mr. Tanaka wouldn’t adopt just my sister and me, but my father as well. He couldn’t expect my father to live alone, after all. Usually I couldn’t fall asleep until I’d managed to convince myself this was true, with the result that I didn’t sleep much during those weeks, and mornings were a blur. (Golden, 30).

This change in Chiyo’s life is only the beginning of many; however, it marks the end of her childhood in the fishing village of Yoroido, and starts her on her way to Kyoto, where she will struggle – and eventually succeed—to become a well-known Geisha.

Act II: This is the middle of the story and the longest set of sequences. During the second act of a story, the protagonist struggles with problems and circumstances (internally, externally, or both) that make the goal unattainable. This is also when most of the action and growth occur. In A Land More Kind Than Home, the community of a small town in North Carolina struggles with the “accidental” death of Christopher (“Stump”), a boy who was born mute. The mother and other church members in town believed they could heal him of his afflictions during a healing service. Three different characters tell pieces of the story from their point of view, and all of them struggle to find answers as well as justice. Christopher’s brother, Jess, knows more than he admits, but is afraid of the consequences for spying on grown-ups:

I looked at Mama and thought about what all I could tell her that would keep Stump from having to go in there again: that me and Joe Bill had seen what they’d already done to him that morning, that it was me and not Stump who’d hollered out her name when those men started piling on top of him, that Stump hadn’t ever said a single word in his whole life and probably never would. I knew that earlier that morning in church Stump would’ve screamed for them to stop if he’d been able to, and I knew that if I would just open my mouth and say what all I’d seen I could make sure nobody would try to hurt him again.

But I was too scared to say any of those things, and I just stayed there in the truck with the window down and stared out at Mama. (Cash, 81)

The actions that follow in Jess’s retelling of his version of the story (as well as the sheriff’s and midwife’s accounts) provide both the history of the community and an explanation of how things became the way they are in town, but these stories are retold in a non-linear way that serves to heighten the tension. The reader is anxious to find out the truth. The second act of this book does not trudge through events; it further engages the reader to find out what it will take for these characters to get answers. How and why did Christopher die? Who is responsible?

Plot Point Two: This is most frequently called the “climax” of the story, at which the plot turns in a new direction again. Usually the outcome ends up being in the protagonist’s favor (or at least results in a consequence equally as good), but it is possible that the story won’t end well, as in the tragedy The Great Gatsby. “In storytelling, ‘climax’ equals the resolution, for good or bad, of the conflict. It comes at the moment when the protagonist gets what the protagonist needs, or not. A story’s climax is therefore its point of no return – the end of its forward movement.” (Sexton, 23) In Gatsby, the climax is not a simple result of one character’s choices, but a sequence of events bringing all the characters together; it marks the beginning of the end of this tale, which is summarized below:

The sustained climax begins when Tom realizes he is losing control of his mistress – whose husband plans to take her “West” – and his wife, who is in love with Gatsby. He confronts the two of them in a public social situation. Gatsby tries to force Daisy to say that she never loved Tom – and she can’t do it. She can’t lie and Tom knows he has won: Gatsby’s “presumptuous little flirtation” is over. With magnanimity, Tom sends his wife off with Gatsby to return home. He now knows he’s back in control and there is no danger of continued infidelity. However, when the others, following in Tom’s car, reach the gas station where Myrtle and George Wilson live, they discover that Myrtle was killed by a speeding yellow car that failed to stop. All three know it was Gatsby’s car. (www.shmoop.com)

There is no turning back after this moment; Gatsby’s delusion of a life with Daisy is crushed, and Tom’s mistress is killed. Now all that remains are the characters’ reactions to these major events.

In The Kite Runner, the climax is quite far from the end of the book. Amir finally fights a battle on his own, without his childhood servant Hassan, and finds release from the guilt that has plagued him for years.

I don’t know at what point I started laughing, but I did. It hurt to laugh, hurt my jaws, my ribs, my throat. But I was laughing and laughing. And the harder I laughed, the harder he kicked me, punched me, scratched me.

“WHAT’S SO FUNNY?” Assef kept roaring with each blow. His spittle landed in my eye. Sohrab screamed.

“WHAT’S SO FUNNY?” Assef bellowed. Another rib snapped, this time left lower. What was so funny was that, for the first time since the winter in 1975, I felt at peace. I laughed because I saw that, in some hidden nook in a corner of my mind, I’d even been looking forward to this. I remembered the day on the hill I had pelted Hassan with pomegranates and tried to provoke him. He’d just stood there, doing nothing, red juice soaking through his shirt like blood. Then he’d taken the pomegranate from my hand, crushed it against his forehead. Are you satisfied now? he’d hissed. Do you feel better? I hadn’t been happy and I hadn’t felt better, not at all. But I did now. My body was broken – just how badly I wouldn’t find out until later – but I felt healed. Healed at last. I laughed. (Hosseini, 289)

This scene is pivotal to the story. Without this event, all Amir’s struggles before it would have been for nothing. Amir sees everything that comes after this point in a new light, as he has changed. For him, there is no turning back to old ways.

Act III: This act, also known as denouement (French for “unraveling”), explores the consequences of the climax; Usually, the story is neatly wrapped up by the conclusion. In Pride and Prejudice, the climax occurs when Elizabeth realizes her errors in her judgment of Mr. Darcy. After that realization, Elizabeth has more to deal with: her and Jane’s potential happiness in marriage is threatened by their sister Lydia’s actions. No honorable man will marry the two elder sisters if Lydia runs off with a man and lives with him without his marrying her. The narrator explains, “Had Lydia’s marriage been concluded on the most honorable terms, it was not to be supposed that Mr. Darcy would connect himself with a family….” (Austen, 381) This passage sums up Elizabeth’s greatest concern and fear: that no one will marry her. The consequences for Elizabeth and Jane are further-reaching than just Lydia’s marital status; both sisters’ futures hang in the balance. However, the forward movement for Elizabeth is over. She has made her decision about Mr. Darcy’s true character once and for all and has changed her attitude toward his proposal.

The diagram below gives a more definitive picture of what a story should look like and shows the intensity levels throughout.

Structure - Detail

(www.musik-therapie.at)

In the Truth About Forever, author Sarah Dessen keeps the tension levels rising; with each situation, the main character, Macy, finds herself seemingly further from her goal of connecting with her mother after the death of Macy’s father. Macy seeks healing, and an outlet for her unresolved grief. After discovering that trying to be perfect is not only hindering her progress, but is an impossible task, Macy begins the long journey of reaching out to her mother. She hopes that her mother, too, will see that perfection is just an illusion, and that one will never find happiness in its pursuit. During an unexpected storm on the night of her mother’s work party, Macy’s mother finally cracks and realizes how far she has gone to avoid her feelings surrounding her husband’s death.

Scenes in novels are individual components within the story arc, each with the job of moving the plot forward and advancing the story. Within a literary context, a scene is a subdivision of an act, whether in a novel, a play or screenplay, or another form of storytelling; it is also described as a single situation or unit of dialogue. (Merriam-Webster.com) In his book, Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting, Robert McKee describes a scene as, “a story in miniature – an action through conflict in a unity or continuity of time and space that turns the value-charged condition of a character’s life.” (233) The structure of each scene is similar to the bigger picture of plot, with a clearly defined goal, obstacle, and resolution.

Scenes require a sense of cohesion to the main plot. In order to propel the narrative forward, each scene has a big role to play. Character motivation is crucial: what drives the character(s) within each scene to behave/talk a certain way? There are many theories about the best way to craft a perfect scene, but here are two views: one from a renowned screenplay writer and one from a novelist. Both views are worth reading more about.

McKee’s method of scene writing is complex and extremely detailed; however, at the top level, he explains that scenes must have a significant change within them. If you begin a scene with a positive charge, it must end negatively, and vice versa. Otherwise, the scene has no value in moving the story forward. McKee explains:

Look closely at each scene you’ve written and ask: What value is at stake in my character’s life at this moment? Love? Truth? What? How is that value charged at the top of the scene? Positive? Negative? Some of both? Make a note. Next turn to the close of the scene and ask, Where is this value now? Positive? Negative? Both? Make a note and compare. If the answer you write down at the end of the scene is the same note you made at the opening, you now have another important question to ask: Why is this scene in my script?

If the value-charged condition of the character’s life stays unchanged from one end of a scene to the other, nothing meaningful happens. The scene has activity – talking about this, doing that – but nothing changes in value. It is a non-event. (McKee, 35)

This may seem like a simple concept, but it can be difficult to master. It is important to look at each scene written and determine if it deserves to stay in the story. Otherwise, the story flow will lose its focus and power, which the reader will undoubtedly notice. For example, consider this scene from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn:

The birth was the same as all the others. Sissy had her usual easy time made easier by the skill of the doctor. When the baby was delivered, she closed her eyes tightly. She was afraid to look at it. She had been so sure that this one would live. But now that the time had come, she felt in her heart that it wouldn’t be so. She opened her eyes finally. The baby was lying on a nearby table. It was still and blue. She turned her head away.

“Again,” she thought. “Again and again and again. Eleven times. Oh God, why couldn’t You let me have one? Just one out of eleven? In a few years, my time of childbearing will be over. For a woman to die at last…knowing that she has never given life. Oh God, why have You put Your curse on me?”

Then she heard a word. She heard a word that she had never known. She heard the word “oxygen.” (Smith, 439)

This scene begins with a negatively charged value. Based on her experiences, Sissy expects that this baby will either be stillborn or will die soon, and she has no reason to think that this time will be any different. However, this is the first time Sissy has given birth at a hospital; there are more tools available to the doctors than to a traditional midwife. The conclusion of this scene feels much different:

For the first time she heard the cry of a child she had borne.

“Is…is…it alive?” she asked, afraid to believe.

“What else?” The doctor shrugged his shoulders eloquently. “You’ve got as fine a boy as I’ve ever seen.”

“You’re sure he’ll live?”

“Why not?” Again the shrug. “Unless you let him fall out of a three-story window.”

Sissy took his hands and covered them with kisses. And Dr. Aaron Aaronstein was not embarrassed about her emotionalism the way a Gentile doctor would have been.

She named the baby Stephen Aaron. (Smith, 440)

This scene is full of feeling, made even more apparent by the dramatic turn from negative to positive. If Sissy had expected her baby to die and it had died, the reader would feel some level of sadness, but it is the unexpected event that draws the reader in further. The same thing would apply even if Sissy had expected her baby to live and he had. The turn from the expected to the unexpected gives the scene more emotion and power over the reader’s expectations and response.

The concept of value-changing is also demonstrated throughout Deep End of the Ocean. Beth attends her high school reunion (positive), but while she checks in at the hotel, her son Ben goes missing (negative). This continues throughout the book as hopes of finding Ben are raised and then dashed. When he is found many years later, Beth’s (and the rest of the family’s) hope becomes that Ben will remember his biological parents and once again be a part of their lives. Thus the struggle continues, until the final outcome.

Another great example of a formula for scene structure comes from Dwight Swain, author of Techniques of the Selling Writer. His technique involves using two different types of scenes in tandem with each other. In the first, which Swain refers to as “Scene,” there are three things that must occur or be presented: a Goal (of at least one of the characters), a Conflict (internal and/or external), and a Disaster (the goal cannot be reached). The second scene is then called a “Sequel,” which must include a Reaction (to the Disaster), a Dilemma (caused by the Disaster), and a Decision (how to proceed?). The Decision ultimately brings about a new Goal, which starts the process all over again, until the climactic moment when a Decision finally leads to a Resolution. “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.” (advancedfictionwriting.com) Within the Reaction, however, there are three parts as well: Feeling, Action, and Further Action/Speech.

An example from Deep End of the Ocean illustrates the minute detail of the Reaction. “Beth could feel her stomach boiling; she was actively nauseated; she probably needed to stop drinking. But there was the process of getting smaller, which had started when she first met the sergeant. That was wise to continue, Beth knew for sure. She accepted another drink from Nick.” (Mitchard, 37) The Feeling is physical — Beth literally feels sick — but her choice of Action is to keep drinking. Her actual acceptance of the next round of alcohol from Nick is the Further Action. This may seem simplistic, but if a character’s action occurs before an internal response, the reader will immediately recognize that something is “off,” and the whole interaction becomes fallible.

Structure in storytelling is not a restriction in creative talent, but a helpful tool that will guide the writer towards a finished product that is both cohesive and believable to the audience. Use of the structural methods described (or similar techniques found elsewhere) ensures that the story remains true to itself, with no extraneous or unintentional tangents and distractions for the reader.

Works Cited

http://www.learner.org/interactives/literature/read/plot1.html

http://www.musik-therapie.at/PederHill/Structure&Plot.htm

http://www.shmoop.com/great-gatsby/plot-analysis.html

http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/art/scene.php

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/scene

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. New York: Book-of-the-Month Club, 1996.

Cash, Wiley. A Land More Kind Than Home. New York: HarperCollins, 2012.

Dessen, Sarah. The Truth About Forever. New York: Penguin Books, 2004.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1995.

Golden, Arthur. Memoirs of a Geisha. New York: Vintage Books, 2005.

Hosseini, Khaled. The Kite Runner. New York: Riverhead Books, 2003.

McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.

Mitchard, Jacquelyn. The Deep End of the Ocean. New York: Viking Penguin, 1996.

Sexton, Adam. Master Class in Fiction Writing. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006.

Smith, Betty. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. New York: HarperPerennial, 2005.

Additional Resources:

http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/mesopotamian/gilgamesh/

http://www.ehow.com/about_6729297_story-structure_-conflict.html

http://creative-writing-courses.co.uk/pages/library/The%20MRU.html

4 Responses to “Story & Scene Structure”

  1. Noel Paige February 6, 2013 at 6:56 pm #

    wow! This is so in depth and insightful. I love it.

  2. tera gold December 23, 2012 at 3:32 pm #

    Pretty! This has been an incredibly wonderful article. Thanks for providing this info.

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