Dramatic story action–aka scene conflict–should be choreographed with as much meticulous care as a movie director blocking out a scene on a movie set. In the latter situation, every actor is shown his marks. The stunt people plan out their sequence of moves. Every punch. Every somersault. Every pivot. All of it imagined and positioned so that by the time the director yells, “Action!” people know what to do.
The lazy writer approaches scene conflict with a casual sentence of narrative summary:
And then all hell broke loose.
And then pandemonium broke out.
Action erupted on all sides.
You get the idea. Lazy Writer is counting on readers using their imaginations to fill in the gaps that ole Lazy ain’t gonna provide.
Sometimes, it works. Sometimes, it doesn’t.
Doughty Writer … (Isn’t that word cool? I’ve always wanted to use doughty in a sentence! It means valiant and full of resolution.) … Doughty Writer works harder to bring story action alive in a logical, cause-and-effect way.
So what does Doughty do in planning out a scene’s conflict?
Step 1: Determine the protagonist, antagonist, clashing goals, motivations, and outcome. This is a general overview of what the scene’s going to be about, where it’s going to start, and how it will end.
Step 2: Determine the key points in the protagonist’s strategy. What is the character going to say or do in order to win the argument? It’s helpful to list these in order of importance or dramatic value.
Step 3: Determine the key points in the antagonist’s strategy. What ace does the villain have up her sleeve? What trick does she intend to play? How will she cheat? How far will she go?
Step 4: Decide which of the two opposing characters will launch the conflict. If you have a very goal-oriented, proactive protagonist, then this individual should take action on the scene goal. The opponent will then react to that.
Step 5: With the first action or comment, write the rest of the conflict in moment-by-moment increments. Writers have different terms for the same technique: stimulus & response; motivation & response; action & reaction; cause & effect, etc. They all involve the same type of step-by-step progression through the scene.
Step 6: Think in a linear, logical progression. If Beauregard aims his gun at Lucius, what will Lucius do first? And what will Beauregard do as a result of Lucius’s action?
Step 7: As the conflict intensifies, write the action in smaller and smaller increments.
John opened the valve.
Water gushed from the pipe and hit him in the face.
Sputtering, he turned the valve to shut it off.
She said, “Don’t go.”
He paused, avoiding her gaze, then walked out the door.
Step 8: Make sure your characters remember their opposing goals. Scenes can fail in the middle because a writer loses track of what the conflict is actually about. Losing sight of the goal means a dissipation of conflict.
Step 9: Avoid smoothness. Writing in small, directly linked cause-and-effect increments lends itself to choppy sentences. Remember that the story should make sense first. Smooth, elegant sentence flow should come secondary.
Step 10: Avoid simultaneous actions. What we’re trying to do is cause readers to imagine things happening at once. But we’re really laying out an orderly progression of possibly disorderly behavior from our characters. We should eschew such words as “as,” “while,” “during,” and “when” because they tend to convey simultaneous action. Rely on them too heavily in the cause of smooth writing, and you’ll lose the logic of cause-and-effect progression.