I recently judged a writing contest and half of the entries included scenes that didn’t really work very well. The writers could write. The characters were good, but the scenes fell flat. As I studied the entries more closely in order, I realized that the scenes had one thing in common. There was no arc to the scene.
One of my critique partners and I have been talking a lot about the arc of the scene. It’s one of those elements of story that writers don’t mention very often. Many of you have read Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain, or Scene and Structureby Jack Bickham. They talk about the structure of scene.
Scene includes: goal, conflict, disaster
I’ve always found these books useful, but while I’m writing, I don’t think about Swain or Bickham. What I do think about is what’s happening as I’m writing. I knew early on that I wanted to write books about heroes: characters who face difficult odds, and who do what I hope I would do when faced with such a situation. The right thing. And in the process of facing those odds, heroes grow and change and learn and become better human beings, because of the difficulty they face.
As I first began writing, I focused on the challenges my characters would face: the villian, the struggle. Then I layered in the idea that the hero or heroine would have to face their own internal fears in order to defeat the villian. So, my story now had an arc. A change.
Well, just as a story has an arc, so does a scene. A scene changes the story. The plot changes; the character changes. If the character and plot don’t change, then the question becomes, what’s the point of the scene. These days, as I’m writing, I really focus on how the emotions of my character will change over the course of the scene. At the end of each scene, I ask myself two questions. Has my character changed, and has the plot moved forward. If I can answer yes, then my scene has an arc. If the answer is no, then that scene has no purpose. It is not a stepping stone toward growth of the hero or heroine. The scene is a stagnant pond without movement, without life.
A story is about life, and if there is one truth about life, it is forever changing. Just as scene should a small journey on a character’s path.