This week we’re going to go one step deeper into the story and break it down further into individual building blocks: the scenes! What are they, why do we need them & what gives them VIGORR (that’s right, two r) – including a worksheet to help you craft engaging scenes. Enjoy!
Cause a scene!
Your story wants to engage, entertain, shock, anything but bore the reader. In other words: it wants to cause a scene. And to do that, we need great scenes. But what exactly are they?
Structuring your work
You have a story to tell, to get something across to the reader. In Sunday Musings #4 we talked about the general structure a story should follow: acts & the steps of the Hero’s Journey. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend going back and checking this out first.
But once you have the general structure defined and outlined, you want to break it down further into individual events that move the story forward and are entertaining in themselves – and these are the scenes. In “Scene & Structure“, Jack M. Bickham defines a scene as “a segment of story action, written moment-by-moment, […] presented onstage in the story ‘now’. It is not something that goes on in the character’s head, it is physical.”
A scene has some common internal characteristics:
- It happens in one place at one time.
- It should show change or a transition – if nothing changes the scene is most likely flat.
- Something should happen.
- A scene needs cause and effect – it must be clear what the stakes for the actors are, and what they are doing about them.
- There needs to be a conflict.
On a story level, scenes also need to be linked with each other – the outcome of one scene is the instigating incident of another.
VIGORR – the secret sauce of great scenes
To remember what makes a memorable scene, I’ve created a mnemonic device: VIGORR. “Vigor” means active strength or force, but also vitality and intensity – and that’s how I like my scenes: active, forceful, vital and intense. VIGORR summarizes the six areas of a scene I always try and consider:
- Inciting incident
Let’s go these points one by one.
View comes in two parts: viewpoint character and view of place.
The viewpoint character is through whose eyes we experience the scene. Whether the character is a gardener, student or chef, they will each view the world in a different way. You might put them all in the same room, and each will be drawn to different things and react differently to a situation. One thing to look out for is to avoid mixing point-of-view. The rule is: one scene through one character’s eyes. When viewpoints switch from paragraph to paragraph, hopping from head to head, it is taxing for the reader and doesn’t create an easy flow. When you have more than one character through whose eyes you show the story, then choose the character who has the most to lose or gain in any particular scene. This ups the tension and suspense.
View of place describes where and when the scene is set. Scenes should be anchored in a specific TIME and PLACE (which will influence the mood and outcome of a scene). This includes all sensory experiences, such as sights, smells, sounds, textures and tastes. By giving a vivid view of place, you help the reader to feel as if they are in the story.
The inciting incident is an event that happened that gives the protagonist motivation in this scene to do something (defining his goal and propelling us to this moment in the story). Without an inciting incident, a scene has no purpose. Often this happens in a scene previous to the current one.
Examples of inciting incidents:
- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll: Alice follows the White Rabbit and falls down the well.
- The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum: A cyclone sweeps Dorothy away from her farm and into the land of Oz.
- Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl: Charlie finds the fifth Golden Ticket.
Goals give your story drive and purpose. Without them, your character would be aimless. There are two types of goals:
- Plot-based goals – the overarching story goal that drives entire story.
- Scene-based goals – goals that drive a scene, usually leading to complications, leading to new scene goals (smaller goals that help work to the bigger story goal)
In “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, the plot-based goal is for Dorothy to find her way home. Some of the scene-based goals are to follow the yellow brick road, to ask help of Oz the Great and Powerful, or to retrieve the witch’s broom.
Now we are really getting to the heart of every story and scene: the obstacles and reactions. They always come together as cause and effect, and they are creating the conflict that makes your story interesting. Conflict is the heartbeat of your story, without it, the story becomes dull. James Scott Bell defines it as “the struggle against an opposing force with death on the line.”
Obstacles are all the things that try to stop the protagonist from achieving her scene goals. They can come in the form of antagonists, inner conflicts, or other characters.
Antagonists are the most clear-cut obstacles your character faces. They are working directly against her goals. Examples are Hook in Peter Pan, Sauron in Lord of the Rings, or Voldemort in Harry Potter.
Inner conflicts are character traits, emotional reactions or vices of our protagonist that stop her from achieving her goals. Some examples are:
Other characters can also present the protagonist with obstacles. This can be anyone, not necessarily the antagonist or villain. It can be an overprotective mother, a sister who won’t let the hero borrow her car, a friend who is keeping the hero busy when she really needs to get going somewhere.
The reaction to an obstacle is what your character does to overcome the things standing in her way.
There are three reactions a character should show:
- Emotional: how does the obstacle affect her?
- Mental: what new direction does she decide on to achieve the scene goal?
- Physical: what does the protagonist do to try and overcome the obstacles?
It is important that the reactions follows this order to make sense to the reader. In combination, the reactions lead the character to the scene’s resolution.
Let’s take “The Hunger Games” for example. There is a scene in the capitol when Katniss Everdeen is trying to capture the attention of the sponsors. None are paying her and her perfect target shooting any notice. She is frustrated and mad (her emotional reaction); the sponsors are sitting around a roasted pig and chatting away as if she wasn’t even in the room.
Katniss watches these sponsors ignore her, and decides she has to capture their attention somehow, even if she has to use extreme measures. This is her mental reaction.
Katniss uses her bow and arrow to shoot the apple in the roasted pig’s mouth, right in the middle of their feast. Her emotional and mental reactions lead to this physical reaction.
By doing this, Katniss reaches her goal of being noticed, but she also is beginning to show what a threat she might be, that she would shoot an arrow at the people representing the Capitol.
Finally, we are the end of the scene, with the question: was the scene goal reached? Whatever the reply (no, yes, yes but), it should lead to complications for future scenes and offer inciting incidents for them.
At the end of the scene, we should revisit our character’s emotional standing and clearly see the change they have undergone.
The VIGORR work sheet
That’s a lot of moving pieces to keep in mind when planning and writing your scenes. To help me giving my scenes VIGORR, I’ve developed a work sheet that I want to share with you.
Click here to download the PDF!
The first page is an overview of what to keep in mind when planning your scene, while page two is the space for your notes.
Ebb and flow of scenes
Now we’ve seen which elements make for engaging scenes that keep the reader glued to the book. But a novel that consists only of high intensity, high action scenes may also get tiring – sometimes the reader needs a breather.
It is good to keep an ebb and flow of scenes, a mix of page turning and page stilling scenes (but be careful to not use too many of the latter).
Page turning scenes will include lots of conflict, a character being emotional or taking action, or surprising revelations. Page stilling scenes, on the other hand, will find our character calm and collected, reflecting or in agreement with other characters, and encountering expected events.
Further reading on scenes
Besides “Scene & Structure“, there are some other books I recommend:
Writing tip of the week
The awesome Red Sofa Literary Agency has a great series of posts this NaNoWriMo, with topics ranging from craft (finding the right point of view) to motivation (setting goals) to knowing when to quit. There’s a post for every day of NaNoWriMo, each of them written by someone else, each of them worth your time. Great work guys!
Fiction read of the week
To celebrate the first advent, it’s only fitting to recommend a Christmas read: “Sock it to me, Santa“.
This was my first Madison Parker book a couple of years back and I just loved it so much that I went on to read her other stories too. She’s a wonderful YA author and I hope she’ll write more in the future.
This is a fun, short story to warm the cockles of your heart.
Bits & pieces
Today’s musings gave an overview of the important elements of a scene, including a worksheet to help you construct scenes that have VIGORR. So get out there, grab hold of your story and make it come to life one scene at a time!
Books mentioned in this bulletin:
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- Disclaimer: All links to books in this article are affiliate links, which means I receive a small percentage of the purchase price if you make a purchase using these links. There is no additional cost for you if you purchase the books via these links!
Session #6 – The power of perseverance, and how to deal with imperfection
Session #8 – Writing towards scenes vs. word count