Amid all that we’re trying to do as novelists, sometimes we lose sight of one thing that at first glance seems obvious:
The crucial relationship of scenes to plot. When writing a scene, make sure it has a specific link to the plot, and furthermore, that it furthers the plot. The set up, pursuit and resolution of a conflict-ridden story problem defines in general the main purpose of story and the purpose of scenes.
Does this sound obvious? I wish it were. But in the quest for characterization and a profound theme, we often water down our story with snap shot scenes. Beautiful and insightful writing maybe, but a dead weight to the story. Every time we divert an entire scene to a supporting task, we are asking for our readers’ indulgence. Too much of this, and the reader stops reading.
Plots depend upon scenes to deliver vector forces. So give scenes a role in furthering the story problem.
I’m not just talking about highly commercial stories here. All stories need a central conflict which is the spine of the plot. We deliver this conflict, inevitably, in scenes that take us on a journey into that conflict.
You’ve heard the term episodic plot. It means that the character is reacting in scenes only to the things that are in that scene. The scenes are not connected except by a character. For most stories, this leads to a sense of dog-paddling in place, even when a lot may be happening. Nothing changes about the story problem.
This is why I hate to hear people say that the essence of story is to drive the main character up a tree and throw rocks at him. This expresses conflict. But what’s missing is shape. By shape I mean story sequences built to convey the journey of the characters on their way to story problem resolution.
In order to move forward on the journey, each scene must be there for a larger purpose than to:
paint a portrait of a character
show a thinking process
supply conflict the import of which is contained in the scene (no plot significance)
create humor, introduce characters, deepen world-building
There’s nothing wrong with doing these things. In fact we must do them: explain, paint character, show conflict, have a little (or a lot of) humor, world-build, etc. It’s just that we have to do them in passing. As we deliver a scene with a purpose to advance us on the journey.
If this seems formulaic, consider that people will be paying to read your story, and they are accustomed to a story with stakes and forward movement. Even a good literary book delivers this.
The character-driven story.
It is a false dichotomy to pit plot-driven stories against character-driven ones. Let’s just get rid of this non-starter right off the bat.
Plots are character in action. Characters are deepened, made real to us, by how they engage with the story problem in all its aspects, large and small. Plot and character are mirror images of each other, a feedback loop that empowers both aspects endlessly (or until you write “the end.”)
For more on the relation between character and plot, check out my post on Knitting plot and desire.
The subtle danger for those of us who love characterization in novels, is that we rush into scenes waiting to meet our character again. Once there, we embrace them, and before you know it, we are out on the street dazed and wondering what just happened in that tight embrace.
The answer may be: nothing.
The reason we write these plot-static scenes is that characters often come automatically alive (at least to the writer) but plots are built with sweat, cunning, and expertise. It is often easier to spend time in a character’s inner world than to execute the plot.
I’m not saying characterization is easier than plot, just that it is easier to pretend to be doing it than to pretend to be doing plot. You can always spend time with your character sipping whiskey and ruminating. But it is much harder to fake plot.
Plot is hard. Its requirements are relentless, alternately demanding clarity and subtlety. Nevertheless, it is the main mission of your story. Let each scene have a goal to further the story problem (as well as character, theme, setting.)
Sometimes the forward movement in the scene will be slight. This is all a balancing act of pacing, you understand. But think twice before delivering a scene that brings the character no closer to story resolution.
Some scenes are killers, and not in a good way.