Crafting Fiction: Understanding How Scenes In Novels Are Constructed - Part 1

Posted at 11:56am on 27th February 2009

How do you go about constructing the scenes in a novel? Many writers simply sit down and write, in the belief that to do otherwise impedes the flow of creativity. Others ‘story-board’ the plot in a carefully assembled series of scenes for each character, arranged in sequence on a pin board. Yet others do something similar with hand-written index cards, or computer generated section sheets.


Whatever your chosen method, creative writing is a little like riding a bike or driving a car. You may believe yourself to be doing it instinctively. Yet behind your ‘instinct’ may lie years of learning and practice until, like the Lithuanian pianist I heard at a concert last week - whose skills enabled her to play Schubert’s only piano concerto from beginning to end from memory - you can craft your novel without having to resort to books or formulae.

Nevertheless, like the pianist, it is not enough simply to know the notes and the order in which they are to be played. The music / written word needs to engage the listener / reader in such a way as to move them: to tears; excitement; passion; love; revulsion . . . And to do that, the artiste needs to ‘feel’ the emotion herself in order to convey it to the reader.

If you are a novelist (and as Zoë Heller has found to her dismay) you will know that the essence of Creative Writing is the ability to generate an emotional response in your reader. Whatever your genre, your reader should experience the events of your main character’s existence, and that character’s internal life (i.e. their thought process and subconscious response to those events – called a stream of consciousness) as if they were his or her own.


For instance, let’s suppose that your protagonist is a nun – as in the Audrey Hepburn film, The Nun’s Story. On the mission field she is thrust into close contact with a man, a doctor, with whom she is initially at odds, but for whom she gradually gains respect – and more.

Every woman reader and, I guess every man, would agonise at the conflict of interests this raises between the nun’s love and faithful obedience to the church, and the potential for a life of human love and family. The nun (and therefore the reader) is faced with a choice: spiritual integrity versus human desire.

It's worth saying here, that the more highly commendable the outcome of that choice is, the greater the conflict and, therefore, the greater the degree of engagement with the reader.

What I mean by that is that if the choice was a good action versus a bad action, the conflict would be lessened because your reader would almost certainly be rooting for the character to take the good option. Whatever the consequences!

Supposing, for example, that a young woman who has led an impoverished life, is being wooed by two men: one who can give her everything materially but nothing emotionally; the other who loves her to distraction but is poor as the proverbial church mouse. The second man – the one we’re all rooting for – is convinced that in order to attract and keep the woman he adores, he will have to steal from his employer so that he can buy her the diamond ring he saw her admiring earlier.


Even though he may be agonising over this course of action and believes that he will lose the love of this woman if he fails to buy her the ring, few readers would want him to steal. Instinctively, we want our hero to be honest and trustworthy. Not only that, we want our heroine to return this man’s love despite the fact that he is poor.

If, however, our heroine was in need of a life-saving operation, or had a child who had been abducted, then we might accept – even applaud - our hero’s course of action. In other words, we may persuade ourselves that the theft is justified.

As I wrote earlier this week, we are all swayed by morality, whether we like to believe it or not. We are influenced by our perspective on what we believe to be morally right. Or reprehensible! So when, as readers, we are faced with two wrongs, we instinctively make a judgement and accept the lesser of the two - even though to do so may cause us discomfort and further conflict.

The power of good and evil cannot be underestimated. When both courses of action score equally in our scale of rightness or wrongness, the level of conflict and emotion is ratcheted up. In The Nun’s Story, above, this is achieved by presenting the reader with two courses of action, both of which are inherently good and right.

In my own book, A Painful Post Mortem, the choice – like Friedman’s story of The Bridge – is between two evils. In the first the main character has to make the choice between that of condoning her daughter’s self-destructive behaviour, or closing the door on her and risking sending her to her death. In The Bridge, the choice is between keeping hold of someone who will otherwise perish; or letting go because they refuse to take responsibility for their decision.

Bearing all the above in mind, the construction of a scene is simple, but crucial:

1. Goal
2. Conflict
3. Disaster.

This never varies, except when it is the Sequel to a Scene.

Links to Previous Posts on this topic: Modern Morality in Contemporary Fiction; The Integrity Partnership Between Author & Reader

NEXT TIME We’ll take a look at how these elements of Goal, Conflict and Disaster pan out. And at a later date, we’ll examine the construction of a Sequel.

Photograph: Construction (c) gullevek's photostream

Your Comments:

1st March 2009
at 1:35am

I'm just curious, what is the name of that Lithuanian
pianist? :)

2nd March 2009
at 2:34pm

Hi Sandra, I'm going to have to get back to you on that.
Can't remember for the life of me at present. Sorry.

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