Writing Scene: A Review
My McDaniel students are going through hell right now because we’re revising their first scenes, and I, of course, lack tact. In an effort to avoid scars, I gave them a general scene writing review sheet with self-editing questions at the end. Since I haven’t done a decent post here in weeks, and since I don’t see my future becoming any less fraught before 2013, I am giving you the same thing I gave them. One big difference, I’m not harassing you about your writing, line by line. Be grateful, they’re suffering.
Scene Lecture Review:
SCENE: A scene is a unit of conflict between a protagonist and antagonist that escalates through beats into a climax that throws the reader into the next scene.
A scene starts when the conflict starts and ends when the conflict ends. Other clues a scene is over: the antagonist changes, the time changes, the setting changes, but the big one is The Conflict Ends.
CONFLICT: Scenes must have conflict. Not a protagonist in trouble, CONFLICT, an active, ongoing, and escalating struggle between the protagonist and antagonist. If you do not have conflict, you have Chat (see below).
CHARACTER: The reason a scene must have conflict is because people who are not under stress are polite and reasonable, hiding their true selves. Character is displayed through conflict because conflict strips away people’s facades; the stronger the conflict, the stronger the stripper. We connect to flawed characters (depending on the flaw, we’re not going to attach to puppy killers), not flat Nice People, so get those fascinating flaws out there, showcased in conflict.
Conflict also makes a reader takes sides; if the conflict is structured correctly, she or he will side with your protagonist and root for her/him to win and the antagonist to lose. This gives the reader an investment in the outcome and a reason to turn the page.
Another reason scenes must have conflict is because conflict changes character and that moves story. If your character is the same person at the end of the scene that she or he is at the beginning, your story isn’t moving because your conflict isn’t strong enough.
CHAT: Chat is not conflict. Chat is Nice People Exchanging Information. That’s fun for them, but boring for readers. Chat is almost always Stuff You Want the Reader To Know. It is almost never Stuff the Reader Wants To Know. Your reader may humor you and read Chat to get to the story, but if story hasn’t shown up by the end of the scene, your reader is out of there, and some readers will exit if there’s no story on the first page. Chat is Bad. Do Not Chat.
INFODUMP: Infodump happens when you stop the now of the story to unload huge amounts of back story because you think the reader needs to know that to understand your characters and the now of your story. She doesn’t, and even if she does it doesn’t matter because she’s going to skim that big block of text looking for short pieces of text with white space because white space at least means two people are talking. God help her if what they’re saying is Chat or As You Know dialogue (see below). Chat is bad, but you will go to Writer’s Hell if you Infodump.
AYK DIALOGUE: As You Know dialogue. “As you know, Patricia, both our parents died when we were young and we inherited their whaling business and now we’re in danger of losing it because our rat bastard cousin Ahab embezzled our working capital. Pass the ketchup.”
HEADHOPPING: Since one of the things you want your reader to do is attach to your protagonist, if you’re writing third limited, for the love of god, start and stay in her head. Leaping from head to head confuses the reader and destroys any attachment to the protagonist. You know that circle of Writer’s Hell that’s full of Infodumpers? They’re playing a neverending game of Candyland with Headhoppers.
CONCLUSION: Start with a protagonist-with-a-goal and an-antagonist-with-a-goal-that-crosses-the-protagonist. Have them struggle over this goal in escalating beats that end in a climax where one of them wins and one loses and they are thrown into the next scene of the story, separately or together, doesn’t matter, just make the reader turn the page to see what happens next.
Here is your revised Self-Critique List for Scene:
1. Who is my protagonist in this scene?
2. What does she want?
3. Why does she want it?
4. What’s her plan for getting it?
5. Who is my antagonist in this scene?
6. What does he want?
7. Why does he want it?
8. What’s his plan for getting it?
9. Who makes the first move to get his or her goal in this scene? What is it?
10. How does the other character in the conflict respond?
11. How does this response escalate the conflict?
12. Lather, rinse, repeat until . . . Who wins the conflict?
13. How is the protagonist changed by this outcome?
14. How is the antagonist changed by this outcome?
15. How does this outcome make the reader want to turn the page? (Hint: Expectation established during scene.)
16. How does this set up the next scene?
No chat, no infodump, no headhopping, no AKY. No, really, you can’t.