Dont Ignore Scene Structure

The tense, conflictful sections of your story are the parts that most excite and intrigue your readers. For that reason, you should play out those parts of your story for all they're worth.

How do you do that? You put it onstage in the story now, and you develop the action between the characters moment by moment, with nothing left out; you follow the rules of cause and effect, stimulus and response. To put this another way: you make sure that you never summarize during a high point of conflict in your story.

The result of moment-by-moment handling is a segment of your story which is just like life; there's no summary there, obviously.

Most professionals call such a part of their story a scene. However they may differ in defining how a scene works, they tend to agree on the major point just emphasized: you must never summarize while writing a scene. Not only does moment-by-moment development make the scene seem most lifelike; it should also be noted that it's in a scene where your reader gets most of his excitement. If you summarize, your reader will feel cheated -shortchanged of what he reads for-without quite knowing why.

Let's look at the structure of a scene just a bit more to make sure you understand how it works and why summary is lethal to its effectiveness.

To have conflict, you have to have two people with opposing goals. They have to want the same thing, or Character A must want to thwart Character B's immediate goal-motivated quest. Therefore, to start a scene, the first thing you have to do is have one of your characters (usually the viewpoint character) clearly state or show what it is he wants. Once that goal has been demonstrated or stated with complete clarity so the reader can have no doubt about what's at issue, then the other character to be in the scene must say, in effect, "Oh, no you won't"-and start the fight.

The fight, the conflict, makes up the bulk of the scene. If it's over a simple issue, the scene may take only a couple of pages to play for all it's worth, although most scenes tend to run a little longer than that. In this portion, the characters try different tacks, varying arguments; they struggle for the upper hand. They do not just stand there, in effect yelling at each

other "Yes, I can!" and "No, you can't!" Every step of their maneuvering is covered in detail.

In a dialogue scene (the most common kind), the maneuvers are verbal. In an action scene, the maneuvers might involve a destroyer crisscrossing over a submarine, trying to hit it with depth charges. In any case, one goal-motivated entity tries something; the other parries and tries something else; the first entity responds with still another stab. And so on, back and forth, no summary, following the rules of stimulus and response.

While this struggle takes place, the readers are bound to worry. While they might worry about a lot of things, the main thing they'll worry about is the scene question.

What's the scene question? It's the inversion of the stated scene goal.

Here's what I mean. If you start a scene by having the destroyer commander say, "We have to sink that sub!" Readers will turn the goal statement into a scene question: "Will they sink the sub?" - and worry about it. If you start your scene with the young woman saying, "Mr. Jones, I have come to ask you for a job", your readers will turn that stated goal into a question, and worry whether the heroine will get the job she wants. Readers are willing to worry about virtually any scene goal, as long as you make clear to them that the goal is vital to the character's story quest.

To put this another way: If the stated scene goal is clearly relevant to the character's story goal, it will be vital to that character's happiness and the outcome of the story. If the scene goal is relevant in this way, readers will see how important the outcome of the scene is going to be and will worry about it.

The conflict portion of the scene draws readers out through a moment-by-moment drama, extending the scene suspense with pleasurable agony.

At some point, of course-after two or six or a dozen pages -the scene must come to an end. If your readers are to feel satisfied, the scene has to end in some dramatic way. Therefore, it can't just stop; it has to provide some new twist or movement for the story.

In addition, the ending of every scene has to be logical; it can't cheat the readers. They have eagerly read the scene, worrying about a question. So to play fair with them, the conclusion of your scene has to answer the question posed by the goal in the first place.

So if the question was whether the destroyer would sink the sub, the end of the scene has to answer that question. If the question was whether the woman would get the job, the end of the scene has to tell whether she did or didn't get the job.

To maintain reader tension, however-which you always want to do - you should seldom provide a happy answer to the scene question. Ideally, to keep readers involved and worried, the scene should answer the question with a bad development.

We call this kind of scene ending a disaster.

How do you create disaster? Whatever your viewpoint character wants, he must not get it at the end of the scene. For if he does, he has suddenly become happy... story tension relaxes... the reader goes to sleep... and your story has failed.

So, again turning to the example about the destroyer, the captain must not clearly see that he has without doubt sunk the submarine. To the question, "Will the destroyer sink the sub?" the answer must not be a simple and unqualified yes. The submarine must escape, or shoot a torpedo through the destroyer before itself sinking, or manage to radio for help. Or possibly the submarine can be sunk, but debris proves it was a friendly sub.

Such dynamic bad news keeps the story rolling forward.

Any time you start to write a scene, you should go through the following process:

1. Decide specifically what main character's immediate goal is.

2. Get this written down clearly in the copy.

3. On a separate note somewhere, write down for yourself, clearly and briefly, what the scene question is. Word this question so it can be answered "yes" or "no. "

4. In your story, after the goal has been shown, bring in another character who now states, just as clearly, his opposition.

5. Plan all the maneuvers and steps in the conflict between the two char acters you have set up.

6. Write the scene moment-by-moment; no summary.

7. Devise a disastrous ending of the scene -a turning of the tables or surprise that answers the scene question badly.

After you have practiced this procedure for a short while, I think you'll begin to see that it has within it the essential dynamic of fiction, the way fiction "works. " A character wants and strives and is battered back; tension increases, and so does reader sympathy; then the character strives again.

This structure of scene... one scene inevitably leading to another scene... gives your fiction straight-line development. In addition, the structure powerfully implies something wonderful about life and the human condition. In using scene structure, you show people who struggle and try to take charge of their lives; indirectly, you are saying that people in real life can do that, too. In addition, you imply that life is not merely blind fate... that anyone can struggle and try to take their own life by the scruff of the neck, and improve it. Finally, by showing a character meeting serious disaster after such a struggle, then getting up to struggle again, you say something positive about human strength and courage.

Please note, however, that none of this can happen - nothing can work-if the scene does not grab your readers and intensely involve them. To accomplish that, the scene must be lifelike. And the greatest danger to this verisimilitude is summary. Check out the scenes in your story. If you find inadvertent summary, by all means fix it by playing out that part of the scene in detail. Nothing less will do.

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