Writing Fiction: Anatomy of a Scene

Diane Callahan
9 min readApr 13, 2020

Scenes are the building blocks of stories. Every scene in a novel contributes to the story in some way, whether through characterization, atmosphere, or plot progression. In examining the anatomy of a scene, we’ll start with the big-picture skeleton, then dive into the essential organs, and end with the skin — the outward appearance of the writing itself.


Although scenes can take an infinite number of forms, the underlying structure largely remains the same: the character has a goal, but they encounter an obstacle, so they respond by formulating a new plan of action or experiencing a moment of change.

This has been called the ABT formula — and, but, therefore. Trey Parker, co-creator of South Park, explains this technique in detail:

“Every story can be reduced to this single structure. I can tell you the story of a little girl living on a farm in Kansas AND her life is boring, BUT one day a tornado sweeps her away to the land of Oz, THEREFORE she must undertake a journey to find her way home.”