Sometimes I get stuck wondering how to write a scene during a first draft. Or maybe I can’t figure out how to revise a story to make it better. Sometimes I wonder if I am ever going to make any progress in my fiction and life. (Please tell me I’m not alone!)
I’ve been revising this summer, and it’s taking longer than I’d like. I keep returning to the basics of good storytelling to evaluate my scenes, and yesterday, it occurred to me that there are three questions I can ask to clarify almost any scene. Coincidentally, they are the same three questions I usually ask myself to tackle almost any life problem.
3 Essential Questions for How to Write a Scene
Do you have goals? Me too. What keeps me from accomplishing them as quickly as I would like? A variety of things, not the least of which are doubt, fear, and time. But if I want to accomplish those goals, I need to act on them to get what I want.
This is not new or astonishing, but have you ever thought about how this is part of the same progression that makes scenes work in fiction? Here are the three questions you can ask and answer to improve a scene (or a life!).
1. What does the character want in this scene? In the story?
Sometimes I write an action-packed scene, full of decisions and tension, but ultimately it flops. Why? My character is just running around without a purpose that matters to the reader.
Kurt Vonnegut famously said,
The character’s want or goal needs to be clear. It is especially effective (and some might argue essential) when the the scene goal is a reflection or a segment of the larger story goal.
For example, in a quest tale, the hero (or heroine) wants to defeat the dragon and/or find the grail, usually to save society. This is the external goal. The internal goal, often unstated, is to prove his or her worth.
If the larger story goal is to find the grail, then the individual scene goals need to be stepping stones to that global goal. In successive scenes, he might want to find a way through the forest, want to defeat an ogre, and want to live through a final showdown with the guardian dragon.
I know this example is painfully obvious, but as I evaluated my own scenes this week, I realized I had a few that needed to be cut because they didn't contribute to the overall goal. My characters were having a great time, but the scene wasn't accomplishing anything in terms of the larger story.
To clarify a scene that isn’t working within a story, I can ask what the character wants in this moment and how it relates to what they ultimately want.
Also, beware of fuzzy goals. If the main character’s goal is “to be happy,” I know we need to do some work. What makes this character happy? Get specific. Clarifying what the character wants will help you evaluate how well the scene is working.
2. What will get in the character’s way?
How do we create strong conflict? Go back to the goal. The conflict needed will vary greatly depending on the goal. If the character wants to be popular and admired more than anything, a low-level conflict on her journey might be a hurtful rumor that devalues her in others’ eyes.
In a mob thriller? That problem probably works to the main character’s advantage.
It might be helpful to create a timeline with the goal at the end. Place the obstacles the character faces on the timeline. Does each conflict raise the stakes and challenge the character in increasing degrees? If not, look for ways to cause your character more trouble related directly to their goal.
Conflict can come from all sorts of places. Externally, it can come from an antagonist, nature, society, circumstances, illness, or misinformation.
Internally, conflict is more than just the cartoon image of the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. Yes, internal conflict can be a difficult choice, but it can also stem from faulty beliefs about self or the world, habits, and emotions such as fear, doubt, and anger.
Make sure your timeline includes both internal and external forces directly related to the character’s goal. Create conflict that exposes the emotional and physical journey of your characters.
3. How will the character act to overcome conflict and get what he or she wants?
Here’s where the magic of character is made: in a character’s reaction to conflict. Have you ever heard Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote about women? “A woman [or character] is like is like a tea bag—you can't tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.” As soon as our character experiences the “hot water” of an obstacle, her response reveals her character.
The strongest actions cost the character something, whether it is an external expense such as money or public opinion or an internal expense such as a belief. It’s even better if the action has immediate repercussions and cannot be reversed.
I am as guilty as the next writer of an occasional coincidence or allowing a secondary character to solve the main character’s problem for him. We have to revise those saviors out. Why? They weaken the character. Yes, the decision the character makes or the action he takes might be a disaster, but he has to own that disaster as a part of his overall arc.
It is in the character’s personal, individual response to conflict that readers see who the character is beneath the veneer he carefully crafts in his world. We need strong action to propel the story and character forward.
True for scenes and for life
These three questions can keep you moving forward on your writing and your life. Knowing what you and your characters want can help you identify the obstacles, so you can take action.
Small tip: in fiction, have the character act in bold ways to accomplish his goals.
In real life? Small, consistent steps forward often yield the best results.
Do you have any tips for how to write a scene? Let us know in the comments.
Choose a favorite scene from your own work in progress or from your favorite book or tv show. Take fifteen minutes to identify the want, conflict, and action in the scene. When you're done, share your findings in the comments, and be sure to leave feedback on your fellow writers' work!
Sue Weems is a writer, teacher, and traveler with an advanced degree in (mostly fictional) revenge. When she’s not rationalizing her love for parentheses (and dramatic asides), she follows a sailor around the globe with their four children, two dogs, and an impossibly tall stack of books to read. You can read more of her writing tips on her website.