Tag Archives: scene setbacks

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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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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