Scene Check: Part Who

In planning the scene you’re about to write, consider who will be involved.

Your first decision should be whom to choose as the scene’s protagonist and viewpoint character. (They should be the same!)

The scene protagonist should be
-the character at the center of the action
-the person most affected by the outcome
-the one with the most at stake
-the individual with the most to lose
-the character acting upon an immediate goal

Your next decision is to choose the scene’s antagonist. This character will be
-someone also at the center of the action
-the one who most wants to thwart or oppose the protagonist
-the person who will actively oppose the protagonist’s goal.

Now, who else should be in your scene?

No one.

I’ll repeat that: NO ONE.

Optimally, you need only two characters in a scene. These individuals are opponents. They are either in competition for the same thing–i.e. two track stars in a race for the Olympic gold medal–or they’re in disagreement over an issue–or one is trying to stop the other from accomplishing her objective.

Therefore, if Amanda wants the last piece of cake, her cousin Irmengarde also wants it.

John wants to tame the wild mare and break her to ride in order to impress his father. But his brother Tom–already Dad’s spoiled favorite–sets the horse free just to spoil John’s plan.

Helen thinks there’s only one way to land the Gregson Company account, but her co-worker Hans disagrees in favor of a different approach.

What we’re aiming for in setting up a scene’s dynamics is two characters in direct opposition to each other.

A scene can’t work with a single character. It needs two. And the two individuals you select from your cast should be antagonistic to each other … at that moment.

A scene doesn’t have to contain mortal enemies. Just two people in disagreement or opposition. Remember when Solo and Chewbacca squabbled over how to operate the ship? They were friends and allies, but they could still be in mild conflict at times.

Dr. McCoy and Mr. Spock of the original STAR TREK series sometimes disagreed mildly and sometimes bitterly, but they remained allied in their loyalty to the captain and Star Fleet.

Since the whole point of a scene’s existence is to dramatize conflict, the best basis for selecting its participants is, who gets along the least?

Now, you may be thinking of several other members of your story cast that you want to include in the scene you’re about to write. In fact, you really want them to be present.

My first response to your plan is WHY?

Why do you want them in the room? What purpose will their presence serve?

To show readers that the protagonist has multiple friends?

Why not have the protagonist glance at his friends before he steps out in the hallway with the antagonist?

To give the protagonist some backup?

Are you trying to convey to readers that your protagonist is a wimp unable to solve his or her problems?

To add plausibility to the backdrop?

Okay, sure. If the protagonist walks in on a board meeting, there will be several suits sitting at the conference table.

Or if the protagonist enters the audience chamber, the king will have advisers or courtiers present.

If you absolutely must have a crowd of onlookers in the scene, can you keep them quiet while conflict is raging between the scene’s protagonist and antagonist?

If you can’t–and about 90% of the time if a third character is present, he’ll butt in–then your two major participants should step outside or go to a corner of the room where they can argue undisturbed.

That’s why so often the CEO will dismiss the suits from the meeting or will step into her private office to confront the character who’s interrupted.

Not always. Not if the onlookers can stay quiet. In the climax of Billy Wilder’s romantic comedy SABRINA, David interrupts his older brother’s meeting for a big confrontation in front of their father and other members of the board. No one leaves, but neither do they interrupt the scene.

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