Tag Archives: character

Writing In Scenes

Hang_glidingNot everyone has the same writing process. And that’s OK. Still, I think those who plan out their stories in advance or those who patch their stories together once they know where they’re going, can all learn by thinking about their story in scenes.

Years and years ago, I picked up a book entitled Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham. To be honest, I didn’t understand much about the book at all because he referred to scenes and sequels, but I didn’t understand the terminology. I associated scenes with plays and sequels . . . I didn’t have a clue what that meant in the context of fiction.

Time passed and I learned more about writing. Eventually I re-read Scene and Structure and benefited from it. And still, I didn’t really think in scenes when I was writing.

During one critique session, a member of my writing group asked me what my character wanted in a particular scene. Well, that froze me. What did he want? I hadn’t thought about it before. I was able to mumble some answer, then set the question aside.

I didn’t seriously come back to it until a few weeks ago. I’m reading/studying Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress, and she put me back on the scene track. I was nearing the end of Chapter 5: “Showing Change In Your Characters–If I Knew Then What I know Now” and came across these lines:

Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint coverAll of this can, I know, sound overwhelming. Dramatizing motivation, dramatizing emotion, dramatizing change, creating sharp concrete details that characterize–and doing it all simultaneously–can seem too much to juggle (not to mention also “becoming the reader” to see how it all looks to someone else). But there is a way to keep control of your material. It is, in fact, the key to keeping control of many other elements of fiction as well, such as plot and emotional arc.

The key is this: Write in scenes.

You don’t have to think about the whole book at once, the entire emotional arc, or the progressive motivations of six different characters. All you have to do right now is write this one scene. (p. 75, emphasis in the original)

When I read that, something clicked.

Understand, I’ve evaluated other authors as part of my editing job. One section of the form I use is about scenes. Here are the particulars I analyze:

A. Goal
B. Conflict
C. Disaster/reaction
D. Dilemma
E. Decision


However, I’m generally writing an assessment of the novel as a whole, so what I say about the scenes is general.

But what if, in my own writing, I looked at those elements as the pillars of my scene as I constructed it? What if I didn’t start writing the scene until I knew what my characters wanted, what would bring the conflict?

So I tried it.

And now I’m a believer!

Truly, I couldn’t believe how unstuck my writing became as soon as I knew what my character wanted as a short term goal. Rather than meandering from place to place with no particular purpose, grousing about this issue and that situation, spewing his angst and whining about his plight, he became active and purposeful, he strove and struggled, and when conflict arose, he figured out how to confront it.

Did he have to give up something in order to make Plan B work? Therein lies the dilemma. Was he successful? Therein lies the disaster, which leads him to a decision about how to proceed, giving him a new goal for the next scene.

And one follows after the other like a line of falling dominoes. They start going down because someone tipped over that first one.

Writing in scenes can have that same feel. Because the first one went down, the next one must follow. Because Johnny punched Billy, the teacher is calling his parents.

There’s a silly commercial for an alternative to cable TV that plays off this concept. The cable company puts the character on hold, and when that happens, he feels trapped. When he feels trapped, he goes hang gliding, and when he goes hang gliding, he crashes into electric wires. When he crashes into electric wires, the city experiences a black out. When the city experiences a black out, crime rises. When crime rises, the character’s dad gets punched in the stomach by a looter over a can of soup. “So don’t have your dad get punched over a can of soup. Get DirectTV.”

The humor of that commercial is that the resulting actions of each disaster don’t follow a logical progression. The secret to good fiction writing is to make the progression from goal to conflict to reaction to dilemma to decision, a logical progression (just not predictable).

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Filed under Motive, Reactions, Scenes

Story Triage

In my experience readers, reviewers, and even critique partners might recognize that something in a story is amiss. It’s another thing to be able to identify accurately what that something is. Too often secondary issues get blamed: sentences need to be tightened, a better story hook inserted, most -ing words and all -ly adverbs need to be cut, passive verbs changed to active, and so on. While these Browne-and-King type writing guidelines (so named for the authors of a good beginning writing resource entitled Self-editing for Fiction Writers) have merit, they most likely are not the real problem. Too many stories are sitting on the best-seller lists with all these taboos glaring back at the unpublished writer who then asks, How can that bad writing get in print, and my perfect prose not find an agent?

The problem might actually be “the perfect prose.” No one is particularly interested in reading a story that sounds more like a text book. Stories need to have character and they need to be about character.

In a recent Writer’s Digest article, writing instructor Donald Maass gave his top two mistakes novelists make, and neither one of them dealt with point of view or passive voice, nor did he mention loose body parts or the presence of the nasty “be” verb forms. Instead he honed in on the things that are critical to the story itself if readers are to keep reading.

When doing story triage, then, it is important to look at the foundation first — what the story is, not how the author has told it. If the story itself is flawed, no amount of prose doctoring will fix the problem.

So what are the critical things Donald Maass pointed to?

1) Failing to create characters for whom we have an immediate reason to care, and 2) Not using enough micro-tension to make it necessary to read everything on every page.

Interestingly, I’ve seen the failing of those two elements just this week. In one book I am reading (it seems I am never reading just one book 😉 ), I noticed the problem of not having an immediate reason to care for the characters. As it turned out, the further into the book I read, the more I cared for the characters. But can we count on readers staying with a story for a hundred pages if they don’t love a character at once (or at least connect with him) or have a reason to cheer him on to victory? I don’t think so.

This means characters must be believably real, but even more importantly, they must have some desire, some goal that drives their actions. They can’t have a desire about which they do nothing and have readers care deeply. The characters can’t even be reactive to the things that happen around and to them, and have readers care deeply. It is in characters taking steps to obtain their significant desires that gives rise to readers joining in their quest emotionally.

Donald Maass’s second point, not using enough micro-tension to make it necessary to read every page, was something I saw in my own writing. As I reworked my opening scene for the umpteenth time, I created what I thought was an intriguing hook. My basketball-player main character, who was used to trash talk on the basketball court, was hearing it in his parents’ condo. I was happy with that first paragraph (still am) because it introduced possible conflict and created an unexpected — and therefore intriguing — encounter.

The problem came in the next line. I downplayed the emotional reaction my character had to this trash talk aimed at him. After all, he’d heard worse from guys more threatening than the man in front of him. With the portrayal of that cool, in control reaction — which was true to my character — away went the tension which the first paragraph had introduced. If the trash talk was no problem for my character, than it was no problem for my readers, so why should they care? I have to give them more tension, not less, if I want them to keep reading.

As I see it, Donald Maass put his finger on the twin beams upon which good stories are built — characters readers care about, acting in ways that generate tension. Writers who want to improve their novels would be wise to look at those two factors first before concerning themselves overly much with secondary elements.

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Filed under Characters, Story