Scene and Structure: Make Something Happen!

Imagine if Star Wars began like this:

A Corellian blockade runner sails peacefully across the stars.

Oh dear! Princess Leia, if Darth Vader attacks us, what will happen to the Death Star plans?

I don’t know, Threepio. I guess we’ll just have to try to safeguard them somehow. Captain, are there any signs of a Star Destroyer on our tail?


Oh, good. It would certainly be bad if he attacked. Darth Vader is a monster.

Princess, you might be interested in knowing we’re now orbiting above Tattooine, a desert planet of the Outer Rim. Tatooine has two stars, as it is in a binary star system. Tatooine’s G-type and K-type twin stars (Tatoo I and Tatoo II) heat its surface, making water and shade hard to come by. The planet’s indigenous lifeforms—such as the Womp rat, bantha, Sarlacc, and Krayt Dragon—are well-adapted to its arid climate, but human settlers often become moisture farmers and live in subterranean dwellings in order to survive. The planet’s lack of resources, brutal heat, and decentralized population have made governing the planet nearly impossible…

Exciting, huh? No. No, it isn’t.

Seattle Ain't Bullshittin'

I’ve seen a lot of beginning writers trot out scenes like this. Hell, I’ve done it myself. Scenes where the action is waiting to get started. Scenes where, as David Mamet says in his infamous master-class memo, “two characters are talking about a third [and] the scene is a crock of shit.” Nothing’s happening, but people are talking about how something might happen at some point. And that builds tension, right?

Not necessarily.

Scenes like this are ripe for the proverbial cutting-room floor. Why? Because they’re unnecessary. For example, look at how Star Wars actually begins, as compared to the dull hypothetical above.

The attack’s already taking place. Leia’s already in trouble. The fifteen-second prologue crawl has already filled us in on the situation. We don’t need Leia to explain that Darth Vader is a badass. We learn it easily enough when he shows up and snaps a guy’s neck like a candy cane. Badassery established!

Similarly, the reader isn’t going to give a good goddamn about the details of Tatooine. It’s hot, it’s dry, it’s empty. We learn this when the droids are wandering around lost. The only setting details we learn are those that impact the story right now. The exposition and the action develop at the same time. That’s the essence of a good scene.

Another vital principle of scene structure is that no character leaves the scene unchanged. If your characters learn some information, say “huh, that’s interesting” and then go on with their lives as if nothing happened, then the story probably isn’t moving forward.

Two characters talking about what a third character might potentially do isn’t action. There’s the possibility for something to happen, but nothing actually happens. You want to be very sparing with this kind of scene, because essentially, you’re asking your reader to wait while you get the story moving.

Unless your scene somehow ramps up the tension or raises the stakes somehow, you’re just marking time, and your reader may start losing interest. Raymond Chandler used to solve this problem by having men burst into the room with guns whenever things started getting stale. That may not always be an option for you, but it’s in your best interest to push your characters and story forward.

To further strip-mine the opening sequence of Star Wars: Leia begins the scene as a princess fleeing with the Death Star plans. She ends as a prisoner, the fate of the plans now out of her control. R2 and Threepio begin the sequence as two droids on a starship, minding their own business. They end as fugitives in possession of a galaxy-changing secret only one of them knows they have. Nobody just goes on with business as usual… except maybe Vader, who, for the moment, is the least interesting character in the room. The next time he shows up, it’s torture time. And he’s interesting again.

So the next time you’re peering at your prose and wondering why it seems flaccid or dull, ask yourself: what’s happening in this scene? And furthermore, what can I make happen right now?

14 Replies to “Scene and Structure: Make Something Happen!”

  1. Great post! (and Star Wars is always a good illustrator)

    When I was first working on Unfinished Steampunk Novel #1 (I know, I need to work on titles too) I started to get bogged down…and I thought, essentially, “Okay, time to add ninjas!” It wasn’t actually ninjas, but the idea was enough to spark up the next few passages and throw some conflict in with the main characters.

  2. It’s so true. Readers might forgive a few plot holes or sketchy details, but nothing’s going to make them slam your book shut faster than having their pants bored off them by tedious info dumps and characters sitting around on their duffs doing nothing. It’s all about moving things forward, isn’t it?

    Interesting post, and not just because I agree with you!

    1. Thank you! And yes — in fantasy and sci-fi especially, world-building seems to overshadow storytelling at times, and I think that’s a mistake. Readers generally aren’t nearly as fascinated by the fine details of the setting as much as writers seem to think. They just want something to happen.

  3. Ha, very nice. There’s so much even just in that video clip. Like for instance the first thing we see is Leia’s ship dwarfed by the massive Star Destroyer. A nice metaphor for the overall struggle of the rebels. Then the totally badass Stormtroopers take out dozens of rebel soldiers – although their marksmanship will deteriorate quite a bit later on 😉 And then the plucky droids walk right through a hail of blaster fire with single minded determination. Good stuff, Mr. Lucas, you don’t get enough credit!

  4. You are so right, and the thing about it is that the way you described the scene was telling but in the midst of the action you’re showing what’s going to happen. great post!

  5. Great post, Dan. The way you diagram these writing problems with examples is very helpful. My first thought when reading this was: this is why Mr. Plot and Ms. Exposition characters must be smothered or eliminated as much as possible. It would be so easy to turn C-3P0 into Mr. Plot by describing Tatooine to death but that would kill the momentum. Too much exposition kills a lot of stories for me as a reader and it is something I struggle with mightily as a writer.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Ellen. I think learning to present exposition fluidly and organically is a skill that takes lots of time and effort. I’m prone to the infodump too. That’s what editing is for!

  6. I’m absolutely not going to do this, but I suddenly have this urge to go back and read Anna Karenina with this in mind. I read it years ago, but as I was reading your post, it popped into my head that I seem to think there was an awful lot of “talking about stuff and getting nowhere” in that book. I’m probably misremembering, though.

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