The scene is one of two basic structural units in writing fiction. Specifically, a scene contains action that forces the protagonist or main character in the scene to alter their plans or behavior. The other unit of writing, the sequel, follows the scene and is a unit of decision making and emotional reflection. We’ll worry with the sequel later.
In a basic story, the first scene should depict the daily life of the protagonist. That is, the first scene grounds us in what the protagonist considers the normal world. Even if the world is fantastic to us, it is the day-to-day reality of the protagonist and in this world the protagonist does day-to-day things.
Conflict arises when we pull the protagonist out of their day-to-day world and set them on a course for adventure. This can happen in any number of ways but is always referred to as the inciting incident. Once the inciting incident has occurred, the protagonist has an objective. The best way to depict an objective is physically. A physical objective is called the external superobjective. Such an object symbolizes the deepest desires of the protagonist and obtaining it is the logical conclusion. If there is no physical object involved in the protagonist’s quest, then the protagonist is simply seeking a superobjective.
Consider as a character a man who wants to go to the store and buy some strawberries because he has a date and he knows his date likes strawberry shortcake and he wants to make some. As he’s driving to the store along a route he knows so well that he leaves his cellphone (and, hence, GPS) at home, he comes to a detour sign: a bridge has been washed out up ahead and he must turn off the main highway down a small side street that he’s really never been down before.
In the example above, the strawberries are the external superobjective and symbolize the protagonist’s romantic aspirations. Turning down the side street is the inciting incident. So far so good, right?
But as the protagonist drives down the unfamiliar stretch of road he realizes that he’s no longer heading in the right direction; the supermarket is getting farther and farther away. He pulls down a dirt road to turn around when his car slides off the road slightly, his tire goes into a ditch, and he’s stuck.
And there’s a scene.
In this, we have a clear protagonist. He lives in his day-to-day world and he has a very real goal in mind–strawberries for dessert for a date. Turning off the main highway and getting stuck constitute a kind of compound inciting-incident. The protagonist is left on a strange road without his cellphone and without his car. The logical question, then, is what does this do to his state of mind?
This structure should be, for lack of a better term, funnel shaped. That is, when the character begins, he has options: perhaps there’s another supermarket he could’ve gone to but he doesn’t like their produce selection or their prices. He makes his choice and sets out. Once he turns off the highway, his options are becoming increasingly limited. Once he gets stuck, his options run out and he either must turn back in defeat or find a way to get his car unstuck and get strawberries.
A good scene adds purpose the protagonist’s mission. Now, the car has to be freed. This new problem requires the protagonist to reflect on his situation and that is covered in the sequel.