Tag Archives: scene construction

The Allure of Disappointment

When you’re constructing scenes, do you allow your protagonist to succeed or do you thwart her plan?

Common reasoning may convince you that your protagonist should succeed. After all, how else can she continue toward victory in the story climax?

However, if she prevails against every obstacle and challenge thrown her way, she will be mighty indeed but she will not experience an arc of change; she will not hold reader attention for long; and she will know only a hollow, phony type of victory at the end.

It seems counter-intuitive to thwart your protagonist at the ending of scenes, doesn’t it? Isn’t it wrong  somehow that she should fail them? After all, how can she convince readers that she’s clever, resourceful, and admirable if she’s not getting anywhere? Won’t she come across as a loser?

That depends.

She won’t be perceived as a doofus if her opposition is stronger and trickier than expected and if she doesn’t whine about it. A loss makes her more of an underdog, and consequently she gains reader sympathy. As the antagonist stops her, outmaneuvers her, cheats her, betrays her, and corners her, reader sympathy for her should increase. Even better, dramatically speaking, the climax will loom ahead as a bigger threat or obstacle as the story outcome in her favor grows less likely.

However, if she fails in scenes because she makes too many mistakes, or she doesn’t plan well, or she does dumb things like chasing the villain down a dark alley while forgetting to carry her gun, then yes she will come across as unsympathetic, less than bright, and a loser.

Are you frowning over this? Are you thinking, but how will she ever win if she always loses her scenes?

The true purpose of scene-ending setbacks is to force her to take a bigger risk in her next attempt. After all, when things are going smoothly for us, why change our methods? When everything is fine, we don’t learn. We don’t dig deeper. We don’t challenge ourselves. We don’t grow.

And pushing your protagonist through an arc of change in behavior, beliefs, attitude, or personal growth is really what stories are all about. Not how many vampires she can destroy in an hour.

Therefore, if you’ve been writing scenes where your protagonist always succeeds, pause and re-evaluate your plotting. Consider what would happen if your protagonist lost the encounter.

“But, but, but,” you might sputter, “if that happens, Roxie will be fanged by a vampire!”

My response is simply, “So? What then?”

“But she can’t become a vampire. She’s trying to hunt them. She hates them. They killed her mother, and she wants to destroy them all.”

Understood. But consider how much better your story will become if Roxie is bitten, or grazed. She might then escape the predator’s clutches, and perhaps she even destroys her opponent, but now her situation is uncertain, potentially dire. She will experience the terror of believing she’s been turned. Could there be anything worse in Roxie’s world than becoming the very type of monster she’s sworn to obliterate? Consider the angst she’ll go through. And maybe she won’t know for certain right away, which means you can spin out the suspense and anticipation even more.

From a writer’s standpoint, that’s delicious. See how Roxie has become more interesting?

Never be afraid to disappoint your protagonist. Never fear to make her situation worse. Never lose an opportunity to test her to her limits and beyond to see what she’s made of.

I want to know how Roxie will handle this development. Don’t you?

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Telling Instead of Showing

Sooner or later, just about anyone seeking training in the fiction-writing craft is given the adage, “Show! Don’t tell.”

When starting out, newbies generally want to just tell their stories, much as we tell a friend what happened in a TV episode or a book we read recently. Our quick summation gets across the gist. However, the drawback to most narration is that it’s flat and less than involving for the recipient. The individual doing the telling may enjoy it immensely. After all, the story is clear in the teller’s head and imagination. But recipients are often unenthused by dull summations that go on and on.

How, then, do writers show a story? By dramatizing it in scenes–where the conflict that’s taking place between two opponents unfolds moment-by-moment, blow-by-blow, and in verbal exchange-by-verbal exchange. Also, by dramatizing it in sequels–where the viewpoint character hits a scene setback or meets momentary defeat and has to stagger back, react, process, and cook up a new plan of action. Getting the hang of writing dramatically takes time and practice. It requires considerable thought, and it’s a slower writing process than just dashing off a summary of what your characters are doing. But once you get the hang of it, it has the potential to bring stories to life.

Why, then, am I reversing all of that sound, solid writing advice in this post? Am I actually urging you to stop dramatizing and resume telling?


But only under certain conditions and for certain purposes that will benefit your story.

Narrative summary is a specialized tool. Consider the sculptor of metal. This artist uses hammers, tin snips, welders, etc. This artist may also have a small acetylene blowtorch used to create a patina or apply colorization to the finished piece. Does the artist use a flame-thrower all the time? Probably not. But to achieve a particular effect, flame is exactly the right tool.

Like fire, summary possesses some drawbacks, but it offers benefits as well, and sometimes it’s better to tell rather than show.

What if, for example, you’ve written a story that’s stretched longer than your intended market allows? Perhaps you’re writing a children’s fantasy story, and intend to launch a series with it, so you’ve filled it with numerous character introductions, bringing in story people that will span the series beyond this initial book. You’ve thrown in subplots for the same reason. You’ve built a quirky, enchanting (pun intended) world. All of those factors gobble manuscript space. And perhaps you’ve tightened and streamlined all you can, but the scenes just kept marching forward, and the manuscript grew to be much too long.

Do you throw out a subplot? But if you cut it from the midsection then won’t a later reference to it seem contrived? Do you omit some of your characters? But what if you’ve chosen them carefully and ensured you haven’t included anyone extraneous to the plot. In other words, your story is tight but just too long.

The best solution is to pick certain scenes and summarize them. Not because you don’t know better, but because you don’t want to lose their essential contribution to your plot even while you need to reduce page count.

Look at scenes that have been written for character, perhaps to demonstrate or reveal some important character trait or an aspect of a character’s past that will play a subsequent part in the manuscript. Otherwise the scene carries little conflict or dramatic impact. Preserve what’s important and summarize the event.

Look at small scenes that are perhaps amusing or quirky and reduce them to indirect dialogue and a few paragraphs of summary.

Perhaps you’ve written a scene where Igor and Natasha are teaching Pytor how to tame a fire-spider (and no you can’t really use a fire-spider in your fiction because author Jim Hines created the beast and it belongs to him). Pytor is reluctant to learn and the fire-spider is less than cooperative. Maybe the scene is funny, conveys a vivid sense of place, and you just by golly like it, but the only truly important aspect of it is that Pytor needs to be able to minimally handle or control the creature. So you may have to sacrifice all the sparkling dialogue and moment-by-moment account of Pytor getting his fingers scorched while trying to safely pick up the fire-spider and boil down a ten-page event to a paragraph:

It took most of the afternoon to persuade Pytor to even pick up the fire-spider. By the time he’d burned his fingers twice and hopped about, shaking his hands and swearing so vehemently the fire-spider hid under a rock and the ground trembled, Igor was finally able to persuade him to use the gloves. Natasha made certain he understood how necessary it was to handle the fire-spider gently and not crush it in his fist. Natasha also enticed the fire-spider from beneath the rock with bits of a Twinkie she’d brought just to reward it. And eventually Pytor was able to balance the creature on his palm and even remember to orient it so that its head faced any on-coming foes. It was, Igor said resignedly, the best they were going to get, given the approaching deadline and what they had to work with. Pytor by then was too tired to argue. He knew, after all, that Igor considered him unsuitable for the job.

Nothing critical has been lost; the pacing stays quick; and the story can advance with a few less pages.

Boiling down your copy this way, for a valid reason, is effective. It varies how you’re presenting story, which makes your plot seem less predictable to readers. Just keep in mind that you should do this kind of thing in revision and not when you’re writing a rough draft. Otherwise, you’ll backslide into old habits of just telling.

Show, then tell … if you must.

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Flat or Lively?

When you read over your copy, does it seem flat? Does your story carry a blah aspect? Do you feel that it’s close to being where you want it, yet something’s missing?

Chances are that you’ve made two fundamental mistakes: a passive protagonist and insufficient scene conflict.

The passive protagonist may be a decent human being, may be skilled and knowledgeable, and may be capable of fending off attacking zombies with a good chance of survival. However, if this character isn’t initiating action or isn’t taking charge of the story situation, then he or she is just following at the heels of someone else.

That does not a hero make.

When you put your protagonist in charge, you will instinctively change aspects of his or her personality to some degree. You will find this character now has a purpose in mind, now has things to do–even if she’s interrupted by the story problem. This character becomes much more interesting to readers.

Lack of conflict within a scene will automatically weaken it and prevent it from achieving its fullest dramatic potential. If your protagonist waits for someone else to wander by and suggest what should be done, and then the two of them take that action without any disagreement, and they find themselves working together in complete accord, there is nothing (dramatically) happening!

Scenes of conflict can occur between two people on the same side, working together toward a common cause or objective. Just because they’re allies doesn’t mean they have to agree about what to do or when to do it. They can disagree on the approach or the timing or one may want an explanation that the other one doesn’t want to supply. Conflict can be mild, but it still needs to fuel the scene in some way.

Remember that agreement between characters is dull.

Also, without conflict a scene has nowhere to go. As a result, you may have planned your story but it will read like you’re moving your characters from one event on your checklist to the next. The characters must appear to move the story by making plans, disagreeing on how to implement the plan, attempting to carry it out, failing or partially failing because of opposition stronger than expected, and then reacting to the new problems.

Scenes without sufficient conflict generally end without setbacks. And setbacks are necessary to force a protagonist to take subsequent risks in order to reach the story’s climax.

Flat and dull, or lively and exciting?

The choice is yours to make.

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Trusting Enough to Fall

Have you ever been to one of those corporate seminars where they have people pair off and then topple backward, trusting their new partner to catch them?

Writing along the lines of technique can be a bit like that. It’s scary and hard. So much easier to remain timid and hold back.

Yet until you can force yourself to trust the proven principles of writing enough to follow them, your writing will probably never grow or improve past a certain point.

Back in the old days, when I was learning to write, my instructor Jack Bickham used to drill us mercilessly in techniques such as scene construction or viewpoint management. Then he would talk about a book he loved–ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE–and he would tell us to “Trust the process.”

Over and over, he stressed that dictum: “Trust the process.”

At the time, I didn’t know much about the zen philosophy and I didn’t always understand what he was trying to teach us. But he repeated “Trust the process” so often that it became imprinted on my brain.

So eventually I did trust technique enough to use it. Other than learning scene construction and the importance of conflict, trusting the process–the principles of writing, if you will–is probably the most valuable lesson that Bickham ever imparted to me.

Believing in the foundation techniques of plot and story progression got me my first publication. It got me better contracts. It kept me publishing steadily across my career. It served me well that year when I was homeless, distracted by insurance claims adjusters, and struggling to meet a book deadline. Even now, when I’m frustrated or lost, baffled by the Gordian knot I’ve somehow wound my plot into, I can hear that gruff voice speaking to me: “Trust the process.”

That’s when I stop, calm myself down, review the writing craft that I know, and make myself go to the most basic rules of writing.

The solution to my problem is always there. Always. I may not like that solution. It may involve throwing out pages or jettisoning a character. But it’s there. And if I grasp it and move forward, I reach the finish of my story without fail.

Ray Bradbury said to master the techniques of writing so that you don’t have to think about them anymore. You can then concentrate fully on your story.

Sound advice.

I spend my working days watching my fledglings crowding along the edge of uncertainty, afraid to test their wings, afraid to jump and soar, afraid that if they try they’ll fall.

They’re just learning the principles of how plots are made and scenes are constructed and stories are ended in dramatic climax. They barely grasp these concepts. They struggle to try them and falter, and when that happens they hunch up and lose their nerve.

It is safer, of course, to stay on the ground and fold their wings and refuse to try. Staying put brings no risk.

But staying put brings no glory either.

You can’t trust the process if you never jump.

Maybe you crash and fail the first few times. Practice more! Try it again. Adopt the motto of GALAXY QUEST: “Never give up. Never surrender!”

You must believe it’s possible to solve the mystery of writing. You must believe that you can do it. If you lacked any ability to write you wouldn’t be drawn to it in the first place.

Like Dumbo in the Disney animated film, you have to grasp the magic feather and fly.

Find the process that works for you. Learn it. Practice it until you can recite it in your sleep. Master it. And then trust it.

It will catch you every time.

It will catch you.


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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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