8. Structuring a Novel Plot

The Novel Formula - A Novel Writing Method: Step Eight

Head Scenes and Tail Scenes

Now we're really going to get into the nitty-gritty technics of writing a plot that is compelling, while feeling natural and balanced to the reader.
And we're going to do it with the cunning use of Head and Tail scenes. This method is based on Dwight Swain's 'scenes' and 'sequels'.
Roughly speaking, Head scenes are where your character is being active, doing stuff, hopefully getting into trouble, getting into people's faces, that sort of thing. But a character can't do that relentlessly throughout the whole book or both they and the reader will be exhausted, not to mention they're unlikely to develop much as characters.
So, inbetween Head scenes you have Tail scenes, which are where your character pauses to take stock, reflect, regroup and plan their next move.
Now, it doesn't have to be 50/50. The balance decides what sort of story you have. If it's 80% Head scenes, you've got a fast-paced, action type story. If it's 80% Tail scenes, it's a more reflective, thoughtful story.
As a general rule, Head scenes should be immediate, happening right here and now, with the action described in detail. Whereas, in tail scenes it's possible to compress time more, even skipping over weeks, months or even years in a few sentences or pages.

Head Scenes

Head scenes can be broken down into three parts:
  • Goal
  • Conflict
  • Disaster
At the beginning of a Head scene, your character should have some kind of goal, something they want to achieve. Otherwise it's possible for them to spend the whole scene mooching about, and very few people want to read about that.
So your character should go for their goal and get it, right? Wrong. Boring. You're character should go for their goal and -bam!  Conflict. Something stops them achieving their goal. Now your reader is interested. They want to know if the character is going to overcome this obstacle to achieve their goal. If you're good, you'll come up with a series of mounting obstacles. Then...
Disaster! Not only does your character not achieve their goal, but they're in a much worse situation than before. After all that excitement, they're spent. In fact, the disaster was so great, they may even be locked up. It's time for a Tail scene.

Tail Scenes

Tail scenes can also be broken down into three parts:
  • Reaction
  • Dilemma
  • Decision
The first bit is their reaction to the disaster. It should be an emotional reaction rather than an active one (we'll get to the active one later). Are they furious? Despairing? They've been through a lot, they ought to be feeling something.
Once the emotions have had a chance to settle, they're going to start assessing the situation. What are they going to do next? They should have at least two options, though they may have more. At a most basic level, the two options are sit there and do nothing, or take action. Ideally, there will be no good options. Having good options makes things too easy, and readers don't want to read about someone waltzing through the story easily - they want to see them struggle and strive, so they can root for them, and genuinely worry that they'll the thwarted.
Having weighed up all the options, the character settles on one of the options. The least bad one. Though it's risky, it's worth it, in order to stick to their principles. Now they've got a goal, and the cycle is ready to turn once more.

And repeat

By applying this pattern skilfully to all of your scenes, your story will keep gaining momentum and will feel balanced and real to the reader. You'll avoid having a character that seems to just leap to conclusions out of nowhere, or meandering scenes with no direction.
Of course, you may really need a scene where your character sets out to do something, and achieves it, or something similar which doesn't fit into the structure above. That's fine - you can insert Supporting scenes in where you need them. Just try to avoid having too many of them, or you may find that your story has lost the plot.

Next step: 9a. Settings Part One: mood, atmosphere, character development and foreshadowing