Structure Part 8–Balancing the Scenes that Make Up Your Novel
Welcome to Structure Part 8. We have spent the past couple of months studying the fundamentals of what makes up a novel, and today we are going to discuss the actual scenes that make up a novel and how to keep track of them. It is easy to get lost when dealing with a structure as complex as a novel, so I hope to give you a nifty tool to keep everything straight. As a fiction author, you will often feel like an acrobat spinning plates while standing on your head and juggling fiery chainsaws. There are so many components to keep track of, lest you end up down the Bunny Trail of No Return. Organization is key when it comes to being a successful novelist.
First, let’s talk about scenes.
According to James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure, scenes do four things. Bell calls these the four chords of fiction:
The two major chords are: (1) action and (2) reaction.
The two minor chords are (1) setup and (2) deepening.
Back when I used to edit for writers, I was known to draw flies on the page when the writer lost my interest. This became known as my infamous, “Fly on the Wall of ‘Who Gives a Crap?’” The reader is a fly on the wall when it comes to the world we are creating. Make them the fly on the wall of something interesting at all times. How do we accomplish this?
All scenes need conflict. Conflict is the fuel that powers the story’s forward momentum. “Scenes” that are merely back-story, reflection (rehash of what the reader already knows) or information dump, slow down the story and make the reader either want to skim ahead or put the book down. Bad juju. We want our readers hooked from the beginning until we finally let them go on the last page. How do we accomplish this? We add lots of conflict.
Scenes, according to Bell, need three components, collectively known as HIP—Hook, Intensity & Prompt.
Hook—interests the reader from the get-go. This is why it is generally a bad idea to start scenes with setting. Waxing rhapsodic about the fall color is a tough way to hook a reader. If you do start a scene with setting, then make it do double-duty. Setting can set up the inner mood of a character before we even meet him. Setting should always be more than a weather report. Try harder.
Intensity—raises the stakes. Introduce a problem. Scenes that suddenly shift into reverse and dump back-story KILL your intensity. Cut scenes at meals unless there is a fight. If your characters are in a car, they better be in an argument or a car chase. Also cut any scenes that the sole purpose is to give information. Have a scene that’s sole purpose is two characters talking about a third? CUT!
Prompt—leave the scene with work left undone and questions left unanswered. If your character is relaxed enough to go to bed at the end of a scene, that is a subconscious cue to your reader that it is okay to mark the page and close the book. There should always be something unsettling that makes the reader want to know more.
Going back to the chords of the writing. Every scene should involve one of your key characters in pursuit of an interesting goal that is related to the overall conflict of the story. Each of these scenes are stepping stones that take your character closer to the final showdown. Most of the time, it will feel like two steps forward and one step back.
Your POV character (protagonist) sets out to do X but then Y gets in the way. Your character then will have some kind of a reaction to the setback.
So we have the major chords I mentioned earlier:
ACTION–> REACTION to the obstacle
Now when we add in the minor chords, it might look something like this:
Setup–>ACTION–>obstacle–>REACTION to the obstacle–>deepening
Setup and deepening need to be short and sweet. Why? Because they don’t drive the story, conflict does. We as readers will need a certain amount of setup to get oriented in what is happening, but then drive forward and get to the good stuff. Deepening is the same. We want to know how this conflict has changed the course of events, but don’t get carried away or you risk losing your reader.
Every scene should have conflict and a great way to test this is to do a Conflict Lock. Bob Mayer teaches this tactic in his workshops and if you get a chance to take one of his classes, you will be amazed how your writing will improve.
The conflict lock is a basic diagram of what the conflicting goals in the scene look like. Here is one from the fiction I am currently working on. My protagonist’s sister has just been taken, and protag and the love interest are clearly in conflict:
Riley wants to pursue the trail of the kidnappers deeper into Mexico.
Tank wants to return to Texas and call the FBI.
Even though these two characters are allies, it is clear they want different things. Riley wants to plunge ahead and take her chances pursuing the bad guys who have her sister. The love interest doesn’t want Riley hurt or killed. He wants to take the safer route and let the pros handle the kidnapping. Both have reasonable goals, but only one of them, by the end of the scene, will get his/her way. One path takes Riley closer to finding her sister. The other ends the adventure.
So how do you keep track of all these elements? The note card is a writer’s best friend. We will discuss different methods of plotting in the future, but I recommend doing note cards ahead of time and then again after the fact. I stole a very cool tactic from screenwriter Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.
On each note card, I write the location, then a one-sentence header about what the scene is about. Then there is a neat little symbol for conflict (><) I use to show who is in conflict in this particular scene. Then I do a micro conflict lock. Who wants what? I also use an emotional symbol to note change +/-. Characters should be changing emotionally. If your protag enters on a high note, crush it. Enters on a low? Give some hope. If a character is constantly okey dokey, that’s boring. Conversely, if a character is always in the dumps, it will wear out your reader and stall the plot. I also note any facts I might need to keep up with. Has my main character suffered an injury? Lost her weapon? Gained a bazooka and a pet hamster?
I have an early scene where my protagonist’s adolescent half-sister shows up unannounced to stay for the summer. Riley’s father has secretly arranged with Riley’s uncle for the sister to spend the summer at Cougar Valley to get her away from a bad element that’s getting her in trouble. Riley is home from Afghanistan and not emotionally up to tending an out-of-control teen.
So the card might look something like this:
Cougar Valley Tactical School
Riley’s sister shows up unannounced to stay for the summer.
>< Riley and Dizzy
Riley wants sister to leave.
Dizzy wants sister to stay.
+/- Riley was hoping for a summer of quiet to heal, but Dizzy forces the issue and sister is there to stay
Riley concedes and grudgingly makes room for sister in her trailer (decision), but then bad guys show up (prompt).
I used this system to keep up with all the scenes in my book. When I finished my first draft, I went back and made a new set of cards. Using this system made it painfully clear what scenes were in need of a total overhaul. If I couldn’t say in one sentence what the scene was about, then I knew my goal was weak, nonexistent or unclear. Too many people in conflict? Conflict might be muddy. Go back and clarify. If there wasn’t any emotional change, then that was a big red flag that nothing was happening–it was a “Fly on the Wall of ‘Who Gives a Crap?'” If I found a scene that’s sole purpose was information dump, what did I do? I had three choices. 1) Cut the scene totally. 2) Fold it into another scene that had existing conflict. 3) Add conflict. Notecards also made it easy to spot bunny trails–goals that have nothing to do with the A or B plot.
This tactic can help make a large work manageable. If you are starting out and outlining? Make note cards for each scene and who you foresee being in conflict. If you already have your novel written, but you want to tighten the writing or diagnose a problem you just can’t see? Make note cards.
Keeping organized with notecards is an excellent way to spot problems and even make big changes without unraveling the rest of the plot. There are, of course, other methods, but this is the one I have liked the best. Note cards are cheap, portable and easy to color code. For instance, each POV character can have a designated color. Using these cards makes it much easier to juggle all the different elements of great novels—characters, conflict, inner arc, plot, details.
Have any questions? Are there other methods that have worked for you? Please share so we all can learn. What is the biggest challenge you face when it comes to plotting?
Check in on Wednesday for Blogging Part 3.
Until next time…
Give yourself the gift of success for the coming year. My best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media is recommended by literary agents and endorsed by NY Times best-selling authors. My method is free, fast, simple and leaves time to write more books!