Using the Structure of Scene to Give Your Book Power

Posted at Mar 2, 2014 7:21 pm

I’ve been writing quite a bit lately.  Most every day in fact.  I’m trying to increase my productivity, but also the quality of scenes.  Who cares if I write ten pages if I have to scrap eight of them because they don’t go anywhere.  So, that brings me to this article. 

As you know, I am that kid who always asks ‘why.’  Why does this author blow me away with her characters?  Why does that author’s plot surprise me every time?  How can I keep from writing a completely boring scene that I then have to chuck?  (The last is the real reason I care, btw.)  The answer I discovered recently blew me a way.  Too simple.  Too straightforward.  And something I’ve known since I read my very first how-to-write book, Writing Novels that Sell by Jack Bickham.

Writing is a strange thing.  In the workshop I give with Laura Baker, Discovering Story Magic (DSM), we explore character and story and how that leads to theme.  It’s such a critical big picture element to writing.  But then, after that, I have to sit down at the computer and write…word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, scene by scene, chapter by chapter.  How do I make the story compelling, interesting, and in my case, since I’m writing romantic suspense, exciting and filled with danger…both emotional and physical?  Whew.  So much to think about.

So, now I’m back to the beginning.  That first how-to-write book.  Bickham talked about character.  I have that.  I use DSM.  Others use GMC.  Some use enneagrams, Myers-Briggs, character sketches, and more.  Bickham talked about scene and sequel.  And now I’m at the core of what I want to discuss and what’s helping me right now.

Scene.  Jack Bickham (Scene and Structure, Writing Novels that Sell) and Dwight Swain (Techniques of the Selling Writer) really have the best insight into scene, in my opinion.  I’m not going to rehash their wonderful work.  Here’s what’s important.  SCENE = GOAL, CONFLICT, DISASTER.  SEQUEL = EMOTION, QUANDARY, DECISION, ACTION.

I go about beginning to write scenes several ways.  Sometimes, it’s ‘I think I need a love scene here.’  Sometimes, it’s…he has to discover this clue in this scene.  Sometimes, it’s…what will he do next?  Sometimes, it’s…I need to explore this emotional element.  Whatever the impetus, it’s important to realize that scenes need plot and emotion.  Laura Baker has a wonderful quote.  “Actions don’t drive the story.  Actions drive emotions.  Emotions drive the story.”  The key to an interesting story is a change in the emotion!

So…in my scene, I need character.  I need action.  I need emotion.  I need danger.  I need suspense.  I need change.  Ugh!  What’s a writer to do?  Because the writing that comes out is sometimes…well…boring.

So, instead of panicking (which is a perfectly reasonable response) or writing until I figure it out (which is another response that works for a lot of writers–but not me), I step back.  I ask myself three questions.  1.  What emotion will change during this scene.  2.  What plot point will change during this scene?  3.  Who’s going to lose in this scene?

Who’s going to lose?  Why ask that.  Because, there should be goal and conflict in every scene.  And, more importantly, remember that word…DISASTER.  Every scene should be a disaster on some level to one of the characters.  A character needs to have something at stake, something to risk.  Something they care about.  It could be getting a cat out of a tree.  To get a kiss.  To find a killer…to find a clue.  To eat dinner.  To ask a girl out.  To go skinny dipping.  Whether small or big, though, the character must care, and something must stop them from achieving their goal.

Jenny Crusie's Conflict BoxThis brings me to my second tool.  Jenny Crusie’s plot box.  I’ll provide a quick teaser on the graphic to the right, but I would strongly suggest to go look at what Jenny does.  It’s brilliant.  The point is…she actively thinks about who the protagonist and antagonist of a particular scene are.  How is one character stopping the other character from getting what they want?

So, as I begin writing my scene, I think about how I can inject conflict, danger, and caring.  This ramps up tension and emotion.  And the scenes typically aren’t boring anymore.  And even if the scene needs rewriting, I don’t usually lose 8 of 10 pages.  Thank goodness.  So, up the net productivity!  Now I’ve achieved my goal.

Do you have tricks or tools that you use to keep your book moving, exciting and compelling during that first draft?  I’d be very interested in your perspective.  Just click the comment link below to tell me more!

Happy Writing,

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