The #1 Mistake – No Scene Structure/Episodic Action

No scene structure and action is episodic

Why would scene structure matter?

Have you ever noticed how things work better when the work is organized? Whether it’s a space launch or a pancake breakfast, organizing makes the whole thing work more efficiently. Certain people have certain tasks.

Organization applies to stories too. Communication is underpinned by organization.

Over the millennia, human thoughts have coalesced into words. Certain words had specific tasks they performed. These words were organized into sentences. By agreeing on what the words mean and the pattern and order in which these words are presented we communicate everything from “what’s for lunch” to abstract ideals. Sometimes we communicate through organized symbols—writing.

Concept, encode, transmit ????receive, decode, reconceptualize

Whether spoken or written, the key to communication relies on people knowing the system. When the process is short-circuited, dismissed, or not used, then the message becomes garbled. I don’t understand Portuguese. Someone may speak perfect Portuguese, but I will not be able to decode and reconceptualize the words to know what the person meant.

Stories communicate and therefore have structure. For instance, most genre stories and probably 99% of movies use some form of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth (Hero’s Journey).

  • The hero leaves the world of the everyday and enters into a mythological woods where he or she is tested
  • The hero has a death and rebirth experience
  • The hero has a confrontation with “the evil one,” and so on.

In his book, THE KEY: Using the Power of Myth to Write Damn Good Fiction, James N Frey demonstrates how these fictional motifs are used in modern novels and films. Each of these pieces is made of one or more scenes.

Scenes advance the story by showing conflict, introducing characters, etc. Scenes have a structure so that we know when they’re complete. It is when the structure is incomplete that the message becomes garbled.

What structure should scenes have?
I have heard of others but the most often used is Jack Bickham’s method. In his book Scene and Structure, Bickham outlines a scene as:

  • Statement of goal (which should relate to the story question)
  • Conflict developed in attempt to reach goal
  • Failure to reach goal
  • Repetition of attempt to reach goal
  • Goal reached/not reached
  • Twist or tactical disaster

Episodic Action
Once the scene is complete a transition is needed. It is the lack of transition that makes a story episodic. Transitions (according to Bickham) are labeled as segues or sequels.

A segue is generally brief narration that moves the story forward in time, space, and place and provides new information.

A sequel is generally longer and is the character’s analysis of the situation. First come the character’s emotion, then thought (including review, analysis, and planning), a decision, and finally action based on the decision (and we are back into a scene).

For more on scenes and transitions:

For other story structures see:

There you have it. A list of the top ten mistakes new writers make as provided by two professional editors. They only provided the list. I have teased out what I think each point meant. Any misinterpretations of their list are mine and mine alone.

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