Writing Exercise #3: Scene Structure


This is part of a series of exercises aimed to improve specific aspects of your writing.

Everyone understands the basic structure of a novel, whether they’ve ever stopped to analyze it or not, but a novel is not one entity with a basic beginning, middle, and end.

It is compiled from many smaller stories, with obstacles and realizations and growth, all coming together to form the whole. If one of those pieces doesn’t fit the puzzle, there’s a reason, and it must be sacrificed or altered to keep the novel from suffering. Ensuring every scene has not only a purpose but adherence to structure will solidify your novel and keep your readers happy and turning pages.

The exercise:

Identify the purpose (justify its existence with character growth and/or advancing the plot) of your scenes and the parts that define them as either Fire or Ash (my own terms for Swain’s ‘Scene’ and ‘Sequel’). There are other structures you can take, but for this exercise, we’re going to pretend this is the only structure.

For a quick breakdown of Swain, he says a scene is either a ‘Scene,’ (containing a Goal, Conflict, and Disaster), or it is a ‘Sequel,’ (with a Reaction, Dilemma, and Decision). These types of scenes are to alternate as a pattern to work.

I think of these scene types as Fire and Ash. A Fire is an immediate conflict encountered on the protagonist’s path that must dealt with. Ash is the aftermath of the Fire, and the protagonist needs to sift through it in reflection, deciding what to do next.

Both types of scene contain a problem to overcome, AKA conflict, and every scene needs this conflict so the protagonist can make a choice. They have to fight the fire or run from it, and then they have to deal with how that fire has changed them and/or their circumstances.


For Exercise #2: Routine, I wrote the beginnings of a story which I will be using for many of our future exercises. I’ll be using that same page to show all my drafts so that you can see progress made after each exercise. Go there now, give it a read, and then come back.

First, I need to breakdown the scenes:

1: There is some narration about a disaster that has struck the village and description of the castle kitchen where the protagonist works, his friend rescuing him, and a quick gloss-over of the survey of damage over the Pro’s own home.

2: (Was part of scene 1, but is actually second scene.) It starts with the Pro and friend searching for the Marshes children, ending with finding them.

3: The introduction of other survivors outside the meeting hall and attempting to identify the parent of a baby.

4: Searching for more survivors and finding Maribel and her dog.

5: Gathering for a meal at the castle and discussing what to do next. (This scene is unfinished right now. My goal for exercise 2 was 2000 words and I had already exceeded it.)

Now for their purpose:


1: Intro of Pro and the inciting disaster to the village.

2: Pro’s family situation, friend’s family situation, more specifics of the disaster/attack (now an alleged giant).

3: Intro of cast, more specifics on outcome of attack for entire village, abandoned baby, show the roles they all take on in reaction where Pro partly comes across as leader.

4: Little stand-alone purpose besides finalizing cast.

5: Will force a turning point for story, setting the beginning of their journey.

Type and Parts:


1: Closer to Fire, but not really either. There is no goal other than characters wanting to go through their normal day, the conflict is spoken about in past tense, and it sorta ends with disaster of his home also being demolished, but has no real impact.

2: Fire-ish. Their goal is to find the Marshes kids. The conflict is getting through the rubble, though I don’t stress any difficulty there, and the disaster is finding the children dead.

3: Ash. They are gathering with some narration about what should have been a normal day and how fewer people would have died if the attack had come later. The dilemma is an abandoned baby, and the decision (though weakly presented) is that it was an attack.

4: Fire-ish again, and is basically a repeat of scene 2 but with a slightly better outcome.

5: Ash. They are talking over consequences and impact of attack, the dilemma is that they don’t know what to do to prevent or even determine if there will be another attack, and the decision (when I finish the scene) will be to go consult with and seek help from the next town over.

Conclusions and Improvements:

There is a LOT of work to be done here. Most of the early scene purposes can be added to with character definition through emotion. I have very little emotion here given all that’s happened to these people. While some may be in shock, I’m missing an opportunity to connect with readers and create early bonds and depth with characters.

The opening scene is weak for Fire. Speaking about it afterward the way I do lessens the fear. I think I’ll rework this to put the reader in the Pro’s shoes as the disaster happens (or perhaps Throle). Then I have a strong Fire starter, if you will.

Also, if I’m going to have what caused the disaster to be a mystery then I should work on what I reveal and when, delaying Throle’s account or removing it. I have an idea for Maisy (who has been mute until now) telling her story at the end of scene 5, where she witnesses a giant’s foot coming through her roof and onto her baby.

By not introducing the idea of a giant until then, readers and cast can be skeptical of her mental state and discover the truth later on our journey.

Scene 4 does not work on its own and needs to be absorbed elsewhere.

After I finish scene 5, I’ll alter each scene to more clearly become Fire or Ash, and give our protagonist more emotional definition so the purpose of scenes can be justified where there is no plot movement. Watch for draft #2, which will be added to the WIP page here on my blog.

Can you identify the purpose of every scene in your novel? Does the scene really belong? Could it be dismantled and distributed or cut completely?

Do you follow this Fire and Ash structure, or something else? Let me know about it.

All the best to you. Happy writing. Come back for more exercises, and please Subscribe and follow.


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