Scene Check: Part When

When I’m planning an upcoming scene, I’m thinking about the scene’s construction, but also where it fits in the story’s time frame. It’s useful to consider the scene’s placement in the overall plot scheme, not only at the time of writing it but also later in the editing.

In other words, does the scene’s placement best serve the story’s dramatic strategy?

Would the scene work better if it came earlier in the storyline, or later?

Furthermore, I want to keep in mind the scene’s outcome and how that will affect later story developments. After all, if a scene has no connection to what happens after it or what’s gone before it, why is it there at all?

Who will be touched by this scene’s conclusion? Who will be upset by it or harmed by it? Who will benefit from the way it turns out?

As I mull over these strategies and make these decisions, I’m also thinking about the scene’s actual content. Once I know its placement in the storyline, I can then factor in what’s happened to the scene protagonist up to this point.

Those events have a bearing on the protagonist’s plan in this scene, how he will proceed, what he will try, what difficulties he anticipates, and what he intends to do to overcome them.

With this plan in mind for my protagonist, I then consider what the antagonist intends to do in opposition. All of that is fine and good, but I know I’ll need more than a simple argument over a common goal.

Because–if the stakes are high enough–at some point in the scene the antagonist is going to shift tactics and pull out the trick, surprise, or advantage that turns the scene in his favor. To use a cliché, we can call this the ace up his sleeve.

After all, if winning matters to the antagonist, he or she has a backup plan, a contingency weapon, or a secret advantage ready to use when the time comes.

When in the scene will it come into play?

Usually, the scene begins at a moderate level. The two opposing characters are unlikely to use their best tactic at the start. No, they’ll start conservatively. They need to size each other up first, put out feelers as to how far the other one will go.

Let’s consider the first sword duel in the film THE PRINCESS BRIDE. Inigo and a masked Wesley each begin by fighting with their left hands. They’re pulling little feints and parries on each other, each evaluating the other’s skill and proficiency. Halfway through the scene, one of them smiles and switches to his right hand. He believes this shift in tactics will make him the victor. However, the other duelist also shifts to his right hand. Now they fight in earnest, using everything they’ve got.

It’s the shift in tactics that announces the scene’s intensity, conflict level, and stakes are all increasing. It needs to occur in the scene right at the moment that either the protagonist or the antagonist realizes a conservative approach isn’t going to work.

Let your story sense guide you as to when to let the shift occur. How patient is your protagonist? How angry is your antagonist?

The last “when” to consider in planning a scene is when does it end? How long should you let a scene go?

There’s no sure answer. Everything depends on the stakes, the motivations of both characters, and how much conflict they can each sustain. In other words, what’s left in the arsenal? How soon until the protagonist runs out of persuasion, or bullets, or cash, or physical strength?

When there’s nothing left for the protagonist to try, the scene must end. You don’t want circular repetition. Conclude it by answering the scene question. For the protagonist, it’s defeat–failure or partial failure. For the antagonist, it’s victory or near-victory.

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