by Scott Rhoades
This is part 3 of my series on scenes:
1. Scenic Overlook
2. The Goal of Your Scene
In this post, I'll combine the other two elements of a scene, conflict and disaster. These two elements work together.
Last time, I mentioned that every character in your scene has a goal. When these goals conflict, things go bad for your characters. When things go bad, you have a story. I remember hearing a young writer say once that she didn't want to have conflict in her children's stories because conflict is bad and kids are exposed to enough bad stuff without having to have it in stories they read for entertainment. She wanted to write happy stories without danger, strife, or anything negative, a rosy story world where all is happy and peaceful.
Without conflict, there's no story.
At its simplest level, conflict arises when two characters either want the same thing or want opposing things. It doesn't necessarily have to be that one character wants good and one opposes good because he's evil. Think, for example, of two people who run for public office. As tempting as it is to say the person running against the candidate you support is evil, the reality is that each candidate, from his own perspective, is running for the office because he genuinely believes his ideas are better than the other guy's. Each side believes--whether it's actually true or not--that his plan will provide a better result than his opponent's. One might be right and one wrong, both could be right, or (as seems to be the case quite often) both could be wrong. The point is, their ideals conflict and they both want the same office.
It's not necessary to have good and evil to have conflict. Conflict is in everything, even among friends. In your story, the best conversations and actions will take place, even between buddies, when each character's personal agenda comes to the fore and they don't match. Conflict can be big or small, but it has to be there or your scene will be like a game with no scoring or a class with no grades. Might be interesting, in its way, but nothing will happen and the character will not to be grow.
In your goal, the outcome of conflict, more often than not, is disaster. Disaster doesn't have to mean that the world explodes. Most of the time, it means that the main character doesn't get what he wants. Or, if he gets what he wants, there's an unintended consequence. One step forward, two steps back. To keep the story going, something has to go wrong. Conflict has to deepen. Danger needs to be ratcheted up a notch or two. Disappointment, peril, loss, failure--all the things that writer I mentioned wanted to avoid--are the makings of a strong, memorable scene that keeps the story moving and keeps the reader going.
It's like the old Saturday matinee serials your parents told you about. Something bad happens to create a cliffhanger ending to your scene.
One thing to watch out for: beware of the false disaster. A false disaster occurs when you end a scene or chapter with a cliffhanger, but when the reader turns the page, they discover that there was no problem after all. Although some very successful writers have relied heavily on false disasters, you should avoid them. They do not satisfy your readers, and they don't move the story forward. They don't increase the character's peril and don't give you the two steps back that you need to keep a reader from turning off the bedside lamp. Although a false disaster can be useful from time to time, if you use more than one or two in a book, then the reader won't trust your disasters. The reader will know it's OK to stop reading at the end of a chapter because that cliffhanger probably isn't really a problem. Suspense has been killed, and when that happens, all excitement is drained from your story. Too many false disasters and the reader might not even bother to pick up your story the next day.
Disaster keeps your story moving forward by giving your character an urgent problem that must be reacted to, a new scene goal. We'll get to that later.