Friday, January 15, 2010

Writing Scenes

by Scott Rhoades

Today I thought I'd give some practical writing advice.

Don't do it.

Just kidding. Definitely do it. I couldn't stop you anyway. You write because you can't not write, even when you don't really want to do it.

So, since you're going to write anyway, let's talk scenes. You probably know that scenes are the backbone of story telling, but you might not know what makes a good scene. Chances are, you go purely by instinct. You have a certain thing happen, and that's a scene. But there's a tried-and-true formula you can use to create scenes. This will be old hat to some of you, but for others, it might make the difference between a lackluster plot and a page turner.

I know, we're artists, and as artists we're naturally predisposed to dislike words like "formula." But think about how music would sound if it didn't follow the expected formulas or rhythms and chord structures and all of that musical stuff. A story is the same way. be as creative as you like within the scene, but if you follow the established structure of a well-crafted scene, your scenes will sing and will keep your readers engaged as they move from one scene to the next.

I'm not going to go into a lot of detail. My posts tend to run a bit long as it is. But, I'll provide links to places where you can get a lot more information presented in a much better way. And maybe if there's interest I'll dive in deeper in future posts.

The basic formula is defined by writing guru Dwight Swain as "Scene and sequel." Other writers use similar, if not identical, terminology. It goes something like this.

You have a scene. A scene is followed by a sequel.

A scene consists of three elements: goal, conflict, and disaster. Your character has a goal. When trying to achieve that goal, conflict arises. Ultimately, the conflict results in a disaster that usually prevents your character from achieving the goal. Or, if he achieves it, some other disaster happens to make things worse than they were going into the scene. Your character's life gets worse and worse as the disasters pile up from scene to scene. That process creates plot.

A scene is followed by a sequel, which also contains three elements: reaction, dilemma, and decision. The character reacts to the disaster, recognizes the dilemma the disaster puts him in, and makes a decision. The decision creates the goal for the next scene, and it starts all over again.

My novel was floundering until I discovered this principle. Interesting stuff happened, but it wasn't very exciting. I edited with scenes and sequels in mind, and all of a sudden it was a lot more interesting. The plot hung together better, my protagonist was in greater peril, and the story became more fun to read.

So, when you write, instead of thinking in terms of chapters, think about scenes. As you begin each scene, make sure there's a clear goal and plenty of conflict, and remember to end with a disaster. Then, have your character react, recognize the dilemma, and make a decision to try to solve the dilemma. You'll notice a big difference.

You can read more about this on several Web sites, but i recommend the following books. I've read them all, and found them all worth the money. The first two are the best known, but the last two are more recent, and I think I actually enjoyed reading them more.

1 comment:

Paul West said...

I read the Bickham book and thought it was great. But it's always good to be reminded. Perhaps that's what's wrong with my novels. Not enough attention to scene and sequel.

Thanks for the reminder.