Skip to main content
Publish date:

Write Incidents, Not Scenes

Read an excerpt from You Can Write a Novel, 2nd Edition by James V. Smith, Jr.

Think of your novel in terms of Incidents. By which I also mean, forget the term scenes. Start thinking in terms of Incidents.

I rely on Mark Twain for the insight:

Incidents are better, any time, than dry history.

This is one of those arm-folding tricks I’m playing on your brain, so just go along with me. Scene is a sterile term about a writing device. In contrast, an Incident is something that happens. Incident implies drama, things going wrong, conflict, people in trouble. It’s a word right out of a police report. Trauma, conflict, action, Incident. That’s where we want to be. You’re a writer who is learning to tell stories Incident by Incident, with conflict and action built right into the term.

You might as well start thinking Incidents, capital I, because I’m not going to use the word, scene, anymore in this book, except to refer to it as history.

The top three critical, or Master, Incidents in your novel:

1. The opening Incident. Call it your big fat Greek Opener, if it helps you remember.

2. The Point-of-No-Return Incident, PoNRI for short. We won’t deal with the PoNRI now, except for a couple mentions. Which leaves . . .

3. The climactic Incident, or climax. Call it your All-American Kick-Butt Closer. For my purposes, it includes the resolution of the story. But let’s not complicate things for now.

I used to tell writers to think of a novel’s basic structure in only ten scenes. Not anymore. It was Thoreau who advised, “Simplify, simplify,” So let’s cut those ten scenes down to size. Think of your novel’s timeline as Incidents in the alphabet, with the three letters, ADZ, standing out.

Where A is the Opener to your novel, say, the front bumper of the bus you’re trying to pack with readers; D is the Point of No Return Incident, a pivotal point in the story, and fairly far forward in your novel, say, at about the fuzzy stuffed Garfield ornament hanging from your bus’s rearview mirror; and Z is the Closer at the tale end, which seals the deal with your reader and leaves tire treads on her mind.

By the way, I’d include the story's resolution as part of the Closer. And, I do mean for the relative size of the three letters above to mean something to you. Size refers to importance. Clearly, the Opener is important for snagging and holding readers, especially agents and editors. I say the Closer is most important of all on the road to best-seller status because, although it’s crucial for a reader to feel connected to your story the first moment she picks it up, it’s utterly critical how she feels after she turns the last page and sets your novel down. Why? Because you want her to sign on to your sales team, and to talk up your novel to all her friends and fam.

Later we’ll discuss the relative size of other letters, too. Many of them will be pivotal points as well.

Also, as we shall see, the PoNRI isn’t locked in at D. It can move farther forward, to B or even A and even a novel’s first sentence, as it is in Slumdog Millionaire. But for now, just get the picture of ADZ. This is your simplest blueprint for a novel.

Now listen to Mark Twain’s remarks about episodes, or Incidents A and Z, from his essay, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.”

There are nineteen rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic fiction—some say twenty-two. In Deerslayer Cooper violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require:

1. The tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the Deerslayer tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in the air.

2. They require that the episodes of the tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the Deerslayer tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.

Nowhere. Think of it as a place you never want your novel to be. That’s why I suggest sketching your Closer right from the top. Write a sketch of the Opener and the closer now.

About the Book

For more about crafting a compelling, salable novel, check out You Can Write a Novel, 2nd Edition by James V. Smith, Jr.

Online Exclusive: Q&A With Novelist James V. Smith, Jr.

Novelist James V. Smith, Jr. shares his insights into the writing life in this exclusive Q&A.

3 Things Being a Broadway Wig Master Taught Me About Storytelling

3 Things Being a Broadway Wig Master Taught Me About Storytelling

A career behind the curtain helped Amy Neswald in creating her own stories. Here, the author shares 3 things being a broadway wig master taught her about storytelling.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Out of Control

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Out of Control

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, let things get a little out of control.

November PAD Chapbook Challenge

2021 November PAD Chapbook Challenge: Next Steps

Here are the final steps for the 14th annual November PAD Chapbook Challenge! Use December and the beginning of January to revise and collect your poems into a chapbook manuscript. Here are some tips and guidelines.

NaNoWriMo’s Over … Now What?

NaNoWriMo’s Over … Now What?

After an intense writing challenge, you might feel a little lost. Here are some tips from Managing Editor and fellow Wrimo Moriah Richard for capitalizing on your momentum.

Ian Douglas: On Telling the Truth in Science Fiction

Ian Douglas: On Telling the Truth in Science Fiction

New York Times bestselling author Ian Douglas discusses how he incorporated implausible conspiracy theories to uncover the truth in his new science fiction novel, Alien Hostiles.

Poetry Prompt

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 589

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write a yesterday poem.



Every writer needs a little inspiration once in a while. For today's prompt, write about revenge.

Peter Fiennes: On Finding Hope in the Writing Process

Peter Fiennes: On Finding Hope in the Writing Process

Critically acclaimed author Peter Fiennes discusses his quest to find hope in his new travel/Greek mythology book, A Thing of Beauty.

November PAD Chapbook Challenge

2021 November PAD Chapbook Challenge: Day 30

For the 2021 November PAD Chapbook Challenge, poets are tasked with writing a poem a day in the month of November before assembling a chapbook manuscript in the month of December. Today's prompt is to write a The End and/or The Beginning poem.