Scene Check: Part How

In planning or editing any given scene, consider the “how” questions:

How long will the scene be?

Answer? A scene’s length depends on what’s at stake, what the two opposing characters’ motivations are, and how strong the conflict will be.

Let’s say a scene’s purpose is for a private investigator to gain the answer to a question. He goes to the victim’s sister and asks her about the strange clothing the victim was wearing the night she was killed.

If the sister wants to help, but she doesn’t know the answer, the scene conflict will be mild and brief. She’ll evade a little, then when pressed, she’ll admit she doesn’t know the reason. When pressed a little more, she’ll insist she doesn’t know. It’s obvious she’s telling the truth, and the detective moves on.

But if the sister is hiding something, if the peculiar clothing points to an aspect of that secret she doesn’t want known, she’ll be nervous and irritable. Her evasions will be stronger, and as a result the detective will be more suspicious. He’ll ask tougher questions, and she’ll lie, and maybe flirt, and maybe try to change the subject, and finally throw him out.

How much conflict should there be in a scene?

To reiterate the point made above, the degree of conflict will depend on what’s at stake.

If the issue is simply whether to eat a hamburger for lunch, then the low stakes hardly merit a scene at all.

But if the issue is really about a rocky relationship, where the woman has celiac’s disease and the man insists on their eating lunch in a burger joint, now the argument isn’t over the menu but about how little he cares for her health or safety; in fact, how little he cares about her.

How can a scene be lengthened?

Before you solve that problem, examine why you think the scene is too short.

Do you feel your characters overlooked something as they argued? Did you intend to include a particular point but as the scene heated up, your characters skipped it? Or do you have the sense that the scene just isn’t doing enough?

In the latter case, compare the protagonist’s motivations and goal to his emotional involvement. Is he a bit passive? Has he given in too quickly? Those are signs of insufficient emotional involvement with the goal.

On the other hand, if a character really cares about what he’s trying to accomplish, then he won’t stop at the first maneuver of opposition. Or even the second. He’ll persist as far as he can take the confrontation until that persistence lands him in trouble.

Also, when a scene falls too short or seems too skimpy, look at the antagonist’s emotional involvement. Perhaps this character’s motivation isn’t strong enough. If you make adjustments, what happens?

Or, perhaps the antagonist’s motivation is strong but for some reason you had him rein back much of his temper. Why? Are you inadvertently trying to protect your protagonist? Unleash the antagonist’s temper. Stop coddling your protagonist. Let one character needle the other one, and see if it pushes any emotional buttons.

How can a scene be shortened?

Maybe you’ve written a strong, tense scene where the conflict level escalates well and the confrontation ends in a setback for the protagonist. The scene is well-crafted, but for some reason you’ve got to shorten it. Perhaps your story is over the assigned length and simple tightening hasn’t reduced it enough.

To shorten a scene, first look for any chitchat. Get to the argument quicker. Look for internalizations, gestures, or mannerisms. Trim them. Look for pauses while you describe the room or a prop one of the characters is handling. Shorten or eliminate those. Then search for any attempt by the antagonist to get the protagonist off track or on a tangent. Eliminate that tactic.

How can a plot twist be incorporated?

First of all, let’s nix the kind of brainless plotting where a writer simply thinks about the most horrible random thing that could happen and tosses it into the scene.

For example, a teacher and her principal are sitting in the school’s office, having a civilized disagreement over whether the after-school music club should be discontinued. And suddenly there’s an earthquake, and a bookcase filled with books and school trophies falls on the teacher, breaking her collarbone and giving her a concussion.

Plot twist! Right?

Well, not exactly a plausible or effective one. It’s not organic to the situation. It’s sheer, coincidental bad luck. It may seem exciting, but how does it actually contribute to the story?

Plot twists work best when they come from the antagonist. So the teacher goes into this meeting thinking she’s got to stand up for the music club and find some way to persuade her principal from cutting it, and the principal tells her the real reason he’s ending the club is that he’s learned she was accused of pilfering club funds at her last teaching position and he doesn’t want her trying such shenanigans here.

Miss Jones is left stunned, hardly able to respond as she stumbles from the office. She did not steal at her last job, but she was never fully exonerated. She moved to another state, trying to get away from the scandal, but now it’s followed her here. She should have kept her head down and simply taught her classes, bringing no attention to herself. But she wanted to help her young students. She wanted to bring an extra dimension of music appreciation to their young lives. And now, the lie is hanging over her again.

Plot twists pick at the issues the protagonist most fears and bring them forward. Not only can’t she have the music club, but now she’ll fear for her job as well. If the principal doesn’t like her, he’ll use it to end her teaching contract. So the plot twist was unexpected, hit her like a ton of bricks, and has made her story situation much worse than before.

That’s much more effective than a random earthquake, isn’t it?

How can a scene make things worse for the protagonist?

Through setbacks and plot twists, as I’ve just showed you in the above example.

The worse the scene ends for the protagonist, the better–as far as the story is concerned. Remember that this isn’t to be sadistic toward your protagonist, but to force the character to change as a result of meeting challenges.

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Scene Check: Part Why

Why, why, why?

Such a tiny question, but it carries enormous influence.

When you’re planning a scene in your story, you need to understand why it’s important before you include it.

Are you intending to let two characters chat with each other about nothing much? Or will this encounter lead to a confrontation that betrays a shocking secret, a missing piece of evidence, or a motivation?

Scenes should matter. If you’re just recounting a trivial incident that lacks true dramatic value, summarize it. Don’t dramatize it.

Save scenes for the critical events that move your story forward.

Ask yourself, does this scene really need to be in my story? Why? If it doesn’t, cut it.

Beyond that, let’s consider the actual scene content. The majority of it should deal with conflict. And conflict is best focused between two characters at a time.

So then, why is the scene antagonist opposed to what the scene protagonist is trying to accomplish?

You never want to dramatize two characters bickering just because Deborah Chester said you should write about conflict. Certainly it’s a reason, but one that has nothing to do with your story.

So look inside your antagonist. You won’t be writing the scene from his or her viewpoint, but as the writer you need to understand this person’s perspective. What does the antagonist want? Why is the antagonist here, in this place, at this time? What does the antagonist hope to gain? Why is the antagonist in opposition to the protagonist?

The answers to these questions get at the antagonist’s motivation. To write really good conflict, you need to know those reasons. Because until you do, the antagonist’s dialogue and actions will be contrived. They’ll come across as inconsistent, weak, or phony.

But when you understand that Irmengarde doesn’t want her brother-in-law to give his young daughter a pony because when Irmengarde was seven she was thrown off a runaway horse and had to stay in bed, mending a broken pelvis, for several months–then her hysteria and sharp words make sense. She may or may not actually tell the brother-in-law why she’s adamantly opposed to the idea. So she may act erratic or arbitrary, but there will be a visible consistency–and evidence of a reason–in her words and actions.

The man, not understanding, may think she’s a sour old biddy who doesn’t want any child to have fun. Since he’s the scene’s protagonist, he’ll have the viewpoint. He’ll be baffled and annoyed. He may think Irmengarde is trying to run his life, unasked, and control his little girl. He’ll resent Irmengarde’s interference. And reader sympathy will be with him.

However, from your understanding, you’ll be writing a much more complex character than “sour, old biddy.” You’ll have a stronger, more determined Irmengarde–who, despite her personality flaws–really does mean well. And because of her motivation, she won’t surrender easily. It may or may not be necessary to ever share her motivations with readers. But, then, if she’s kept the past event a secret all her life … why? If it’s not a secret, she’ll blurt it out in the conflict, using her terrible experience as a tactic of persuasion.

Now, moving beyond the antagonist’s motivations, why is the protagonist willing to fight for his goal?

What keeps him going after he hits opposition? Why doesn’t he back away? Why doesn’t he accept no as an answer?

Again, if you don’t understand the protagonist’s motivation, the scene will seem hokey and false, especially if he takes risks.

Does Cuthbert want a salary increase or does he need it? If you’re shooting for a strong scene of conflict, then he’d better need it.

Well, why? What’s happened to create this need? Is he in financial difficulties? Maybe his salary doesn’t cover his living expenses. Fair enough, but that’s a background situation, a continuous problem. What’s happened now, right now, to propel him into his supervisor’s office to ask for a raise today, this moment?

Has he just received a notice from his landlord, raising his rent? Well, why can’t he move to a cheaper place?

Did he celebrate his birthday over the weekend at a casino with friends, and now owes forty thousand dollars he doesn’t have?

Hmm. I don’t think a raise will cover that one.

Maybe his sweet love has finally agreed to marry him, and he wants to buy her a ring.

Couldn’t he put the ring on his credit card? Maybe, unless it’s already maxed. Or maybe he doesn’t believe in buying on credit because his parents went bankrupt from mishandling consumer debt.

Or perhaps Cuthbert is already married, and his wife just told him they’re expecting their first child. With a family on the way, he can’t drift along in his modest little job. He needs a promotion that will pay more. He needs to take on more responsibilities and carve out a career path for himself. He can’t go from week to week the way he’s done in the past. People are depending on him now. He’s about to be a father, and no son of his will do without.

And why does he feel he must give his son everything? A new father’s natural pride and elation perhaps. Or did Cuthbert grow up in a disorganized, stressed-out household where there was never enough money because his father stayed in a dead-end job and spent his paycheck on too much beer and cigarettes? Eating fried Spam for supper when he was little so his daddy could have fun at the bar made Cuthbert feel unloved and of little value to his parent. He doesn’t want to be that kind of father.

But of course, scenes are about conflict. Cuthbert may need a raise, but his boss has no desire to give him one.

Why? Maybe the boss is stretched as far as he can go in a soft economy. Boss feels he’s barely keeping his small company afloat. He’s proud of having avoided laying off his employees despite all the hassles from the new benefits laws. It angers him that Cuthbert would pester him for an increase now when no one in the company is getting a raise. No one! Cuthbert should be grateful he even has a job.

Now the question becomes, why–when Cuthbert’s boss resists–doesn’t Cuthbert back off? Why must he persist?

If his motivations are trivial, if he just wants more salary because his buddies tell him he’s worth more than he’s paid, he’ll back off.

If his motivations are strong, and he needs more salary to cover the hospital bill when his child is born, then he’ll risk standing up to his boss and being more assertive with his request.

And an assertive, risk-defying protagonist opposed by a beleaguered, possibly desperate, antagonist means a good scene of conflict that will advance the story.

Because if Cuthbert’s need is strong enough to force him to assert himself farther than he ever has before, maybe his boss will fire him.

Now what will he do? Why?

And your plot rolls forward.

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A Sad Farewell to Linda

This post is not about writing. I performed a mercy killing today. I didn’t want to. I’ve put off the task for over a year. I kept telling myself, She’s not so bad. As long as she’s still blooming I can trim off the infected parts and keep her going.

Yes, I’m writing today about a rose bush named Linda Campbell. You may be thinking, how silly! Bushes die all the time. It’s the way gardening goes.

Of course it is. Gardeners know that plants have their seasons. They live their span and they die. Or they’re planted in the wrong spot, and they fail to thrive. Some die instantly, getting the mistake over with. Others linger on and on–struggling and yellow, scraggly and sick–until finally you yank them out. Still others fall prey to insects that munch them, strip them, and riddle them into unsightly specimens you’re ashamed to own. Varmints don’t help. I’ll never forget happily planting marigolds in a very tall raised bed, and finding them eaten and gone the next morning by some mystery phantom that came in the night.

But Linda Campbell didn’t deserve her death. She wasn’t planted in the wrong spot. She didn’t succumb to Blackspot or an infestation of Japanese beetles or aphids or a gnawing rabbit. I’d owned her for many years at my previous home, growing her in a huge pot, and she did just fine although no rose truly enjoys living in a pot. I brought her and her sisters (two other Linda Campbells) with me to this home. I planted her at the southwest corner for maximum sunshine. She and one of her sisters bracketed my office window.
Linda healthy bush

The Linda Campbell rose is a rugosa, a hardy shrub variety that’s tough as nails, blooms constantly in huge red clusters, sheds its spent blossoms so that no dead-heading is required, resists disease, and grows into a massive shrub. Give her room and leave her alone, and she will reward you with a summer-long show of color. Any time I come across her at a nursery, I tend to snap her up and find room for her somewhere.

The villain in this lament is a rose virus–Rose Rosette Virus (RRV)–that’s reaching perniciously into more and more gardens and backyards. Horticultural references say it’s spread by a mite, and the blame has been assigned to wild multi-flora roses growing in nature.

Or did it come about from breeding easy-care roses? Rumors and misinformation abound. All I know is that RRV is getting worse, that the new landscaping trend of planting Knockout roses very close together is allowing the mite to spread the disease more quickly, and that once a plant is infected there’s no hope and no cure.

The rose virus wiped out my favorite rose nursery in California several years ago. That’s where I used to order antique varieties, the roses grown by the ancient Romans and the Tudors.

I’d heard about the virus. A friend of mine has been issuing warnings about it for years in her blog reddirtramblings.com, but I’d never encountered RRV until I moved to this house. I brought my roses with me, of course. I always move my roses along with my furniture. One bush, a variety called Penelope that covers herself with the loveliest creamy white blossoms, had been growing in a pot in my previous backyard. Here, at the new place, my backyard featured a long raised bed with in-ground sprinklers, so I put Penelope in the ground and looked forward to seeing her explode happily in size and bloom.

Instead, she immediately contracted the rose virus. Up grew the distinctive “witches’ broom” deformed canes and leaves. I consulted my gardening expert friend, who confirmed the worst. I dug out Penelope and disposed of her.

Everything seemed fine. But then, a year or so later, one of my Linda Campbells in the front of the house sent up a small witches’ broom. I couldn’t believe it. She was–as I’ve already mentioned–a transplant from my former house. I couldn’t believe RRV had struck me twice. I hadn’t been buying new bushes, bringing in contaminated roses from nurseries. But it struck this Linda just the same.

If mites are the carriers, why this bush and not the one next to her? If mites are the carriers, why the Penelope in the backyard when nothing back there has been affected since?

Linda sick leaves
I cut off the affected canes and disposed of them responsibly. (Never put an infected rose into your community’s compost!) I disinfected my pruners, and hoped for the best.

Months went by, and Linda looked okay. I lived in hope and denial. She would send out a couple of witches’ brooms a year, usually in the fall, and that would be it. In the back of my mind, I worried about whether delaying was risking the others, but I couldn’t bring myself to kill her.

Until today. The Polar Vortex arrived, bringing unbelievably pleasant temperatures here to the mid-July prairie. This summer, sick Linda has been sending up more and more deformed canes. She’s tried, pathetically, to bloom and couldn’t. It was time to let her go.
Linda weapons

So I strapped on my back brace and got out my tools for the grim execution. Today is trash pickup day on my street. I had to bag her up and put her in the regular landfill, and I didn’t want her lingering on the curb, possibly spreading the virus to anyone else. The best way to dispose of an infected bush is to burn it, but my city prohibits that, so this was the best I could do.

As I chopped her down and dug her up, I felt anger at whatever’s responsible for this horticultural Frankenstein’s monster. Do I believe that nature has caused this plague? Not entirely. Do I need to read more about RRV? Probably.

Given the chance to choose, however, between what mankind fumbles and nature tries to correct–and given the fact that roses have existed for thousands of years in lovely manifestations of bloom and fragrance–I have to side with suspicion and doubt. The mite may transmit the disease, but I don’t think the cause comes from nature.

So I’m angry. When, I asked myself with every shovelful of dirt, did we decide that roses putting on one annual show of blooms weren’t good enough? When did we decide that they had to have a certain form so we could exhibit them at flower competitions? When did we decide that dead-heading was too much trouble? When did we decide that we’d rather have constant blooms instead of fragrance?

Isn’t fragrance the whole point of a rose?
Linda sick bloom

Perhaps you’re thinking, too bad–so sad–it’s just a rose. Plant another and get over it.

But you see, I can’t plant another rose bush where Linda was. If I could simply yank her out and replace her, I’d be mildly annoyed but okay. In all the years I’ve grown roses, I’ve seen many of them die in this hot, drought-ridden prairie climate.

The trouble with the rose virus is that the roots are infected, too. Unless I can eradicate every piece of root from my flowerbed, no other rose can go in there. And if she sprouts anew from a piece of root–like the undead in a horror film, she’ll have to be executed all over again because she’ll still carry the plague.

Linda sad bush

I knew, when I began today’s task, that I’d never get the roots out. Roses take about three years to settle in and fully establish their root systems. The modern spindly, delicate hybrid tea roses–the ones that produce those lovely, long-stemmed blooms so perfect for formal bouquets–tend to die after one season here and have tiny little root systems because they never become well established. But the shrubs, ramblers, rugosas, and even the sturdy hybrid teas that live on and thrive–all develop generous deep root systems, sometimes nearly as large as the bush.

So today, although I wanted to remove every bit of root, I couldn’t do it without excavating the entire bed and destroying the perennials under-planted beneath the roses. I dug and dug, but eventually I had to cut the long feeder roots and leave them in the ground.

Linda chopped

Linda RIP

Now the symmetry is gone. Will the other rose in this bed succumb next? I don’t know. What will I plant in Linda’s place? Daylilies? Monarda to attract the butterflies? I don’t know. Right now, I’m too disgusted to decide. Because I want Linda there, or at least some lovely rose there, and the virus means I can’t. The virus has taken a little bit of natural beauty from my life.

Linda sister

RIP, Linda Campbell. Today, as I dug you up, the skies wept for you with gentle rain.

Linda healthy bush

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Scene Check: Part Where

To borrow the real estate mantra: “Location, location, location!”

Where will your scene take place? We have two ways to consider this:
1) where in the plot will this scene be placed?
2) what is the scene’s actual setting?

A scene’s placement in the plotline depends partly on chronology–as in, this happened first, then this, then this, then this, etc.

However, it should depend more on cause-and-effect progression. This happened. As a result of that, something else happened. And as a result of that, something else occurred.

When you write according to cause-and-effect logic, your story holds together more plausibly. It simply makes more sense. It also creates the illusion that your characters are driving the story action.

Another consideration for a scene’s placement in the plot has to do with dramatic strategy. When you’ve completed your rough draft, distance yourself from your story as much as you can so that you can view it objectively–as an editor would. Ask yourself, If I moved Scene 14 to an earlier point in the story, would it be less predictable and more exciting to read about?

I usually recommend that rough drafts be written in exact cause-and-effect chronology. But then in revision, start moving scenes around to create better plot twists, or to spice up a slow section.

Of course, you don’t want to shuffle your scenes indiscriminately! You only want to move a few, for dramatically valid reasons. Be aware that when you move a scene, you have to rewrite the transitions, reweave the story fabric where it’s been ripped away, and revise the sequel that should accompany the scene.

Now, as far as the scene’s setting goes–have you thought about it? Where will your characters be located when they have this confrontation?

Are you thinking, Oh, what difference does it make? Any room will do–living room or kitchen maybe.

Details matter. Setting matters. Not as much as the actual conflict, perhaps. But setting grounds the reader and provides a sense of place that helps with plausibility.

Take this a step farther. If you changed the setting of the scene, changed its location, how might that aggravate or compound the conflict between protagonist and antagonist?

For example, say that a married couple’s teenage daughter has just been killed in a texting-while-driving car wreck. Caught up in grief, the parents are in the anger stage and want to blame someone for this tragedy–even if it’s each other.

Consider if you have them argue at breakfast over who’s the most responsible for spoiling Brittany. Is the wife busy at the stove, stirring the pancake batter too long, letting the bacon burn? Is the husband standing by the counter, holding a glass of orange juice he doesn’t want? Domestic, yes, but does the setting add anything to the conflict?

Let’s consider the same scene, but now it’s taking place in the daughter’s bedroom. The mother is making the bed and picking up the scattered clothing. The father is standing in the doorway, watching. But now, in addition to blaming one or the other for letting Brittany go out that evening or borrow the car, perhaps the mother comes across the empty box for Brittany’s new Smartphone.

Think about the emotions that will trigger. Imagine how the mother’s numbed self-control might shatter.

Was it the father who caved in to Brittany’s entreaties to buy her the phone? Was it the mother who warned Brittany not to run up a huge bill, texting? Does the mother now find the box and turn on the father, accusing him of killing their daughter?

How will he respond to such an attack? The scene is going to come to life, isn’t it? Yes, the dialogue will change from the first version in the kitchen. Other issues in this couple’s marriage–if the writer doesn’t foolishly suppress them–may come boiling to the surface. The characters may reveal their true nature while in the grip of such raw emotion. Even if they say hurtful things that they don’t truly mean, the story has made progress. The plot has advanced.

Maybe they’ll calm down, feel relief at having vented their feelings, and find a way to reconnect.

Or maybe they’ll continue to let the anger escalate and drive them farther apart.

The right setting, right mood, right props, and right atmosphere can all contribute to a scene and bring it to a different level than it would otherwise achieve.

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Scene Check: Part When

When I’m planning an upcoming scene, I’m thinking about the scene’s construction, but also where it fits in the story’s time frame. It’s useful to consider the scene’s placement in the overall plot scheme, not only at the time of writing it but also later in the editing.

In other words, does the scene’s placement best serve the story’s dramatic strategy?

Would the scene work better if it came earlier in the storyline, or later?

Furthermore, I want to keep in mind the scene’s outcome and how that will affect later story developments. After all, if a scene has no connection to what happens after it or what’s gone before it, why is it there at all?

Who will be touched by this scene’s conclusion? Who will be upset by it or harmed by it? Who will benefit from the way it turns out?

As I mull over these strategies and make these decisions, I’m also thinking about the scene’s actual content. Once I know its placement in the storyline, I can then factor in what’s happened to the scene protagonist up to this point.

Those events have a bearing on the protagonist’s plan in this scene, how he will proceed, what he will try, what difficulties he anticipates, and what he intends to do to overcome them.

With this plan in mind for my protagonist, I then consider what the antagonist intends to do in opposition. All of that is fine and good, but I know I’ll need more than a simple argument over a common goal.

Because–if the stakes are high enough–at some point in the scene the antagonist is going to shift tactics and pull out the trick, surprise, or advantage that turns the scene in his favor. To use a cliché, we can call this the ace up his sleeve.

After all, if winning matters to the antagonist, he or she has a backup plan, a contingency weapon, or a secret advantage ready to use when the time comes.

When in the scene will it come into play?

Usually, the scene begins at a moderate level. The two opposing characters are unlikely to use their best tactic at the start. No, they’ll start conservatively. They need to size each other up first, put out feelers as to how far the other one will go.

Let’s consider the first sword duel in the film THE PRINCESS BRIDE. Inigo and a masked Wesley each begin by fighting with their left hands. They’re pulling little feints and parries on each other, each evaluating the other’s skill and proficiency. Halfway through the scene, one of them smiles and switches to his right hand. He believes this shift in tactics will make him the victor. However, the other duelist also shifts to his right hand. Now they fight in earnest, using everything they’ve got.

It’s the shift in tactics that announces the scene’s intensity, conflict level, and stakes are all increasing. It needs to occur in the scene right at the moment that either the protagonist or the antagonist realizes a conservative approach isn’t going to work.

Let your story sense guide you as to when to let the shift occur. How patient is your protagonist? How angry is your antagonist?

The last “when” to consider in planning a scene is when does it end? How long should you let a scene go?

There’s no sure answer. Everything depends on the stakes, the motivations of both characters, and how much conflict they can each sustain. In other words, what’s left in the arsenal? How soon until the protagonist runs out of persuasion, or bullets, or cash, or physical strength?

When there’s nothing left for the protagonist to try, the scene must end. You don’t want circular repetition. Conclude it by answering the scene question. For the protagonist, it’s defeat–failure or partial failure. For the antagonist, it’s victory or near-victory.

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Scene Check: Part What

Scenes play an important part in your story’s framework. So you need to know what your scene will be about. Each scene should carry the story forward. That means it’s a turning point. It matters.

Never put a dramatic spotlight on a trivial issue or an encounter where your characters simply chat aimlessly with each other.

What, specifically, is your protagonist after at this particular moment in story time? Is that objective important enough to the protagonist to take action?

It had better be! If the protagonist doesn’t care much about the goal, why should readers?

So the goal needs to be a strong one, and a specific one. If the goal is just “meh,” then either beef it up or eliminate the scene.

What’s at stake in any given scene? You should determine that before you start writing. Otherwise, your characters will be behaving strangely or yakking without purpose while you circle the issue in an attempt to figure things out.

If that’s the best way you can think through the scene, then write it. But be aware that such a draft has to be tossed in favor of a better one to follow.

If you know what’s at stake before you unleash the confrontation, your characters will move to conflict much more quickly. Their dialogue will be sharper and more to the point.

Ask yourself what would it mean to your protagonist to lose in this scene. If the answer is, “Not much,” go back to the drawing board or cut the scene. You can’t make readers care if the protagonist doesn’t.

Ask yourself what it would mean to your antagonist to lose in this scene. If the answer is, “I hate the protagonist’s guts and I want him to suffer agony when I defeat him,” then you’re on the right track.

Often I find it easier to grasp first what the scene goal means to my antagonist. Once I have that, then I go back to my protagonist and work at strengthening his motivation.

If the encounter HAS to be in the story and if you can’t get the protagonist involved or motivated strongly enough, ask yourself what the protagonist most cares about.

Don’t censor the answer. Just think it through, even if you feel like you’re wandering away from your scene outline. There has to be something out there that touches an emotional chord in your character. When you find it–even if it’s his gray Persian kitten–then you now understand your character better.

When you know what your character loves, let something or someone in the story threaten it. That will compel your character to take action. Go ahead and write a scene draft about this side issue. (I know it doesn’t belong in your story, but stay with me here.) Write the scene and allow your character to let himself go. When I do this, I’m usually surprised by what comes out. And although this mock-up scene won’t be inserted in my book, I know my character better. I know how to push his buttons to make him come alive.

Once you understand what matters to your protagonist, you can then allow him to plan what he’ll do to accomplish his scene goal. Sometimes I’ll jot down a list of steps my character intends to follow and keep it next to my keyboard while I’m typing the dialogue.

And what’s the antagonist’s plan to thwart the protagonist? What specifically will the antagonist do, and how far will the antagonist go? (The answer should always be, farther than the protagonist ever will.)

By giving each character a specific plan or set of tactics, you’ll be able to achieve stronger conflict. That’s because each individual can be trying to maneuver the other, or pull out a surprise to shock or dismay the other. In other words, they aren’t just passively standing there, hating each other’s guts, and reacting only to what the other one does or says.

And, of course, besides the goal itself, the other important element of a scene should be its outcome. What’s going to happen at the conclusion of the scene?

Will the protagonist succeed?

Will the protagonist fail?

Will the protagonist succeed partially, but at a troublesome cost?

Will the protagonist fail dismally and pay a terrible price for the experience?

I strongly suggest that you avoid the first option at all costs until the very, very end of your story.

The second option should be the least desirable one in your writer’s arsenal. It’ll work for you in a pinch, but it won’t advance your story.

The third option is my favorite. It keeps the protagonist in trouble while allowing the story to advance. The protagonist is left scrambling to deal with escalating problems.

The fourth option is dynamite and works best to really slam the protagonist at key turning points in the story. In a book manuscript, use it maybe three times–at the end of the first act, right in the middle of the story, and within the climax.

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Scene Check: Part Who

In planning the scene you’re about to write, consider who will be involved.

Your first decision should be whom to choose as the scene’s protagonist and viewpoint character. (They should be the same!)

The scene protagonist should be
-the character at the center of the action
-the person most affected by the outcome
-the one with the most at stake
-the individual with the most to lose
-the character acting upon an immediate goal

Your next decision is to choose the scene’s antagonist. This character will be
-someone also at the center of the action
-the one who most wants to thwart or oppose the protagonist
-the person who will actively oppose the protagonist’s goal.

Now, who else should be in your scene?

No one.

I’ll repeat that: NO ONE.

Optimally, you need only two characters in a scene. These individuals are opponents. They are either in competition for the same thing–i.e. two track stars in a race for the Olympic gold medal–or they’re in disagreement over an issue–or one is trying to stop the other from accomplishing her objective.

Therefore, if Amanda wants the last piece of cake, her cousin Irmengarde also wants it.

John wants to tame the wild mare and break her to ride in order to impress his father. But his brother Tom–already Dad’s spoiled favorite–sets the horse free just to spoil John’s plan.

Helen thinks there’s only one way to land the Gregson Company account, but her co-worker Hans disagrees in favor of a different approach.

What we’re aiming for in setting up a scene’s dynamics is two characters in direct opposition to each other.

A scene can’t work with a single character. It needs two. And the two individuals you select from your cast should be antagonistic to each other … at that moment.

A scene doesn’t have to contain mortal enemies. Just two people in disagreement or opposition. Remember when Solo and Chewbacca squabbled over how to operate the ship? They were friends and allies, but they could still be in mild conflict at times.

Dr. McCoy and Mr. Spock of the original STAR TREK series sometimes disagreed mildly and sometimes bitterly, but they remained allied in their loyalty to the captain and Star Fleet.

Since the whole point of a scene’s existence is to dramatize conflict, the best basis for selecting its participants is, who gets along the least?

Now, you may be thinking of several other members of your story cast that you want to include in the scene you’re about to write. In fact, you really want them to be present.

My first response to your plan is WHY?

Why do you want them in the room? What purpose will their presence serve?

To show readers that the protagonist has multiple friends?

Why not have the protagonist glance at his friends before he steps out in the hallway with the antagonist?

To give the protagonist some backup?

Are you trying to convey to readers that your protagonist is a wimp unable to solve his or her problems?

To add plausibility to the backdrop?

Okay, sure. If the protagonist walks in on a board meeting, there will be several suits sitting at the conference table.

Or if the protagonist enters the audience chamber, the king will have advisers or courtiers present.

If you absolutely must have a crowd of onlookers in the scene, can you keep them quiet while conflict is raging between the scene’s protagonist and antagonist?

If you can’t–and about 90% of the time if a third character is present, he’ll butt in–then your two major participants should step outside or go to a corner of the room where they can argue undisturbed.

That’s why so often the CEO will dismiss the suits from the meeting or will step into her private office to confront the character who’s interrupted.

Not always. Not if the onlookers can stay quiet. In the climax of Billy Wilder’s romantic comedy SABRINA, David interrupts his older brother’s meeting for a big confrontation in front of their father and other members of the board. No one leaves, but neither do they interrupt the scene.

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