One of the most important skills of a writer is how to write a compelling scene. You want to keep the attention of your readers throughout the story, which can only happen if you write scenes that are interesting and compelling.
In the method of The Story Grid, Shawn Coyne explains the five commandments necessary to write a compelling scene. These are the Inciting Incident, the Turning Point, the Crisis, the Climax, and the Resolution.
These building blocks are used on every level of story, meaning that you find these five commandments also within an Act or a sequence.
The Inciting Incident is an event that throws off the protagonist and pushes them out of their ordinary state. When you write a scene, you want an Inciting Incident to create tension. This happens because, at the beginning of the scene, your protagonist has a certain goal. The inciting incident will change this goal or complicate it.
Let’s look at an example from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. In the second chapter, the scene begins by describing the ordinary state for Harry. He comes down the stairs, the Dursleys already eating breakfast and watching TV. Not much excitement there yet.
There’s a news bulletin on Sirius Black, who escaped from prison, but neither Harry nor the Dursleys know yet what this means for them.
The Inciting Incident comes when Vernon says he should go to pick up Aunt Margot. This is news that shakes Harry and puts him out of his ordinary state.
Different types of inciting incidents
An inciting incident can be either causal or coincidental. It’s causal when the inciting incident happens because of something a character does. Thus, Vernon saying he’s going to pick up Margot is a causal inciting incident.
A coincidental inciting incident could be, for instance, a sudden change in weather (e.g., a snowstorm preventing the protagonist from going somewhere) or another natural phenomenon. Something that’s not affected by someone’s actions.
When writing a scene, the Turning Point is an essential element. To write an interesting scene, you want your protagonist to change. You want them to be different at the end compared to the beginning of the scene. These changes don’t always have to be big and dramatic. They can be subtle.
I know it can be compelling to have a scene with just exposition. You want to show off all the cool things in the world you created but think about it from the readers’ perspective. Is it actually fun to read an entire block of text with only descriptions of the environment or the magic system?
It’s clear that Harry doesn’t like Margot and that she’s never been nice to him. However, what makes it turn is when Vernon tells Harry that Margot thinks he’s going to a special school for young criminals.
Now, he’s not just anticipating more bullying from his aunt, but he also has to pretend he’s a juvenile. This is one step further in humiliation for Harry.
As you can see, the turning point can be quite subtle, but it has to be there. It needs to be clear that this is the event that changes things for the protagonist.
For instance, in the Harry Potter scene, Vernon was telling Harry to behave, with Harry repeating he’ll do it, as long as Margot is also kind to him.
It’s not until Vernon tells him Margot thinks Harry goes to a school for young criminals, that Harry exclaims “What?” and stares at Vernon in shock. This indicates that there is now a line that was crossed, turning the scene for Harry.
Different types of turning points
Turning points can happen either through action or revelation. Either a character does something that turns the scene, or the protagonist gains information that puts everything in a new perspective.
The example I gave above thus turns on revelation: Vernon gives Harry new information that puts things in a different perspective for him.
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The Turning Point is necessary to push a character into a Crisis: what should they do? The crisis doesn’t have to be explicitly on the paper. But you, as the author, need to deduce what options are there and why this is a Crisis. You don’t want there to be one option that is clearly better than the other, because then it’s not really a Crisis.
In the scene with Harry, it’s never stated what his options to react are; we just watch him react. Yet, we know from the context of the scene that he has a few options:
He can go against Uncle Vernon, which will likely end with him being punished, and he would probably still have to commit to the story.
He can go along with the story, not getting any punishment, but also losing his dignity.
Different types of crises
Like the other commandments, a Crisis can be two different things. It can be a best bad choice, meaning that both options are bad for the protagonist, so they have to choose the lesser evil.
In the example, the Crisis Harry faces is a best bad choice crisis. For both options, he would still have to go along with the story his uncle made up. But, with the first option, he keeps his dignity, while with the second option, he doesn’t get punished.
The other type of Crisis is an irreconcilable goods crisis. This means that one option might be good for the protagonist, but bad for everyone else, while the other option is good for everyone else, but not for the protagonist.
An example of this is a Crisis where the protagonist can sacrifice themselves to save humanity but will die, or they can choose not to sacrifice themselves, damning humanity but remaining alive.
Very often it’s possible to argue both ways for the type of Crisis, so don’t spend too much time on deciding which of the two is best; they’re both equally valid. What matters is that you make that choice for yourself and that the options are clearly a Crisis.
After the Crisis, comes the Climax. This is where the character makes the choice that arose in the crisis. The Climax is where you show real character; the decision your protagonist makes says more about their personality than any thoughts they might have about themselves. Therefore, it’s essential when you write a scene.
In the Harry Potter scene, after recovering from his initial shock, Harry makes a decision. He actually comes up with a combined solution. Harry decides to go along with the story, but only if he gets something in return.
He goes after his uncle and tells him he won’t do as Vernon says unless he signs a document from Hogwarts. In this way, he does defy the wishes of his uncle but keeps the potential punishment to a minimum. He might lose some dignity in going along with the story, but at least he will get to go to Hogsmeade when at Hogwarts.
Can you see how this decision shows character? It shows us that Harry is not afraid to stand up for himself and risk punishment. Also, it shows us he’s smart and able to pick his battles wisely. It shows us who Harry is much better than if Rowling just stated that Harry is brave and clever.
The Resolution is what happens after the protagonist has made the choice. When you write your scene, take enough time to go through the resolution. How do other characters in the scene react to the decision? Will the protagonist get what they want? Do things go as planned, or not at all? What will be the "new ordinary" after the events in this scene?
Vernon is angry that Harry suggests such a thing and threatens physical violence. Harry is not impressed, and Vernon eventually agrees that if Harry behaves, he will sign the document. Vernon then leaves, and Harry goes to his room to clear it of all things that point towards magic.
As you can see, the new normal state for Harry is to act as much as a Muggle as possible. We also see here who Vernon is as a character: his response to Harry’s decision is immediately to threaten with violence.
However, we also see that he’s more afraid that Harry will somehow reveal to Margot that he’s a wizard, and so he caves.
How to apply the five commandments to write a scene
With the structure above, you can write a killer scene. Now that you know the basics, try and find these commandments on your own!
Create a deliberate writing practice to study scene structure and become better at it.
You can open a book you love, and try and find the commandments in the scenes. You can also look at your own work and check if your scenes have the commandments. Keep in mind though that writing and reading are very subjective things, so there’s never a “right” answer.
What does reading and finding the commandments have to do with writing a scene? It also takes a lot of practice before you get the hang of finding the five commandments. But once you do, you’ll find you write all the commandments without even thinking about it.
If you’re more of a plotter than a pantser, you can also use them to map out a scene. You can come up with the inciting incident, think about how you want your protagonist to be different in the resolution, what kind of turning point would cause this shift, what crisis arises from it, and how your protagonist would react.