On Writing, Plot & Structure

How to Set Up Important Scenes

June 9, 2012

Spoiler warning: If you haven’t read Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, you may want to do so before reading further.

Your novel will be built with around 60 Scenes – fewer for a shorter novel, more for a longer novel. As noted in previous posts on Scene structure, each of these Scenes should contain a rhythm that both intrigues and satisfies the reader on a standalone basis – whether it is an Action Scene, or a Reaction Scene.

Each Scene also should propel the Story forward – and “propel” is the right word here. You should aim to imbue your Scenes with a magnetic energy that draws readers into the Story, and that glues those baby blues, gemstone greens, or brilliant browns to the page.  Construct your Scenes right, and the reader won’t be able to stop turning pages!

This is where Setting Up your Scenes becomes important.

Your novel is comprised of four Sections.

  • Section One: Describes your hero’s normal world; shows how the hero is drawn into the action of the Story.
  • Section Two:  Describes how your hero resourcefully struggles against the antagonistic force that is keeping him from what he is trying to achieve.
  • Section Three:  Something happens that points the hero in the direction of resolving the conflict. Hero – now smarter and tougher because of all he’s learned on his journey so far – goes after the antagonist more ably and forcefully – but only to meet with Defeat yet again – in fact, with a Black Moment when all seems lost and the hero has, apparently, run out of options.
  • Section  Four: Things get even worse for the hero. Then, the hero brings together all he has learned, all his growth, all his capacity to act resourcefully; he arrives at a way to make one last ditch effort;, he has a Showdown with the antagonist – the Climactic Battle – and he loses or (hopefully) wins!

The Scenes in your novel’s first three Sections should maintain the Story Tension – and ratchet it up higher and higher as the Story progresses. The Scenes in those first three Sections also should contain Setups for the key concluding Scenes in Section Four.

Neil Gaiman used Setup very well in his novel, The Graveyard Book. Spoiler warning: If you haven’t read Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, you may want to do so before reading further.

In Section Four of The Graveyard Book, the hero, 15-year-old Bod Owens – a teen who has grown up in a cemetery, protected by its ghostly inhabitants – has a showdown with one of the men who is part of an organization that murdered his family when he was an infant, and which has been stalking him with murderous intent ever since. The organization, the Jacks of All Trades, finally learns where Bod lives and four of its members go to the cemetery to murder him. Bod defeats them all. He defeats the second from last Antagonist by setting a trap. Bod knows that one of the graves in the cemetery is a ghoul gate – that it opens up to a hell-like nether world. Bod positions himself on the ghoul gate grave. When the Antagonist finds him and tries to kill him, Bod utters an incantation that opens the ghoul gate which pulls his adversary into the nether world.

Now, described as it is above, the Scene is mildly interesting. But, read as one of the concluding Scenes in The Graveyard Book, the Scene is truly compelling. That is because Neil Gaiman Set Up this Scene to maximize the tension in the cat and mouse game that has been transpiring between Bod Owns and the murderous Jacks throughout the first three Sections of the novel.

Here’s how Gaiman uses some of those earlier Section Scenes to Set Up this Section Four Scene:

  • Gaiman plays fair with readers. In other words, the “weapon” Bod uses to finally defeat one of the Jacks – his knowledge of the incantations that open and close the ghoul gate – are prefigured. Gaiman achieves this prefiguring by showing us how Bod gets lessons from the graveyard’s ghostly and otherworldly denizens – not only his ABC’s, but also lessons in how to call for help in French and Morse code, and how to call for help from Night Gaunts. But Gaiman doesn’t hit readers over the head with, “Oh, this arcane bit of knowledge is what will help Bod win the day when he’s up against it with the Antagonist.” He just plants with the reader the idea that Bod is learning some things that might come in handy when fending off dark forces.
  • In a Scene in Section One, Gaiman shows Bod actually falling into the ghouls’ ghastly world – and using the call to the Night Gaunts to help him escape. It’s an interesting story in and of itself, but also provides a wonderful Setup for the concluding Scene where Bod springs his ghoul gate trap.
  • In the opening Scene of the book, Gaiman ratchets up the tension by showing us that the Jacks are formidable foes. One of the Jacks kills Bod’s family. In several Scenes throughout Sections One through Three, Gaiman shows how the Jacks prevent Bod from living a normal life: each time Bod ventures outside the graveyard refuge, the Jacks sense his presence and try to kill him.
  • Gaiman also shows us that Bod is massively courageous, most clearly in a Mid-section Scene in which Bod faces off against an ancient Druidic monstrosity fearlessly.


Because of the above Setup Scenes, when the Section Four Battle Scenes finally occur, the reader:

  • Knows the Jacks are formidable foes. Knows Bod is equally formidable and hugely motivated to defeat the Jacks.
  • Is rooting for Bod, but is in no way certain Bod will win.
  • Feels the author plays fair when Bod resourcefully sets and springs the ghoul gate trap that defeats one of the Jacks.


And the Section Four ghoul gate Scene beautifully sets up the Final Confrontation: the Battle between Jack Frost, the Jack who killed Bod’s family, and Bod. The Final Confrontation Scene opens with the Antagonist holding the upper hand: he holds a friend Bod loves dearly hostage.  But – in a manner that is very satisfying to the reader – Bod resourcefully applies several threads of knowledge he’s gained in previous Scenes to free Jack’s hostage and to finally defeat his adversary.

Note: Do not despair if you feel you are not setting up your final scenes as effectively as you would like. That’s what the second and third drafts of your novel are for. The lovely thing about novel writing is you can always “go back under the hood” and “rewire” your novel’s engine (Story) to ensure its maximum power!

You Might Also Like


  • Reply Shankar N Kashyap June 10, 2012 at

    I think this is probably the best “guide” to writing a novel I have come across so far. It is simple to follow and I can just imagine just expanding the theme given in one page to make into a novel. Thank you Jessica. I will certainly buy your book. Can you send me a link to buy one please?

  • Leave a Reply

    %d bloggers like this: