When you’re planning a scene in your fiction, try to think of it as strategic maneuvering between two combatants. The conflict may be mild and verbal, but there is still strategy to consider. Think of it as a chess match or even a game of tennis.
Two opponents only:
Although scenes can be written with multiple characters present, this is a considerable challenge to tackle. Only very skilled authors usually handle such scenes well. In the hands of someone inexperienced, it can become a mess.
Scenes are at their strongest dramatically when only two characters are involved. Other players may be present, but they are backdrop to the conflict that’s occurring between the scene protagonist and the scene antagonist.
Tennis doubles can serve up exciting play, but a doubles game seldom matches the intensity of a singles game. (Have I supplied you with enough groaner puns here?)
The scene goal should be clear:
People play games to enjoy each others’ company, to spend time in a pleasant or recreational pursuit, and to win.
If you sit down to a game of chess, your objective is to take your opponent’s queen. At the same time, your opponent is trying to take yours. It’s win, lose, or stalemate.
In scene action, let the protagonist state the scene goal from the outset. It can be conveyed internally, as an intention. It can be spoken aloud. It can be acted upon. No matter what method is used, there’s no need to hide the scene goal from readers.
Conflict should have a strategy:
I’m repeating this point because it’s important.
My writing teacher, Jack Bickham, used to define story conflict as two goals in direct opposition. That’s absolutely correct, but there’s more to writing conflict than that. When your protagonist enters a scene, she’s planning the steps she’s going to take to accomplish her objective. She’s anticipating who might oppose her intention and weighing options on how to best thwart that opposition.
Likewise, the scene’s antagonist will have a strategy in play as well. Just as two chess players plan their moves well in advance, a scene’s characters are thinking ahead about what they want and how they’re going to get it.
Scene conflict should not be predictable:
I find the most enjoyable aspect of writing a scene is blowing that carefully planned strategy out of the water.
In other words, my protagonist often finds his opponent to be smarter than expected, or craftier, or more manipulative, or more ruthless. This isn’t to make my protagonist look stupid or inept. Instead, it’s to keep him off balance, to challenge and test him.
That challenge isn’t there just to defeat my protagonist. It’s to force him to try harder than he intended. When he has to struggle and adapt quickly, then he’s going to show readers what he’s really made of.
What’s the outcome?
Scenes should end definitively and not just trail off or stop before completion. If you pay money to watch a tennis match, you want to see the finish. Is it victory or defeat for the athlete you’re cheering for?
In chess, a stalemate is less satisfying than a conclusive win/lose outcome.
A scene ends when the protagonist either achieves his scene goal or loses it. There’s an answer, good or bad.
The sleuth interrogates a suspect for answers but doesn’t get the information he expected. The scientist tries to flee with the secret formula and is shot in the back before he can escape. The wallflower is asked to dance by a handsome young man in uniform.
Remember: the scene should surprise the protagonist by delivering much tougher opposition than she expects, never easier; the protagonist must counter manipulation and maneuver from the antagonist; the scene conflict should escalate as it goes; and the scene should end with an outcome.