We all know that a novel is about conflict. No one wants to read about people living happily ever after--that's why it isn't in the fairy tales.
But a good novel, a great novel, isn't just one big conflict. It's a series of tense scenes driven by inner turmoil, polite warfare, and open confrontation, that follow each other in the classic formula of action, reaction, and complication.
It's easy to make the mistake of believing a scene simply moves the plot forward by unfolding action or revealing information. It does that, but to be effective, a scene also has to establish a specific goal the main character wants to achieve, develop conflict that blocks the character from getting what she wants, and add complications to the plot as the character fails to reach her goal and must react to disaster.
As you develop your scene or break down your novel revision by looking at your scenes individually, ask yourself the following questions:
- What is the mood of the scene?
- Who is the Point of View (POVC) character in this scene?
- What does the POVC think she wants or what is she supposed to want? (External goals)
- What does the POVC really want, deep down inside? (Internal goals)
- How do the POVC's internal and external goals oppose each other?
- How do these goals fit into the overall plot conflict?
- How do these goals fit into the overall story theme?
- Who are the other characters in the scene?
- What do each of the other characters want that is in opposition to the POVC's internal and external goals?
- Who are the allies and opponents among the other characters? Who are they each rooting for?
- What emotion do you want the reader to feel during this scene?
- What emotion(s) does the POVC feel?
- How can you make the POVC feel something other than the obvious?
- What action(s) would best showcase the POVC's emotion(s)?
- What elements can you introduce to make the POVC simultaneously feel the opposite of the primary emotion?
- As the writer, what are your goals for the scene?
- What information do you need to to tell the reader?
- What action must occur?
- What new characters must be introduced?
- What revelations are you going to unveil about these characters?
- What character growth do you need to show?
- How can you take each of your goals and satisfy them in a way that pits the characters against each other or underscores the conflict between the POVC's internal and external goals?
- How can you make it even harder for the POVC to achieve her goals?
- What physical obstacles can you place in front of your characters?
- What setting would make those physical obstacles even more obvious?
- How can you make that setting more unique and memorable?
- How can you twist the setting to make it unexpected?
- What memories and emotions does the setting bring out in the POVC?
- What oblique objects or details in the setting will help you underscore the POVCs emotions?
- What kind of weather would highlight the mood of the scene?
- Can you make the weather work against the POVC in any other way?
- How does what happened in the scene make the POVCs situation and the overall situation worse?
- What impossible decision does the POVC have to make after this scene?
- How does that decision go against her needs, desires, or moral principles?
- What questions does this scene raise that force the reader to continue reading?
- Visualize the scene.
- Find a striking opening and closing image.
- Create a compelling opening line that raises questions and highlights the tension.
- Write a closing line that is either a cliffhanger, a pithy button that resolves a previous question, or a suggestion of future conflict.
- Break the scene down into its major emotional components or turning points
- Within each turning point, find a strong visual image
- Mentally or on paper, draw the individual visuals in the scene.
- What details can you add to make them stronger and more memorable?
- What opposites or conflicts can you add to increase the tension?
- What symbols or external elements best illustrate what the POVC is feeling?
- What symbols or elements best illustrate what you want the reader to feel?
- What is the main idea or element you want the reader to take away from this scene?
- What can you do to give that the strongest emotional impact?
- How can you give it the strongest visual impact?
- Is the main scene idea or element the one that will most complicate the plot going forward?
- Can you add another buried scene idea or element that can lead to an upcoming twist in future action?
I bet that sounds like a lot of hard work. It is. But here's why we do it. I got back a critique of one of the chapters in my manuscript last night from one of my crit group members. (I hope she doesn't mind my sharing this, but it made me laugh and do a happy dance, and since the timing is perfect for this piece, I'm going to throw it in.) Here's what she wrote:
"I can’t believe I’m sitting at Six Flags and have to wait for hours to send this back to you. I just want to grab the thousands of people walking past and shove this computer in their hands and tell them to read this book. The end to this chapter gave me chills. I had a few nitpicky comments but this chapter rocks. Hurry and send more!"YAY! That's exactly what I want. And bear in mind, this isn't the climax. It isn't even one of the three "big" scenes. It's just the chapter I finished revising on Sunday, a chapter with three scenes that each resolve something while continuing to up the overall stakes of the novel.
The competition is so stiff out there. Not only are there many talented writers competing for every spot on a publisher's list, but as writers, we are competing for our reader's attention against video games, movies with non-stop action and emotion, and 24-hour news feeds that show us the worst of humanity.
We all invest years and tears into the characters of our novels. I personally believe that any good investment takes a bit of research and planning. The scene breakdown above is my way of hedging my bets. I hope it helps you, too.
For more information:
Crafting Visual, Memorable Scenes
Scenes the Building Blocks of Fiction
Creating Conflict and Tension in Fiction
How to Create Tension in a Fictional Scene
How to Write a Novel with Perfect Scenes
Write-A-Scene Writing Prompt-Character Motivation
The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great by Donald Maass
Elements of Writing Fiction - Conflict, Action & Suspense by William Noble