In Part 1 of this post, I outlined the basic elements of a scene in a novel: one or more characters, usually with the presence of conflict or tension, set in a time and place or moving from one place to another, action/narrative/dialogue, and something happens that must advance the story. Those are the basics, but an effective scene must go deeper.
One of my favorite bloggers, author KM Weiland, did a 12-part series on writing scenes. I highly recommend it. She devoted a lot of space to the concept of “scene and sequel.” What this means in basic terms is that the first half of the scene should contain action (goal-motivation-disaster) and the second half or sequel is the main character’s reaction to what happened. Weiland breaks it down into three parts: reaction (processing what has happened), dilemma (what does the character do now?) and decision (the character must figure out a solution).
Let’s look at the goal-motivation-disaster part of the scene, because this is essential to a scene’s success or failure. The goal is simply what the main character wants. The motivation is why he wants it. The disaster is what is preventing the character from reaching the goal. Simple enough in concept, but getting the goal-motivation-disaster right is much more difficult in execution.
The reaction-dilemma-decision is frequently overlooked, but equally important. It is what gives meaning and emotional resonance to the goal-motivation-disaster part of the scene.
Randy Ingermanson, who came up with the famous Snowflake Method of designing a novel, speaks about two levels of scene structure: large-scale and small-scale. He believes readers read fiction because the writer provides them with a powerful emotional experience. The large-scale follows the structure Weiland advocates (scene/sequel). The small scale consists of what Dwight Swain calls “Motivation Reaction Units, which alternate between what the Point of View (POV) character sees (motivation, which is external and objective) and what he does (reaction, which is internal and subjective). The writer should devote a separate paragraph to each.
Plot expert Martha Alderson, in a guest post on Jane Friedman’s blog, outlined the seven layers of a scene.
Note that Alderson’s final layer of the scene is its thematic significance. “The key to the theme lies in your reasons for writing the story and what you want your readers to take away from it,” Alderson wrote. “When the details you use in the scene support the thematic significance, you have created an intricately layered scene that provides meaning and depth to the overall plot.”
Another key element of an effective scene that is implied in each of these structures is stakes. Scene stakes must be meaningful, either on a micro or macro level.
This topic is impossible to cover in two blog posts. There is no single way to approach or structure a scene. There are, however, a number of questions a writer should ask before beginning a scene:
• What is the purpose of this scene? What am I trying to achieve?
• How is the main character challenged or changed in the scene?
• What are the stakes? Are they important?
• What is the proper pacing for the scene?
• What is the appropriate balance of action/narrative/dialogue? How does the setting, dialogue and action advance what the writer is trying to achieve?
• How does the scene advance the story?
While I cannot adequately cover the topic of scene crafting in so few words, I highly recommend Raymond Obstfeld’s excellent book, The Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes.
It is a comprehensive and enlightening guide to writing effective scenes and I refer to it often.