Scenes are the building blocks that comprise a longer work. For novels, a scene become a sequence, which turn into acts, which build subplots, which come together to create the global story.
Stories are about change. So, something must change from the beginning to the end. Robert McKee calls this the value shift. For example, in Harry Potter, Harry shifts from naive to mature over the course of each individual novel and the whole series. What characters overcome is what draws us to them. We want to learn about how they changed (or didn’t). We want to use their stories as a model for our own lives (from the safety of our own couches at that).
The scene is the building block of a novel. Global shifts only occur because the characters make a series of smaller changes during the scenes. These changes lead to their overall arc in the story.
Since scenes should be able to stand on their own as a fully functioning story, they need the same components of a global story in order to work. That is, the inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, climax, and resolution. But what are these 5 elements really? And, why are they so important at every level of story?
1) The Inciting Incident
On the global level, an inciting incident is the first major event that sets the protagonist on his or her journey. What pushes him out of the normal he wants to get back to. At all levels, inciting incidents upset the life value of the protagonist. They knock them uncomfortably out of sync or off balance for good or ill will.
Inciting incidents can either be causal or coincidental. Causal is the result of an active choice. Harry is dropped off at King’s Cross Station. Coincidence, on the other hand, occurs when something unexpected or random happens. The gateway to Platform 9 and 3/4 is closed, for example.
Ultimately, the inciting incident arouses an action in the protagonist. It makes him want to get back to his normal, whatever that may have been. Without one, nothing meaningful can follow.
2) Progressive Complications
Put simply, in the words of Shawn Coyne of The Story Grid, progressive complications are the “escalating degrees of conflict” that the protagonist deals with throughout a story. The complications they face are meant to make life more difficult (in both positive and negative ways) and should get progressively more demanding.
Harry doesn’t have to fight a troll every year, nor does he face Voldemort under the same circumstances each time they duel. It’s a matter of varying what challenges your protagonist comes up against.
To measure whether or not you are progressively complicating your story, ask whether the choice a character makes is irreversible or not. If they can go back to living the way they were before they faced the decision, then the complications isn’t as impactful as if it were irreversible.
Lastly, complications should lead to a moment when a scene (or global story) changes: called the turning point. It can either be active or revelatory. Active is the point when the troll gets knocked out and the three friends shift from being in danger to being safe. Revelatory, for example, is when Harry realizes where he’s heard the name Nicolas Flamel before.
3) A Crisis
The crisis boils down to a question asked by the turning point. Will your character act one way or another? Will they make a decision at all (and, yes, choosing not to act is still a choice)? What makes the crisis so important is that characters are revealed by action. Giving your character a choice raises the stakes and keeps readers interested.
There are two types of crises. Either a best bad choice, which means a choice between two bad things. Or, irreconcilable goods, meaning a choice between something that is good for the character, but not for others or vice versa.
A crisis Harry faces is whether or not he should go through the door Fluffy is guarding. He knows it’s going to be dangerous, but he also knows that he won’t stand idly by as Snape tries to take the sorcerer’s stone for Voldemort.
The climax is the active answer to the question raised by the crisis. It’s also the truth of character. Remember the old adage “actions speak louder than words?” The same applies to your protagonist and the people around them.
Harry Potter could talk all he wants about how much he cares about his friends. It’s his actions that prove who he really is. Ultimately, he sacrifices himself to save everyone from Voldemort time and time again. That shows his bravery and love more so than a description of his personality could.
Lastly, the resolution is a way to show what the climax means. When Dumbledore talks to Harry in the hospital and then announces the winner of the house cup at the end of the first book, that’s the resolution moment. It describes what the actions Harry and his friends have taken meant for Gryffindor and why they were important.
How do you craft a scene? Let us know in the comments, or on social media using the hashtag #5onFri!