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Story Structure: Crafting the High Moment and Using Conflict

A strong high moment and relevant conflict are important components of effective scene crafting.

Crafting the High Moment

Scenes within a story should mimic the overall story structure, meaning it should have a beginning, middle, climax/high moment, and an ending.

The high moment of a scene uses elevated emotion, action, or revelation to impact the character(s) in some way. This does not have to be a major event or action scene, but it should be noticeable to the reader and stand out in some way.

The high moment typically comes at or near the end of the scene, with the previous parts of the scene building or leading up to the high moment. It should be something that produces a reaction in the character(s) involved in the scene. The more important the scene is, the more important the reaction should be. Reactions might include, fear or happiness, making a decision or increasing uncertainty, hiding or running, pulling away or moving forward, etc.

The high moment reveals the purpose of the scene. The character should learn something, either about his or her self or the other characters, which then affects their perceptions or choices. It should also lead the reader into the next scene by setting up the next step the character(s) will take after the revelation in the current scene.

Emphasizing Conflict

Every scene needs some form of conflict: internal, external, or both.

The conflict in a scene needs to have meaning, not be pointless arguing or endless internal lamenting. Have a clear reason for the conflict and consider how it will eventually be resolved, even if the resolution won’t take place until later in the story. Focus the conflict no the purpose of the scene to keep it from meandering.

Conflict, in general, should get progressively worse throughout the story. This increases the stakes for the character(s). Keep this in mind while planning individual scenes and make sure there is an overall progression throughout the story. When considering the main conflict, break it down into smaller pieces or steps and plan its progression with particular scenes.

It’s also important to vary the type of conflict in subsequent scenes. Too many action scenes or scenes with external conflict in a row can be exhausting for the reader and not provide enough time to take in information or impacts of the action. Internal conflict slows down the action and gives the reader a chance to process the conflict and information along with the reader. Scenes with mostly internal conflict won’t be as explosive, but should increase the overall tension.

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Story Structure: Scene Position, Purpose, and POV

Where a scene is located in the story structure, what role it plays, and whos tells that section of the story are important elements in deciding how to craft a particular scene.

Positioning

Opening scenes should introduce characters, set up the story premise, and give hints at backstory. Don’t go overboard on any of these elements. Orient the reader, and fill in the details later in order to avoid overwhelming the reader with too much information or names to remember.

Middle scenes should continue to introduce and work through complications, provide twists, and increase the stakes. These scenes contain the bulk of the story. They should build on each other and provide story progression. Scenes that lag or lack clear purpose should be eliminated or revised to prevent the reader getting bored.

Climactic scenes will build to a climax, and are typically toward the last third of the book. They are often shorter and use high levels or emotion and action. Be careful not to string too many climactic scenes together. This can overwhelm the reader. Give the reader a break every so often with scenes more focused on recovery, discovery, or introspection.

The tone, feel, and purpose of a scene should correspond to its place in the story.

Purpose

Every scene must have a purpose. That doesn’t mean that every scene needs action. Purposes might include advancing the plot, revealing something about the character or world, or providing information about the overall plot, highlighting change, etc.

For writers who outline, it is usually easier to make sure each scene will have a purpose before it is written. For pansters, this may be more challenging, because you don’t always know where a scene is going when you start writing it. Pansters need to revise critically to make sure there are not superfluous or meandering scenes.

The purpose should be able to be condensed into a one sentence summary. For example, This scene will show David blowing up and scaring Emily away by proving to her that he can’t control himself. If a scene doesn’t have a purpose, it likely doesn’t need to be there or need to be revised with a stronger focus on accomplishing something relevant to the story.

Point of View

It is important that a scene be told from the most impactful point of view.

This is usually the character who is most impacted by the events of the scene. If you find that emotion isn’t coming through in the scene like you wanted it to, reevaluate whose POV it’s being told from. Think about what the stakes are for each character involved and who has the most to gain or lose by the outcome of the scene.

POV is often tied to the purpose of the scene. Make sure you have a firm purpose and then evaluate who will learn the most, change the most, react more strongly, risk the most, etc.

There are exceptions, of course, often stylistic ones. If the emotional elements are so strong they may impact the reader in a negative way or be overwhelming, writing the scene from a peripheral viewpoint might be a better option. This may be the case with traumatic experiences or a particularly gruesome encounter.

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Story Structure: Opening a Story

The opening of a story should catch the reader’s interest right away.

The TOP priority of the opening scene is making the reader want to know what will happen next. Many readers have short attention spans and will only give a book a few pages to grab them. Opening scenes must get the reader invested in the characters and the story very quickly.

Tips for Writing a Great Opening Scene

Start with conflict or tension. It’s important to present some sort of problem early on, even if that problem is simply that the character is unhappy or something is off in their world.

Start with the story, NOT the backstory. Wait to give the reader the character’s full story. Focus on where the character’s life is currently at so the reader can see why or how it needs to change or what is disrupting it.

Introduce the characters in a way that focuses on the individual, not the “type” of character they are. Stay away from stereotypes in general, but especially in the opening scene. This can turn readers off very quickly. Highlight unique traits to pique the reader’s interest.

Be specific but brief in setting the scene and with description. Give the reader a sense of when, where, and how the character exists in his or her world, but don’t overdo it. The reader should usually be more focused on the character than the world. Orient the reader, then save all the other exciting or fascinating aspects of the world for later.

Set the tone of the story through description, action, dialogue, etc. Pay attention to how your describe the world and character. Match the tone to your wording choices and what you choose to focus on. A character who thinks their life is amazing will notice pleasant things in his or her surroundings. An unhappy or frightened character will notice things that feed into the perceptions and emotions that are experiencing.

Make promises to the reader that you WILL keep by the end: finding love, solving a mystery, learning something, etc. Even if you are a pantser and don’t know exactly how the story will end when you begin writing, you should have a general idea. the opening should mirror the ending, in most cases, and show how the character changes from their initial state in the opening scene to the final chapter.

Tips to Avoid a Lackluster Opening Scene

Don’t open with heavy description or backstory. Readers will often get bored and lose interest in the character if she or he is not the main focus of the story. Be concise and stay focused on what will engage the reader.

Don’t open in the middle of confusing events. Starting in the middle of action is fine, but it needs to be understandable, unless your goal is to confuse the reader, which I don’t recommend. Be clear about who is involved, when and where it is taking place, and what the main conflict is.

Don’t open with too many characters. Generally, it’s best to stick to three or fewer characters in an opening scene. It’s overwhelming for readers to meet so many characters at once and try to determine their important, how they fit into the story, and whether they are good or bad (to put it very simply).

Don’t open with a dream or flashback. Some writers do manage to do this effectively, but most don’t. There’s always a risk of upsetting the reader, even if it is done well. If you feel that you absolutely must start with a dream or flashback, make it crystal clear that is what the reader is experiencing so they are confused and don’t feel like to when you make the switch.

Don’t open with a cliché. This is basically anything that will make a reader roll their eyes or think, Oh, it’s that kind of story. The girl standing in front of a mirror describing herself to the reader is a personal pet peeve of mine. I will put a book down for that reason alone.

Don’t open with flowery language. Get to the point of the scene without a meandering trip through the garden. Readers get bored quickly.

Don’t open with “telling.” Show the reader what they need to know using dialogue, action, internal thought, or interactions. Heavy exposition makes a scene drag and long internal soliloquies are exhausting. Think of it as a movie scene. If nothing is happening that the reader can “see,” go back through this checklist and start cutting.

Don’t open with a stolen prologue to fix a boring beginning. Pasting a later scene onto the beginning of a story to make it more interesting is lazy. If your opening scene isn’t interesting enough to stand on it’s own, it needs reworked. Rethink the structure and point of the opening. It should introduce the main character, their current situation, their problem, and a hint at what’s to come next.

Use your opening scene to hook the reader by presenting an interesting character, a problem the reader wants to see solved, and a world that ties the two together.

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Story Structure: Overview

This series will talk about how to structure a story that keeps the reader’s attention and tells a story in the best possible way.

The Basics of Story Structure

Exposition/Introduction

This is where you will introduce the characters, establish the setting, and present the primary conflict. All of this generally happens in the first few chapters or the first act. The goal is to orient the reader in the characters’ lives before you begin adding any major conflicts.

This helps the reader connect with the characters so they will be invested in the outcome of their story. If a reader can’t connect with the main character(s), there’s a good chance they will stop reading. The setting should also be relevant and interesting, so they character appears to be existing in a real world (whether realistic or fantastical).

It’s also important to give readers a good idea of what the main problem is that the characters(s) is dealing with so they know what type of story they are reading and what the character(s) must overcome. This sets up the reader’s expectations for the rest of the story.

Rising Action

This section is where you should introduce the primary conflict and set the main storyline in motion. This should follow with the expectations you set up for the reader during the introduction. Succeeding events become more complicated as the story proceeds, creating stumbling blocks, tension, interest, and excitement.

Rising action isn’t a straight line, however, so problems and complications should be interspersed with moments of calm, reflection, or positive movement. The action will continue to rise overall, but with dips along the way. This gives the reader a break and allows time for reflection and thought.

Climax

This is the major turning point of the story. All the problems and complications established during the rising action will come to a head. There is high tension and conflict, and stakes are at their highest. The risk that things might not turn out should feel real to the reader, even if they know deep down that everything will turn out the way they are hoping.

This is often a moment of crisis that leaves the reader wondering what will happen next. If you are writing a romance, the reader expects there will be a happily ever after ending. You likely won’t get the reader to really think a happy ending is out of the question, but the goal is to make them doubt the how of how that happy ending will be reached. This heightens a reader’s investment in the outcome and deepens the connection with the characters.

Falling Action

After the climax, the story begins to calm down and starts working toward a satisfying ending. Characters decide what action to take to resolve conflict. These decisions and actions should be realistic and somewhat surprising. Easy and predictable resolutions tend to fall flat and disappoint readers. Make sure all the loose ends are tied up, explanations are revealed, and the reader learns more about how the conflict is resolved.

Resolution

At this point, the main conflict is resolved and the book ends. The story, however, should have the illusion of continuing on beyond the page. This is true even if the book is a standalone and will not have a continuation. Give the reader a chance to imagine how the characters’ lives play out. This adds to the satisfying quality of the ending.