Fiction Workbench

Blog of the Fiction Fix-It Shop

Of Disasters and Scenes

Posted by Meredith in Writing Advice (September 1, 2010 at 9:08 am)

I’m going to be helping out my good friend and fellow author and writing teacher, Randy Ingermanson, over the coming weeks. He has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to faithful blog readers asking him excellent writing questions over at Advanced Fiction Writing. Because I’m his long-time editing assistant, he has asked me to help him stay on top of these questions and get them answered quickly for his fabulous readers. Since I LOVE answering writing questions, I’m thrilled to be able to help out.

Today’s question is from Will. He’s been looking at Randy’s article summarizing the classic writing teacher Dwight Swain’s concept of scenes and sequels, and how to structure them. It’s a great article that I often recommend to my editing clients called “Writing the Perfect Scene.” If you haven’t read it yet, you might want to check it out before you try to follow my discussion with Will.

Will asks:

I was reading your page on Dwight Swain’s Scenes and Sequels, and I don’t think I agree that every Scene must end in disaster. I can envision a Scene where the protagonist succeeds, but the reader still wants to continue reading.

For example, let’s say the protagonist’s house was broken into and some precious item was stolen. The protagonist may have a Scene where he attempts to figure out how his house was broken into. He can succeed in figuring it out, but then perhaps in doing so realizes that it was a family member who broke into his house. So he’s succeeded in his scene, there’s no disaster, but the reader still wants to continue reading to figure out which family member was the culprit and why.

Another quick example is if the protagonist must achieve 5 goals in order to succeed in the book. Just because he’s accomplished goal 1 of 5 in a Scene doesn’t mean the reader will stop reading, because there’s still 4 left to go.

So I agree that every Scene must end with some reason to compel the reader to continue reading, but that doesn’t have to be a disaster, or a failure of the protagonist reaching a goal. What are your thoughts? Do you still think every Scene must end in disaster?

Meredith says:

I think it’s important to understand what is meant by “disaster” in this context. Some people might term it a “hook” at the end of the scene or the climax of the scene. It’s the point to which the entire scene is headed. Too many scenes look like a prairie–flat and nothing to break up the sameness of it (I should know, I live on one). We want scenes to be more like driving in the mountains–twisting, turning, going up-up-up until suddenly this vista opens in front of us (or we end up teetering half over a cliff). That is what is meant by “disaster” in the context of a scene in fiction.

So in Will’s example of the break-in at the protagonist’s house, I would argue that he has instinctively created a “disaster”: the protagonist discovers that a member of her own family broke into the house. That realization is the climactic moment of the scene and it certainly is a hook, and it is–in its own personal way–a definite disaster for the protagonist’s relationship with her family.

Disasters can also be something GOOD that happens, but it must pose a greater challenge or risk to the character. For example, getting a call from your agent that he just sold your first novel is a GREAT thing–but it opens up a whole new world of uncertainties and difficulties as well. So from that aspect, it could be called a “disaster”–if we make sure to bring out those new challenges in the scene.

As far as goals go, every scene needs a Scene Goal. What is it that the POV character is trying to achieve, do, figure out, resolve, discover, avoid, etc.? When we talk about “disasters” on a scene level and not reaching a goal, we’re usually referring to the Scene Goal, not an overall Story Goal (though eventually those overlap in the course of the story).

Having your character achieve her Scene Goal in the scene is not so interesting…unless there are consequences to her success. To go back to Will’s excellent example of the break-in at Protag’s house, if Protag’s Scene Goal is “to find out who broke into my house” and then she DOES discover it–that it was a family member–she may have achieved the Scene Goal, but at the cost of her trust in her family, which is now shattered. There needs to be a cost to success to have success be interesting.

What this is all ultimately about is TENSION. When the level of tension increases in a story, the reader’s interest is more engaged. When the tension decreases, so does the reader’s interest level. We describe it in different ways and use different analogies, but basically you just need to remember to keep ratcheting up the tension if you want readers to keep flipping pages.

So yes, to answer your question, Will, every scene DOES need a “disaster” or whatever you want to call it, because it’s the tension of it that keeps the reader hooked on the story.

Thanks for letting me answer your question!

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