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.
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We have spent the past few weeks 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.
First, let’s talk about scenes.
My friend and mentor James Scott Bell has given me permission to use a sample of his teachings as a guide, and again I strongly recommend getting his book. I was a pantser for ages and revisions were a nightmare. Plotting might as well have been sanskrit until I read his books and instead of reinventing my own methods, I just like to tell writers about the good stuff.
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 content edit, I was known to draw cute little cartoon flies on the page when the story took off down a bunny trail and lost my interest. This became known as my, “Fly on the Wall of ‘Who Cares?’” and was a signal to the writer that this was a section with no real purpose so it needed revision, tightening or to be cut completely.
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 (okay, just something tense). 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! CUT! CUT!
We are writing novels, not screenplays for Days of Our Lives.
Prompt—leave the scene with work left undone and questions left unanswered. If your character is relaxed enough to happily 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.
Remember when we talked about antagonists? How the BBT is responsible for the problem in need of resolution, but that EVERY scene should have an antagonist.
Allies will often provide the lion’s share of the conflict of a story. One of my favorite movies is Finding Nemo. Darla the Fish-Killer is the BBT, because had she wanted a puppy for her birthday, Nemo would have never been taken and wouldn’t be in danger. But who creates MOST of the conflict? Ally, Dori. For most of the story. Marlin and Dori are at odds.
Marlin wants to keep searching for the clue to find his son.
Dori wants to talk to the sharks and attend a Fish Anoymous meeting.
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 use 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 weaponized Bedazzler and a pet hamster?
Let’s look at an example from the movies. Romancing the Stone.
So the card might look something like this:
Jungles of South America (Location)
>< Joan (protag) and Jack (love interest/antagonist)
Joan wants a guide to get her to Cartajena, Colombia to trade the treasure map for her sister.
Jack wants to recapture the exotic birds he lost when the bus crashed into the back of his truck.
-/+ Joan finally convinces Jack to take her to Cartajena. (Note she started on a low. She was lost, in a crash and far away from Cartajena. She ends on a high note. Jack agrees to guide her to her destination)
Joan and Jack decide to go to Cartajena (decision), but then bad guys arrive and start shooting at them (prompt).
Yes, Blake Snyder’s system is designed to keep up with all the scenes a movie, but it can do wonders for novelists, too. When I finish my first draft, I go back and make set of cards. Using this system makes it painfully clear what scenes are in need of a total overhaul.
If I can’t say in one sentence what the scene is about, then I know my goal is weak, nonexistent or unclear. Too many people in conflict? Conflict might be muddy. Go back and clarify. If there isn’t any emotional change, then that’s a big red flag that nothing is happening—it’s a “Fly on the Wall of ‘Who Cares?'”
If I find a scene that’s sole purpose is information dump, what do I do? I have three choices. 1) Cut the scene totally. 2) Fold it into another scene that has existing conflict. 3) Add conflict. Note cards also make 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 note cards 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’ve liked the best. Note cards are cheap, portable and easy to color code (you can also sub an Excel spreadsheet for cards).
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?
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