Friday, September 26, 2014

Your Scene Needs a Problem

By Ken Hughes, @TheKenHughes

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Conflict is a must in every scene, but problems come in a myriad of shapes and sizes. The tricky part is knowing what the right problem for your scene is. To help with that, Ken Hughes visits the lecture hall today to share some thoughts on adding problems to your scenes.

Ken Hughes is a Global Ebook Award-nominated urban fantasy novelist, creator of the Whisperers and the upcoming Spellkeeper Chronicles series, and the Power Plays and Unified Writing Theory blogs. He's also been a technical writer for missions to Mars, and a longtime mentor for local authors. Known for his love of unique magic systems and fast-paced suspense, his writing motto is “Whispered spells for breathless suspense.” (That and, "Never play fair.")

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Take it away Ken...

Writers just might be the opposite of our characters. The people we create live in terror of the moment the killer appears, but we just might worry more about the scenes that have to get by without him.

We figure we can’t do the major events of the story without writing quieter moments too. But setting up facts, or how someone lives, or helping the reader catch his breath… all too often they can wind up being the scenes that come out unfocused or disposable or not giving the story the support it needs. Worst of all, it can be downright boring writing a scene that lacks obvious conflict.

--And there’s the great myth: that the only balance for Big Conflict Scenes is moments that are conflict-free. Let’s put it this way: how many minutes of our lives don’t have at least a hint of a problem—or a tricky choice—tugging at our attention? Even “peaceful” moments aren’t completely peaceful for long, and that’s often what makes them interesting.

What a small scene needs is to cope with a small problem.

Speed bump – or speed by

So how do we find the right issue to amplify a scene, when there’s nothing much going on? My method is that you first:
  • Look at the next thing that character has to do, just by putting yourself in the moment—does that thing have even a small challenge to it? Anything with a choice or an uncertainty, any “why it could A vs why B,” might make it what you want to show.

But, always be sure the character (and you!) can get a little into why that tiny struggle matters at the moment. A reluctant farmer like Luke Skywalker goes from one chore and one push for a bit of excitement to the next, but you’d have to choose which works for the story. Arguing for a chance to meet his friends in town? deciding how much to wash his farm-grimed boots, when he doesn’t want to need them for too many more years?

And if that moment isn’t the right one, you could show the next instead, or the next. “Fast-Forward” might be the best friend a writer has.
  • Or, let him think ahead but keep him in the same setting. What’s the next thing he’s worried or eager about doing, and trying to take charge of? Young Luke is so much about this, he needs that moment tending the farm but looking out at the horizon.
  • Or, think back. Backstory has a better chance staying clear of infodumps if you stick closely to the problems he’s faced before, and what they mean to him. Even if the old troubles aren’t about to strike again.
  • Or, try other characters (aka, look sideways instead of forward and back). Ask the same questions: what do those people do now, soon, or in the past? Also, what does our hero think about them, or what does one of them say about the hero? (Old rule: any scene with an argument can work. “Luke’s just not a farmer, Owen. He’s got too much of his father in him.”)

Yes, the best small moments can be the ones that still push the plot forward, or hint at the story ahead, or at least how a character will deal with it. Then again, haggling with Jawas is just fun, and a useful picture into Luke’s days, and it would have been a nice scene even if it hadn’t been how he’d meet our favorite droids.

Writing the microcosm

Once you find what might be a good moment or two, the rest is the same writing process you might follow for any other scene… except for being more precise with that Fast-Forward option, since any one part of the scene might be too trivial to cover. But you are looking for:
  • Hints? balance?: Touching the bases you want could mean connecting one point in the scene to the larger story. Or it could mean rounding the tale out with background, facts, and contrasts that the main story won’t get into but would seem incomplete without.
  • Characterization: Even if a moment’s just to contrast with the rest, it’s still too good a chance to miss. So, show our hero facing the problem the way the reader needs to see him—cynical, methodical, impulsive, whatever—or at least be clear his “downtime self” is still part of the personality he uses when the stakes are higher.
  • “Why A / Why B”:Here’s how you turn those points into the skeleton of the scene. Say what could make things come out one way (obstacles, tools, decisions) and the other way, and maybe hint at his attitude about those. If you make those interesting for a moment, and then move right on to the next thing, it’s hard to go wrong.
  • Interaction: Remember those other characters, even if it’s just our hero thinking of them. They can help or hurt or have an opinion on any of these pieces, and they’re the classic way to show a side of things the one character skips over. 
  • And, how much of their reaction is less about today’s point than about the hero himself: loyal, skeptical, envious? How do they think of him?
  • Pacing analysis: If you want more attention for one point, go deeper into what its pieces are, and why one factor came out this way or the smaller substeps for dealing with it. If it matters less, summarize it: “So he drove off.”
  • Atmosphere and support: The bits of conflict can be what keep the scene fun, but you still decide how much else you can hang around those bones. If you want a rich, atmospheric description of a crazy cantina, you can say as much as you want… although catching Luke in a barfight (or just a debate over serving droids) does make it even easier to stretch out our time there.

One more thing: “conflict” and “problem” are the default words—and plots—for most writing, and they’re usually the strongest way to go. But what matters for this tool is that problem-solving is relative, and applies just as well to making opportunities work. An optimist who’s picked up a few lost dollars can be just as quick to move on from gratitude to “Do I treat myself to a coffee? Would a donut be even better, and why?”

For instance, which of your “minor” scenes would you want to turn this magnifying glass on first?

About Shadowed

He can hear a whisper a block away… and can't remember why.

Open your mind, to a city where mystery chases up and down office back stairways, turns brother against brother, and plays out on frozen sidewalks where lives may be shattered if the enemy even looks at the ragged man passing by in the crowd—and even that man cannot guess what memory will be next to batter his mind.

Paul was no detective, no thief, only a student trying to get some distance from his father and brother. When he found himself marked by the power to enhance his senses, he had only that treacherous gift and what few tricks he dared to teach himself, to search for some explanation—or at least the chance to give it meaning by exposing a few petty corruptions.

Paul thought if he lived in poverty to keep his existence secret from the world, at least nobody could force him to use that gift as a weapon against others. But just when he thought he was untouchable, the last thing he expected shakes his world and drags him into the perils of his family, his power, and two women who each have a different claim on his life.

As Paul begins to play cat and mouse with enemies he can't even name, he must break every rule that's kept him alive, in every frantic chase and every gamble he makes to break his family free. And all the while, he knows his greatest enemy may still be what lies behind his own secrets.

If you think you know everything a paranormal thriller can do, take a closer look.

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  1. Thanks, Ken, for such a thoughtful post. The 'little things' are so important, becoming those nearly invisible stitches that make a story durable and long-lasting in the mind.

  2. Thanks for this post. WIll share with students and use it as I plot forward.

  3. Thanks for sharing this valuable advice.
    S.J. Francis

  4. I love it when small moments become big moments within a story. Thanks for the advice!