Scenes are the building blocks of your story. As go your scenes, so goes your story. If the scenes present a solid chain of deliberate structure, that’s what your story will be. But if too many scenes lack focus or dramatic impetus, so will the story. Every aspect of scene structure is important. Any aspect that is accidentally overlooked can throw off the balance of the entire narrative. But of all the many aspects of scene structure, those that are among the most powerful are also the easiest to overlook: scene dilemmas.
First, a quick refresher on classic scene structure (which I discuss in much more depth in my book Structuring Your Novel):
Part 1: Scene (Action)
a. Goal (character wants and tries to get something that will aid in reaching the overall plot goal)
b. Conflict (character is met with an obstacle to obtaining the scene goal)
c. Outcome/Disaster (character’s attempt to reach the goal meets some end, which is usually “disastrous” in the sense that the character either fails to achieve the goal or achieves only part of it)
Part 2: Sequel (Reaction)
a. Reaction (character reacts to the outcome)
b. Dilemma (character must now figure out how to overcome the new complications that resulted from the last attempt while still moving forward toward the main plot goal)
c. Decision (character decides upon a new scene goal as a more effective response to the new complications)
Take note of our little friend the dilemma in section 2.b. At first glance, scene dilemmas can seem either extraneous (how, after all, is the dilemma different from the disaster?) or too straightforward to offer much interesting drama (readers just read about the disaster after all, so do they really need to see characters rehashing it in a dilemma segment?).
There’s truth to both these reactions. But another truth is that within the dilemma part of any scene resides the opportunity to find the true realism and drama that mimics our own real-life processes.