Tag Archives: scene conflict

Scene Check: Part How

In planning or editing any given scene, consider the “how” questions:

How long will the scene be?

Answer? A scene’s length depends on what’s at stake, what the two opposing characters’ motivations are, and how strong the conflict will be.

Let’s say a scene’s purpose is for a private investigator to gain the answer to a question. He goes to the victim’s sister and asks her about the strange clothing the victim was wearing the night she was killed.

If the sister wants to help, but she doesn’t know the answer, the scene conflict will be mild and brief. She’ll evade a little, then when pressed, she’ll admit she doesn’t know the reason. When pressed a little more, she’ll insist she doesn’t know. It’s obvious she’s telling the truth, and the detective moves on.

But if the sister is hiding something, if the peculiar clothing points to an aspect of that secret she doesn’t want known, she’ll be nervous and irritable. Her evasions will be stronger, and as a result the detective will be more suspicious. He’ll ask tougher questions, and she’ll lie, and maybe flirt, and maybe try to change the subject, and finally throw him out.

How much conflict should there be in a scene?

To reiterate the point made above, the degree of conflict will depend on what’s at stake.

If the issue is simply whether to eat a hamburger for lunch, then the low stakes hardly merit a scene at all.

But if the issue is really about a rocky relationship, where the woman has celiac’s disease and the man insists on their eating lunch in a burger joint, now the argument isn’t over the menu but about how little he cares for her health or safety; in fact, how little he cares about her.

How can a scene be lengthened?

Before you solve that problem, examine why you think the scene is too short.

Do you feel your characters overlooked something as they argued? Did you intend to include a particular point but as the scene heated up, your characters skipped it? Or do you have the sense that the scene just isn’t doing enough?

In the latter case, compare the protagonist’s motivations and goal to his emotional involvement. Is he a bit passive? Has he given in too quickly? Those are signs of insufficient emotional involvement with the goal.

On the other hand, if a character really cares about what he’s trying to accomplish, then he won’t stop at the first maneuver of opposition. Or even the second. He’ll persist as far as he can take the confrontation until that persistence lands him in trouble.

Also, when a scene falls too short or seems too skimpy, look at the antagonist’s emotional involvement. Perhaps this character’s motivation isn’t strong enough. If you make adjustments, what happens?

Or, perhaps the antagonist’s motivation is strong but for some reason you had him rein back much of his temper. Why? Are you inadvertently trying to protect your protagonist? Unleash the antagonist’s temper. Stop coddling your protagonist. Let one character needle the other one, and see if it pushes any emotional buttons.

How can a scene be shortened?

Maybe you’ve written a strong, tense scene where the conflict level escalates well and the confrontation ends in a setback for the protagonist. The scene is well-crafted, but for some reason you’ve got to shorten it. Perhaps your story is over the assigned length and simple tightening hasn’t reduced it enough.

To shorten a scene, first look for any chitchat. Get to the argument quicker. Look for internalizations, gestures, or mannerisms. Trim them. Look for pauses while you describe the room or a prop one of the characters is handling. Shorten or eliminate those. Then search for any attempt by the antagonist to get the protagonist off track or on a tangent. Eliminate that tactic.

How can a plot twist be incorporated?

First of all, let’s nix the kind of brainless plotting where a writer simply thinks about the most horrible random thing that could happen and tosses it into the scene.

For example, a teacher and her principal are sitting in the school’s office, having a civilized disagreement over whether the after-school music club should be discontinued. And suddenly there’s an earthquake, and a bookcase filled with books and school trophies falls on the teacher, breaking her collarbone and giving her a concussion.

Plot twist! Right?

Well, not exactly a plausible or effective one. It’s not organic to the situation. It’s sheer, coincidental bad luck. It may seem exciting, but how does it actually contribute to the story?

Plot twists work best when they come from the antagonist. So the teacher goes into this meeting thinking she’s got to stand up for the music club and find some way to persuade her principal from cutting it, and the principal tells her the real reason he’s ending the club is that he’s learned she was accused of pilfering club funds at her last teaching position and he doesn’t want her trying such shenanigans here.

Miss Jones is left stunned, hardly able to respond as she stumbles from the office. She did not steal at her last job, but she was never fully exonerated. She moved to another state, trying to get away from the scandal, but now it’s followed her here. She should have kept her head down and simply taught her classes, bringing no attention to herself. But she wanted to help her young students. She wanted to bring an extra dimension of music appreciation to their young lives. And now, the lie is hanging over her again.

Plot twists pick at the issues the protagonist most fears and bring them forward. Not only can’t she have the music club, but now she’ll fear for her job as well. If the principal doesn’t like her, he’ll use it to end her teaching contract. So the plot twist was unexpected, hit her like a ton of bricks, and has made her story situation much worse than before.

That’s much more effective than a random earthquake, isn’t it?

How can a scene make things worse for the protagonist?

Through setbacks and plot twists, as I’ve just showed you in the above example.

The worse the scene ends for the protagonist, the better–as far as the story is concerned. Remember that this isn’t to be sadistic toward your protagonist, but to force the character to change as a result of meeting challenges.

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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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Stop Watching!

Does your protagonist jump into trouble, take on opponents, and try to get things done?

Or does your protagonist hang back timidly–or sensibly–refusing to dip a toe in the quagmire of story problems?

When you read over one of your scenes, is the protagonist just standing there, listening to two other characters debate?

Or is your protagonist at the center of the action?

In evaluating your stories, always ask yourself these questions. If your protagonist is creeping around in the attic and pauses to listen in to what is–in your authorial mind–a “very important conversation that will have a vital bearing on events to come” then you aren’t really writing a strong scene of conflict. You just think you are.

The conflict between secondary characters is never going to be as interesting to readers as the conflict between the protagonist and someone else.

Beware the trap of sidelining your protagonist. The star of your story should be at the center of the action … unless you switch viewpoints. The star shouldn’t be sitting in the bleachers, watching other characters at work.

Consider if you were putting together a movie instead of writing a story. Let’s say that you’re paying your protagonist a hefty sum of money to perform, yet the script has put Paolo Protagonist in a chair beneath an umbrella with a cool drink. The upcoming story action is going to center on Sidekick Sam and Confidant Charlie. They’re supposed to be playing tennis but instead they’re arguing because Sam thinks Charlie has learned Paolo’s secret and is upset that Paolo would trust Charlie more than anyone else. So Sam is trying to wheedle the secret from Charlie, and Charlie refuses to spill it.

Back and forth they argue. It’s a good scene with directly opposing conflict. Paolo may enjoy watching it. He may laugh at Sam’s attempts to trick Charlie, and Paolo may be proud of Charlie’s loyalty. At the end of the scene, Sam stomps away, frustrated and angrier than before.

Do you think you did a good job, presenting that to your audience?


Why not? Because the audience wants to see the star perform.

You may argue that the scene was indeed about the star. “They were talking about Paolo the whole time!” you may insist.

Yeah, but it’s not the same thing. Consider this scenario instead:

Paolo needs to confide in someone. He shares his secret with Charlie, whom he trusts.

Later, Sam comes to him and berates Paolo for not trusting him. “How can you trust Charlie and not me?” he asks. “Why don’t you tell me the secret, too?”

But Paolo won’t. Whatever his motivation happens to be, for some reason he’s not trusting Sam with the information. At the end of the scene, Sam is angry and frustrated. He breaks his friendship with Paolo and withdraws his assistance from the important project looming ahead.

Now Paolo has managed not to spill his secret, but he’s lost a valuable ally.

Do you see the difference? Putting Paolo in the story action of the scene is going to be more interesting than merely having him watching and listening.

The protagonist–the viewpoint character–must participate in advancing the story.

Always check. You may find that you have some vivid and contentious secondary characters who are stealing scenes–and possibly the story–from your star. Don’t diminish them. Just give your protagonist a job to do.


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Scene Planning: Part II

BEWARE: the following information can lead to endless rewriting. Extreme caution is advised.

Although Hemmingway recommended that a writer stop in the middle of a sentence at the close of a day’s work, I’ve never found that to work for me.

When I resume writing the next day, often I can’t remember the rest of the sentence or I’ve lost the mood of the scene.

So what works better for me is to finish the scene before I stop. I have a complete dramatic unit, however rough and shaky, and after a break where I go swim or run errands, I like to mull over the scene and decide if I want to change anything before I roll forward.

There’s danger in doing this, the danger that you’ll rewrite the scene, hate it, rewrite the scene, hate that, rewrite the scene, give up in despair and jettison the whole project.

However, here are a few salient questions to ask yourself in thinking over a scene:

1) Did the scene come out where I wanted it to?

The outcome is the most important element in what you’re trying to accomplish in a progressive plot. And until you gain skill and experience, very often the first or second draft fails to accomplish the resolution you want.

Example: Let’s say that Ermilio goes to his grandfather to ask for the secret family recipe for pizza dough. It’s the key ingredient that will make Ermilio’s pizzas stand out, and give his new little restaurant a chance of success.

But old Guiseppe is senile and forgetful. He confuses Ermilio with another grandson, the unscrupulous one that cheated Guiseppe years ago.

The argument strays from crust to personal family issues. At the end of the scene Ermilio has convinced Guiseppe that he’s the good kid in the family and he agrees to go talk to his cousin Gianni to get Guiseppe’s gold watch back.


Now, Calvin Clueless, the newbie writer, may defend this scene by pointing out it begins with a clear, specific goal and it has lots and lots of conflict. (The old man rants a lot.) And then it’s going to lead to lots of other scenes because Ermilio has to find his cousin, talk to his cousin, etc.

But was a quest to regain the stolen/borrowed/pawned gold watch the intended consequence of this scene?

What happened to Ermilio’s goal of getting the recipe?

It was sidetracked by Guiseppe’s goal of recovering his watch.

These goals are NOT in direct opposition. They split the scene’s focus, and Ermilio is sidetracked into an issue that has nothing to do with his desire to succeed with his restaurant.

If you have written a scene that sidetracks the protagonist, you do need a rewrite. To continue onward means your entire plot is heading off-road. You’re going to have a bumpy ride across rough terrain until you end up in the ditch of no more plot or you break an axle at the corner of dead end and what am I doing.

Go back through your scene and find the paragraph where the antagonist pulled things awry. Don’t delete what the antagonist attempts!

It’s the antagonist’s job to maneuver and evade and confuse and pull things off course.

But it’s the protagonist’s job to weather such ploys and force the argument back to what he wants.

So … “Grandpa, I’m sorry Gianni wronged you. I don’t like him either, but that has nothing to do with why I’m here today. I’m asking for your best recipe to make my pizzas the tastiest in town. Will you help me?”

2) Do I need to plant something in this scene that will support a later story development?

You may have planned the scene initially to plant a clue or support a plot twist that will make the climax work in the third act. But somehow, during the quick give and take of the dialogue, your character never spoke the key phrase. Or, the conflict grew so heated, so darned good that you omitted that passage of description you intended.

Well, go back and stick it in!

Except, it’s not always that easy, is it?

When I was first learning to write cohesive dramatic scenes, I frequently omitted something important. But since I’d also learned to write dialogue that was tightly linked, I found it a challenge to try to insert material later without messing up the snappy rhythm that I’d achieved.

Insertions always felt clunky and awkward.

Sometimes, I could manage it. Sometimes, I had to rewrite portions of the dialogue. I learned to jot down a checklist of key points my characters needed to say and keep it beside me as I wrote. Gradually, I improved at keeping my concentration and no longer needed the crib sheet.

And where do you stop verbal conflict to describe the heavy brass fern pot that will later prove to be the murder weapon?

You don’t.

You can include a sentence of description at the start of the scene, when its setup is occurring and you’re getting your two adversaries in position.

Or you can have your angry, frustrated, flustered protagonist storm out of the conservatory at the scene’s conclusion and fail to completely duck the low-hanging fern. Let him bump his head and shove the heavy pot aside so that it swings slowly and ponderously behind him as he leaves.

3) Have I established the following in my scene?
*High stakes
*Limited number of characters
*Dominant impression for characters

We’ll deal with these one at a time:

High stakes.
I mentioned this element in my previous post and why scenes should be reserved for what’s important to the story.

Low or trivial stakes can be dealt with in narrative summary. No need to wrap a full-blown scene around burning the toast.

Perhaps it’s more useful to consider how a high stake is differentiated from a low stake.

Calvin Clueless sits in his writing class and day after day hears the mantra … the stakes must be high.

Calvin thinks about space invaders hovering over Chicago, causing panic in the streets. He thinks about King Kong crushing high rise buildings in New York. He thinks about a meteor crashing into the Earth and knocking it off its orbit, thereby obliterating life as we know it.

Yeah, those are high stakes all right. But as stupendous and colossal as they are, they mean nothing without character perspective.

What does the situation mean to your character? How important is it to him or her?

In the classic film THE BISHOP’S WIFE, starring Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven, Niven plays a young, ambitious bishop who’s trying to raise millions of dollars to build a new cathedral. He’s stressed and cranky, and when his wife hands over an old Roman coin donated by an elderly impoverished man they used to be close friends with, the bishop tosses the coin aside, saying, “What good is a worthless old coin like this?”

In his zeal to accomplish his goal, he’s forgotten all the essential values of kindness, charity, faith, and compassion. He’s completely missing the Biblical point of the “widow’s mite.” His wife sees it, of course, and she’s heartbroken at how he dismisses this gesture of affection and support from the old professor.


Stories have settings, of course. But scenes do as well. When establishing a scene, take a few words to inform readers of where the scene is happening, whether it’s night or day and the presence of any critical props.

You don’t need a huge, stalled information dump, but sketch in what’s key. Remember that your readers don’t have a camera lens to show them what you see. And depict for them only the setting details that are germane to the scene itself.

In other words, if the tall Victorian vase full of dusty, faded peacock feathers standing beside the fireplace isn’t necessary either to convey mood or information about the house’s owner or hides the murder weapon that will be discovered later, don’t mention it.

The classic film GASLIGHT is heavily focused on its setting because the house itself contains all the clues that will solve the mystery. Even the title conveys the most important clue of all.

Limited characters:

Last time, I explained why a scene should be limited to two characters whenever possible. This keeps the focus on the scene combatants–the protagonist and antagonist. It helps mitigate interruptions and makes it less likely to split the focus.

So when you think over the scene you’ve just written, have you followed my suggestion or have you allowed Sidekick to remain present?

Has Sidekick stayed in the background like a good little character or has Sidekick butted in at some point? And if the latter, did that comment steal focus away from the protagonist? Did that comment pull the scene away from where you wanted it to go? Did that comment cause you to forget the important remark you wanted to include?

Dominant character impression:

What are each of the two primary characters doing as they enter the scene? Have you given that any thought?

If you haven’t, then consider it now.

Actions convey impressions much more vividly to readers than mere description.

Compare the following:

Robert stood by the desk, waiting. He was a tall, well-built young man with broad shoulders. He wore a tailored navy blazer and a striped tie. His face displayed an expression of impatience. He held a letter in his hands.

Robert paced back and forth by the desk, glancing at his watch with every other step. He paused, glaring at the door, then grabbed the envelope off the desk and ripped it open. He read it fast, then read it a second time before crumpling it in his fist. “Erica!” he shouted.

I think you can see the difference between the static depiction and the active one.

If you confine your examination of a scene’s draft to technical areas such as these, you should be able to fix problems and then continue forward with your story.

But if you’re just going to rely on whether the scene “feels right” then it’s best not to look back. Keep going with your draft or you’ll be mired forever in revision quicksand.

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Scene Planning: Part I

Whether you’re a writer who works strictly from an outline or you’re a “pantser,” each scene of your story needs thinking over both before and after you write it.

The before stuff:

1) From whose viewpoint will the scene be written?

Maybe the scene needs to be from the villain’s perspective instead of the hero’s. Maybe it will be most effective from a side character. Just remember that a scene unfolds best if it’s confined to one viewpoint.

Choose wisely for valid reasons of plot.

The character you choose will become this scene’s protagonist.

2) What single character will be in strongest opposition to the scene’s viewpoint character?

You may have the entire army of Ruritania opposed to your scene’s protagonist, but someone must step forward and represent this antagonism.

What you should aim for is one character who drives the scene and is central to it and one character who tries to thwart whatever the scene protagonist is doing.

The oppositional character will become this scene’s antagonist.

3) What are these two individuals going to argue about?

You need to know this clearly ahead of time because it’s what your scene will be about. Their disagreement is why this particular scene exists.

So what has them upset? Are their intentions diametrically opposed or do they just dislike each other?

If you choose the first option, give yourself a star! Your scene’s going to have conflict, excitement, and unpredictability.

If you choose the second option, we need to talk. If the characters have nothing going for them other than that they’re cranky, then your story’s in trouble.

Fractious bickering does not a scene of conflict make. You won’t be able to get it to go anywhere substantive enough to carry the plot forward.

Diametrically opposed goals mean a focused conflict.

*John wants to marry Suzie.
*Suzie does NOT want to marry John.

*Beryl says she wants to spend her $1,000 gift certificate on new draperies for the house.
*Her husband Beauregard disagrees, saying it should be spent on new golf clubs.

*Harry attempts to murder his Uncle Orlando.
*Orlando’s bodyguard intervenes, fighting Harry.

*Veronica swims hard and fast to get away from a Great White shark.
*The shark swims faster.

See how these examples work? Each one is tightly focused on an immediate problem. Each character is in action–physical or verbal. The setup is such that conflict is unavoidable. Exactly what we–as writers–want!

4) Why have your two characters taken this position?

Why, of course, speaks to motivation. Motivation is why a character doesn’t give up in the first round of conflict.

Back to my examples:

*John wants to marry Suzie because he’s deeply in love with her. He wants to spend the rest of his life with her. He knows that without her he’ll always be incomplete.

*Suzie doesn’t want to marry John because she doesn’t love him back.

*Beryl wants new draperies because what they have are some cheap mini-blinds that the cat has climbed. She grew up in a nice home and she wants her house to be attractive enough to impress guests. Without better décor, she feels her home is saying, “My husband can’t provide for us.”

*Beauregard hasn’t even noticed the broken mini-blinds. His best wood driver is being held together with duct tape. His boss has told him to take their company’s CEO out to play golf next weekend. Beauregard knows his future with the company is riding on that golf game. It could mean the difference between promotion or being fired. Who cares about new curtains?

*After five years of searching, Harry finally has conclusive proof that Uncle Orlando was behind the extortion that bankrupted Harry’s father. When he confronts Orlando, his uncle grabs the document and burns it, thus obliterating any chance that justice will be done.

*The bodyguard respects and admires Orlando. He looks up to Orlando like a father. He’s proud to be trusted enough to guard Orlando’s safety. No one except Orlando saw potential in the bodyguard when he was just a scrawny kid, but Orlando gave him a chance, gave him a job. And now, the bodyguard would gladly take a bullet to save his hero.

*After the shark bites off Larry’s leg during a dive to collect marine specimens for their study, Veronica swims for her life. She doesn’t want to be eaten, too.

*The shark liked its taste of Larry and is attracted by Veronica’s movements as she swims away. The shark is still hungry.

5) Do the actions or comments I’ve planned for my characters plausibly fit or connect with the objectives and motivations?

In other words, stay focused.

Don’t throw in random comments because you think they’re clever or you want to display your character’s rapier wit.

Keep the actions and dialogue centered on the disagreement. Eliminate other characters and distractions such as phone call interruptions or fiddling with setting props.

6) What’s at stake in this scene?

This speaks to motivation as well. A man in love believes his future happiness depends on marrying the girl he adores. A new job and higher salary could be jeopardized because of home décor. The burning need for justice turns into revenge. Survival is a powerful instinct so strong it needs no explanation.

Low stakes, however, equal low excitement.

Low stakes equal reader boredom or disappointment.

Low stakes don’t deserve a scene of their own. Petty, banal problems aren’t suitable for dramatic scenes.

When you encounter a powerful scene–whether in reading or watching a film–and it seems to be about something insubstantial, chances are there’s subtext at work. A much larger issue is actually going on.

Watch or read it again. See if you can determine what’s really at stake.

7) Do you know what the scene’s outcome will be?

Where is this scene going? What’s the point of it? How will its outcome make the situation more dire for the protagonist?

If the stakes are too low, the scene’s outcome will fall flat.

Keep in mind that trivial issues don’t deserve to be scenes. They can be raised or even discussed in other story structures such as dialogue or narrative, without a dramatic scene being built around them.

Also keep in mind that scenes should work to move the story forward. That means, the scene protagonist fails–either completely or partially–and has to try again. That next attempt will lead to the next event in your plot. And the next. And the next.

If you allow the scene protagonist to succeed, where is your story going next? What is left for your characters to do?

Not much!

Success and happiness means the story is over.

As for thinking over the scene after you write it, I’ll address that in my next post.


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In Search of Villains

Why is it so hard to find a truly bad guy (or gal)? In our efforts to render multi-dimensional characters, have we gone too far down the road of understanding and/or excusing wrong behavior?

Fiction needs conflict in order to test the protagonist and advance the story from its opening to its closure.

Conflict comes from the antagonist. For years now, I’ve been carefully using the term antagonist most of the time because I wanted to convey to my students that the opponent in a scene need not be Snidely Whiplash.

However, I’ve grown weary of that namby-pamby approach. What I’m looking for is a well-designed villain, someone who’s evil and intent on harming or thwarting the protagonist.

Serial killers qualify, but they’ve outworn their welcome. Let’s get over the psychotic insanity and find a motivation that’s a little more clever, shall we?

How can a villain harm an individual? Let me count the ways ….

Embezzlement? Blackmail? Ruin? Identity theft? Robbery? Abduction? Emotional slavery? Abuse? Bullying?

On the surface, embezzlement seems rather tame. A bit dusty. Certainly dry.

But is it? It was, if you recall, the underlying motivation for the villain in the film GHOST. Patrick Swayze’s best friend electronically transferred a few million and got himself in trouble.

John Sandford’s novel, BROKEN PREY, features a trio of geeks that electronically drain the bank account of a powerful Mexican drug cartel.

Real-life crook Bernie Madoff siphoned off the pensions of so many people who are now facing uncertain futures and impoverished retirements.

This year, I assumed management of one of my father’s business accounts. It only took a quick comparison of my checkbook balance versus his to show me how easily a person in financial trouble could stumble down the road of temptation.

Embezzlement is more than taking someone’s money. It breaks trust as well, and that hurt can stab deep.

Blackmail? Oh, tosh! No one can be blackmailed these days. Modern society no longer deals with guilt or its sister, shame. People behave as they please. All kinds of indiscretions float through Facebook, and even a princely scandal fades fast.

There is, however, emotional blackmail. One family member coercing another within the entangled webs of dysfunctional families. A wealthy, elderly relative can force her children and grandchildren to put up with her demands in order to inherit her money.

A rebellious teenager can manipulate his parents, pitting them against each other and possibly even pushing them toward divorce.

Blackmail operates best on a foundation of guilt, but it’s really about the inequity of power between two people.

Robbery? Muggings happen. These days, the fear of having your identity stolen due to a robbery preys on people’s peace of mind–less for the inconvenience of losing cash in the wallet and more for the supreme nightmare of juggling bureaucratic red tape to restore everything.

But what if you’re a courier entrusted with the formula for a remedy that will cure cancer? The formula has been sold to a pharmaceutical company, and you’re supposed to deliver it. Only you never arrive.

Robbery, in today’s world, needs to have enormous consequences.

Wait! Let’s define what “enormous consequences” means.

Consider a little girl in the year 1900 that’s given a dime–all the money the family has until payday a week away–and she’s sent to buy a loaf of soft white bread because that’s all her ailing grandmother can eat.

If the dime is stolen, or if the loaf of bread is stolen, aren’t the consequences to that child and her family also dire? What happens to the grandmother if she can’t eat anything? She will weaken and possibly die. If they love her, they’ll be devastated. The child will blame herself. What if no one helps her understand this isn’t her fault? Or what if a grieving parent does blame her? How can she make restitution?

There are so many ways for characters to hurt each other, and so many paths of evil that the bad guy can take. In writing, remember to think through why an antagonist selects the course of action he or she chooses. The motivation doesn’t have to be one that will activate compassion in the reader. Sometimes, villains are just mean because they enjoy it. Effective story conflict doesn’t always require readers to feel that the villain is justified in some way. As my father would say, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” The bad guy’s mother may beat him black and blue every morning before school, and that won’t justify his bullying a scared little first-grader out of her lunch.

No matter why, he’s practicing extortion. We can understand where it comes from, but we don’t have to paint it a sympathetic color in an effort to have a complex character. Wouldn’t it be better to keep reader sympathies with the six-year-old who has nothing to eat all day?

Or, if we want to make a protagonist out of the boy, then he should not let the beating drive him to commit wrong. It takes a mighty strong character to break the cycle of violence and abuse. If this boy has that kind of character, then how will he defeat the abusive mother without degenerating to her level?

Fiction needs villains in order to keep story conflict going. Study James Cain’s THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE and DOUBLE INDEMNITY for examples of how banal evil can be.


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The Game of Scenes

When you’re planning a scene in your fiction, try to think of it as strategic maneuvering between two combatants. The conflict may be mild and verbal, but there is still strategy to consider. Think of it as a chess match or even a game of tennis.

Two opponents only:

Although scenes can be written with multiple characters present, this is a considerable challenge to tackle. Only very skilled authors usually handle such scenes well. In the hands of someone inexperienced, it can become a mess.

Scenes are at their strongest dramatically when only two characters are involved. Other players may be present, but they are backdrop to the conflict that’s occurring between the scene protagonist and the scene antagonist.

Tennis doubles can serve up exciting play, but a doubles game seldom matches the intensity of a singles game. (Have I supplied you with enough groaner puns here?)

The scene goal should be clear:

People play games to enjoy each others’ company, to spend time in a pleasant or recreational pursuit, and to win.

If you sit down to a game of chess, your objective is to take your opponent’s queen. At the same time, your opponent is trying to take yours. It’s win, lose, or stalemate.

In scene action, let the protagonist state the scene goal from the outset. It can be conveyed internally, as an intention. It can be spoken aloud. It can be acted upon. No matter what method is used, there’s no need to hide the scene goal from readers.

Conflict should have a strategy:

I’m repeating this point because it’s important.

My writing teacher, Jack Bickham, used to define story conflict as two goals in direct opposition. That’s absolutely correct, but there’s more to writing conflict than that. When your protagonist enters a scene, she’s planning the steps she’s going to take to accomplish her objective. She’s anticipating who might oppose her intention and weighing options on how to best thwart that opposition.

Likewise, the scene’s antagonist will have a strategy in play as well. Just as two chess players plan their moves well in advance, a scene’s characters are thinking ahead about what they want and how they’re going to get it.

Scene conflict should not be predictable:

I find the most enjoyable aspect of writing a scene is blowing that carefully planned strategy out of the water.

In other words, my protagonist often finds his opponent to be smarter than expected, or craftier, or more manipulative, or more ruthless. This isn’t to make my protagonist look stupid or inept. Instead, it’s to keep him off balance, to challenge and test him.

That challenge isn’t there just to defeat my protagonist. It’s to force him to try harder than he intended. When he has to struggle and adapt quickly, then he’s going to show readers what he’s really made of.

What’s the outcome?

Scenes should end definitively and not just trail off or stop before completion. If you pay money to watch a tennis match, you want to see the finish. Is it victory or defeat for the athlete you’re cheering for?

In chess, a stalemate is less satisfying than a conclusive win/lose outcome.

A scene ends when the protagonist either achieves his scene goal or loses it. There’s an answer, good or bad.

The sleuth interrogates a suspect for answers but doesn’t get the information he expected. The scientist tries to flee with the secret formula and is shot in the back before he can escape. The wallflower is asked to dance by a handsome young man in uniform.

Remember:  the scene should surprise the protagonist by delivering much tougher opposition than she expects, never easier; the protagonist must counter manipulation and maneuver from the antagonist; the scene conflict should escalate as it goes; and the scene should end with an outcome.

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