Dramatic Strategy II: Size ‘Em Up

All scenes are not alike. They should not be the same length or intensity. That’s because scene size depends on the stakes and motivations of the characters.

These two factors support the degree of conflict there will be. For example: if the stakes are low, conflict will be minimal.

Example:  Johnny wants ice cream. That’s a specific goal. What would motivate anyone to oppose this?

Option 1: Maybe the opponent for this scene is Johnny’s sister. Sissy doesn’t want Johnny to have the ice cream. WHY? Because there’s only one serving of ice cream, and Sissy wants it for herself.

If the ice cream is simply dessert, the stakes are low. Conflict between these characters will be petty and/or forced.

If the ice cream is the only food in the house, the stakes become higher. See the difference?

Option 2: Sissy doesn’t want Johnny to have ice cream because he’s just been diagnosed with diabetes, and she wants him to stick to his new diet. Now the stakes are more interesting, and her motivation is one of love and concern.

Option 3: Sissy is sociopathic, jealous, and nursing a long grudge against some imaginary wrong. She forces Johnny to ingest ice cream in an effort to plunge him into a life-threatening coma.

If you’re writing about option 1a, the low stakes require the scene to be brief or omitted.

If you’re writing about option 1b, the somewhat higher stakes require the scene to be small-to-medium length.

If you’re writing about option 2, the strong stakes require the scene to be medium to long.

Does option 3 seem too extreme and over the top for you? Perhaps it is. Consider, however, the plot of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, a classic horror thriller dealing with out-of-control sibling rivalry. Jane was a child star who got all the attention while her older sister Blanche was ignored. When the sisters grew up, however, Jane’s career faded and Blanche became an acting star until she was crippled in an accident. Now the sisters live together in a twisted mess of hatred and resentment of each other.

Blanche (left) being slapped by her sister Jane in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, a 1962 Warner Bros. film starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

In option 3, if Sissy is trying to murder Johnny and make it look like an accident, the stakes are huge and the scene will be intense, long, and filled with conflict.

Big scenes should be positioned at key turning points in a novel’s length. There will be one in the center of the book. There will be at least one in the book’s climax. Often there’s one within the first five chapters of the story as well.

Big scenes offer high conflict, huge stakes, and intense–possibly bitter–conflict. They’re long because the strongly motivated characters won’t quit. And a big scene usually ends in a powerful disaster for the scene protagonist.

Writing Tip: When injecting several big scenes into your story, make sure that each of these scenes progressively tops those preceding it. In other words, don’t start your story with your largest scene. Build as you go, so that your first big scene is strong, your middle big scene is a doozy, and your final big scene is fantastic.

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