Tuesday, October 15

Writing A Scene That Works

Writing A Scene That Works

Deborah Chester was one of Jim Butcher's writing teachers (she's still a professor over at the University of Oklahoma), one he credits with giving him the writing tools he needed to sell his first novel, Storm Front; a book which became the first novel in his popular (and kick-ass!) Dresden Files series.

I've recently begun reading DC's blog, Chronicles of the Scribe, and can't recommend it highly enough to anyone interested in the craft of writing.

For example, in a recent post DC wrote of logical conflict. As I read, I found myself taking notes--I have a notebook I set aside for these scribbles, I call it my "craft notebook"--and then I thought: Wait! This would make a fantastic blog post.

I hope Deborah Chester will forgive me for posting about the content of her blog. I find that in order to learn something it helps to say it again in another way, to associate new ideas with old.

Planning Out A Scene's Conflict

Step 1: Digging Up The Bones

Lately whenever I sit down to write I think of Stephen King's analogy of writing as archeology. The bones of the story are there within us, we just have to dig for them.

In this first step we try to uncover the following:

a. What is the protagonist's goal in this scene?
b. What is the antagonist's goal in this scene?

Note: The goals MUST clash. If the protagonist achieves his/her goal then the antagonist cannot and vice versa.

c. What is the protagonist's motivation?
d. What is the antagonist's motivation?
e. Outcome: how does the scene end? Does the protagonist achieve his/her goal? Does the antagonist? Do they both fail?

Step 2: Map out the key points of the scene

Generally a character will achieve some goal in a scene, even if it's not the goal they started off with. Write down this goal. What goal did the character start off with? Does the goal change partway through as a result of the action of the antagonistic force? How does the character defeat this new challenge? Plot out the key points of the scene.

Recall the scene in Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indy tries to commandeer the plane after breaking out of the Well of Souls? Although parts of the scene were improvised most of the key elements had already been established in the script (which you can download here and a few pages of the shooting script are here).

Indie doesn't achieve his goal in that particular scene, he doesn't succeed in commandeering the plane; partway through his goal switches from, "commandeer the plane," to, "get out of here alive."

(I realize that my liking for that particular scene likely amounts to an unnatural geeky affection, but whatever. (grin))

You get the idea. List the ways your hero is going to defeat the obstacle(s) and either achieve his goal or figure out a third option--something achievable that brings him closer to what he seeks.

Step 3: Mind-meld with the antagonist

Deborah Chester put it this way, "Determine the key points in the antagonist’s strategy".

The antagonist, the villain, the Big Bad--whatever you want to call it--by definition is going to want to thwart your hero. Further, they might just be smart enough to anticipate that your hero will be able to defeat their first efforts in which case they might have a backup plan. Perhaps they're even going to try and trick your hero into doing something that makes him vulnerable.

Perhaps your antagonist will cheat. DC asks, "How far will she go?" Excellent question. Donald Maass once said that the difference between a hero and a villain is often not what they want but how far they'll go to get it.

I'm going to pick up the pace now.

Step 4: Who will shoot first?

(Certainly not Han Solo!) Who is going to make the first move? 

Step 5: Write out the conflict-setback or action-response pairs.

It would take too long to go into this here, but I talk about conflict-setback pairs in my article, Using Conflicts And Setbacks To Create Narrative Drive.

Step 6: Think linearly, logically.

Events take place in order and for reasons. (This seems to have quite a bit in comment with the Principle of Sufficient Reason.)

Step 7: As the conflict intensifies, slow down and zoom in.

Step 8: Don't lose track of the goals your characters walked into the scene with.

Step 9: Logic first, poetry second.

Step 10: Make your character's act one at a time.

Cause --> Effect
Deeds/Behavior --> Reward

If everyone is acting at the same time it's easy for readers to lose track of the cause-effect structure you're weaving.

That's it! Once again, Deborah Chester's blog, Chronicles of the Scribe, is well worth reading and this blog post was based around and inspired by her article, Logical Conflict.

Good writing!

Photo credit: I thought this photo would provide a visual counter-point to the discussion. "not everything has a reason" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.


Because of the number of bots leaving spam I had to prevent anonymous posting. My apologies to anyone this inconveniences, I wish I didn't have to do it. I do appreciate each and every comment.