Friday 15 November 2019

Six questions I ask about every scene - by Rowena House

For this blog, as always when I’m blathering on about craft issues, I’m indebted to the many writing gurus I’ve read over the years. This one in particular is far more a synthesis of their ideas than the product of any original thinking of mine, so I’ll start by thanking some of the experts to whom I return again and again for inspiration: Emma Darwin, Robert McKee, John Yorke, James Scott Bell & Shaun Coyne.]

So, the six questions I ask of each scene…

1. Why is my viewpoint character in this place at this time?

The why question helps me work out the motivation of each viewpoint character at that particular time & place in the story. It is the first question because motivation is such a critical issue for the credibility of a story (and also where agents and editors often focus first when reading a new manuscript).

Thinking about motivation also helps me see the scene from a reader’s point of view: the actions, reactions and decisions of the scene protagonist will only make sense to them if they know why the character is doing what they’re doing, and accept (emotionally) that it is a realistic thing for them to be doing under the specific circumstances I have created on the page.

As a writer, drilling down ever deeper into the why question makes for deeper and truer characters, too. If at any time the answer to the question why is ‘because I need my character to be here/to do X for the plot to work’, then it’s almost certainly time to rethink that scene.  

2. What is my viewpoint character planning to do in this scene?

Establishing the intent [or scene goal] for the viewpoint character is the next question I ask, whether it’s an action scene (the character is doing what they planned to do) or a reaction scene (something unexpected happened to them in an earlier scene and they’re working out what to do about it).

Even if the main point of the scene in plot terms is the next unexpected event, I try to see if this event could also stop my scene protagonist from doing what they intended. It that way, the event is a dramatic force of antagonism for the character, rather than something purely extraneous.

To keep each scene relevant to the overall story, I also work out how this particular scene goal is a stepping stone towards the protagonist’s overall Story Goal. For example, in my WW1 novel, The Goose Road, the Story Goal was Angelique’s aim to save the family farm for her soldier brother. Each scene worked towards this in an incremental way.

3. Who or what is stopping them from achieving their scene goal?

Basically, there are four types of antagonism to chose from: 1) inner conflicts (emotional and psychological), 2) inter-personal conflicts (another character or characters); 3) societal conflicts (e.g. the character’s  social status makes it hard for them to have agency, like Lyra at the start of His Dark Materials), and 4) environmental or physical obstacles, such as flooding rivers, high walls, labyrinths etc. etc.

When building towards big climactic scenes, much fun can be had in combining forces of antagonism to make them complex, e.g. where one problem builds on another, making the scene uniquely difficult for the protagonist. For example, a hero has a debilitating phobia about dark enclosed spaces (an inner conflict) but his only escape route is a pitch black tunnel (a physical obstacle).

We can then complicate the situation still further by making it rain (an additional environmental obstacle as the tunnel floods) with the prison guards banging on the blocked cell door behind him (interpersonal conflict). 

Okay, this is a crass example (I think it’s been done to death on screen) but complicating complex forces of antagonism is a tool well worth have in one’s storytelling tool box (to borrow Stephen King’s metaphor in his brilliant On Writing).

4. What happens as a result of the conflict/s between the viewpoint character & these force/s of antagonism?

It’s pretty much a truism that conflict drives plots forward. So, when plotting, it can be helpful to think of the story as a series of ‘beats’: action-reaction, followed by re-evaluation of the situation, and then a fresh decision about the way forward. This leads naturally to rising conflict, where characters have to take ever riskier decisions leading to ever bolder actions.

While each scene may only take the protagonist one step along this road, a sequence of scenes which climax at a new, riskier strategy (from which there is no going back) is the lifeblood of drama.

The point of Question 4, therefore, is to check whether I have mined every scene for optimum drama each step along the way.

5. How do the events of the scene make the viewpoint character think & feel?

Once upon a time, it was acceptable for writers to tell readers about their characters through extensive biographies, delivered via backstory and exposition. Today (or so we’re repeatedly told) readers prefer to understand fictional characters through their emotional & psychological reactions to conflicts, tensions and pressures within the story.

At times, we may still decide to narrate some backstory, or allow our characters to debate issues or themes, but, overall, contemporary scenes need to include characters doing something significant or making a meaningful decision based on credible thoughts and feelings.

6. What is the scene protagonist going to do next?

If conflict drives stories, then change drives scenes. So my final question is a big one: what changes in the scene? What’s going to happen next as a result of that change? In both character-led and more plot-orientated stories, protagonist generally initiate action, so that’s where I focus this final question.

Firstly, I review how the next action will up the jeopardy in some way. Is the cost of failure greater than before, are the stakes higher? If not, how can I make them so?

Then, how does this next action link with other plotlines? Does the linkage need to be clearer or do I want the reader to experience an Ah-ha moment of realisation later on in the story?

Finally, what if this action never happens? Would it matter? If not, does this scene deserve a place in the manuscript at all?

Right. That’s the washing done and I’ve got to pack for a trip to France, sailing tonight to visit a writer friend, with gale force winds forecast in the Channel. Gulp. Happy writing one & all.

Twitter: @houserowena

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