Plotting Your Scenes

Okay, I’ve kept Rob in suspense long enough. 🙂

It’s time to discuss how a scene should be plotted.

In my last post, I described plot events and how to select the most important ones for inclusion and development into scenes.

This time, it’s important to note that one story event doesn’t necessarily equal one scene.

A story event can be small enough to be written in one scene. It may be large enough to require two, perhaps three scenes to cover it.

For example, the WWII invasion of Normandy may be a plot event in your historical war novel, but if you try to pass it off in a single small scene you aren’t doing it justice. Why even bother? Instead, if it’s dramatically important enough to have a place in your manuscript, then you’ll be developing several scenes in which to deal with it.

Now, keep in mind that a scene is where the drama of the story is shown to readers and allowed to unfold moment-by-moment as though it’s actually happening. If done skillfully enough, it transports readers into the illusion that they are actually there, witnessing–even participating–in the story’s action.

Scenes, therefore, are structural units of story presentation. They are saved for the story points where the author wishes to show story action as it transpires, rather than tell through narrative what’s taking place.

Each scene is constructed in a particular way that should advance the story.

But advance the story where?

The scene begins with a goal, an objective. Ideally, it’s the scene protagonist’s goal, something this character wants to achieve or obtain right now.

If Polly Protagonist wants to buy a Douglas fir Christmas tree for her new home, she can work toward achieving that goal because it’s




However, if Polly decides this is what she wants and drives down to the nearest tree lot and buys her heart’s desire, we have a failed scene. It’s dull, boring, predictable, and entirely uninteresting.

For the scene to work, there must be conflict. Conflict is created when the protagonist meets opposition that directly seeks to thwart the protagonist’s goal.

Enter Andy Antagonist. Andy is a scrooge. He hates Christmas. He thinks spending a lot of money on it is stupid. Real trees make him sneeze. He believes Douglas firs are the ugliest of all possible choices.

Poor Polly is married to Andy. When she puts on her coat to leave the house to buy a tree, Andy tries to talk her out of going. Polly is adamant, however. They have a new home, their first house after years of living cooped up in a small apartment. She wants to celebrate. She wants a Christmas like those she used to enjoy at her grandmother’s house.

Look at the structure this way:

Polly wants a real tree. Andy doesn’t.

They’re both strongly motivated. Their goals are in direct opposition. They’re both persistent. They can’t help but argue. As the conflict escalates in the scene, Rita Reader starts to wonder what the outcome will be. Accordingly, Rita stays intrigued enough to keep turning pages.

Maybe Polly can’t convince Andy no matter what. Is she going to be a doormat and give in? He’s a controller. He’s selfish and horrid. Look! He’s pulling out an ultimatum. How’s it going to turn out?

Scenes can’t go on forever. They have to be resolved once all the tricks, strategies, persuasion, and maneuvers have been tried by both parties.

Scene resolutions have four possible options:

Option #1: Polly wins by convincing Andy his new allergy medicine will keep him sniffle free while the tree’s in the house. She sails triumphantly out the door.

Okay, but if you write that, your story is over. Polly won. She succeeded. If you narrate her driving happily to the tree lot and bringing home the biggest fir she can afford, Rita Reader is yawning and bored again.

Here’s an important writing principle: If you let your protagonist succeed in a scene, you lose all story tension and the tale goes flat.

Try again.

Option #2: Polly fails. She loses the argument. Andy has won as usual. There will be no pretty tree in their newly furnished den. Andy goes smugly back to his ballgame. Polly runs to the bedroom in tears.

Hmm. It’s better than the previous resolution but it hasn’t advanced the story. Polly is stalled. She’s crying her eyes out. Rita Reader may feel sorry for her, but where’s the story going to go from here?

Option #3: Polly manages to wheedle a reluctant agreement from Andy, but only after she promises to vacuum five times a day, keep the doors to the den closed at all times, and not spend more than $15.

Too silly? Too weak? I think so.

How about Polly manages to wheedle a reluctant agreement from Andy, but only if she promises to let him invite his tacky sister and her brood of five kids to Christmas dinner. If Polly and Susie Sister don’t get along, and the kids behave like feral monkeys in a zoo, then the scene has ended in a way that hooks forward and leaves Rita Reader anticipating a future event.

It works very well.

But remember that you have one more option in possible scene resolutions. If you’re at a turning point in your story and you want to really increase pressure on your protagonist, then try this type of scenario:

Option #4: When Polly insists that she wants a tree no matter what, then Andy tells her that not only does he not want a tree but he doesn’t want her either. Their marriage is through. He’s tired of living with a woman who doesn’t respect his wishes to live a minimalist, evergreen-free life. When she walks out the door, she can just move into the motel next to the tree lot because she’s not coming back.

Wow. If you can manage to write conflict without protecting your protagonist from trouble, then your scenes can reach crisis points like this one. The argument this couple is having isn’t really about a Christmas tree at all. It’s about their relationship and just how shaky their marriage is.

This type of resolution also hooks forward. It gives you direction. And your next event is already shaping up. Because, what in the world will Polly do next?





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2 responses to “Plotting Your Scenes

  1. Keep ’em coming, Deborah!
    I had to go through a lot of boxes in the basement, but I found my Bickham and Swain books. I feel like I’m taking a refresher course.

  2. Pingback: Plotting Scenes | ScribeCaster

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