How to Write Scenes: Structure, Examples, and Definitions

What is a Scene?

Scenes are the building blocks of our stories. These STORY UNITS dramatize definable VALUE SHIFTS for the AVATARS (or characters) and their CONTEXT (or setting). The value shifts that occur in each working scene of the story incrementally build the global arcs of change. 

Many writers define scenes by chapter breaks or changes in location or the AVATARS at the center of the conflict. While these transitions may coincide with a value shift, without a consistent definition of when a scene starts or ends, we cannot talk about a story’s scenes consistently or examine masterwork scenes to improve our own scene work.

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In the Story Grid Universe, we understand that stories are about life-altering change that happens when the protagonist makes an active choice in response to the global INCITING INCIDENT. As the building blocks of story, scenes dramatize smaller events and changes that when combined create the experience of the whole story. Executing effective scenes is one of the most important skills for story writers to master.

How to Write Scenes: Structure, Examples, and Definitions

Scene Structure

We describe and identify whole scenes by using the Story Grid SCENE EVENT SYNTHESIS. This is a one-sentence summary that helps us analyze our own scenes or those in masterworks we seek to emulate. The Synthesis includes the following components.

  • Ending value: This is how things stand at the end of the scene.
  • Outcome of ABOVE THE SURFACE initial strategy: This describes the result of the protagonist’s initial attempt to reach their scene goal.
  • ON THE SURFACE CLIMAX: This is the protagonist’s choice in response to the CRISIS.
  • Tradeoff of the CRISIS: This is what the protagonist risks with their choice.

The summary captures what happens after the protagonist’s initial strategy succeeds or fails and the protagonist acts in the CLIMAX, despite the potential risks of the CRISIS tradeoff.

Scenes are different from TROPES or SEQUENCES. A trope is a change in microstrategies that build to a value shift of the scene. A sequence is an irreversible change in stakes that builds from the value shifts in scenes.

Scene Function

Scenes allow storytellers to show the incremental change over time as the protagonist makes sense of and assigns meaning to the unexpected event that kicks off the story. Each scene presents a manifestation or instance of that global INCITING INCIDENT and the global CRISIS to communicate the CONTROLLING IDEA of the story. This also means that every scene should illuminate an aspect of SAM’s problem from the NARRATIVE PATH.

Scene Organization

Scenes are made up of a series of TROPES. The microstrategies in tropes are used by the AVATARS to navigate the problems presented in each scene. The FIVE COMMANDMENTS OF STORYTELLING are dramatized through the trope microstrategies. 

The inciting incident of a scene catalyzes change with an unexpected event that is complicated by another unexpected event, which we call the turning point progressive complication. That event begins to turn the scene and forces the protagonist to face a crisis. When the protagonist implements their active choice in the climax, and they experience the immediate effects of the value shift or change in the resolution of the scene.

What are the key features of a Scene?

  • Beyond the surface VALUE SHIFTS. Each scene contains a value shift, which describes a universal change from the beginning of the scene to the end of the scene.
  • Above the surface essential tactics. The protagonist is forced to act or respond to crisis when above the surface essential tactic fails or succeeds and is not what they expected. 
  • On the surface action. The change in value comes as the result of on the surface climax action in response to the crisis.

How do we identify Scenes within masterworks?

A scene should have a defined value shift. The scene will not end until the value has shifted. 

Writers should look for a change in value throughout the scene. One way to find the value shift is to identify the place in the story where the question raised by the inciting incident is resolved. Once the question has been resolved, the protagonist should have undergone a value shift.

We analyze scenes through the STORY GRID 624 ANALYSIS, which helps us identify key features in every scene that we should study.

What are some examples of Scenes?

Hamilton by Lin Manuel Miranda, Scene 1 (Global Inciting Incident)

Scene Event Synthesis

Hamilton is recognized when, after his last relative dies, he overcomes his circumstances by fending for himself despite the risk of failure.

Five Commandments

Inciting Incident: Causal. When Hamilton is ten years old, his father abandons him and his mother.

Turning Point Progressive Complication: Active. Hamilton’s cousin commits suicide, leaving the young man alone and penniless.

Crisis: Best Bad Choice. Hamilton can fend for himself or accept a life of squalor.

Climax: Hamilton decides to educate himself. He borrows and reads books while working for his late mother’s landlord. He publishes his writing.

Resolution: A group of men are impressed by Hamilton’s writing about the hurricane. They offer to pay for his travel and college.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Scene 34 (Global Turning Point Progressive Complication)

Scene Event Synthesis

Darcy is devastated when Elizabeth insults his character after he asked her why she would not marry him despite knowing that any answer she gave would hurt him.

Five Commandments

Inciting Incident: Causal. Darcy pays another visit to Elizabeth knowing she is alone and unwell. 

Turning Point Progressive Complication: Active. Elizabeth refuses Darcy’s proposal of marriage.

Crisis: Best Bad Choice. Should Darcy ask Elizabeth why she is refusing him and risk deep personal pain or blow Elizabeth off as being incapable of making a rational and beneficial choice? 

Climax: Darcy asks her why she won’t marry him.

Resolution: Elizabeth tells him in no uncertain terms why she won’t marry him and insults him many times in the process.

The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, Scene 59 (Global Climax)

Scene Event Synthesis

Clarice preserves life when she trusts herself by going down the steps to find Buffalo Bill despite knowing that she is walking into a trap.

Five Commandments

Inciting Incident: Causal. Clarice knocks on the door of Buffalo Bill’s house to ask him questions about the death of Fredricka Bimmel.

Turning Point Progressive Complication: Revelatory. Clarice realizes that the man who had called himself Jack Gordon is really Buffalo Bill.

Crisis: Best Bad Choice. Should she go down the steps when she knows it can only be a trap or call the FBI for backup?

Climax: Clarice goes down the steps to find and kill Buffalo Bill.

Resolution: Cathrine Martin is saved.

Additional Scene Resources:

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