Saturday, May 5, 2012

Three Things for Every Scene

What does it take to make a scene?

A "scene" is generally a section of story that takes place in one person's head and often takes up a short time frame. Scenes are the building blocks of chapters; chapters, the blocks of novels. And novels are the blocks of the story. Thus, without good scenes, you'll be hard-pressed to write a good novel.

So how do we write a good scene?

Recently, I've identified several things that can be found in all good scenes. While the list is far from exhaustive (or even set in stone), it may help you focus your scenes and write a compelling novel.

1) Conflict

Conflict is the most important part of story. In fact, it's the CORE of story. Without conflict, there ISN'T a story. Remove conflict, and the story is boring.

However, sometimes conflict is overlooked in scenes. For instance, take a look at some common scene types that lack conflict: backstory, traveling scenes, long description, and history. All of them (except traveling scenes) are to be avoided when writing fiction, mostly because such scenes are plain boring, and all of them lack conflict.

So in order to make each scene interesting, and to keep your reader reading, you need to have conflict.

Does that mean every scene needs to have a sword-fight? By no means! Conflict can be found in simple dialogue, for instance. Simple conversation is a back-and-forth conflict between one person and another. For instance, take a look at this conversation from The Prophecy of Einarr. ('s woefully rough and not edited whatsoever.)


"Doon shink abot it, young man," Sadai said. He swallowed another bite of steak. "Look at me—I've got a job during a war. Not bad. You, however—" Sadai poked Edon. "—are jobless and all the money you have in your pocket was supposed to be for a tent. Besides. It wouldn't be fair to poor Marshland."
"Same thing."
Edon exhaled. "I guess you're right. But what would I even do? How could I work and get money and live life inside stone walls when there's danger outside these walls, and everyone I know is somewhere out there?"
"Ffpeaking off walsh," Sadai said, biting off a piece of steak, "Be've got wok ovabere for young pupff wike you."
"Never speak with your mouth full, Sadai."
"Sorry," Sadai said. "But why talk when you can eat?"


That wasn't more than a few words back and forth, but it was interesting, wasn't it? There was conflict in the words, even if it wasn't a hostile kind of conflict.

But even with conflict to keep things interesting, a scene is incomplete. That leads me into my second point.

2) Change

Every scene needs a drive. Daniel Schwabauer puts it like this: every scene needs a change in values. Something has to change. If your entire scene was a conversation that meant just about nothing to the story, then it was useless. (In that excerpt from The Prophecy of Einarr, the conversation turns to something more relevant to the goal of the story, in which the reader learns something important and the main character decides on a course of action.)

Scenes need to, in some way or another, be related to and driven by the protagonist's story goal. If Tolkien had simply written a book about hobbit life, it would have been pretty boring, right? But the hobbit life detailed in The Fellowship of the Ring was necessary to set up the goal of the story: to destroy the Ring.

3) Character

By saying that every scene needs character, I don't mean that you should include characters in your scene. That's a no-brainer. But scenes should be used to SHOW character. In some way, the reader should learn to know your character better. In that dialogue from The Prophecy of Einarr, for instance, we learn that Sadai is easygoing (and fond of steak), while Edon is more serious and dissatisfied.

Even if the scene reaffirms something we've already learned about the character, it's important, because every little thing in a REAL person shows their character. Keeping your characters dynamic in every scene makes it so your characters feel real and three-dimensional.

In summary, there are three things you need for every scene: conflict, change, and character. Using conflict, show character and move the story toward the story goal.

Once you can do that, you'll be well on your way to keeping a reader's attention and writing a story that they can't put down.

So what do you think every scene needs?  Do you have any good examples?

(Oh, and just a note for those who stock up on useless order to write that scene, in which Sadai kept eating his steak, every time I had to write Sadai's dialogue I'd take a piece of crumpled paper, stick it in my mouth, and say his lines. Then I'd write down what it sounded like. Don't judge me: I was halfway through NaNoWriMo at the time, and if you've done NaNoWriMo, you'll understand...once you get that far, you'll do just about anything to lengthen your word count.)


Casey J. Coburn said...

Awesome. XD I've actually tried that trick you used to write Sadai's dialogue before. XD

Great job, once again!

Farrah D said...

Nice post! LOL about the paper! I want to do NaNo this November but I am having trouble coming up with ideas... Oh well I will keep thinking! Again thanks for the informative post!

Ninja Tim said...

Clearly, you've had more experience with writing (especially novel writing) than I have, so my opinion doesn't count for a whole lot, but I don't think background and history scenes necessarily lack conflict (scenes with long description and nothing else... yeah, I agree there). It's not easy, but you can still incorporate conflict when discussing something from the past. Just a thought.

I was actually wondering how you wrote that bit of dialogue so realistically. Brilliant. =)