Whether you’re a writer who works strictly from an outline or you’re a “pantser,” each scene of your story needs thinking over both before and after you write it.
The before stuff:
1) From whose viewpoint will the scene be written?
Maybe the scene needs to be from the villain’s perspective instead of the hero’s. Maybe it will be most effective from a side character. Just remember that a scene unfolds best if it’s confined to one viewpoint.
Choose wisely for valid reasons of plot.
The character you choose will become this scene’s protagonist.
2) What single character will be in strongest opposition to the scene’s viewpoint character?
You may have the entire army of Ruritania opposed to your scene’s protagonist, but someone must step forward and represent this antagonism.
What you should aim for is one character who drives the scene and is central to it and one character who tries to thwart whatever the scene protagonist is doing.
The oppositional character will become this scene’s antagonist.
3) What are these two individuals going to argue about?
You need to know this clearly ahead of time because it’s what your scene will be about. Their disagreement is why this particular scene exists.
So what has them upset? Are their intentions diametrically opposed or do they just dislike each other?
If you choose the first option, give yourself a star! Your scene’s going to have conflict, excitement, and unpredictability.
If you choose the second option, we need to talk. If the characters have nothing going for them other than that they’re cranky, then your story’s in trouble.
Fractious bickering does not a scene of conflict make. You won’t be able to get it to go anywhere substantive enough to carry the plot forward.
Diametrically opposed goals mean a focused conflict.
*John wants to marry Suzie.
*Suzie does NOT want to marry John.
*Beryl says she wants to spend her $1,000 gift certificate on new draperies for the house.
*Her husband Beauregard disagrees, saying it should be spent on new golf clubs.
*Harry attempts to murder his Uncle Orlando.
*Orlando’s bodyguard intervenes, fighting Harry.
*Veronica swims hard and fast to get away from a Great White shark.
*The shark swims faster.
See how these examples work? Each one is tightly focused on an immediate problem. Each character is in action–physical or verbal. The setup is such that conflict is unavoidable. Exactly what we–as writers–want!
4) Why have your two characters taken this position?
Why, of course, speaks to motivation. Motivation is why a character doesn’t give up in the first round of conflict.
Back to my examples:
*John wants to marry Suzie because he’s deeply in love with her. He wants to spend the rest of his life with her. He knows that without her he’ll always be incomplete.
*Suzie doesn’t want to marry John because she doesn’t love him back.
*Beryl wants new draperies because what they have are some cheap mini-blinds that the cat has climbed. She grew up in a nice home and she wants her house to be attractive enough to impress guests. Without better décor, she feels her home is saying, “My husband can’t provide for us.”
*Beauregard hasn’t even noticed the broken mini-blinds. His best wood driver is being held together with duct tape. His boss has told him to take their company’s CEO out to play golf next weekend. Beauregard knows his future with the company is riding on that golf game. It could mean the difference between promotion or being fired. Who cares about new curtains?
*After five years of searching, Harry finally has conclusive proof that Uncle Orlando was behind the extortion that bankrupted Harry’s father. When he confronts Orlando, his uncle grabs the document and burns it, thus obliterating any chance that justice will be done.
*The bodyguard respects and admires Orlando. He looks up to Orlando like a father. He’s proud to be trusted enough to guard Orlando’s safety. No one except Orlando saw potential in the bodyguard when he was just a scrawny kid, but Orlando gave him a chance, gave him a job. And now, the bodyguard would gladly take a bullet to save his hero.
*After the shark bites off Larry’s leg during a dive to collect marine specimens for their study, Veronica swims for her life. She doesn’t want to be eaten, too.
*The shark liked its taste of Larry and is attracted by Veronica’s movements as she swims away. The shark is still hungry.
5) Do the actions or comments I’ve planned for my characters plausibly fit or connect with the objectives and motivations?
In other words, stay focused.
Don’t throw in random comments because you think they’re clever or you want to display your character’s rapier wit.
Keep the actions and dialogue centered on the disagreement. Eliminate other characters and distractions such as phone call interruptions or fiddling with setting props.
6) What’s at stake in this scene?
This speaks to motivation as well. A man in love believes his future happiness depends on marrying the girl he adores. A new job and higher salary could be jeopardized because of home décor. The burning need for justice turns into revenge. Survival is a powerful instinct so strong it needs no explanation.
Low stakes, however, equal low excitement.
Low stakes equal reader boredom or disappointment.
Low stakes don’t deserve a scene of their own. Petty, banal problems aren’t suitable for dramatic scenes.
When you encounter a powerful scene–whether in reading or watching a film–and it seems to be about something insubstantial, chances are there’s subtext at work. A much larger issue is actually going on.
Watch or read it again. See if you can determine what’s really at stake.
7) Do you know what the scene’s outcome will be?
Where is this scene going? What’s the point of it? How will its outcome make the situation more dire for the protagonist?
If the stakes are too low, the scene’s outcome will fall flat.
Keep in mind that trivial issues don’t deserve to be scenes. They can be raised or even discussed in other story structures such as dialogue or narrative, without a dramatic scene being built around them.
Also keep in mind that scenes should work to move the story forward. That means, the scene protagonist fails–either completely or partially–and has to try again. That next attempt will lead to the next event in your plot. And the next. And the next.
If you allow the scene protagonist to succeed, where is your story going next? What is left for your characters to do?
Success and happiness means the story is over.
As for thinking over the scene after you write it, I’ll address that in my next post.