A scene comes out of story naturally. In the past, my method has been simple: write the scene. Recently I've been thinking more about the planning that goes into a scene.
Some decisions—like conflict, tension, and stakes—are dictated by the story, but scene decisions can help you enforce those elements. That's really what scene decisions are all about, how to design a scene in a way that reinforces the story and affects the reader.
I'll write about a few of them in the next few weeks. This week setting has been on my mind.
Setting can provide emotional context, illuminate background, highlight character, and reinforce world building (that includes real world settings, folks).
In Thor: the Dark World, there is a scene where Jane Foster's date is interrupted by Darcy. You can watch it on YouTube. What does the setting say here? It's a nice restaurant; not cheap. Everyone (except Darcy) is well dressed, and we can see a lot of London through the windows. Jane put on lady clothes and took a shower. Richard (Chris O'Dowd's character) has a jacket and collared shirt. Behind Darcy there might be a bar.
Imagine if this scene had been in a greasy-burger joint and the characters dressed appropriate to that. Or if Jane had been sitting alone on her coach. How would the scene change?
What the setting says to me is that Jane and Richard have put effort into this date. Jane is trying to move on. Richard is quietly desperate. Darcy's interruption is untimely and unwanted. (The chairs are so heavy and loud, that she disrupts everyone around her.)
By the way, the elegant restaurant in this scene is the OXO Brasserie on the eighth floor of the OXO Tower, located on the River Thames.
Had this scene been on Jane's couch, it would have been a mere conversation. It would have been information. The plot would have moved forward, but not in an interesting and engaging way. (Though it might have said some things about Jane's not-moving-on in that case.) So this location adds humor and low-level tension, played on by Richards little interjections while Darcy delivers information. The setting has a job. It's saying something about the characters in this case. What's awesome is that it does it silently. In a novel, a writer could describe the setting—something that needs to happen anyway—and the job is done.
Setting lends itself naturally to imagery. Knowing the jobs a setting can do, a writer can construct images to build that effect. Writing this scene, a novelist could pick out which images reinforce the niceness of the place—glass walls, the view of London and the river, silverware, crystal, the other patrons. What images would do the trick?
So the qualities of a strong scene setting choice are originality, impact, and imagery.
The Art Of Dramatic Writing: Its Basis in the Creative Interpretation of Human Motives by Lajos Egri
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Egri has good ideas, but he spends too much time making arguments. The points are too basic and simple to require extensive arguments, and the logic is often weak or flawed, drawing on similarities in nature or examples. The book could have been a third of its size without loosing anything.
I don't mind him quoting plays. They're out of date now, but he cannot be blamed for that, and it is still possible to see his intent in the scenes he includes. What I didn't like were mock conversations with "YOU" that he writes out in script format, because the character of "YOU" comes off as a simpleton.
In summary, it's worth skimming and evaluating.
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One of the easiest tidbits of advice a writer can find on the internet involves conflict. It's easy to find blogs telling the new writers to put conflict into every scene.
I recently saw a tweet by someone—I don't remember who wrote it—saying something like "Not enough conflict in your scenes? Try giving your characters a hard time."
Bullshit—just like tons of other advice out there on blogs, books, and writing forums.
The problem isn't that it's wrong. It's a little thin on detail; what do we expect from Twitter? The problem is that it's off the mark. I remember a Southern Baptist preacher once telling me that the word Sin originally meant, "Missing the mark." I guess we could say it's a downright sinful bit of advice.
Let's word it differently. "Not enough conflict in your scenes? Make sure your characters have powerful motivations." Or something like that. If your characters are desperate and passionate in ways that throw them into clashing conflicts, you won't need to make up trite little difficulties for them to fuss over. The other characters will create a hard time for them.
Is conflict enough? Are we done at that point? Is it just a simple matter of ensuring conflict is present in every scene? I struggled with this when I outlined my first novel. It tripped me up. It wasn't working. Is it bad advice?
Not really; but the crux is in the word "present." Conflict can be direct or indirect. It can be present or promised. (I use the word tension to indicate promised conflict.)
A scene is part of a major movement in a story. That movement is usually a point in an arc, typically culminating in a disaster-dilemma-decision swing. The scene may just be building up tension for a future conflict, like in the Matrix when Cypher meets with Agent Smith, betraying his friends. There's no conflict in the scene, but it's promising us more conflict in the future. (And it's born from a perfectly understandable motivation.)
Speaking of steak—there is such a thing as conflict without an edge. The conflict, whatever the form, must carry stakes along with it. Something must be at risk. The threat of a goal being lost must exist.
I recently struggled with a scene where two characters argued about how to do something. They wanted the same thing, but they argued about the method of getting it. I didn't care about the method because I had decided they got it. Nothing was at stake. Luckily, I realized the problem as soon as I tried to write it.
The solution is to change it. I could keep the argument, but inject stakes somehow. I could imply all of this in another scene to let the reader know that they had argued about this earlier. I could skip it altogether.
In this case—I decided on an experiment. I realized that a temporary character in the scene had a lot at stake, so I switched to his POV. He cares about the method. He represents many people who care about the method in this story world. It may not work. It may be cut, but it's an attempt to work around the problem naturally.
So conflict is direct or indirect, present or promised, in-progress or building. When that is understood, when something is at stake, then, yes, every scene should be full of conflict.
Bonus Material: those stakes are a great clue as to when a scene (or story) should open and close.
I wrote recently about how some writers don't understand Superman's true weaknesses, but I think there is another flaw in the Superman mythos—just not in the traditional sense. The flaw is in his villains. Who do we have: beings like Lex Luthor, Metallo, Zod, Darkseid, Brainiac and Bizarro?
While some act as a mirror to the hero—and villains work best as mirrors and foils—they do so in comical ways. Their motivations are greed, hate, revenge and a lust for power and control. Who cares. They even go after Superman in less-than-creative ways.
(Side-note: perhaps the single exception is Mr. Mxyzptlk, who began with cartoonish designs on conquering the world merely because of a whim. Those devolved into just tormenting Superman for fun. But Alan Moore changed that with the Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? Storyline. Here, a childish naiveté has him experimenting with a spectrum of moralities until he lands on nightmarish evil, which manifests in truly interesting ways. )
Batman, on the other hand, has a more interesting gallery of villains to explore: Joker, Two-Face, The Penguin, The Riddler, Hush, Scarecrow, and Bane. These guys explore humanity and Batman through their very existence. Many of them exhibit stories of self-inflicted tragedy-turned-insanity, and offer interesting studies into the dark side of humanity. There are arguments that few of them have the kind of clinical insanity that would qualify for a legal defense, but they glow with a rainbow of psychosis, obsessive compulsions, and dissociative identity disorder. (Two-Face rarely switches personality, but he is obsessive about letting a coin make decisions between good and evil—at times, he slips into a truly dissociative state. The Riddler struggles to not leave a riddle, but he cannot, even though he knows it always turns self-defeating.) And all of these typically call back to some tragedy.
Of themselves, they can be mildly interesting, but the real interest is what they say about the Dark Knight himself. There are moments where Batman notes the similarity between himself and his villains. Batman is loaded with psychological questions about PTSD, obsession and delusion. He has noted that he didn't become Batman because of his parent's murders, but that the event shaped him into the hero rather than yet-another Gotham villain—but the seeds of crazy were there simply because that is what Gotham does to people. Deep down, everyone there is crazy. Arkham Asylum is just a magnifying glass for what the city itself offers. And some writers have even suggested that Metropolis and Gotham are just caricatures of New York City's awe-inspiring and ugly sides—so even the settings reflect the characters.
Where Superman is a boy scout whose villains press him to find creative ways to avoid moral gray areas, they are often flat cutout characters like the Man of Steel himself. Batman is a traumatized, obsessive-compulsive anti-hero whose villains reflect his obsessive, delusional, dark path.
I once scanned an entire short story I wrote looking for every instance of "was" to remove. Out of five-thousand words, not one "was". I did this because of some advice about passivity I read in a copy of Writer's Digest.
Now, the advice itself wasn't altogether incorrect. But the acrobatics I went through to achieve this feat were ridiculous. In many cases, they hardly changed the sentence. "She was standing in the doorway" became "I saw her standing in the doorway." (That's not exact, but it conveys the idea.)
I was young.
Too much focus on words is bad. I hear writers deliver a list of words to avoid all the time, giving little pet names even. The words aren't bad.
And "was" isn't about passiveness.
"It was the best of times; it was the worst of times."
Passive? Or is it about contrast, reversal, repetition and maybe a dash irony?
"It felt like the best of times; it felt like the worst of times."
Any better now?
These are the kinds of tricks writers play on their manuscript when they focus too much on words and blacklists. There's wisdom behind the rules, if you dig for it.
Here's the thing: if someone states a rule and you can think of a few exceptions, to which that someone says, "Well, it can work if done well," there's a problem. If the rule requires a list of exceptions and a fluffy "when done well" modifier, the rule is flat-out broken and wrong. It's too easy to discuss strictures and dismiss exceptions. If there is a "when done well" exception, then talk about how to do it well. What makes it work? Find that, and you've found the wisdom behind the rule.
And so it was with "was". My favorite authors—big names—kept using it. For a long time, I kept thinking they were screwing up.
"Was" is an ongoing, continuous state of being (past tense of be). Use it when that is your intent. It does a great job of conveying an ongoing, continuous state. (Sure, it denotes a passive mood, so don't use it when you want action.)
In a recent fantasy short story, I opened with this line.
Johan and Generys were sitting on the fence that bordered their families' cattle fields....
Passive? You bet. Nothing happening? Yep. Ongoing, continuous state of being? Exactly. Exactly what I wanted in the opening. Why? Because of the abruptness of what came next.
Writer of speculative fiction. Current work in progress is an untitled dark fantasy novella.