Scene Structure: Proactive and Reactive Scenes

Gone are the days when I wrote scenes on the fly — without thought — letting them unfold as they came to me.  Gone are the days when I thought of myself as a pantser, the type of writer who writes by the seat of my pants without planning.  I’m officially a plotter.  I accept that.  Having some structure ensures that I’m including a particular scene because it drives the story forward and that it’s not doing a disservice to my work.

Two Types of Scenes

For my novel-in-progress, I’m alternating the two basic types of scenes: proactive (action) and reactive (reaction).  A proactive scene occurs, followed by a reactive scene, then back to the proactive scene, and so on.  Author and  creator of the Snowflake Method, Randy Ingermanson, explains these types of scenes in his book Writing Fiction For Dummies.

Proactive Scenes

Proactive scenes contain a goal, a conflict, and a setback.

  • Goal:  at the beginning of a scene, the point of view character has a goal that he or she wishes to achieve by the end of scene.
  • Conflict:  during the middle of the scene, the point of view character tries to achieve their goal, but is challenged by obstacles as the scene develops.
  • Setback:  at the end of the scene, the point of view character runs into a terrible problem.

Reactive Scenes

Reactive scenes contain a reaction, a dilemma, and a decision.

  • Reaction:  at the beginning of the scene, the point of view character is recovering from the setback that occurred in the proactive scene.
  • Dilemma:  during the middle of the scene, the point of view character has to figure out what to do next and faces choosing between unfavorable options.
  • Decision:  at the end of the scene, the point of view character makes his/her decision, which establishes a goal for the follow-up proactive scene.

This method of structuring scenes has become quite helpful when I pre-write my scenes (a new plotter trait I’ve taken on).  And when you break it down to its simplest form, as I’ve done above, it’s easy to create proactive and reactive scenes.  Most importantly, this method of structuring scenes eliminates nonsensical rambling.  Readers will surely appreciate that!

A Novice Novelist’s Approach to the 3-Act Structure

Writing a historical novel has been quite an undertaking.  I’m discovering more facets to the process all the time.  With the short stories I’m used to writing, I didn’t have to do full character charts, nor did I have many characters (two for my short stories).  I didn’t have to plan scenes and generate a scene list because my short stories are usually one scene, maybe two.  There certainly aren’t any “acts,” like the 3-act structure that many writers use for their novels.  With a short story, there’s a major conflict and then a resolution.  With writing a novel, I can’t have just one conflict.  That’s where the 3-act structure has helped me plan my novel, because it includes three major disasters.

Why Use the 3-Act Structure?

Once I compiled my scene list, I began analyzing it and combing scenes together to make them into one, or splitting scenes apart into two separate scenes.  I arranged the list to my liking, and that’s when I looked into the 3-act structure.  I was afraid of it at first.  I had a mental aversion to the word “structure.”  I didn’t want this blueprint of my novel to be permanently set on a clay tablet.  I wanted the freedom to move things around or change my mind and delete things or add new content as ideas arise.  I also thought, This structure thing is confusing.  Why complicate matters when I can just write it as it comes to me?  The answer to that is:  Because I want my readers to be fully engaged while reading my novel and to have an intimate experience with my characters.

Simplifying the Structure

My brain doesn’t take well to this linear-type of thinking and planning, but the more I looked into the 3-act structure, the more I began to grasp it.  The most confusing part of this structure to me was how a novel can be divided into four quarters, and yet there’s three acts.  To simplify the process, I made a chart.

The 3-Act Structure (w/novel divided into four quarters)

Act I

First Quarter

Ends with first major disaster

Act II

Second Quarter

Ends with second major disaster

Third Quarter

Ends with third major disaster


Fourth Quarter

(Last quarter)

Wrap up with climax and resolution


Placing Scenes within the Acts

When it sank in that the third quarter is part of Act Three, that helped in explaining how there can be four quarters but only three acts.  Once I saw how this structure flowed, I was then able to place my scenes into the act in which they belonged, as can be seen by my spreadsheet below.  This was my first sheet and very rough, just so I could get the layout and where the three major disasters belong.  It’s only a screenshot, and I deleted lots of rows of scenes in to order to show how I sectioned my scenes around the 3-act structure.  I couldn’t get Acts Three and Four in the photo, but you can get the idea that those acts follow as the spreadsheet continues on.

Screen Shot 2014-08-22 at 5.59.38 AM

 Is the 3-Act Structure Restricting?

I never imagined that I would be plotting and planning to this extent, but I don’t feel like I’m locked into this blueprint of my novel.  I can still change what happens and how characters react, right?  And, yes, I like to color code.

The Perils of Scene Construction

I’m used to crafting short stories, flash fiction, and dabbling in poetry.  This novel-writing stuff is a different world.  My B.A. in English/creative writing did not prepare me for all of these facets of structuring a novel.  As I’ve said in other posts, the Snowflake method has been extremely useful.  It has allowed me to plan key points in my novel without having to outline and call myself a plotter.  Just the word “outline” makes me feel like I’m confined in a straightjacket.  By writing a short synopsis, then a longer synopsis, I had some direction.  The long synopsis is supposed to be around four pages.  Once I began writing, more ideas came to me, and my long synopsis resulted in nine pages.  I’ve been using the Snowflake Pro software, which I wrote a brief review about here.  On the final step, the software takes your long synopsis and generates a scene list.  Here’s the problem:  the scene list is comprised of every sentence that’s contained in the long synopsis.  It’s essentially a numbered list with one sentence.

Here’s an excerpt of what the “scene list” generated:

Scene #49 Dr. Palmer arrives but John has now fallen unconscious.
Scene #50 He can feel John’s pulse, so they know he’s still alive.
Scene #51 The doctor looks in his eyes and his mouth and sees his tongue is black and said, “He’s been poisoned.”

Clearly, Scenes 49-50 should be combined into one scene.  But with a nine-page synopsis on my hands, that’s a lot of individual sentences that were listed as individual scenes, which I then had to go through and combine into full, cohesive scenes.  It sounds like a daunting task, but when I began combining the sentences into scenes, it alerted me to other scenes or events that needed to be placed in between.  And since I’m used to writing short stories where there’s only one scene, maybe two, I began doubting my instincts about what makes a good scene.  I questioned what makes up a scene, what are the elements of scenes for writing a novel.

Snowflake Pro is half price when you purchase Ingermanson’s book Writing Fiction for Dummies.  I’ve read dozens of articles on scene construction, but Ingermanson’s take on it is that there are two kinds of scenes:  a proactive scene and a reactive scene.

Proactive scenes consist of the point of view character having:

  • a goal
  • a conflict
  • and a setback

Reactive scenes consist of the point of view character having:

  • a reaction
  • a dilemma
  • and a decision

Ingermanson notes that a reactive scene should (and usually) follows a proactive scene.  Other articles I’ve read about constructing scenes seem to indicate that a proactive scene and reactive scene are, in fact, one scene.  In other words, a scene should include the following elements:  a goal, a conflict, a setback, a reaction to the setback, a dilemma, and a decision.  I’m still deciding whether it’s easier to view scene construction as encompassing all of the facets rolled into one, or if it will make life easier for me to view it in the two separate categories, as suggested by Ingermanson.  The jury is still out on that.