Scenes play an important part in your story’s framework. So you need to know what your scene will be about. Each scene should carry the story forward. That means it’s a turning point. It matters.
Never put a dramatic spotlight on a trivial issue or an encounter where your characters simply chat aimlessly with each other.
What, specifically, is your protagonist after at this particular moment in story time? Is that objective important enough to the protagonist to take action?
It had better be! If the protagonist doesn’t care much about the goal, why should readers?
So the goal needs to be a strong one, and a specific one. If the goal is just “meh,” then either beef it up or eliminate the scene.
What’s at stake in any given scene? You should determine that before you start writing. Otherwise, your characters will be behaving strangely or yakking without purpose while you circle the issue in an attempt to figure things out.
If that’s the best way you can think through the scene, then write it. But be aware that such a draft has to be tossed in favor of a better one to follow.
If you know what’s at stake before you unleash the confrontation, your characters will move to conflict much more quickly. Their dialogue will be sharper and more to the point.
Ask yourself what would it mean to your protagonist to lose in this scene. If the answer is, “Not much,” go back to the drawing board or cut the scene. You can’t make readers care if the protagonist doesn’t.
Ask yourself what it would mean to your antagonist to lose in this scene. If the answer is, “I hate the protagonist’s guts and I want him to suffer agony when I defeat him,” then you’re on the right track.
Often I find it easier to grasp first what the scene goal means to my antagonist. Once I have that, then I go back to my protagonist and work at strengthening his motivation.
If the encounter HAS to be in the story and if you can’t get the protagonist involved or motivated strongly enough, ask yourself what the protagonist most cares about.
Don’t censor the answer. Just think it through, even if you feel like you’re wandering away from your scene outline. There has to be something out there that touches an emotional chord in your character. When you find it–even if it’s his gray Persian kitten–then you now understand your character better.
When you know what your character loves, let something or someone in the story threaten it. That will compel your character to take action. Go ahead and write a scene draft about this side issue. (I know it doesn’t belong in your story, but stay with me here.) Write the scene and allow your character to let himself go. When I do this, I’m usually surprised by what comes out. And although this mock-up scene won’t be inserted in my book, I know my character better. I know how to push his buttons to make him come alive.
Once you understand what matters to your protagonist, you can then allow him to plan what he’ll do to accomplish his scene goal. Sometimes I’ll jot down a list of steps my character intends to follow and keep it next to my keyboard while I’m typing the dialogue.
And what’s the antagonist’s plan to thwart the protagonist? What specifically will the antagonist do, and how far will the antagonist go? (The answer should always be, farther than the protagonist ever will.)
By giving each character a specific plan or set of tactics, you’ll be able to achieve stronger conflict. That’s because each individual can be trying to maneuver the other, or pull out a surprise to shock or dismay the other. In other words, they aren’t just passively standing there, hating each other’s guts, and reacting only to what the other one does or says.
And, of course, besides the goal itself, the other important element of a scene should be its outcome. What’s going to happen at the conclusion of the scene?
Will the protagonist succeed?
Will the protagonist fail?
Will the protagonist succeed partially, but at a troublesome cost?
Will the protagonist fail dismally and pay a terrible price for the experience?
I strongly suggest that you avoid the first option at all costs until the very, very end of your story.
The second option should be the least desirable one in your writer’s arsenal. It’ll work for you in a pinch, but it won’t advance your story.
The third option is my favorite. It keeps the protagonist in trouble while allowing the story to advance. The protagonist is left scrambling to deal with escalating problems.
The fourth option is dynamite and works best to really slam the protagonist at key turning points in the story. In a book manuscript, use it maybe three times–at the end of the first act, right in the middle of the story, and within the climax.