Michille: New Year, New Writer – What is Scene?

Image courtesy of Master/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Master/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Scene was discussed a lot in the McDaniel Romance Writing program. What is a scene? When does it start? When does it end? How does one scene relate to other scenes? At a basic level, a scene is a unit of conflict that advances the story. As Jennifer Crusie repeated over and over, a scene starts when the conflict starts and ends when the conflict ends. One of the cheat sheets (among many) that I have plastered around my writing space is a series of questions that stemmed from conversations during the workshop on structure. When I write a scene, I don’t always think of all this but I do use it afterwards to analyze and fix the scene.

  • What is the main conflict in the scene?
  • Who wins the conflict in the scene?
  • How is the protagonist worse off (further away from his/her goal) at the end of the scene? Or is the protagonist better off?
  • How has the protagonist changed at the end of the scene?
  • How is the antagonist worse off (further away from his/her goal) at the end of the scene? Or is the antagonist better off?
  • How has the antagonist changed at the end of the scene?
  • How does this scene throw the reader into the next (or another future) scene?

The conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist should arise from goals that directly block each other. The opening scene of one of my favorite books, Family Man by Jayne Ann Krentz, is Katy versus Luke. Katy’s goal is to get Luke to come to Seattle and take over management of the family business. Luke’s goal is to stay in Oregon and make money through his consulting business. They both have strong motivations for their goals, they can’t both get what they want, and it’s Katy who loses this round. But Luke is changed at the end of the scene and he makes the decision to help Katy which throws the reader into a future scene when he arrives in Seattle.

Another guide tacked to my bulletin board is The Seven Essential Elements of Scene. I found it on Jane Friendman’s website excerpted from Martha Alderson’s The Plot Whisperer Workbook (http://janefriedman.com/2012/08/29/7-elements-scene/)

How does this apply to my new year as a writer? I hope to craft better scenes that do all of the above. The first one I’m going to work on is a scene between my protagonist and antagonist that has been giving me fits for weeks. I’ve skipped it too many times to count and I need to get it down on paper. Then use these two lists (and a bunch of others) to strengthen and tighten it. Off to write a scene . . .

20 thoughts on “Michille: New Year, New Writer – What is Scene?

  1. Good writing, Michille!

    As I turn my book around in my head, I’m beginning to think that my protagonist (who is Perz this week) and antagonist (George) have the same goals — it’s just that their ideas on how to achieve them radically clash, and neither one can give up their basic philosophy of life until it comes to the point of death . . . . This is the book’s conflict, but as I re-write my first scene for the upteenth time, I have to figure out a way to get them clashing right from the beginning . . . .

    • I read a scene of yours that had them clashing with tons of action. Does the goal require a couple different actions/steps? Can they be trying to achieve one of those minor ones at the beginning? Or trying to make some short term fix that will keep their worlds on the right track while they fix the big stuff? If that is wrong for your story, ignore it.

    • The first scene is extra hard, since it has to do all the things Michille said, plus it has to set up the story – the world, tone, characters, conflict, tempt the reader to guess what comes next and launch the action. Mine isn’t right yet, but it has all the ingredients. I’m leaving it now till I’ve got to the end of my rewrite so that when I have another go at it, I know exactly what I’m setting up.

      If you know the big difference between Perz and George’s outlook, their first meet needs to be in a situation where that difference is tested. They both do what comes naturally, which puts them head-to-head, and then you’re on your way.

      I usually know who my characters are and what they’d do, the difficult part for me is finding the perfect situation to put them under pressure.

      • The perfect situation is hard to come up with sometimes. And for me, the bodies-in-motion kind of conflict. I tend towards talking/dialogue which isn’t conflict.

        • I think you both have some good points. That’s exactly what I plan to do with the first scene — it’ll be a microcosm of Perz’s and George’s worldviews clashing . . . and then I have to figure out how each worldview clash escalates with each episode.

          A big hello, by the way, to the people who found us through Argh!

      • Lord! Me too!
        I am in final galleys on Time and Forever and I’m afraid I failed to achieve enough conflict. It scares me to death,. This will be my first published adult work and I so want it to be an enjoyable read. But I think I am way below any goal Jenny sets.
        Thanks for the post. So nice to meet you all.

        • Best of luck to you as you finish up! We’re glad you stopped by and hope you’ll be back again. If it makes you feel any better, I think I’m below any goal Jenny sets. Her bar is high…but I guess that’s why she’s so good.

        • One thing about conflict that I enjoyed in class–Jenny used an example of two people, one of whom wanted a cup of tea, and one of whom wanted to be president of the ceramics club. I was relieved to learn that conflict is about what’s important to the characters, not necessarily that the universe will be annihilated by page 15. The characters just have to really want it, whatever it is, and their wants define them. But it’s hard getting it on the page, for sure. Best wishes on finishing your book! I hope both your protagonist and your antagonist suffered greatly in getting that cup of tea.

  2. Hey guys! I made it over here through the Argh Blog *waves!*

    I’m loving your topics and am learning so much already. I love all your differing personalities and writing styles which make reading this blog such a pleasure. I’ll be sure to wade in from time to time 🙂

    • Hi, Trudy, thanks for stopping by!

      I’ve done much better with scenes since we learned to critique them for class. My version of Michille’s list is to think of a scene as a mini-story with its own protagonist (may not be the story protagonist), antagonist, goals and conflict. Since I started to do that I haven’t written so many ‘nothing’ scenes. Now I have a different problem – I’m making my scenes work much harder, so they take more planning, so I’m writing slower. Seems there’s always something 🙂

  3. Pingback: Kat: New Year, New Writer — Balancing Character Goals | Eight Ladies Writing

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