A well-crafted scene comprises both a large-scale structure and a small-scale structure.
At the larger scale, a scene is either a scene or a sequel. A scene has the following three-part structure:
- Goal: What the POV character wants at the outset of the scene. The character must be in active pursuit of the goal.
- Conflict: The obstacles that prevent the character from obtaining the goal. The POV character must struggle, or there is no story.
- Disaster: Allowing the character to succeed is boring. The disaster is the failure of the character to achieve the goal. The disaster keeps the reader reading.
The sequel follows the scene. It adheres to this structure:
- Reaction: The emotional response to the disaster—the visceral reaction the POV character has to the setback they have suffered. Show the character's pain and hurt.
- Dilemma: A situation with no good options. The protagonist must be caught between two undesirable options. If there are obvious, good options, then the disaster wasn't dire enough. The character must come to the least bad option.
- Decision: A choice is made from among the available options. The character becomes proactive again.
The small scale structure of the scene facilitates execution of the actual paragraphs within the scene. These comprise what Dwight Swain calls "motivation-reaction units" (MRUs). MRUs are written by alternating between a motivation—an external, tangible objective that the character can see, feel, smell, taste, or touch—followed by a reaction, which is internal and subjective.
The small structure follows this pattern.
- Rational action and/or speech
The reaction operates on a different time scale than the motivation; structure it in terms of the fastest time scale to the slowest: feeling, reflex, rational action. Some of these might be left out, but there must be at least one and if there are multiples they must be presented in the correct order.
After the reaction should come another motivation.
Each scene and sequel is a series of MRUs.
Ingermanson, Randy. “Writing The Perfect Scene: Advanced Fiction Writing Tips.” Advanced Fiction Writing (blog). Accessed January 9, 2021. https://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/writing-the-perfect-scene/.