Thursday, November 01, 2007

Scene Play

Scene planning is one of my favorite parts of writing fiction. Characters are the heart of your story, and scenes make the heart beat.

I don't do any kind of detailed plotting ahead of time, but I know who my characters are and I have a general sense of the story, at least enough of it to write a short blurb like what you might see on a book jacket. So my scenes come to me one at a time, as they happen, though I do plan them thoroughly in my head before touching my keyboard.

We all know the basic structure of a scene: goal, conflict, disaster. To make the scene work, we set the character up to fail, or if she doesn't fail, some new complication is introduced to make her life more miserable than it already is. Donald Maas instructs us to come up worst case scenarios, but what if you were to come up with the best case scenario first? Let me explain:

I'm a big fan of the double ending, the first one coming just before the black moment. You give the character everything she wants, then slap her hands and send the hearts and flowers flying every which way but in her favor. Now think about doing this for each one of your scenes, only don't write it down. It's just for brain storming purposes. Come up with the best that can happen, think it all the way through, then take it away. You may find, as I do, that the emotional charge you get from stomping on your character's hopes and dreams is more intense than "what-iffing" how she might feel when disaster strikes. This method makes the disaster more real. If you already do this, great. I think it works extremely well.

Here's a for-instance for a scene I'm about to write in my WIP that I've only thought through via the planning method described above. My main character, Chalice, met this great guy a couple of chapters ago. He's a thief like her, and he's also bonded to a gargoyle just like she is. Talk about having something in common. Anyway, she just learned he was a Turkish warrior in the Crusades, which makes him almost a thousand years old. She's okay with that, but not with the fact he'd bargained with a demon for his immortality, plus he's a member of the magical society that has enslaved her. And the bargain he'd made marks him as a coward. The scene that just ended had him helping her survive an event that almost killed her, and now I'm in the sequel where the two of them are alone for the first time after Chalice learned about his deal with the devil. It will segue into a scene where her goal is to learn the truth from him, which she hopes will redeem him of his cowardice.

The best that can happen is that he'll tell her what she'd been told was all a lie, that he's not a member of the Vyantara (the magical society) and his immortality actually made him a hero. At last there's someone on her side, someone she can trust and believe in after years of pain and torture, corruption, hubris, trickery and cruelty. He's the one who will help free her of her bond to the vicious gargoyle she depends on to keep herself human. He's the one who will bring her the compassion and joy she'd known while growing up in the monastery. She finally has the bliss she deserves.

But as I set out to write the scene, I take away her success at reaching her goal. She learns that what she's heard is true, and her hopes are dashed again. And even more troubling news of his duplicitous nature comes to the fore, and he expects her to be okay with it? The devastation is more real now that I know, and experienced for myself, what she could have had.

This method is a twist on the traditional, and some of you may already use it, but if you haven't, give it a try. And if you have another technique, please share. Do you apply the traditional GCD (goal, conflict, disaster) to your scenes, and if not, what do you do instead?


Alice Sharpe said...

That's the rub, Karen, I don't know what I do or how I do it. I don't plan it out. I have a vague idea of the scene and then I write it. If it falls short, I rewrite it. If I go downstairs to feed the dog and realize how I could have made it better, I come back and write it again. Or I go back the next day/week/month and rewrite it as to what new thoughts suggest alternate scenes. And sometimes, I don't rewrite a word. I just try to make sure every scene advances the plot and sets up the next scene like string pearls, but again, no big plotting in my head. Well, some plotting. Not specific like yours, though. (and btw, in my next life remind me not to be one of your characters, poor dears...)

All that said, I'm beginning to think in terms of understanding what I am doing better so I can control it better so I was very interested in reading how you do it. I may do that already to some degree but if I do, I don't do it consciously. I just don't know. I need to sit down and think this through but I'm too busy writing right this minute to do it properly. So maybe I'll come back to this later if I get the time and try to pin down how I go about it. Seems like something I should know, right?

Lisa, you're quite a plotter, do you use a method like this?

I like what you've said. I'm thinking...

Paty Jager said...

In a way I work like you do, Karen, and Alice. I'm not a plotter. I get a story started in my head and develop the characters in there. When the first scene of the book is ready, I spit it out on the page and as I go through the writing and the brewing (thinking about my story all the time) I slowly string scenes together, like Alice, in my head and write them down. As I do this brewing I will sometimes have things happen the "happy" way and then when I write it, I dash the happy dreams. But I don't do it for every scene. And not every scene brews in my head. I think it is mostly the turning points that really stick and brew and then come out on the page.

Interesting blog, Karen, and what twisted characters you have in your head! Yipes!

Karen Duvall said...

Alice, that's cool that you write without any thought to structure. I wrote like that when I first started writing, but my stuff was total crap! Ugh. Characters had no discernable goals, things happened, people talked, drove cars, drank coffee, had dinner in restaurants... a real snooze fest. Learning about structure is how I was able to get my writing on track.

When I judge writing contests, scene structure appears to be the weakest area. Stuff gets written into the story that sounds pretty or exciting or sexy or whatever, but links to absolutely nothing and in no way progresses the plot. Not everyone has a natural instinct for writing a compelling scene that actually fits the story being told.

Karen Duvall said...

LOL, Paty, on the twisted characters. My mind was in a seedy motel in McCook, Nebraska, all day yesterday. I gotta get my people out of that place today. Ick. I just didn't get a chance to write them out of it yesterday.

I find that if I sit down and write without my brain cogitating what's about to happen first, I meander. Or I do what Alice does and have to go back to fix what ended up not working. I hate that! It takes the fun out of writing for me. I always polish, add to, and rewrite parts of what I've written, but to totally redo something I spent two to three thousand or more words on makes me queazy. I'm just weird that way.

Alice Sharpe said...

Don't get me wrong Karen, I don't redo two or three thousand words ever. Okay, maybe once. I don't go off on tangents. I know what I'm going to do, what I am trying to say is that I don't consciously know how I do it, I don't plot this turning point and this black moment and maybe I'm doing it all wrong. I just seem to get it more or less right, at least for me, though I would like to make it MORE right. LOL I may make a bad turn once and awhile, but thanks to the synopsis and years of doing this, the wrong turns don't usually end up with me out in the middle of nowhere, stuck in a ditch with flat tires and out of gas. Just a mile or two down the wrong road. But sometimes those little turns take me further than I ever thought they could, so there you go.

Danita Cahill said...

It cracks me up that Alice never admits to knowing what she's doing or how she does it. If only I had her problem -- and her number of books pubbed under my belt!

I think over a scene some then just start writing. I do wind up rewriting, but if I plan a scene too much I get bored with it before it's written. Maybe I'll get over that someday.

I do goal, motivation, conflict. Sometimes there's disaster, but often it's just a wrench thrown into the character's life, making them turn a way they hadn't intended.

Good blog, Karen.

Anonymous said...

Interesting Karen and I loved reading about your characters.

I have zero idea what I do to write a scene. Maybe someday, when I grow up and figure it out I'll let you know. LOL

In the meantime, it's great to see how others do it. :)

Great post!

Genene said...

Very interesting, Karen!

I still have to push myself to crank up the conflict. I'd prefer to go right to happily ever after. Though that wouldn't make a very intereting book. I'll have to try this method.