I think the biggest question, for me, when creating a scene is one of evaluation. How do I know if I'm filling my outline with useful scenes or junk? In the past, the old "write it and see" test worked well enough. But that a waste of time! There has to be a better way, right?
I've found a few things that help me do that quicker. This list is still under construction for now, but this is what I have so far.
Conflict and Stakes
I list both conflict and stakes because it's possible to have conflict without stakes, and that isn't too interesting. Some will say that each scene must have conflict, but that's a complex notion, more complex than it might seem at first. A scene may carry conflict from a plot point forward, or it may be building towards—promising—conflict in the future. Still, if a scene has neither conflict nor stakes, something is off.
Relevance and Focus
Lajos Egri talked about a dramatic premise. Others have offered variations on a logline or a thesis. There's a core to the story. If not, there's a danger of meandering and slogging. A scene should fit into the scope of that core idea that defines the story, whatever name you call it.
Questions and Curiosity
I hate a story that's so lousy that I just want it gone, except it's left me just curious enough about one or two things that I want to know how it ends too. It's a chore to read, so I skim pages looking for a few answers. True story—I've Googled books before, looking for a summary so I could stop reading.
It's a good lesson, though. Narrative questions keep the reader coming back. Combine that with strong prose and engaging scene construction and you've got a winner. A scene should be viewed as a landscape of questions and answers. How soon are questions posed? Which questions are answered? What is yet to be answered—perhaps an answer is teased?
And pondering the questions might show you some flaws in the scene. "Why is Alex acting like this" might be the question you want to leave hanging for a few scenes, or it might be killing your story.
An online friend told me recently that a scene should look like a dinosaur, skinny at both ends and fat with questions in the middle. (Never accused him of being brilliant with the metaphors.) But a scene that asks no questions and answers no questions falls back on the relevance and focus question.
Originality and Surprise The whole scene might surprise a reader, or just a single moment. This might seem contrary, but a good story can still be told in boring and predictable ways. Look for ways to surprise the reader. Keep them guessing, whether it's the setting, or the choice of POV or part of the narrative mode, or a line of dialogue, or some other detail.
Now, there's a host of other things I could explore, like imagery and theme, or characters, or dialogue, or description, or POV choices and so forth, but for me Stakes, Focus, and Originality are the keys to evaluating a scene down to a basic Red Light/Green Light purpose. Those other things are important decisions, but don't lend themselves to "is it working?" as well.
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.
View all my reviews
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.
Certain television networks have a simple flaw in their understanding of what makes us like a character. Thinking they'll appeal to the young masses, they flood their dramas with good-looking people. At least they don't fall as low as making the villains ugly—unless they're generic villains of course. No, no, we have to adore the villain too. And the love interest must be torn between these two hunky men.
If they go beyond classic good looks, their attempts to make us like a character follow Blake Snyder's weak Save the Cat advice, perhaps literally. What's the problem with saving a cat? Nothing—it's a nice gesture. But it costs nothing. The hero does a good thing for someone, but he does so without sacrifice or risk. That may act as a primer, giving the reader or viewer a nudge that says, "Hey, this guy is supposed to be likable." But if the story doesn't quickly prove that point, it's an empty gesture and the writer doesn't understand human motivation or what makes a character endearing.
What do I really want? I've talked about this in the past, but here is a summary:
How about an example. I love the character of Walter White in the opening season of Breaking Bad for a couple reasons. He's brilliant and well-educated; he's passionate about something: chemistry and teaching; he's a working guy trying to pay the bills; and when he begins to go bad, he confidently says he is doing it all for his family. He's going to die and he wants to make sure his family has everything they need. Who wouldn't love this guy? He sticks to that reason as he gets worse and worse. You can see after a time that even he doesn't entirely believe he's doing it all for his family.
Through the seasons, enough back story is revealed to show he regrets a greatness and fortune that was lost. It's not just about money. By the last season, he comes clean. He wanted the empire. He wanted the power. He's still brilliant right up to the end, but he's dropped the familiarity and the nobility. He's hard to like, yet some viewers still root for him all the way to the end. And that illustrates a final point: much like Humbert Humbert, there is a difference between liking a character, empathizing with a character, understanding a character, or simply enjoying how well-written or well-acted a character is.
What About Flaws?
We'll often hear how a character has to have flaws. A character just can't work without flaws.
I think it's swell advice, but perhaps easily misunderstood. What are flaws? Do we mean a character has to have a moral flaw? A physical flaw? An existential flaw?
Superman has weaknesses. No, not just kryptonite. I often hear folks claim it's his only weakness, and they're dead wrong. Most Superman movies stumble on this and rely on the green (or red) stuff to raise the stakes.
Superman's biggest flaw is his humanity. He refuses to kill even the worst bad guys—at least he's supposed to. He's blindingly loyal to his friends. How many times have his villains chided him for being predictable after using Lois or Jimmy as bait? He has too much faith in humanity and it's ability to reform. And he tries too hard to be one of us. Given a choice of two evils, Superman will tear himself up trying to find a right choice. Not just the lesser evil of the two—but he's desperate for a way out of the conundrum.
So Superman is perfect—and the perfection is his flaw. (At least, when he's written correctly. He's had over a hundred writers over the last 8 decades, and only some understood how to write him.) When I hear people say that he's boring and ask why, they refer to the boring writers who only understood one thing: kryptonite, not Superman. I think his enduring popularity is a testament to something likable at the core of the character despite writers who get it oh so horribly wrong.
The blog has been on hiatus for a couple months due to a death in the family. I hope to begin regular (i.e., weekly) updates this week. Stay tuned.
I'm sick of Hollywood reboots. Spider-man, Robocop, Time Cop, The A-Team, etc. I understand the marketing appeal—these are stories that come with a built-in audience—but, for me, it's beginning to have the opposite effect. These days, I avoid seeing a reboot unless it is exceptional. It's simply been overdone and it achieves nothing.
Hollywood: why not build on the franchises? Why not use the material that is already there?
So what if you have a new actor to play Spider-Man? So what if you want to change a few details—do we really need to have that lame spider-bite story retold all over again for no reason? Every cartoon, comic, movie adaptation—the spider-bite has been told and re-told too many times. It is, simply, boring. At the very least, you could have given us a two-minute recap of the story and then plowed forward into new territory. (And the first of the reboot movies lacked emotional depth, horrible acting, plot holes, questionable special effects ... so I have no plans on seeing this summer's version, no matter what the trailers look like.)
With a few tweaks any of the forthcoming stories could build on the existing tales without the need for extensive recapping or retelling.
But Hollywood is run by businessmen, not creators. Originality and quality are a by-product, not the product.
From the writer's perspective, all this stuff we do comes down to one thing: keep the reader reading. If the reader doesn't keep reading, we've just wasted a bunch of time. Now, sure, we can say the writer benefits too. Many writers say they would write even knowing nobody would ever read their work. I'm not disputing this, but writers do what they do hoping someone else will read their work.
Keeping that one thing in mind, I see two aspects: keeping the reader reading right now, and making the reader come back for more later (for longer fiction, anyway.)
Keeping the Reader Reading
I could go into all kinds of thing here, but the one thing I want to focus on is conflict. It isn't some kind of magic. In fact, it's quite basic: someone isn't happy and something is in the way.
Bringing the Reader Back
Not surprisingly, this is related to the first thing. If conflict can keep them reading, it can bring them back, too. But we can only write about one thing at a time, right? So the solution is simple: we promise further conflict. That promise is what I call tension.
Any new writer will hear the advice to always have conflict. Every scene, every paragraph, every sentence, every word should be rife with tension. The problem I ran into was that it didn't work. It led to forced, contrived, tiresome scenes, paragraphs, sentences and words.
Until someone added that one simple element: the promise of conflict. It's still not easy, but things worked out better for me at that point.
Taking that further, one could even find a certain rhythm in the ebb and flow of conflict and tension, if one were so inclined.
So what about scenes that promise conflict, but don't contain any immediate conflict right now? Can they work? Yes. I call them incidents (a term borrowed from a fellow writer, but not an uncommon term in writing.) Incident leads to impact, and that impact is what brings the reader back. A car accident might have conflict: the paramedics are trying to save dad's life. But suppose we took that out—just a car accident. Sure, I might weave some other things in or just have it in the background. There's no need to drag an incident out, but it leaves questions hanging: what will happen to the kids now? Who gets the inheritance money?
Because of the ancient and unquestionable advice to always have conflict at every moment, some writers balk at this idea. It's not hard to find examples in classic literature, though. Gandolf shows up on Bilbo's doorstep. They don't argue or draw swords, but Gandolf's appearance promises trouble ahead for our little hero. The same is true of the rich heiress walking into the detective's office, or Katniss volunteering as tribute. She doesn't argue with the guards or struggle against inner demons, she simply does what is right and, in so doing, promises us that conflict is ahead.
Writer of speculative fiction. Current work in progress is an untitled dark fantasy novella.