Wednesday, February 17, 2010


I stayed up way too late reading yet again. This time, it was the fault of Dick Francis. I was re-reading a book I haven't looked at in ages, and I remembered just enough to know I should be concerned but not enough to know what happened, and that made me turn pages even more anxiously than if I'd been reading it for the first time.

But now I have my bi-weekly writing post. This week, I'm looking at building scenes. This is one of those topics where I don't feel like an expert. It's something I'm always struggling with, but there might be some value to others in sharing my struggles.

According to two of the gurus of fiction writing, Dwight Swain (in his book Techniques of the Selling Writer) and Jack Bickham (Scene and Sequel), a scene is like a mini story that has all the elements you'd expect in a novel: you've got a protagonist with a goal and an antagonist with his own opposing goal, so you've got conflict, and that conflict creates rising action leading to a climax and resolution. In a scene, the protagonist has a goal that's a subset of the story goal, something the character needs to accomplish in order to move closer to achieving the story goal. He faces some opposition and each thing he tries doesn't work, until the end of the scene, when the scene question of whether he will achieve this goal is definitively answered -- and until the end of the book, the answer is always "no" or "yes, but" (he gets what he's aiming for, but it turns out to not be what he really needed). That forces him to regroup and come up with another plan, which means a new scene goal, and that kicks off the next scene. He has to keep overcoming bigger and bigger obstacles until it comes down to the final showdown. The end of each scene should move him further and further away from achieving his story goal until it seems like there's no hope of succeeding.

That sounds wonderful in theory, but I can't quite make it work in practice because if you follow those guidelines to the letter, your character will end up running in place. He has to make some progress somewhere instead of getting further and further from his goal or the story will go off on weird tangents.

I'll go back to my favorite source of examples, the original Star Wars (not that it's so brilliantly written, but it's very familiar and it has a very simple, fairly universal plot, so it lends itself to examples). Luke's story goal, once he joins Obi Wan on his mission, is to get the secret plans in R2-D2 to the rebels so they can find a weakness in the Death Star and destroy it. Once they decide that this is their goal, their first step is to find transportation to Alderaan. When they enter the cantina, their scene goal is to find transport, and after some negotiation and a little distraction, they do so, which gets them one step closer to achieving their story goal. I suppose you could look at that as a "yes, but" resolution, since it makes their lives more difficult when they're successful. If they hadn't found transportation, they could have just hung out there. Obi Wan could have started singing with the bar band (since he was Ewan McGregor in a former life). Luke could have become a mechanic, and they'd have never had to face Darth Vader. But it wouldn't have been a very interesting story, even though it would have taken them further from their story goal. Or they could have changed plans and decided to put the space station plans on the Internet and crowdsourced the search for a weakness. That would have been an entirely different story with fewer space battles (but lots more flame wars). A real "yes, but" that gave them their scene goal but that would have taken them further from their story goal might have been if Han Solo turned out to be a crook (well, a worse crook) and instead of taking them to Alderaan he held them captive while going off and doing something else.

Where the real "yes, but" comes in this sequence is when they get a ship and they get to Alderaan (yay!) but it turns out that Alderaan is no longer there (oops!), and then they get taken on board the Death Star (big oops!). Then they're further from their story goal because not only did they not get the plans to the rebels, they've been taken by the bad guys, right there on board the station they need to destroy. Things have gotten worse, and that's made the story more interesting. I can see that you wouldn't want them to achieve their goal of getting to Alderaan to just hand over the plans, but in order for anything interesting to happen, they have to achieve the scene goal of getting transportation.

So, I would alter the "rule" somewhat and say that the characters are allowed to achieve their scene goals if doing so puts them into a more interesting or difficult situation, even if it gets them closer to their story goal. The "no" or "yes, but" scene ending is more of a turning point thing. However, if the character is going to get what he wants in a scene, there needs to be something else going on. In the cantina scene, the distraction involved Obi Wan going into Jedi mode to protect Luke, which drew attention, so they were up against a ticking clock and had to get off the planet before the stormtroopers found them. They may have achieved their goal, but they also made escape a little more difficult (I wonder if that counts as a "yes, but"). The conflict in the scene wasn't from whether or not they'd get a ship. It was from the fight. If the scene had just involved them going into the cantina, finding a pilot and booking passage, it might not have needed to be there. We could have cut to them showing up at the ship, with a reference to having found the pilot in a bar.

What I've started doing in planning scenes is to write out who my scene protagonist is, what her goal for the scene is and how it fits with her story goal, what the opposition is and why the antagonist is opposing her. I also plan what the ending will be, and if she gets what she wants, then I need to figure out what the point of showing the scene is -- if there is one. Is there some other underlying conflict at work that will complicate life for my character even if she gets what she wants?

It is important that something changes in every scene. Otherwise, why is it there? Life will never be the same, even if it's in some small way. One theory I've read is that each scene should turn on an axis or reverse polarity. If things are positive for the character at the beginning, they should be negative at the end, and vice versa. Or if things are already not going well at the beginning, they should be much worse at the end of the scene.

I will say that it's not necessarily good to think too much about this stuff. When I've tried to consciously put it into play, I end up with a stilted book. I mostly pull out this analysis in revisions when trying to figure out what's wrong with a scene or when I'm stuck (or procrastinating).

1 comment:

Carradee said...

*snickers* Flame wars! Good one!

That's a good point about these sorts of things stilting first drafts. I'd started applying the tips to some scenes in a WiP as I was reading this and started panicking.

Now I'm working on writing the primary plot for the last two chapters. *grin*