Whenever I'm stuck on a scene, I return to the basics. I look at the goals, conflict, stakes, and if that doesn't fix the problem, I look at the structure itself. Classic scene structure ends in two ways: the protagonist gets her goal, or she doesn’t get her goal. The answer is yes or no.
There are more subtle variations of this (with entire books to explore it), and a multitude of options to illustrate the outcomes, but it really does come down to that simple question: Does the protagonist get the goal? Yes or no?
If you’re stuck on a scene, or it doesn’t feel as strong as it should be, consider changing that answer—yes to no, or no to yes—and see what happens.
(Here’s more on basic scene structure)
Recently, I was looking at the outline for my current WIP. I’d finished it and had let it sit for a week (standard procedure for me), and it was time to go back with fresh eyes and see what I’d missed.
For this project, the first act didn’t have nearly enough conflict. Things weren’t tough enough on my protagonist, and she was being far too reactive and not moving the plot. Once she got to the first plot point it was fine, but she needed more to do before she got there.
I looked over my outline and considered what to do.
An early scene had her wanting to get to school (her goal), and the conflict came from various things preventing her from going. By the end of the scene, she’d worked something out that allowed her to go to school as planned, even though there were complications to that plan. It was a “yes, but” scene ender. Yes, she got her goal (to go to school), but she had to pay a price for it.
Since this was her only real goal in those early chapters, it was clearly causing the conflict problem. What could I do to fix that scene? Finally, I imagined what would happen if she didn’t get to go to school? What would she do to obtain that goal? The answer opened up a wonderfully conflicted series of events that added the necessary tension to the first act, and made my protagonist an active, plot-driving character.
So I told her no. “No, Ava, you can’t go to school to do that important thing that means so much to you. You have to stay home and miss out.”
She rolled up her sleeves and went to work getting what she wanted, which got me what I wanted. A much better first act and opening for my novel.
An Easy Way to Un-Stick a Scene
This is a simple trick anyone can use in any scene. It just takes a few minutes to imagine how things might go with a different outcome. Granted, revising it might take more work, but if it turns out to be a better scene, the extra work is worth it.
Look at what happens in a scene and ask:
What would happen if the scene resolution is “no” instead of “yes?” (and vice versa)Odds are you can still have the character do what needs to be done, only now, they have to fight for it and overcome something.
Not every scene will be made better by an opposite outcome, but it’s in our nature as writers to “help” our characters get what they want. The plot is supposed to go that way, so we don’t always push them in the opposite direction, even if that’s exactly the best thing for the story.
(Here's more on how the bad guys fighting harder can make better scenes)
For fun (or if you’re stuck), try looking at your scenes and see if there are any that would benefit from the opposite outcome. What yeses would be better as nos? What nos would make great yeses?
One note of caution, though: If changing the scene to a yes/no makes it easier on your protagonist, odds are that's not going to help the scene. So be careful of using this tactic as a get-out-of-scenes-free card.
Did you find any scenes you could flip in your current WIP? Which way did you go?
Looking for tips on revising or planning your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl, and Writers in the Storm.
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