Tag Archives: plotting fiction

Plotting III: Romance Structure

A working definition of plot can be a protagonist attempting to achieve a specific objective or overcome a problem despite direct opposition by an antagonist through escalating conflict and obstacles to a crisis point, whereby the protagonist either succeeds or fails.

Granted, this is cumbersome and convoluted–as many working definitions are–but it basically means the protagonist wants something and tries to get it despite an antagonist standing in the way. They clash and maneuver until a big showdown occurs that settles the matter.

While most commercial-fiction genres follow this linear, cause-and-effect, archetypal plot structure, two genres stand out as exceptions because they utilize different–somewhat unconventional–plot dynamics.

They are the romance story and the mystery. Both of them manage to confuse and entangle new writers frequently enough to warrant further discussion.

For this post, let’s examine the romance structure. On the surface, it seems straightforward and simple enough. The couple must meet. The couple must fall in love. The couple must commit. How hard can it be to write about two people falling in love with each other?

Hmmm.

You’ve chosen your setting–perhaps a tropical beach with palm trees swaying in the breeze and turquoise waves curling onto pristine sand.

You can imagine your heroine’s curly auburn hair and tawny eyes. You’re planning to write a heterosexual story so the hero is handsome, dark-haired, and athletic. You envision them kissing passionately on the sand as the tide comes in–something like that famous beach embrace between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in the WWII film, FROM HERE TO ETERNITY.

Okay, and now what? What you have so far is fine, but it’s not a story. After all, besides going on dates and kissing, what else should happen? A genre romance–in contrast to erotica–is not just one torrid bedroom scene after another. And although you intend to bring your couple together happily ever after, you can’t seem to get there while you’re  contriving constant squabbles. In effect, you’re grounded on a sandbar.

So you attend some writing workshops, where the speaker advises you to create a protagonist and antagonist with directly opposing goals and talks about linear plot structure much as I did in the opening paragraph of this post. Trouble is, that advice of opposition, clashing goals, and conflict makes little sense for anyone trying to write a story intended to bring a couple together.

If the heroine is the protagonist, then who’s the antagonist? The guy? Does this mean he has to be an arrogant, foul-mouthed, ruthless, and awful villain? And if he’s like that, how stupidly besotted will a heroine be to fall for him?

Stop!

The heroine isn’t going to be stupid. The hero isn’t going to be a villain.

Granted, some romance novels published in the 1970s and ’80s featured assorted rough and rotten heroes that today make us roll our eyes while muttering caustic remarks about neanderthals, but a successfully plotted–and plausible–romance can follow the classic, archetypal plotting principles just fine.

Allow me to explain.

If your heroine’s desire/objective is to meet and attract THE ONE into a wonderful, committed, forever type of relationship, she has a specific story goal. Furthermore, her goal is clear, obtainable, understandable, and fits the standard tropes of the romance genre.

The plotting principles of genre fiction, however, dictate that stories must have conflict and clashing goals. Does that mean a couple must bicker at every opportunity?

Not at all. It means they should disagree on specific goal-directed issues.

Let’s repeat the heroine’s goal: to meet and attract THE ONE. She meets him on the opening page and recognizes him instantly as THE ONE. That means, therefore, that she wants to attract him. She wants to be with him.

Now, to achieve plotted conflict that will advance the story, the hero–in this scenario–must NOT want to be THE ONE. Sure, he’ll like her. He’ll think she’s cute or beautiful. He might or might not seek a date with her. But despite his attraction to her, he will be determined to avoid becoming her ONE.

His reasons can be a variety of motivations that have little or nothing to do with her personally. Perhaps he’s committed to a bachelor existence and doesn’t want to change or settle down.

I recently read a novel by Cindi Madsen called JUST ONE OF THE GROOMSMEN, where the hero was focused on his recent job-loss and how he didn’t have a career, didn’t have enough money saved, and didn’t feel confident of supporting himself let alone a wife.

(In my youth, I dated a handsome guy who was just starting law school and didn’t want a serious relationship until he was finished with his training. I wanted to be serious, and he didn’t. Wisely or not, I moved on.)

Conversely, the heroine may be the individual that’s determined never again to be in a relationship. Perhaps she’s been burned before, and hero is exactly the type of guy she doesn’t want.

If this THE ONE / NOT THE ONE dynamic is set up clearly in your mind during the planning and outline stage, you will have the conflict you need to keep your plot going because although clearly ideal for each other, the hero and heroine will not be in sync until the story ends.

In the screwball comedy classic, BRINGING UP BABY, heroine Katharine Hepburn falls for an already-engaged Cary Grant and chases him mercilessly in a series of zany antics designed merely to keep her in his sight.

Occasionally, for the sake of variety, a writer will create a lovers triangle where a rival for either the heroine or the hero gets in the way and tries to prevent the course of true love.  In THE RAZOR’S EDGE, the hero’s former flame–who ditched him years before to marry a rich man–destroys his new relationship rather than see him happy.

A third plot variant is the forbidden romance with a parent or authority figure refusing to allow the couple to form a committed, lasting relationship. Tolstoy’s tragic story, ANNA KARENINA, centers upon an unhappily married woman’s love affair with a dashing young soldier while her husband and Russian society turn against her. War itself can also serve to part lovers as in the classic films CASABLANCA and  WATERLOO BRIDGE.

In the romantic comedy, THE MORE THE MERRIER, starring Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea, all three of these plot structures are employed:  she is seeking a female roommate to share her apartment and doesn’t want Joel McCrea for a tenant (she does not consider him THE ONE); although she’s very attracted physically to McCrea, she’s engaged to another man (lovers triangle); WWII is the authority about to deploy McCrea on a dangerous overseas mission, thus parting them (forbidden romance).

The WHY Factor

The romance plot structure requires a clear understanding of WHY from both opposing characters. In other words, WHY is he THE ONE for her? WHY is she so certain of it?

Or, if she dislikes him at first, WHY is she so determined to avoid and evade him as he pursues her?

The why factor is critical character motivation. Work through the why, and your couple will fight and disagree from valid, plausible reasons instead of bickering foolishly for bickering’s sake.

Also, remember that strong motivation will keep your protagonist from quitting, even when winning true love seems hopeless.

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

Jane Austen’s book has been delighting readers for over 200 years, which is a darned good track record for longevity. Her deft handling of the romance plot structure as well as where and how she turns it in unpredictable ways continues to charm readers.

Let’s look at it briefly as an illustration of my points. First of all, the why factor is critical in making this plot plausible. Darcy is eligible, handsome, and very rich. Austen must create valid, plausible reasons why Elizabeth does not instantly fall for him. And therefore, although he is handsome and rich he’s also very shy with strangers and tends to be brusque until he feels more comfortable. That is why he sneers at the people attending the dance and insults Elizabeth when they first meet. They each start off with a poor first impression of the other.

REASONS WHY ELIZABETH AND DARCY STAY APART

*Miscommunication

*Misunderstanding

*Clashing personalities

*Stubbornness, misplaced pride, and prejudice

*Meddling from others

*Social inequality

Initially, both Elizabeth and Darcy dislike each other and are firmly convinced that neither is THE ONE.

Darcy is smitten first, but he fights against accepting Elizabeth as THE ONE because her family is unsuitable.

Elizabeth fights against accepting him as THE ONE because her feelings are hurt, then her sister is hurt, then she is deceived by Mr. Wickham, then she realizes what a social hindrance her family is.

Just as she is starting to accept Darcy as THE ONE, his clumsy first proposal insults her all over again. By the time she truly recognizes how much she’s misjudged him (as well as how incredibly rich he is) and realizes he is really THE ONE, he has backed away.

Back and forth they go, pursuing and evading then switching positions, but always in a dance of conflict until the final misunderstanding is resolved.

 

 

 

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Plotting II: Genre Choice

There are many ways to brainstorm, find inspiration, and be struck by ideas. This series of posts won’t be dealing with them. Instead, I want to supply suggestions for how to move your premise from a nebulous idea to a viable plot.

In doing that, let’s first consider genre. Commercial fiction relies heavily on separate, identifiable genres, and genres in turn are built on strong plots. As part of the weave of this shared dependence, plot itself is heavily influenced by its genre.

Therefore, I always recommend that writers start the plotting process by selecting a genre. How else can you know what you’ll need or how your story will go?

If you’re planning a road trip, don’t you program your GPS with the destination so you can choose your best route? Why, then, would you try to plot a novel without knowing what type of book it will be?

Imagine yourself walking into a Books-a-Million or Barnes & Noble store to buy a book for your vacation. What type of book do you want to read? Mystery? Romance? Thriller? You head for the appropriate section of the store to browse. And while you might prefer to wander through all the sections in hopes of discovering a new book that’s exciting or an author you’ve never read before, let’s say that you’re enroute to the airport and haven’t time to explore all the shelves. You need something fast. You want a sure thing, a book you’ll enjoy. You haven’t the time or inclination to gamble on the unknown.

The same principle works for plotting. You want to be efficient, productive, and professional in developing a story outline that will carry you from start to finish of your manuscript.

Therefore, choose a genre to write. If you’re unsure of what category your story idea fits into, ask yourself where in a brick-and-mortar bookstore it would be shelved. If you cannot answer that question, it’s time for you to stop immediately and do some honest thinking along the following lines:

*What type of fiction do you enjoy reading most?

*Is your story idea that type?

*If not, why not?

*Do you have elements from several types of stories swimming in your imagination?

*Do you want to impress others by writing a piece of Great American Literature?

*Have you assembled a heap of scene fragments, settings, concepts, and character sketches from a wide variety of influences?

*Are you feeling confused and overwhelmed?

So let’s dig a bit deeper into these questions.

If you don’t plan to write what you love to read, why not? Isn’t the type of fiction you love best the type of fiction you know best?

Do you think you’re not skilled enough to put together a mystery, despite having read them avidly since childhood and being able to dissect how clues are laid and misdirected in an Agatha Christie story?

Do you feel that even though you’re a romantic and adore curling up with a passionate love story–your cat on your lap and a cup of tea at your elbow–no one will take you seriously if you confess you’re writing a romance?

Do you think you can’t write science fiction because you flunked physics in high school?

Nonsense! Don’t let self-doubts hold you back from writing a story you’ll enjoy. It’s so easy to denigrate or short-change what comes easiest to us, when in fact that means we have a talent for it.

Furthermore, stop trying to impress others because doing so leads to phony writing or cliched imitations. Write what you love; love what you write. (Hmmm … should that be a tee-shirt logo?)

Now, if you’re overwhelmed, dazed, and confused because you have a variety of influences bombarding your mind, make a foundation decision and choose one genre.

From that selection, start selecting the scene fragments and character sketches that fit your chosen genre. Alter or set aside the rest. A wildly disparate mixture of motifs, influences, and concepts is seldom indicative of genius; instead, it signals a lack of focus. If this is a problem for you, don’t be upset. Whatever you eliminate is not wasted inspiration. It can be saved for other projects to come.

Genre choice will give you an anchor. You aren’t drifting rudderless now. Just as you chose a college major that immediately set you on a path of specific courses to take as well as courses you couldn’t, picking a genre clears away the infinity of limitless options and forces you to focus. This happens because genre choice affects the following:

*The length your story will be;

*The pacing your story will have–which in turn will affect how long and intense your scenes are, whether you can write scene fragments with fast scene cuts or instead need long passages of internalization and transition, and if you’ll put together a plot-driven or character-driven story;

*The types of characters you’ll need, as well as how many;

*The story’s locale;

*The amount of research you’ll do;

*The tropes required (modern versions that aren’t out of date);

*The coding of your language.

These seven areas by no means encompass all the decisions you’ll be making while in story development, but they’re a good place to start. As you focus on them, you’ll probably find more and even better ideas coming to you.

 

 

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Plotting Workbook

Thanks for being patient! I’m delighted to announce that FICTION FORMULA PLOTTING PRACTICE, the companion workbook to FICTION FORMULA PLOTTING, should be live on Amazon.com in the next few hours. It will be available in both print and Kindle versions.

ffpp-DC-front red

Those of you who have been requesting drills and exercises will find this book filled with them, and there’s plenty of “homework” to keep you busy for quite a while.

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Skip and Fall

Let’s consider this scenario:

You have an idea for a new story. You’re excited. You’re eager to start writing right away, and you have several scenes in mind. You even know how you want things to end. There are vague spots in your outline, but you don’t mind. You want to get going.

Boom! You write the first incident in the story that will introduce your protagonist and–you hope–set up the story situation.

But then, although you can clearly envision the next important event that will occur, you can’t figure out how to put your protagonist there.

Let’s say your protagonist is on a journey to a new life in a new town, about to start wizard school.

You want to introduce your young protagonist as a youth with natural magical powers, as yet untrained and poorly controlled. So you write an incident where Yen the Youngster is bored by travel and so conjures up a spirit companion to talk to. But the spirit turns out to be one best left unsummoned. It’s loud, unruly, causes all sorts of mayhem among the other passengers. Yen is nearly thrown off the transport, and only the intervention of an older, experienced wizard who happens to be traveling can banish the spirit back to where it belongs.

Okay, so what happens next?

Easy, you think. Wizard school!

Wait!

Hold on!

Not so fast.

It’s like standing on one side of a creek when you desperately want to get across. There’s no bridge in sight, not even a log spanning the two banks. The water’s too deep to wade, so what do you do?

Run along the bank until the creek narrows and then jump across?

Sure, that’s fine for crossing streams. But jumping across story, leaving gaps to be “filled in later,” isn’t such a great idea.

If you “jump” to Yen’s first day at school after the spirit misadventure, your reader will be wondering about what happened to Yen after the spirit left. Did Yen get into trouble? Did Yen have to pay the other passengers for the damages? Is the master of the wizard school aware that Yen is a wild card? Will Yen cross the threshold already in disgrace? Were any other students aboard? Are they talking about Yen, gossiping and spreading rumors to prejudice the student body against him?

But perhaps you don’t want to bother with such questions. Yen’s arrival isn’t important. You want to focus instead on his first day in the classroom.

After all, Yen is destined for Great Things. His first class will be in wand waving, and you’re eager to write about that. You’ll go back and fill in the “trivial” stuff later, when you have more time.

So you jump from the spirit’s banishment to Yen in the classroom. You want Yen to demonstrate his raw talent and impress his teacher, at least until he loses control and his new wand flies out of his hand and hits the ceiling. All the students laugh at him, and Yen will be sad and frustrated.

Except again there are questions left unanswered, questions that might need to be considered before Yen steps into the classroom: How is he learning his way around the school? Has anyone befriended him? Does he want to start with wand waving or does he wish he could take a different subject instead? And if he got into trouble because of the spirit he summoned, what happened with that? Is he already on probation?

When questions are raised due to your protagonist’s actions, you’re responsible for answering them and not just ignoring them or leaving readers to wonder, wonder, wonder.

Also, the answers to such questions should affect what’s going to happen next.

But maybe you’re too busy thinking ahead. You want Yen to stay in trouble. Character in trouble is an important writing principle, right?

Right.

So without considering what’s happened thus far, you’re blazing forward by thinking that maybe halfway through his first term he’ll blow up the potions class. No, wait … that’s too close to the Harry Potter plotline. You’ll rethink that part … but later. Because you can’t be bothered to work through the middle right now and you really, really, really want to write the battle scene when Orcs attack the town where the wizard school happens to be. Yen and all his classmates are going to be drafted into helping defend the place. You know this part is going to be nifty.

Stop the madness!

What was once a promising premise is turning into a very poorly plotted story.

Thus far, although there are incidents where Yen hits trouble, there’s no cohesion, no actual conflict, and no unfolding of plot. The whole thing is a cobbled-together mess that’s totally author contrived.

Although a writer wants his protagonist to hit opposition, obstacles, and trouble, such difficulties should connect plausibly with each other in cause-and-effect logic. A story is not a random scramble of action and dialogue.

If you skip ahead, and only write the parts that are vivid in your mind, you will never go back and fill in what’s missing.

Not because you don’t intend to, but because you probably can’t.

Skipping blitzes cause-and-effect. Trying to wedge consequences for character actions between otherwise disconnected events simply doesn’t work.

Let’s go back, back, back to the beginning when Yen uncorks that unruly spirit. What if the wizard that pulls matters back under control happens to be the school headmaster?

What if he’s so angry with Yen that he almost expels him?

And why is it so important for Yen to attend this school instead of one of the five alternative wizard schools in the realm? Why this one? Did Yen’s father and grandfather and six great-uncles attend this school? Is it a family tradition? Or is Yen the first in his family to manifest magical powers that need formal training? Is his mother so seriously proud of him that he’s desperate not to let her down?

Furthermore, if Yen has to plead and beg to be allowed to enroll at the school, what awful threat will the headmaster hold over him if he messes up again?

Now, with these answers in mind, reconsider what stakes are involved in Yen’s wand waving class. If he’s on probation, then he could be afraid stand out or try, afraid to make a mistake. The teacher, however, is insisting that he not be bashful. They have goals in opposition, which means the scene between them will contain solid conflict. Yen makes a mistake, and it’s a whopper. His wand careens all over the place. It nearly puts Maranda Mogwimple’s eye out, and poor Yen is in greater disgrace than before.

Also, if you work your way one step at a time with Yen and his struggles, by the time your story reaches the imminent Orc invasion, you will understand Yen as a character and readers will empathize with him and–most importantly–care when he faces his first battle. You will know his strengths and his weaknesses. You will know his motivation for trying his best even if his time at school has been difficult and unpleasant. As a writer, you will be prepared to push Yen into the biggest test/challenge of his life.

But if you skip, you won’t know him well or understand what combination of experiences and conflict has forced him to grow through the arc of your story.

Beware. The next time you’re tempted to skip over a vague portion, ask yourself why.

Why haven’t you bothered to think through the consequences of what your character has done to that point?

Why aren’t you willing to think through your character’s next options?

Take the time. Solve the plot problems as they arise. You’ll find that doing so makes quite a difference in the quality of your plotting.

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Wrapping Up

As we move through the final days of this year, some of us may be lurching along in post-holiday stupor while others are still riding the endorphins of shopping-rush. Then there are the well-ordered, organized souls who are balancing checking accounts, writing donation checks, purchasing tax-deductible items, or shopping for new cars while pre-inventory prices are rock bottom.

When it comes to creating fiction, do you consider yourself a lurching, euphoric, or organized writer?

Let’s narrow the topic further by examining how stories reach their conclusions. Some, you see, are written with a dramatically definitive ending. Others simply stop. And yet others fade, leaving readers to flip back through the last two or three pages, checking numbers to see if the last page has been torn out.

Lurching to a stop:
The lurchers of fiction tend to open with some sort of very exciting hook and a rapid plunge into story action. When that event plays out, the story’s momentum slows or even stalls until the writer thinks up another exciting event to happen next. The story jolts forward, only to slow once more, then picks up again. Story action tends to be rough and feels tacked together (which it is). The conclusion may not make a lot of sense dramatically, but it will be exciting and packed with action, usually putting the protagonist into dire danger.

Generally, there’s the effect of a rushed, incomplete finale. Questions raised within the plot may or may not be answered to reader satisfaction. Some are often forgotten or overlooked.

Because the writers of lurching stories tend to be pantsers instead of planners, the general effect of this approach is slap-dash. It may work … somehow, despite itself … but it may not. It’s a reckless way to write, and it runs the risk of leaving readers dissatisfied with how the story is finished.

Euphoria, Hysteria, and Froth!
The story that relies on its writer’s emotions alone focuses on characters more than plot. How the characters feel propels their motivations, complexities, and actions–although they may not do very much more than make tea and think a great deal about problems that are never actually dramatized on the page.

And while some lovely introspective stories have been published–THE NUMBER ONE LADIES’ DETECTIVE AGENCY by Alexander McCall Smith, for example–an inept or inexperienced writer can float, mull, and philosophize her way into a muddle.

Muddled stories tend to end up trapped in corners, with the writer unsure of how to back out. Therefore, they may simply stop with the protagonist waving tearfully to her lover as he catches his train and is borne away from her.

But is this the end? readers then wonder. How does it work out? Are they parting forever? Is she just going to stand there and weep? Will he come back? Is my book defective and missing the last chapter? How does this thing end?

As writers, we can ache for our beleaguered characters. We can grieve for them, worry over them, cry because of them, but we shouldn’t leave readers asking any of the above questions. It’s possible to finish stories plausibly and conclusively, tying up the loose ends and resolving the main plotline, without sacrificing one droplet of emotional potential.

The Organized Climax:
O.R.G.A.N.I.Z.E.D.

When one’s artistic soul is pulsating in the raw throes of creation, “organized” is an unpleasant, off-putting word. There’s no glamour to the term organized. It possesses no zing, no zip, no bling, and certainly no appeal. It’s mundane and boring–positively nauseatingly dull. It carries the connotations of hard work, discipline, labor, planning, and drudgery. Rest assured, there is no fun to be had from organized anything.

Or so says the imagination.

Yet the imagination is a lazy trickster that is not always truthful.

Bringing your story to a dramatically satisfying, exciting, intense, enthralling, cathartic conclusion takes planning, thought, and hard work. It should never be drudgery, but it’s seldom easy. If we writers do our jobs well, our stories take readers through the agony of near defeat and the relief of a logical, but unexpected reversal. Loose ends are tied up. The questions are answered. Characters get what they deserve–either good or bad. The story is finished. Readers aren’t left hanging. They’re satisfied because the story has taken them on an emotional journey and delivered the full, entertaining experience it promised.

When you sit down to write your next story, know where you want it to end before you write the beginning. Don’t lurch, leap, and contrive your way there. Think the plot events through so that your protagonist takes logical steps from start to finish. Or if your protagonist’s emotions carry her away from the story goal in pursuit of some tangent, take the time to delete that version and put her back on the path you intend her to follow.

Remember, it’s always the writer’s responsibility to wrap up a story dramatically to the reader’s satisfaction.

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Scene Check: Part What

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.

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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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