Crime of a Scene

Yesterday I/Jim Butcher said every scene needs a conflict. Today lets look at what scenes are, what they do, and, specifically, how conflict operates in every scene.

Jim (don’t you love how we’re on a first-name basis now?) says this:

Ah, conflict. The heart of every story. If you screw up absolutely everything else about a scene but GET THE CONFLICT RIGHT, you’re gonna be way closer to getting published than most people ever manage.

Conflict is what happens when someone, for some reason, up and decides that your character needs to fail in his goal, or else is pursuing a goal which, if met, will prevent your viewpoint character from reaching his goal….

And, done right, the conflict poses an implied SCENE QUESTION. Will your character succeed? Or even better, WHICH character is going to succeed?

The scene question is where Jim really helped me. For my first book, I had two types of scenes:

  • the “inspired” scenes, where I knew exactly what would happen and how, and daydreamed about the scene for days, weeks, and months before I wrote it
  • the “in between” scenes where I knew I needed something to happen, but I wasn’t sure what, and it took me days of yawning and sighing to write a ho-hum scene.

For Shaken, I knew where the novel was going, and I set up a trail of scenes as stepping stones (or roadblocks) to Mitzy’s final goal. When I got started, I wrote a scene question for each of those planned, plot-driving scenes and chose answers to those questions before I started writing.

Jim says there are four answers (and you should really read his post for his descriptions of them): yes; yes, but; no; and no, and furthermore!

Answering all scene questions “yes” leads to a boring story. Looking at yesterday’s ninja-waffle story, answering, “Can Kristin get waffles?” with, “YES,” leads to a pretty boring story. But answering it “NO, AND FURTHERMORE she can’t even get to her car without falling prey to a band of marauding pirates,” is a little insulting to me, but plenty interesting to read.

Now, here’s the question I don’t want you to ask: Did I do this for every scene?

The (interesting) answer is, “No, and furthermore…”

I did not sit down before every scene and list the goal, conflict, and setback. Why not? Because that format gets a little repetitious.

An author I love has a third book that does this, and it’s maddening. Can the characters happily reunite? No, and furthermore the male main character is married to someone else. Can the main characters make it to America? No, and furthermore, the female gets kidnapped by pirates. Can the male main character rescue the female main character? No, and furthermore, she jumps off the ship and swims to a tropical island… you get the idea.

It became a series of zany hijinks, and just plain annoying. Sometimes you need to a little “yes, but” to move the story along so that the reader doesn’t pull her hair out in frustration at your characters’ increasingly outlandish antics and inability to achieve any of their goals.

And sometimes you need scenes to do more than just push characters toward their final ends. Sometimes scenes need to be funny. Sometimes they need to be loooove scenes. Sometimes they need to offer character development. If you’re smart, you’ll make scenes do double-duty.

Take a scene from Shaken. Mitzy needs some information from her mother, and her mother wants to spend time with her daughter. The conflict is mild, because there’s really no point in me denying Mitzy the information. Still, there is a conflict (Mom wants to hang out with her daughter, daughter wants to get her job done) and that conflict also serves as character-building for both mother and daughter. There’s some humor in there, too.

So, takeaways:

Scenes need conflict of some kind or another, because otherwise it’s just a bunch of characters sitting around congratulating each other.

Try setting a goal for each scene in the form of a question. You can still free-write, if that’s your style, but answer the question you asked with the scene’s action. This will keep your scenes from meandering all the map, kind of like this blog post did.

Make scenes do double-duty. You can write a scene in which I go to the ATM for my waffle money, and you can answer the scene question with yes, but: perhaps I’ll also meet my longlost ninja brother without knowing him and think he’s sexy or something else that’s weird. There you have goal-reaching, character development, and creation of a really twisted subplot, all in one zany episode.

Tomorrow: scenes and sequels.

2 thoughts on “Crime of a Scene

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