Lesson 1: Scene Structure

Lesson 1: Scene Structure

A Lesson by EditYourNovel
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Powerful scenes lead to powerful novels. Become an expert on editing scene structure right now!

"

An Introduction to Scene Structure

 

When I first learned about scene structure, I felt like a wizard with a new wand.  I finally understood what made my more powerful scenes work.  And those half-assed scenes that I knew were hopeless, well I could finally figure out why!

I hope you feel the same sense of power and control at the end of our session on scene structure :-)


 

Why Is Scene Structure Important?

 


Scene structure is a key element of a successful novel. Well-structured scenes have good pacing, good character motivation and an appropriate amount of descriptive detail. Everything you want, right? The next four lessons provide you with specific, actionable techniques so you can:

·         Recognize good scenes,

·         Identify the problems in weak scenes

·         Turn a weak scene into a powerhouse scene.

 

In these lessons, you will learn how to:

·         Create and manage Stimulus and Response: the basic building blocks of a scene

·         Differentiate the two basic types of scenes: scenes and sequels

·         Structure your scenes for maximum impact

·         Design your sequels for superior character motivation

·         Manage all of these scene elements for optimum pacing

 


Sources

 

I learned everything I know about scene structure from Swain's 'Techniques of the Selling Writer' and Bickham's 'Scene & Structure'. If you'd like more information than this course provides, Bickham's book is very accessible. Swain's book is more in-depth, but well worth the effort. At the bottom of this lesson I'll provide links to Amazon.


Although I learned a lot from these books, my explanation of scene structure differs from both Swain & Bickham. (They differ from each other, too.) I consider my approach a little more flexible :-)


Let’s get started with today’s topic:   Basic Building Blocks: Stimulus & Response.



 

Basic Building Blocks: Stimulus & Response

 


In this lesson we start with two fundamental building blocks called Stimulus and Response. Don't worry if you've never heard these terms in writing before. If you've written a scene, you've written Stimulus and Response pairs :-)


Why do you need to worry about them?


Stimulus and Response are important elements to understand because many of the flaws in a scene can be traced to poor Stimulus/Response structure.


Learning to identify Stimulus & Response blocks is HARD WORK. But the reward is ABSOLUTELY worth it. You will be able to spot problems in your writing that you were oblivious to before. Your scenes will become tighter, more descriptive, and more motivated.


We're going to take two lessons to cover Stimulus & Response. Today we'll learn how to recognize Stimulus and Response blocks. Next week we'll discuss how to use them effectively to create well-written scenes.


It’s really important that you do this week’s homework and practice identifying Stimulus & Response blocks.  It may be difficult at first, but you’ll quickly become more adept at it.  Soon you’ll be able to read a scene, subconsciously identify the different blocks, and be able to figure out why the scene isn’t working.


Today's lesson contains three sections:

·         The definition of stimulus and response

·         An examples-and-practice section to hone your skill

·         A FAQ section to answer those nitty-gritty questions you discovered when marking up your own manuscript

 


Definitions

 


Let's start by defining our terms.  You may want to print out this page so you can refer to the definitions while you work through the examples below and for your homework.


Stimulus

The stimulus is an event or situation external to the POV (point of view) character[1]. The Stimulus is experienced through one or more of the POV character’s 5 senses (i.e. character sees it, feels it, hears it, etc.)


Response

The Response is the reaction of the POV character. The Response may consist of action and/or dialogue and/or introspection.


Action

Any physiological response of the POV character It may be intentional (like hitting someone), or unintentional (like palms dampening).


Dialogue

Something the POV character says.


Introspection

Anything the POV character thinks or feels.


The general rule for good fiction writing is that Stimulus should precede Response, and that the Response should be appropriate for the Stimulus. We'll get into the detail of how to make this happen in tomorrow's lesson. First it is important that you become comfortable at identifying Stimulus and Response pairs.

 


 

Examples & Practice

 


Let's work through two marked-up examples to get the hang of this. In the following examples, Stimulus is marked in blue and Response in red.


Example 1: POV character = an adult female named Serene.


A loud banging sounded on William’s front wall. “Anybody in there?”

Serene froze in her seat. Oh, Lord. Luigi’s men. She glanced toward the bedroom at the other end of the trailer, but knew retreat there was fruitless since the hall window overlooked the front door.

“Mommy, hide!” Wide eyed, Holly grabbed her shirt and tried to push her up. “Mommy, you have to hide.”

Trying to keep her voice calm, she shushed her daughter. “It’s okay. We’ll just stay quiet.”


Now let's look at the individual pieces of this scene. To start with we have an external Stimulus: a sound and some speech that the POV character is hearing.


A loud banging sounded on William’s front wall. “Anybody in there?”


Next we have the POV character's Response, which consists of an action (freezing), some introspection, another action (glancing), and some final introspection.


Serene froze in her seat. Oh, Lord. Luigi’s men. She glanced toward the bedroom at the other end of the trailer, but knew retreat there was fruitless since the hall window overlooked the front door.


Next we have another Stimulus: the daughter's speech and actions are external the POV character.


“Mommy, hide!” Wide eyed, Holly grabbed her shirt and tried to push her up. “Mommy, you have to hide.”


Finally we have the POV character's Response, which consists of action following by dialogue.


Trying to keep her voice calm, she shushed her daughter. “It’s okay. We’ll just stay quiet.”


In this example the Stimulus/Response units corresponded to paragraphs, but this is not always the case. Often one paragraph will contain both a Stimulus and a Response. For example: (POV = Alex)


A woman sprang up from behind the sofa. Alex blinked.


Now try testing yourself on the following example. When you think you know which parts are Stimulus and which are Response, scroll to the next page.


Example 2: POV = Serene


“Serene, baby. You’re looking like a doll.” A deep voice spoke behind her and a hand grabbed her waist.

She yelped and spun around. A man she never wanted to see again stood outside her door, a six-pack in hand.

Oh, Lord. She didn’t need this nightmare now. Or ever.

Folding her arms, she scowled at her ex-husband. “Rio, what the hell are you doing here?”

 


 

 




Example 2: Marked up


“Serene, baby. You’re looking like a doll.” A deep voice spoke behind her and a hand grabbed her waist.

She yelped and spun around. A man she never wanted to see again stood outside her door, a six-pack in hand.

Oh, Lord. She didn’t need this nightmare now. Or ever.

Folding her arms, she scowled at her ex-husband. “Rio, what the hell are you doing here?”


 This example is a little tricky because we have stimulus and response interspersed in the one sentence.  The statement “a man stood outside her door, a six-pack in hand” is a Stimulus because it is external to the POV character.  However, we also get some introspection from the POV character, that she ‘never wanted to see this man again’.  In general, I would  categorize this as  a Response, since that is its primary function.


You’ll get more practice at doing this with the Quiz and the homework assignment where you will mark up some of your own scenes.  You might find the process slow at first, but soon you'll be able to do it quickly. I recommend actually highlighting the text with 2 different colors. It will help you in the next lesson when we analyze whether the Stimulus and Response are used correctly.





 

Frequently Asked Questions

 

When I first started learning about Stimulus/Response blocks, I had many questions. In this section I try to cover the problems you might have encountered when you marked up your own text.

 

How big can a Response be?             

 

A Response may contain one of more blocks of Action, Dialogue or Introspection. What if there are two blocks of Dialogue--is that two Responses? What if there are two Actions--is that two Responses? What about five sentences of Introspection?


I wish there was any easy answer to this, but there isn't. Here's the general rule of thumb I use.

 

A Response consists of

·         One Action

·         One or Two blocks of Dialogue

·         One or Two Blocks of Introspection

·         Two (or more) Actions count as one Response if they...

o   break up a long section of Dialogue

o   get some tedious but necessary Action on the page quickly


Let's look at some examples that I would consider one Response.


Kathy tilted her head while she studied the outfit. “No. Too executive.” She wrinkled her nose. “You look like you’re about to break into contract negotiations.”


The second Action breaks up a dialogue. I wouldn't consider it a separate response.



Next example:


Shay considered the dress from that perspective. The cut was a little severe. “Yeah. I see what you mean.” She returned the dress to the rack and sighed. “I think I’m ready to give up.”

She hated shopping at the best of times. Trying to find something to wear in Whistler’s overpriced boutiques was only a little more attractive than getting teeth pulled. And if the torture went on for more than another hour, even a trip to the dentist would be more appealing.


The Response contains Introspection-Dialogue-Action-Dialogue-Introspection. The second Introspection is quite long, but it works because it is focused on one main thought: the challenge of shopping. The Response as a whole also forms a coherent unit.



The following example I would consider to be two Responses.

Kathy tilted her head while she studied the outfit. “No. Too executive.” She wrinkled her nose. “You look like you’re about to break into contract negotiations.”

She strode to the front of the store and picked out a slinky blue dress and took it back to the dressing room. "Why don't you try this one?"


The action of going to the front of the store is clearly separate from the action of responding to the original outfit. So we have two responses in a row without a stimulus between them.  My recommendation: take the opportunity to include a Stimulus for a richer scene.  You’ll learn how to do this sort of analysis next week.


The next example comes from Janet Evanovich's "Seven Up", one of her fabulous Stephanie Plum series. I'd class it as one Response even though there are multiple Actions. For me, it comes under the category of "getting tedious but necessary Action on the page quickly".


I snapped the phone closed, put the car in gear, and headed for Dougie's house. I didn't bother knocking when I got there. Bob and I barged right in.

 

How small can a Response be?

 

As small as you like! Consider these examples.

In this first example, the Response is a simple two word piece of dialogue.


Cassidy stared at me. "You're going out with Peter?"

"Well, duh."


Next we have an example where the Response is a one-word introspection.


My grandmother gestured toward the tallest man. "He's perfect for you."

Not!


And finally, we have an example of a short action sequence acting as the Response.


Joe glanced over his shoulder. "Are you staring at my butt?"

I quickly lifted my gaze. The annoying man smirked and continued walking up the stairs.


As you can see, a Response block (or a Stimulus block), can be as long or as short as you wish. The key is to alternate Response and Stimulus, without skipping one or the other.

 

I can’t figure out the Point of View

 

Analyzing Stimulus & Response can alert you to problems with your point of view.  You might find that you are in one person’s POV in one paragraph and then switch to another POV in the next paragraph. You might also discover that you write in omniscient POV so there is no single POV character at any time. 


Each of these can be appropriate choices for your novel.  They might also be the result of lack of attention to point of view (i.e. a problem!)  We’ll cover this in depth in Lesson 8. 


However, lack of a single consistent point of view in a scene makes it very difficult to analyze for Stimulus and Response, since Stimulus & Response are defined in terms of having a single POV character.  So if your manuscript does not have a single consistent point of view per scene, you will have a difficult time finding the Stimulus and Response in your own writing.  In this case I recommend you find sample chapters of published fiction written in 3rd person point of view.  Choose a writer that keeps to one point of view per scene. You’ll have a much easier time developing your Stimulus & Response skills.

 

What do I do with the leftovers?

 

Sometimes there are sections of text which are difficult to classify.  I call them the ‘leftovers’ :-)


Use the simple question:  Is the POV character doing it, thinking it, or saying it? 

If yes, it's Response.

If no, it's Stimulus.


And don’t forget, some sentences may contain both Stimulus & Response. The example we saw above was:

A man she never wanted to see again stood outside her door, a six-pack in hand.


This consists of the Stimulus: A man stood outside her door, a six-pack in hand.


With a dash of Stimulus tucked in:    she never wanted to see again


Don’t sweat over details like these. If there are some cases where you can’t decide what a sentence is, just move on.  Just make sure that the majority of the time, you understand which is Response and which is Stimulus.


 

Homework

 

Each lesson will have a homework section.  This is where you’ll find the 20 minute chunks identified.  Of course, reading the lesson is the first chunk you should complete!

 

Quiz.  The quiz will help you cement the ideas that have been introduced in this lesson.  And it will give you some extra practice at identifying Stimulus and Response blocks.  

 

You can find the quiz on the lesson page.

 

Take 500 words from a scene in one of your works-in-progress and mark up the Stimulus and Response blocks. We'll use it in next week’s  lesson.  (If you are confused by the POV in your manuscript, choose a sample chapter from a published novel.)

 

You’ll make things easier for yourself if you choose a scene that has lots of dialogue and action.  In fact, try to avoid a scene where there is a lot of introspection and reflection.  You’ll learn why next week.

 

Practice makes perfect, so don't worry if identifying Stimulus and Response blocks is difficult at first.

 

Review your markup.  Although you’ll learn how to do this next week, take an initial look at how you are currently using Stimulus and Response blocks.  Do you have a Response for every Stimulus? Do you find you have a chain of Stimuli without many Responses, or vice versa?

 

Whatever your markup looks like, don’t worry about it!  Put your energy into getting adept at identifying the different blocks. 

 

Got a bit more time?  Practice some more!

 

Last task for this week is to go to the Lesson 1 page and let me know how you are doing.  What challenges did you find when you marked up your own Stimulus & Response blocks?

 

Important Note:  I am happy to answer any questions you have about the content of this course. Please use the appropriate lesson page to ask your question.  (You might already find the answer there!)  Unfortunately, I cannot provide feedback on your homework. 


 

Conclusion

 

Thanks for reading lesson 1!


This lesson is the first in a 16 week course that teaches you everything you need to know to edit your novel.  We take learning very seriously, so we provide online quizzes for you to practice and hone your skills.  We also answer any question you have about the course...as often as you need!


We know you are busy, so the course is structured into 20 minute chunks.  No more taking 10 minutes to figure out what you need to be doing.  With our course you dive right in and get started on our next 'learning chunk'.  You'll be amazed at how much you get done.


If you'd like to learn more about the course, come check out our web site at www.EditYourNovel.com.

Cheers,

The Team @ EditYourNovel.com




[1] POV = Point of View.  The Point of View character is the character’s whose head we are in during a scene.  We see all the action from that person’s point of view. Lesson 8 will cover everything you need to know about Point of View.



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Added on November 20, 2013
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