Stringing Paragraphs Into Scenes

Once we know how to make things happen in a scene, the next question is, how do I self-edit those things into scenes that flow from one to the next? What makes it feel like something’s happening? Well, just like it works well to think of pairs of paragraphs, it works well to think of pairs of scenes that are essentially bigger units of motivation and reaction.

Pause button. You can write quiet, literary, pastoral, or sweet fiction using this sense of scene arc. The problem is the cheerleader language everyone uses. Make it exciting! Hook the reader! Stay engaging! Blah blah blah!

What does that even mean, dude.

Mood and emotion are interesting to a certain kind of reader, as long as there’s an ultimate, good reason for them. So don’t worry about turning your quiet family drama into a military thriller. The essence of the story’s components is not automatically invalidated by somebody else’s descriptive terms for it. All these structural components of story are like empty boxes, and you can put in whatever you want.

Scene: Goal, Conflict, Disaster

Goal refers to what your viewpoint character wants at this exact moment. What they want in the larger picture may or may not be in view, although immediate goals should be connected around a larger problem.

If our hero is a waitress in a tedious job full of thankless patrons, maybe she just wants to go home, put on her cape, and make a real difference in this town. If our hero is a wealthy businessman in his private jet, maybe he’s pining to emotionally abuse a naive college student. (Sorry, not sorry, Shades.) Either way, you can set that up through the active scene elements of internal monologue, dialogue, action and description.

Thinking about what a character wants on the inside is hard at first. Because our minds are cluttered with surface lies and highly evolved techniques for hiding ourselves. So, be literate. Read the starts of lots of books and mull over when you first feel connected to the character and how you know where they’re headed next. Try not to ruin your love of reading through analysis. Just notice gently and enjoy.

Do you think the opening of a book will generally start with a motivation or a reaction? What do you notice in your reading?

Conflict refers to all the things that interfere with what the viewpoint character is doing in this scene. All you need to know about this is how to arrange your thoughts into motivations and reactions. Motivations require the character to react further in order to proceed. That’s all. The end.

Disaster means “cliffhanger,” which means making the motivation half of a motivation-reaction pair of paragraphs too big (big can mean intense, or action-filled, or complicated, or full of implication) to conquer with one reaction. It’s usually a good idea to also include the character’s immediate reaction, at least the internals, because that promises further steps will be taken. Play with how much to include, and see whether trusted readers say it feels cut off too soon.

Sequel: Reaction, Dilemma, Decision

Reaction: Most of the character’s reaction to the disaster — or rather, what they causally do next as a sensible response — goes at the start of the next scene. If it’s not there, if we switch to a different point in time or a different viewpoint character, that’s when reader interest may fall off. However, those things are totally possible with good segue techniques. My top recommendation for learning that is to binge-watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The segues are exaggerated (because it’s campy), snappy, and they drag you along.

Dilemma: This is where some things happen, like conversations or side events, that make the viewpoint character question his/her direction and consider options. It’s where people tend to devolve to a lot of internal monologue as the character argues with him/herself internally. So this is a good space for subplots to affect the main story, and for making sure the active scene elements stay in decent balance so the mind’s eye doesn’t get narrowed right down out of the storyworld.

Decision: This really just means writing a reaction that promises the direction of the next scene. That direction can be the main character’s, or a plot direction with a different minor character (see again Buffy segues). It promises what the goal of the next scene will be.

There’s more, but less, about hooks and cliffhangers

These are the most heinous names for how scenes connect, especially in terms of how scenes end. They force writers away from the beautiful variety in tone and intensity that can occur to bring things forward in a story. Really, what you want to do is just make a promise of what comes next. It could be a quiet promise or a loud one, obvious or implied. All that matters is that you don’t try to hide it from the reader in order to surprise them. This is not the time for that.

There’s lots of advice about how to hook readers: Raise a question. Start the action with a bang. Be interesting! This gimmick, that gimmick. Sheesh, no pressure at all.

Okay, stop stop stop.

Here’s why voice is so important: your voice, when it is true, IS the promise. The look forward could involve something externally mundane, even, but that doesn’t matter. It just matters that you connect emotionally to the person reading.

That’s caught, not taught. You have to get past the lies on the surface of your mind and all the years of hiding your feelings.

“Practice, practice, practice!” Yeah whatever fine okay. OW.

Practicing truth is painful, because we hide ourselves all the time. Those muscles are couch potatoes.

And look! Here’s boot camp. When it felt like I’d started to be honest, turned out I was wrong. I’d only started to stop lying. So just wait! There’s more, you incorrigible liar. And when you find it, you’re going to love it.

Eventually, my voice became my safe place, and I became happiest when using it. Isn’t that kinda revolutionary?


For a deeper look:

Dwight Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer
Randy Ingermanson/Peter Economy, Writing Fiction for Dummies

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