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Jim Butchers Writing Tips
new file: chapter8.txt
almost 6 years ago
> These files will be included in your book:
Scenes are important. Scenes are where all the plot in your book happens. Any time your character is actively pursuing his goal (as opposed to a character who is pausing to reflect or react emotionally to the events of the story) he is engaged in a SCENE.
The basic structure of a scene is simple. Your POINT OF VIEW character sets out in pursuit of a SPECIFIC GOAL. Someone else (usually, but not always, the antagonist) actively, knowingly tries to stop him. There is a CONFLICT. The reader is left to wonder whether or not the POV character will succeed (which can also be thought of as the SCENE QUESTION). The result of the conflict is *always* a SETBACK of one kind or another (also thought of as the SCENE ANSWER)--at least, until you get to the end of the book.
Let me break that into a simple format. This is the one I use every time I write a scene. I fill it out, like a freaking class worksheet (which at one time it was):
POINT OF VIEW CHARACTER:
CONFLICT (SCENE QUESTION):
SETBACK (SCENE ANSWER):
We'll look at each of them, one at a time.
## POINT OF VIEW CHARACTER
Sometimes, this is easy--for instance, when you're writing a first-person viewpoint novel, like the Dresden Files. The point of view character is always the same person.
Other times, though, you've got more lattitude (IE, a better chance to screw up). You've got multiple point of view characters in your book, and often more than one of them is participating in the scene. (Romance writers, especially, run into this issue a lot.) If you pick the wrong viewpoint character, you'll cheat yourself out of making your scene as interesting and appealing as it could be. Picking the optimal viewpoint character is VITAL.
Fortunately, there's a simple rule of thumb for people getting started. ALWAYS pick the person with the MOST AT STAKE, emotionally, in the scene. If you do that, you help build in additional tension, you get to show more emotion (aka, create greater empathy in the reader), and you help ensure that the conflict is real, that it matters.
You can break this rule--just like you can break all of these rules--once you know what you're doing. But until you are CERTAIN that you understand why this works, how it works, and what you can accomplish by NOT following the rule . . . don't. Please, until you've worked enough to get it yourself, just take my word for it that this rule of thumb is frickin' critical, and you will do well by yourself to stick with it.
Once you've got your point of view character, the next thing you need is a GOAL for them to pursue. This needs to be an ACTIVE, SPECIFIC goal, not just something vague. Instead of your character setting out to "do something to save the day" he needs to have a goal more like, "go pound Joe Blow for information that might let me save the day." Instead of "make the girl like me" his goal needs to be something more like "take the girl out for a wonderful night on the town with lots of attention to detail and customized surprises for her."
(That's the great part about writing action scenes. You get really clear, simple goals like "Get out of the room alive.")
Your goal doesn't always have to be life-shatteringly important. It can be as simple as "I want breakfast." The most important thing about it is that it must be clear, apparently attainable, specific, and important to your viewpoint character.
Ah, conflict. The heart of every story. If you screw up absolutely everything else about a scene but GET THE CONFLICT RIGHT, you're gonna be way closer to getting published than most people ever manage.
Conflict is what happens when someone, for some reason, up and decides that your character needs to fail in his goal, or else is pursuing a goal which, if met, will prevent your viewpoint character from reaching his goal.
CONFLICT IS ALL ABOUT CHARACTERS. IT HAPPENS BETWEEN CHARACTERS. Conflict is NOT "there's a forest fire!" or "it's really cold outside!" Those things can be used as dramatic elements, don't get me wrong--but they aren't CONFLICT. They are referred to as "adversity" and they are inherently second-class citizens when it comes to establishing interesting scenes.
(Most often, they serve best as a supporting role. It's one thing to be in a knife fight with your most hated enemy. It's quite another to be in a knife fight with your most hated enemy in the middle of a forest fire.)
CONFLICT, ideally, is two characters going head-to-head (on whatever level is appropriate--social knife-fighting can make reading every bit as interesting as literal knife-fighting), while both of them try to achieve conflicting goals.
All this really means is that you need an antagonist with the same specific, attainable goal, the same kinds of emotional stakes, as your protagonist. Once you've got the right kind of set up, the scene almost writes itself.
(Notice that I say "antagonist" and not "villain." It doesn't have to be a villain. It can be a concerned friend, trying to talk your character out of doing something. It can be a misguided heroic-type, who just happens to be acting against your protagonist, like Murphy was in the first couple of Dresden books. It can be an admirable and even likeable foe, like Marshal Sam Gerard in The Fugitive. The choices are vast. The important thing, though, is that he's working against your viewpoint character.)
And, done right, the conflict poses an implied SCENE QUESTION. Will your character succeed? Or even better, WHICH character is going to succeed?
The SETBACK is the result of the CONFLICT. Your character set out to accomplish a certain goal--AND HE DOESN'T GET IT.
Eh, you say? What what?
He doesn't get it. Come on, if it was that simple--Goal, attained! Goal, attained!--it really wouldn't be a terribly interesting story. Think . . . oh, the early Superman cartoons. A dozen problems would start happening--bad guys, natural disasters, what have you. Then Supes would show up and, one by one, smash/burn/freeze/throw/beat up the problems, mostly with very little apparent effort.
THAT GETS BORING FAST.
(In fact, I often don't even like to use the word "setback" to describe the results of the scene. I like referring to it as the DISASTER. But I'm melodramatic, that way.)
In any case, the character doesn't attain his full goal, his total completion, until the END OF THE STORY. If he gets it early on, hey, why keep reading? The best stories keep the reader on edge (IE, not entirely satisfied) until the story's climax, at which point all questions are resolved, all goals met, and we can all go have a cigarette or something.
There are a number of ways you can end a scene--or phrased another way, there are a number of ANSWERS to the SCENE QUESTION. Let's go over them, beginning with the least desirable, from the standpoint of a writer trying to keep a reader glued to the story:
__ANSWER 1: YES.__ Already told you, this one is a no-no. It's the simplest, leaves you with the least drama and the fewest options. It's predictable, almost inherently comes with less conflict, and gives you the worst odds of keeping a reader's attention.
("Trapped in the pit of starving, diseased wolverines, our hero struggles to get free! He leaps to safety unscathed, and continues his journey!" See what I mean? Bor-ing.)
__ANSWER 2: YES . . . BUT.__ This one is a lot better. In this scenario, your hero accomplishes his scene goal all right--but there's a complication of some kind, and one that might have consequences down the line. Generally, the more dire and/or disastrous the potential consequence, the better.
("Trapped in the pit of starving, diseased wolverines, our hero struggles to get free! He leaps up to climb to safety, the wolverines raging and foaming beneath him--but just as he reaches the edge of the pit, and freedom, he is savagely bitten on the leg! He is free! But it is only a matter of time before Mad Wolverine Syndrome reduces him to a snarling, foaming monster!" See there? Way more interesting than getting away without a mark to show for it.)
__ANSWER 3: NO!__ Another solid scene resolution, from the writing standpoint. The hero sets out to attain his goal, but is flatly denied. Maybe he gets shut down by the antagonist. Maybe he makes a mistake and blows it completely. Either way, he gives it his best shot and is slapped down. Now he'll have to back off, re-evaluate the situation, and try something else. Use this scene answer with some caution, because it can have the effect of bringing your story to a halt. Too many of them can become frustrating for the reader, and can make your character look foolish and/or impotent, thus reducing reader empathy and the tension of your overall story.
("Trapped in the pit of starving, diseased wolverines, our hero struggles to get free! He leaps up to climb to safety, but the crumbling edge of the pit gives way, dropping him back down among the foaming monsters! He reaches for his communicator and shouts, "Red! I may have a problem here!" See? This can be a good way of getting other characters involved, dropping in some more character interaction, what have you--but you're still stuck in the pit of wolverines. Unless you are writing "Wolverine Pits of Madison County" or something, you don't want to stay stuck in the wolverine pit forever, so use your NO answers carefully.)
__ANSWER 4: NO! AND FURTHERMORE!__ My personal favorite scene answer. Not only does your hero NOT attain his goal, but he manages to make matters even WORSE along the way. It's best if the worsening of the situation is your protagonist's fault, because that's just FUN, but it doesn't necessarily have to be.
THIS answer is really the one that gives you the most interesting scenes, provides the meat for the most interesting and endearing sequels, and is generally the Big Gun you pull out when your plot is slowing down. Warning: it does force you, as the writer, to get a little creative, because it multiplies the problems your hero has to solve. But hey. If you weren't at least a little creative, you wouldn't be here.
("Trapped in the pit of starving, diseased wolverines, our hero struggles to get free! He leaps up to climb to safety, seizing onto the trailing end of a vine! But the vine gives way, sending our hero sprawling back down among the slavering beasts! He stares at them in horror, and only THEN realizes that the "vine" he seized was no such thing! He is now holding the tail of a thirty-foot long Peruvian Acid Cobra--and the incredibly deadly serpent is NOT happy to have been suddenly seized in the middle of its siesta. It opens its deadly jaws and lunges for our hero's throat!" Mmmmm. Now that's good fallout.)
Granted, these examples are pulp fictiony, but they're meant to serve as broad illustrations. In one way or another, every scene in every story where a character is pursuing a goal will fall into one of those four outcomes.
And you've done it! You've written a good scene!
Simple, right? It is. But it isn't EASY. Try it out, and PRACTICE it. Shockingly, you get better with practice. These days, I don't even really consciously think in terms of goal/conflict/setback. Those things are a part of my thinking process, and they've become transparent to me, now. I just think about the scene, forming it with a solid skeleton from the get-go, and it allows me to focus more active effort on other aspects of the writing--pace, character, mood, setting, description. Occasionally, I'll even have time to spare for making the language pretty. But if I didn't have that solid skeleton there, that other stuff wouldn't much matter. You've GOT to have the craft elements solid before you can start adding in artistry.
POINT OF VIEW
And that's all there is to writing a really good scene.
Of course, books aren't 100 percent full of scenes. Characters have to stop to bind up their diseased wounds, be diagnosed with Mad Wolverine Syndrome, to worry about their impending doom and steal kisses from sympathetic nurse-heroines. Where's the conflict in that? How does that fit into your scene paradigm, Jim?
It doesn't, of course.
That's a sequel. We'll talk about those next.
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