Friday, January 27, 2012

Fundamental Check: Do Your Scenes Have What They Need?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Sometimes it's good to go back to the basics when you're figuring out a book, especially if you've done a lot of revisions or have reworked the plot. A quick check of the fundamentals can help you spot weakness you didn't even know you had, because it forces you to look at specifics, not just read for a general sense of the plot.

My current WIP is a perfect example. I spent the last several weeks on my outline and was ready to start the hardcore revisions. I love my templates and "did you do it?" lists, so I took one last peek to make sure I had all the necessary pieces and had worked out everything I'd wanted to fix. I checked my list of what every scene had to have.

Every scene must have a goal, a conflict, and stakes. It really needs motivations as well, and I threw in choices this time to keep the protag proactive and the story moving. Tension is important, so I added that to the list. For this book, I also wanted to keep track of my foreshadowing and world building, as I needed to lay a lot of groundwork and establish some fantasy world rules. I designated each of these vital pieces in a different color. It looked like this:

Goal. Choice. Stakes. Conflict. Tension. Motivation. Foreshadowing. World Building.

Then I used this guide and colored the text in my opening scene summary according to what each piece did. My reasons here were simply to double check that I had all the mechanics in place and hadn't left anything off during all my back and forth tweaks while re-focusing the plot.

Let me tell you, I was shocked by the results.

The first thing I saw was that I had no goal, no current stakes, and no conflict whatsoever. A huge surprise considering I'm a bit of a goal-conflict-stakes freak, and the summary read like a pretty solid scene to me.

But when I looked closer during this check list, I realized sure, it had a goal, but it was a general goal that applied to the whole story, not something specific to this scene. There were stakes, but again, so general they were a constant threat for my protag the whole book (stakes that don't escalate aren't very compelling). Same with the conflict. Everything was technically there, but not specifically there, and the scene wasn't as strong as it could be. It would be a good scene, but we all know "good" isn't good enough when it comes to publishing.

This is exactly why I do these little exercises. I can't tell you how many times I've caught something because I took the time to step back and double check my fundamentals.

With a scene (and a realization) like this, your first instinct might be to add goals, conflict and stakes, drawing from elsewhere in the novel or making it up so you have an exciting beginning. However, there's a good chance you'll end up with a scene that has a lot of extraneous stuff in it that doesn't actually help your story. It might fulfill the scene requirements, but not much else because you're adding what's missing instead of bringing out what's already there.

This is definitely a tip that needs an example, so here's my original opening scene summary (names and some info changed for clarity):

C1: Alice is wandering through the military ward spying on the soldiers when she notices a change in the training sessions. They look more serious, have different armor that seems specifically crafted to defend against certain weapons, and she concludes not only are they prepping for war, but against her people. (Equates it to a prior campaign, get in empire/conquer idea). She plans to tell her handler, Irving, this later when she sees him. She also notes one of the servants kissing one of the soldiers (a big no-no), but she decides not to tell her servant friend Brenda about it, (use to set the rules). She also sees one of the soldiers who's regularly mean to Brenda getting chewed out. Alice plans to tell Brenda later to share the gossip and make her feel better (show her give and take in spying). When it's time to head down to meet Irving, Alice runs into Brenda on her way to the kitchens. They chat for a bit about an upcoming event. Alice tells her what she saw, offers a few leading gossip questions about the soldiers to get more info (show her spying - what do you think is going on? Is it war?), and hears a few things in return (use for rules and world building), then Alice heads out to meet with Irving. As she's leaving, she spots Commander Xavier watching her, looking very suspicious (reason redacted), which worries her, and totally freaks out Brenda. Brenda mentions one of the rumors about him (lay groundwork). Alice is very concerned, as Xavier has never even looked at her before, so why now?

As you can see, my outlines tend to be rough and include notes to myself to make sure I cover certain mechanical things, but hopefully it's clear enough to show what I'm talking about. Do you see the weak goals? The general stakes? The lack of a really good reason to care? But do you also see all the pieces that will make this scene sing if I tweak it a bit?

Let's break it down.

"Spying" is what my protag is doing. What makes this a weak goal is that she's not after anything in particular. Spying is what she does all the time. She's also simply noticing something that she ought to be proactively doing to drive the scene. She's reacting to what she happens to see, not actively seeking it out. This scene isn't about her trying to accomplish anything, it's just her going about her regular day. (the regular day is good for an opening scene, but it also needs a story-driving goal to get things moving)

Zero conflict, which is what happens when you have a weak goal and little at stake. There's nothing preventing Alice from spying. There might be a smidge of possible internal conflict when Alice decides not to tell Brenda about the kissing couple, but you don't see why. And from my notes, you see it's more for world building than actual plot. It sets up conflicts for later, but there are none in this scene.

No real stakes here. What makes it weak is that Alice can walk away and nothing happens to her. There are no consequences for her abandoning her goal. There are some hints at future dangers, and potential for other people to get into trouble (the kissing couple), but the only real threat is Xavier at the end, and that's pretty vague. It's more foreshadowing than actual stakes. I know this character is a huge threat to Alice, so it feels like higher stakes to me even though there's nothing yet on the page to show that.

How many folks here have drafts with similar problems?

I'd bet there are a lot of frustrated writers staring at their "looks good to me" outlines or chapters yet unable to figure out what's wrong. It feels like the right pieces are there, and maybe some of these scenes get stronger in the actual text, but the book keeps getting rejected or getting negative feedback in crits.

If you're struggling with this right now, try going back to your fundamentals and identifying exactly what your goals, conflicts and stakes are. Be specific. Look for motivations and choices as well, as those help keep your protag active and driving the story.

Let's go back to my scene and apply this:

First, the goal:
Alice needs a solid and specific scene-driving goal. Something that will hopefully hook the reader to keep them reading. That's easy to fix here. She's there spying on purpose, with a very clear agenda in mind. She doesn't just happen to notice something, she's there to find out specifically that thing. To help with the hook, let's also make it clear why she needs to find this out.

Choices and motivations can help to determine how strong your goal is. If you can explain why your protag has this goal and see choices that result of trying to achieve this goal, then you're on the right track. If the motivations are vague or absent, odds are your goal is also vague and not strong enough to effectively drive the scene.

Second, the conflict:

Something needs to prevent Alice from getting her spying done, or prevent her from just walking away if now's a bad time to do it. Let's put Xavier there from the start and have him see Alice right away. She then has to decide on how to proceed (add that choice).

But this still doesn't feel strong enough to me because we don't really know why Xavier is a threat yet, and there's nothing saying she has to do this right now or else. She needs a reason to act here (and preferably, one that will work as a bridge to get her to the inciting event).

So let's put Brenda in that compromising position with a soldier. And then have the mean soldier headed right toward her and about to discover them. Now Alice has to decide if she should risk herself to help a friend (and a valuable asset since Alice is a spy, doubly so since she now knows Brenda is secretly dating a soldier and might have ever more useful intel she can use) or avoid Xavier and potentially getting on his radar (which is bad for spies). Both internal and external conflict over Brenda, and external conflict with Xavier. Even better, if Alice acts here to save Brenda that can even put her into conflict with the mean soldier bearing down on them. (she's trying to prevent him from going wherever he's going in order to protect Brenda)

To recap:
Alice's goal of spying is blocked by Xavier, who is a threat to her. It's made more complicated by her seeing a friend in trouble. That's made more complicated by that person having both personal and professional value that Alice could lose access to if Brenda gets into trouble. But to preserve that, Alice has to risk her bigger overall mission.

Third, stakes:
For this opening scene, it was important to establish stakes not only for the scene but for the story at large. Putting Xavier right up front allows me to show why he's a danger to Alice and set the general "spy = danger" stakes. But the scene also needs something at stake right now to raise the tension and make the reader care about what happens. Alice has to risk something personal here. We need to see her make a sacrifice.

Enter Brenda. Not only does Alice risk her original goal/mission, she can put herself between Brenda and the mean soldier, risking bodily harm. It also draws attention to her (which she was trying to avoid), both from the other soldiers and from Commander Xavier. Alice really shouldn't be there at all and her presence is suspicious. Having folks suspicious of you is really bad for a spy.

Now Alice has things to lose and reasons why she can't just walk away and come back later.

The changes are minor and used what I'd already done, but now it's a much stronger scene. Not only does it drive the plot better, it allows me to establish critical background and foreshadowing information in very natural ways that won't stand out as infodumps or backstory. It also puts a minor character into a stronger role, which means I won't have a lot of faceless names filling roles just because I needed a body there. That's great for the overall story, because Brenda's actions here will have ramifications later on. Layering the conflicts now gave me a bigger plot pool to draw from for future scene.

I won't lie, doing this to 50 or so scenes in a novel takes time, but I was thrilled with the results when I was done. The plot tied together better, every scene had real drive and a reason for readers to keep reading. The stakes escalated and the conflicts grew more and more conflicted because I kept layering them. Every scene had purpose and achieved multiple things.

This is helpful for first drafts and revisions, so don't forget to check the fundamentals. Weak scenes lead to weak stories, and specifics go a long way toward strengthening a scene and making sure your story stands on solid ground.

Do you check your scene fundamentals? Do you have any scenes right now that you think this trick will help?


  1. A thought-provoking post. You took the scene analysis concept much deeper than I've seen with other writing bloggers. My question is, does a writer run the risk of losing or obscuring the overall goal, conflict, and tension of the story by forcing goals, conflicts, and tensions into each scene? And that these scene-level ingredients might be at odds with what the writer wants to achieve with the complete story?

  2. I LOVE this breakdown and example! I sooo needed this right now.

    And thanks for the color coding idea. That will be my next step for whipping this manuscript into shape.

  3. Chris, absolutely. Forcing these pieces to fit a scene can indeed ruin a story. That's why I advocate digging deeper and bringing out what you already have vs adding new details just to fill in the blanks. Stuff for the sake of stuff is never a good idea. It has to matter and serve the story you're trying to tell.

    Story structure follows the goal-conflict-stakes format. Tension is the narrative drive that makes readers want to keep reading. You NEED those in every scene regardless of the scene. If you know what your protag wants overall, then it's easier to know what drives them in every scene. If their scene level goals are at odds with their story levels goals (and this isn't intentional to build internal conflict) then there's a problem. It will feel forced and not serve the story.

    There's also a problem if your protag has one goal that never changes, because it's the same thing over and over. You want to have all your smaller scene level goals be steps to achieving that larger story goal. It's not always about robbing a bank, but all the steps that are required in order to rob that bank. That's the ultimate goal, but it takes smaller goals to get there.

    Your core conflict/story goal is your compass. Everything in the book should be driving your protag to resolving that goal. Understanding how each scene does that will create a stronger story.

    Does that help clarify things?

    Amelia, thanks! Color coding works for all kinds of things because it forces you to change perspectives. Often all it takes is that little shift to see things in a new way.

  4. This is genius Janice! I'm totally stealing your list. I love the idea of checking scene by scene to see if you've accomplished your goals. Thanks.

  5. I'm so glad you do lists like this. I'm a color-coding and check list writer myself. I even like to print out my detailed outline or treatment and spread it all over the floor so I can see it. Helps me see the holes certainly!

    I don't check for everything on your list now – but I'm going to try it the next time around. :)

  6. Wow! I love this fantastic post. So useful, I'm bookmarking it. Thank you, Janice.

  7. "If their scene level goals are at odds with their story levels goals (and this isn't intentional to build internal conflict) then there's a problem. It will feel forced and not serve the story.

    There's also a problem if your protag has one goal that never changes, because it's the same thing over and over. You want to have all your smaller scene level goals be steps to achieving that larger story goal. It's not always about robbing a bank, but all the steps that are required in order to rob that bank. That's the ultimate goal, but it takes smaller goals to get there.

    Your core conflict/story goal is your compass. Everything in the book should be driving your protag to resolving that goal. Understanding how each scene does that will create a stronger story."

    I'm copy/pasting this and reading it everyday. Its so true.

    Its taken me four failed novels to finally understand this.

    Excellent post, and excellent answer, Janice, cheers.

  8. This couldn't come at a better time for me. I'm about to start on my second draft. I already know I have too much dialogue and too little action. This is a great list of items to watch for. Thank you!

  9. I never thought about breaking scenes down like this. This post explains why my novels seem to drag along; no goals and stakes. I don't normally like planning, but I'm starting to see the benefits.

  10. Um, yeah... I need to use a similar checklist. I never really have when I've done revisions. oops!

    Thanks so much for sharing this!

  11. Angela C, steal away :) And adapt as you see fit. You might have areas you want to keep track of that I don't.

    Kaitlin, I love lists. I have files of templates and lists :) They're so helpful.

    Kiru, most welcome!

    Sam, thanks! It took me a lot of failed novels myself to figure this stuff out. And even after three successful novels, I still find myself making dumb mistakes. Just goes to show that writing takes work and upkeep :) Always push yourself to improve.

    Janice, oh good! best of luck on those revision.

    Imogen, planning is very helpful, but if you're not an outliner, perhaps don't worry about it until you have a first draft. Write the way you like to write and get the story down, then get more plan-ish in revisions. Though I do find planning to be incredibly helpful and highly recommend it :)

    Trisha, it really worked well. You might not need or want everything on my list, but having a plan during revisions, and something you can refer to and check helps keep you focused. There's just so much to keep track of with an entire book.

  12. This is exactly the post I needed. Thank you as always. You are amazing! I am revising my book currently. The scene just wasn't coming together. I took a break and read a YA novel that used dreams well. Something else I am working on improving.

    I came back to the scene and still knew it was off. My scene had the book goals, but not current goals for the scene. My character doesn't have any choices. She is locked away, waiting for them to come for her, but she still needs to be active and make choices.

    THIS IS WHAT IS WRONG WITH THE SCENE! Thank you so much. I'm not sure the fix, but at least I have the why.

  13. Glacier, I'm so glad this helped you :) Good luck with that scene!

  14. I just came across this post now. Thanks for the specific example. It really helped me to understand the points you were making. I'm just planning my first novel now, and tips like this are very helpful.

  15. Most welcome! Good luck with that first novel :)

  16. Good article! But…

    I'm actually not a big fan of prescriptive writing. This piece state that every scene needs these things: Goal. Choice. Stakes. Conflict..

    Stories need this. Yes! And the more prevalence the better. But saying it needs to be in every scene ignores the fact that art and storytelling don't have rules and regulations. It's about feeling and emotions. I will also say that every scene doesn't even have to advance the story or plot. Have a goal or a conflict. Even tension or stakes.

    It just needs to have emotion.

    Perhaps a vague statement. But true.

    This checklist actually made me think of two films.....

    The first is Get Out. The second is Casablanca.

    I would probably say that all of their scenes have these four elements.

    But you know what.... Their flow and emotions feel ANYTHING BUT NATURAL. As if you have all these every damn time, one has nowhere to go. Or any new emotional rhythm to add. It just feels like you are checking the boxes......

    As I have said before some mess in storytelling is far more human and emotional than, well, prescription.

    1. I'm not either, and I agree that just checking boxes is a bad idea for storytelling, which is why I said to dig deeper into what you already have in a story and not just add random things to meet these elements. I'm also talking about plotting mechanics, not storytelling, which is slightly different.

      But every scenes *does* need those things. That's what makes a scene a scene. However, there's a difference between a technical scene from a plot-driving standpoint and "a chunk of story in a chapter where something happens" that we also call a scene. Those are different, and contain both the technical plot-driving scene and the sequel (which is the emotional reaction of a scene). For example, a chapter might be broken into several "scenes" even though from a plot standpoint, it's a mix of scenes and sequels with a character pursuing a goal, facing a conflict, and having to make a choice to move forward.

      Scenes should advance the plot or story or what's the point of it being there? But that also includes things like character building or mood, or thematic setting. That's part of the "story" aspect.

      Emotions are important to a story, but you can't plot with emotions. You need the scene-driving mechanics that allow you to produce situations that allows those emotions to flourish and be felt. And what many think of as an "emotional scene" is actually the sequel after the scene. It's a very commonly misunderstood part of writing.

      Now, how a writer chooses to implement those aspects is up to them, and there are limitless ways to do it. Goals might be soft, conflicts might be internal or external, choices could be simple or grand. But they're there, and when they're not, the scene typically suffers.

      Can writers get away with not having them? Sure. There's no right way to write. But more times than not, the scene would be stronger if they had those aspects in some way. And when a writer is struggling to make their novel work, this is a way that has been proven to be effective and successful.

      These elements also offer countless options. Characters have everywhere to go, because they have to make decisions based on things they want when faced with a situation or a problem. Some will be easy, others hard, and other impossible. Some will have no good choices and feel like there is no choice. But even then, there are choices--just not good ones. "Do this or die" has a choice, but no one is likely to choose "die." It's only limiting if you think these aspects have to be a particular thing all the time. But you can do anything you want with them.

      This also doesn't apply as much to literary writing, which is more about emotional explorations and the beauty of the language. Literary novels are often bashed for not having any plot, but it's a different style of writing. But I guarantee you, *something* is driving the story, and I'd bet good money it's the old GMC mechanic.

      Movies are also a different form, especially movies like Casablanca. Storytelling and filmmaking in general have drastically changed since it was made. And who knows? Its quite possible the reason you like, but don't love, Casablanca, is because it doesn't do this as well as it could have (grin).

      Taste also makes a huge difference. If you're more a literary/art type, then commercial fiction isn't your thing.

    2. Awwww…, thanks so much!

      I never heard of the sequel thing!

      100% accurate!


  17. That said… it is a good article! I just don’t think it always holds true though.But more often than not? Yes!

    PS. It also depends on your likes. My two film examples are admittedly incredibly revered. I don’t know why though (even if I do still like Casablanca, but don’t love it.) I personally more like smaller and lesser known art.