Ciao, SEers. Last time, we discussed Dwight Swain’s concepts of scenes and sequels. (If you missed that post, you can find it here.) Remember, a chapter’s scenes can be one of two things, a scene or a sequel. Today, we’re going to go deeper into the concept of scenes.
What are scenes?
Scenes are the “proactive” units of a story. They introduce and advance goals, conflicts, and disasters. Scenes should have all three items before advancing to the following sequel. Why must they include all three? Because all three are necessary for tension. And without tension, there’s no reason for a reader to turn the page.
A goal is simply what your POV character desires. It could be:
- an object (the Holy Grail)
- a position (POTUS)
- a state of being (overcome an injury)
- a change in status (going from captive to freedom)
Whatever the character’s goal is, it has to be clearly recognized by the reader. Make it as specific as possible. Without a goal, the character isn’t acting; he’s reacting. And scenes are all about forward movement, taking charge, advancing the narrative. Goals rescue characters from being passive observers in their lives. (And believe me, readers do not want to read about passive characters.)
A conflict is the roadblock to the goal. This is where the tension comes from. Without conflict, the goal is easily attainable. And a character who doesn’t have to work to achieve his goal is a boring character. Easy triumphs aren’t triumphant.
- He wants the Holy Grail, but he has to answer a life-or-death riddle to get it.
- He wants to win the election, but he’s being blackmailed to drop out of the race.
- He wants to heal, but the therapy is too difficult.
- He wants to escape, but he’s chained to the wall.
Without those conflicts, the character simply gets the Grail, coasts through his campaign, starts walking, or leaves the creepy dungeon. With the struggles, we have tension. And tension is what makes stories interesting.
A disaster is what happens when the goal can’t be reached. This is what keeps the story moving. When characters overcome the conflicts and reach their goals, the story is over. And that’s fine if you’re at the end of your novel. That’s what you’re shooting for. But if you’re in any other scene in your story, you need disasters.
- He answers the riddle incorrectly and now is facing his demise.
- He chooses not to drop out, then damaging photos are leaked to the press.
- He stops going to therapy, and his lack of movement makes him develop a blood clot.
- He pulls the chain free of the crumbling wall, but his captor hears the rattling chains and returns to the room.
Now, obviously small scene-level conflicts must be overcome and small scene-level goals must be met. But not always. Remember, we’re working on building tension. If you don’t let your characters overcome early conflicts and reach early goals, the story won’t advance. And as much as we need tension, we also need momentum. So, let a character win now and then, but on the heels of each victory must come a disaster. That’s what keeps the story moving.
Next time, we’re going to discuss Dwight Swain’s sequels. But for now, let’s talk about scenes. Do you consciously write them? Do you always follow them with sequels? Do you even think this is how a scene should be written? Sound off below.