I’m always tempted, before throwing a book at a wall, to figure out what went wrong. Often it’s boredom from tepid scenes. Yet some low-action scenes are fascinating. What’s the disconnect here?
It has to do with tension and desire, and how to get them on the page more effectively.
If we’ve conceived our plot carefully, we have a driven protagonist who’ll engage the story problem in escalating and surprising ways. But let’s look at what the character wants right now.
The Emotional Goal
We’ve heard before about characters having a clear goal in every scene. That’s good advice, but still, I’m skimming. Why? Often it’s because the goal (character’s desire) lacks emotion; it also fails to generate suspense about what will happen.
The strategy we need is:
to give the character at this moment an emotionally-tinged micro goal (one the reader understands and that can be accomplished right now)
to establish conflict in the scene so that the goal is in doubt
Why bother so much with the micro level? Surely your readers care about the overall problem? Well, I hope they do, but if you’re not offering tension-laced scenes, your readers will wander off. I’m not talking about over-wrought, hand-wringing angst. It can be subtle.
Drama in Small Scenes
Suppose we’ve got an early scene before your female protagonist takes up the gauntlet of solving the story problem. The scene is between her and her sister and they are getting dressed for an important visitor. A yawner, right? But it’s early in the story and you want to introduce your major characters and the important visit is going to set things in motion. Now let’s give the scene extra punch. How about some inner conflict? Suppose that here is where your protagonist realizes for the first time that she’s jealous of her sibling. Let us suppose that this jealousy casts doubt upon her readiness to pick up the gauntlet of the story problem. Great. Character development is in motion. Now let’s find the scene goal.
Scene Goal and Turning Point
Suppose her scene goal is to maintain her (unexamined) need to be superior to her sister. She marches in full of defenses and a bit of pride. By the scene’s end we see that far from believing herself superior, the protagonist now realizes she is envious of her sister. This is what Robert McKee (in Story) calls a turning point. In this example, it is a glimpse of her inner conflict. If in the opening scene she appeared confidant about what she wanted (the thing that made her feel superior)–her driving desire is now revealed as more complicated. In this scene you have given the character a micro-goal and inflicted a reversal.
Small Tensions Add Up
I have given a subtle example to show that “conflict in every scene” does not have to mean endless disagreement and external antagonism. A character’s scene goal (and its success or failure) may be small, but if weighted with emotion and a doubt of the outcome, it can throw a big shadow on the wall.
Small things make up the big picture. Small things are captured in scenes.
* With thanks to insights from McKee’s Story and Donald Maass’s The Fire in Fiction.