Scene-Writing Basics - Part 2
A Recipe for Disaster
In Part 1 of this series, we talked about your characters' underlying needs, the motivations that drive them to action in the scenes you write. It's important that we understand these motivations before we begin a scene. We need to know the "why" behind each character's decisions and actions.
Scene-writing can sometimes seem a daunting task, so knowing where to begin can often be the stick that prods us to sit down and get to work. But...knowing where to end may be even more important. Without a clear understanding of the end result, we can waste a lot of time. Without knowing the end, we're apt to flounder around with too much meaningless dialogue, too much unnecessary narration, and too many mis-steps along the way.
Let's look at what a scene actually is. I'm sure if I were to pose that question to a roomful of writers, I'd get a roomful of different answers. Scenes are action; scenes are dialogue. Scenes allow the reader to see, to hear, and to fully experience what's going on in the world of our story. All true. But something is missing.
Conflict? Well, yes, but conflict with a purpose.
Good scenes are filled with conflict, but unless that conflict forces a character to (a) make a decision, or (b) take action, it's actually a "nonflict" -- a handy term I've borrowed from Sarah Domet, author of 90 Days to Your Novel.
Ultimately, the purpose of a well-crafted scene is to drive your story forward, to cause things to happen by forcing the characters to make choices, take risks, do things -- things that will, most likely, create new problems and additional complications in their lives.
Little things don't usually cause us -- or our fictional characters -- to make life-changing decisions. But a disaster spurs us to action. When things go wrong, we have to do something to set them right again. It's equally true for our characters. In fact, the principle works even better for fictional characters. In real life, we try to avoid disasters. We prepare. We plan for contingencies. In writing stories, though, we can attack our characters' weak spots, catch them off-guard, throw challenges at them when they're already overwhelmed with problems.
Closely related to the concept of "disaster" is that of "dilemma". It's the proverbial rock and the hard spot. A tough choice. No matter which option your character takes, a problem will result. Tighten the screws, and force him to make a decision.
Sounds mean, I suppose, but it's our job, and in the end, our characters grow because of it. By forcing them to make decisions -- and allowing them to make mistakes -- we give them opportunities to grow. At the same time, we're giving readers a chance to root for our struggling characters, to worry about them, to cheer them on, all the while, turning pages to see what's happening.
The point in all this is that every scene should end with a disaster or dilemma for your character to deal with. During the scene, something has happened; something has changed. Life has suddenly become a bit more complicated for the character. Good. But don't give your character a chance to simply sit around and lament his unfortunate fate. Force him to do something about the problem by presenting him with a full-blown disaster or a dilemma that can't be resolved.
So, exactly what is a "disaster" in fictional terms? And what makes for a real "dilemma"? Here are the guidelines I use.
Disaster: From the character's point-of-view, the worst possible thing that could happen under the circumstances.
Dilemma: A problem that can't be resolved without creating other problems; a choice between two options, each of which brings a benefit but also incurs a loss.
For example, your character must deliver an important document to someone out-of-town. What's the worst possible thing that could happen? Hmmm...maybe the bridge is out and there's no way to get where he's going. Or maybe he's ambushed along the way and the document falls into the wrong hands. Or...? Use your imagination, and you can come up with a lot of disastrous possibilities, all of which would require your character to take action. In these examples, a character might risk crossing the swollen river in order to deliver the document, or he might set off after the robbers who attacked him.
Disaster strikes; your character must do something about it.
Or, a dilemma presents itself. Consider this fictional set-up. Mary Ann's mother needs a specific medicine, but Mary can't afford the cost. She has access to money at work. To save her mother, she could "borrow" what she needs -- with the intention of paying it back. She'd be breaking the law, putting her job at risk, but she could save her mother's life...or, she could maintain her moral standards, perform her job in a responsible, ethical manner, and watch her mother die. Which choice will she make?
In writing scenes, start with knowing what your character wants most, what he or she needs most. Then, as you bring you scene to a close, make sure you've presented a disaster or a dilemma that threatens this need.
You won't have to wonder where your story will go next because your character will show you the way through the decisions he makes and the actions he takes.