Scene Check: Part Why

Why, why, why?

Such a tiny question, but it carries enormous influence.

When you’re planning a scene in your story, you need to understand why it’s important before you include it.

Are you intending to let two characters chat with each other about nothing much? Or will this encounter lead to a confrontation that betrays a shocking secret, a missing piece of evidence, or a motivation?

Scenes should matter. If you’re just recounting a trivial incident that lacks true dramatic value, summarize it. Don’t dramatize it.

Save scenes for the critical events that move your story forward.

Ask yourself, does this scene really need to be in my story? Why? If it doesn’t, cut it.

Beyond that, let’s consider the actual scene content. The majority of it should deal with conflict. And conflict is best focused between two characters at a time.

So then, why is the scene antagonist opposed to what the scene protagonist is trying to accomplish?

You never want to dramatize two characters bickering just because Deborah Chester said you should write about conflict. Certainly it’s a reason, but one that has nothing to do with your story.

So look inside your antagonist. You won’t be writing the scene from his or her viewpoint, but as the writer you need to understand this person’s perspective. What does the antagonist want? Why is the antagonist here, in this place, at this time? What does the antagonist hope to gain? Why is the antagonist in opposition to the protagonist?

The answers to these questions get at the antagonist’s motivation. To write really good conflict, you need to know those reasons. Because until you do, the antagonist’s dialogue and actions will be contrived. They’ll come across as inconsistent, weak, or phony.

But when you understand that Irmengarde doesn’t want her brother-in-law to give his young daughter a pony because when Irmengarde was seven she was thrown off a runaway horse and had to stay in bed, mending a broken pelvis, for several months–then her hysteria and sharp words make sense. She may or may not actually tell the brother-in-law why she’s adamantly opposed to the idea. So she may act erratic or arbitrary, but there will be a visible consistency–and evidence of a reason–in her words and actions.

The man, not understanding, may think she’s a sour old biddy who doesn’t want any child to have fun. Since he’s the scene’s protagonist, he’ll have the viewpoint. He’ll be baffled and annoyed. He may think Irmengarde is trying to run his life, unasked, and control his little girl. He’ll resent Irmengarde’s interference. And reader sympathy will be with him.

However, from your understanding, you’ll be writing a much more complex character than “sour, old biddy.” You’ll have a stronger, more determined Irmengarde–who, despite her personality flaws–really does mean well. And because of her motivation, she won’t surrender easily. It may or may not be necessary to ever share her motivations with readers. But, then, if she’s kept the past event a secret all her life … why? If it’s not a secret, she’ll blurt it out in the conflict, using her terrible experience as a tactic of persuasion.

Now, moving beyond the antagonist’s motivations, why is the protagonist willing to fight for his goal?

What keeps him going after he hits opposition? Why doesn’t he back away? Why doesn’t he accept no as an answer?

Again, if you don’t understand the protagonist’s motivation, the scene will seem hokey and false, especially if he takes risks.

Does Cuthbert want a salary increase or does he need it? If you’re shooting for a strong scene of conflict, then he’d better need it.

Well, why? What’s happened to create this need? Is he in financial difficulties? Maybe his salary doesn’t cover his living expenses. Fair enough, but that’s a background situation, a continuous problem. What’s happened now, right now, to propel him into his supervisor’s office to ask for a raise today, this moment?

Has he just received a notice from his landlord, raising his rent? Well, why can’t he move to a cheaper place?

Did he celebrate his birthday over the weekend at a casino with friends, and now owes forty thousand dollars he doesn’t have?

Hmm. I don’t think a raise will cover that one.

Maybe his sweet love has finally agreed to marry him, and he wants to buy her a ring.

Couldn’t he put the ring on his credit card? Maybe, unless it’s already maxed. Or maybe he doesn’t believe in buying on credit because his parents went bankrupt from mishandling consumer debt.

Or perhaps Cuthbert is already married, and his wife just told him they’re expecting their first child. With a family on the way, he can’t drift along in his modest little job. He needs a promotion that will pay more. He needs to take on more responsibilities and carve out a career path for himself. He can’t go from week to week the way he’s done in the past. People are depending on him now. He’s about to be a father, and no son of his will do without.

And why does he feel he must give his son everything? A new father’s natural pride and elation perhaps. Or did Cuthbert grow up in a disorganized, stressed-out household where there was never enough money because his father stayed in a dead-end job and spent his paycheck on too much beer and cigarettes? Eating fried Spam for supper when he was little so his daddy could have fun at the bar made Cuthbert feel unloved and of little value to his parent. He doesn’t want to be that kind of father.

But of course, scenes are about conflict. Cuthbert may need a raise, but his boss has no desire to give him one.

Why? Maybe the boss is stretched as far as he can go in a soft economy. Boss feels he’s barely keeping his small company afloat. He’s proud of having avoided laying off his employees despite all the hassles from the new benefits laws. It angers him that Cuthbert would pester him for an increase now when no one in the company is getting a raise. No one! Cuthbert should be grateful he even has a job.

Now the question becomes, why–when Cuthbert’s boss resists–doesn’t Cuthbert back off? Why must he persist?

If his motivations are trivial, if he just wants more salary because his buddies tell him he’s worth more than he’s paid, he’ll back off.

If his motivations are strong, and he needs more salary to cover the hospital bill when his child is born, then he’ll risk standing up to his boss and being more assertive with his request.

And an assertive, risk-defying protagonist opposed by a beleaguered, possibly desperate, antagonist means a good scene of conflict that will advance the story.

Because if Cuthbert’s need is strong enough to force him to assert himself farther than he ever has before, maybe his boss will fire him.

Now what will he do? Why?

And your plot rolls forward.

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