Writing a powerful scene

You have seen several of Randy Ingermanson's newsletter articles on this blog. I have full permission to copy/paste them here, and I do so because he makes a whole lot of sense.

In the numerous books that I've read in my reading career since I learned to read, I see common mistakes that authors (and editors) make. My goal is to thwart those mistakes, and help you become a better writer if you so desire. One huge mistake I see all too often is the poor construction of scenes.

Randy talks about Dwight Swain’s book, Techniques of the Selling Writer.
image credit: centervillewebdesign.com
It makes so much sense, I wanted to share it here. This can be modified for non-fiction, but I'll get to that later. Here is what Ingermanson says:

Large-Scale Structure of a Scene

The large-scale structure of a scene is extremely simple. Actually, there are two possible choices you can make for your scene structure. Dwight Swain calls these two choices “scenes” and “sequels”. This is horrendously confusing, since both of these are what most ordinary people call scenes. In what follows, I’m going to capitalize these terms, calling them Scenes and Sequels. That is your signal that I’m using Swain’s language. When I use the word “scene” in the ordinary non-Swain sense, I’ll leave it uncapitalized. Since you are exceptionally brilliant and perceptive, you will not find this a problem. Let me give you the high points on Scenes and Sequels right up front.
Scene has the following three-part pattern:
  1. Goal
  2. Conflict
  3. Disaster
Sequel has the following three-part pattern:
  1. Reaction
  2. Dilemma
  3. Decision
You may think these patterns are too simple. You may think this is reducing writing to Paint-by-Numbers. Well, no. This is reducing fiction to the two patterns that have been proven by thousands of novelists to actually work. There are plenty of other patterns people use. They typically work less well. It may well be that there are other patterns that work better. If you can find one that works better, please tell me. But for now, let’s pretend that Dwight Swain is right. Let’s pretend these are absolutely the best possible patterns for writing fiction. Let’s pretend these are the keys to writing the perfect scene. Let’s move on and look at each of these in turn.
As we said, the Scene has the three parts Goal, Conflict, and Disaster. Each of these is supremely important. I am going to define each of these pieces and then explain why each is critical to the structure of the Scene. I assume that you have selected one character to be your Point Of View character. In what follows, I’ll refer to this character as your POV character. Your goal is to convincingly show your POV character experiencing the scene. You must do this so powerfully that your reader experiences the scene as if she were the POV character.
  1. Goal: A Goal is what your POV character wants at the beginning of the Scene. The Goal must be specific and it must be clearly definable. The reason your POV character must have a Goal is that it makes your character proactive. Your character is not passively waiting for the universe to deal him Great Good. Your character is going after what he wants, just as your reader wishes he could do. It’s a simple fact that any character who wants something desperately is an interesting character. Even if he’s not nice, he’s interesting. And your reader will identify with him. That’s what you want as a writer.
  2. Conflict: Conflict is the series of obstacles your POV character faces on the way to reaching his Goal. You must have Conflict in your Scene! If your POV character reaches his Goal with no Conflict, then the reader is bored. Your reader wants to struggle! No victory has any value if it comes too easy. So make your POV character struggle and your reader will live out that struggle too.
  3. Disaster: A Disaster is a failure to let your POV character reach his Goal. Don’t give him the Goal! Winning is boring! When a Scene ends in victory, your reader feels no reason to turn the page. If things are going well, your reader might as well go to bed. No! Make something awful happen. Hang your POV character off a cliff and your reader will turn the page to see what happens next.
That’s all! There is literally nothing more you need to know about Scenes. Now let’s look at Sequels . . .
The Sequel has the three parts Reaction, Dilemma, and Decision. Again, each of these is critical to a successful Sequel. Remove any of them and the Sequel fails to work. Let me add one important point here. The purpose of a Sequel is to follow after a Scene. A Scene ends on a Disaster, and you can’t immediately follow that up with a new Scene, which begins with a Goal. Why? Because when you’ve just been slugged with a serious setback, you can’t just rush out and try something new. You’ve got to recover. That’s basic psychology.
  1. Reaction: A Reaction is the emotional follow-through to a Disaster. When something awful happens, you’re staggering for awhile, off-balance, out of kilter. You can’t help it. So show your POV character reacting viscerally to his Disaster. Show him hurting. Give your reader a chance to hurt with your characters. You may need to show some passage of time. This is not a time for action, it’s a time for re-action. A time to weep. But you can’t stagger around in pain forever. In real life, if people do that they lose their friends. In fiction, if you do it, you lose your readers. Eventually, your POV character needs to get a grip. To take stock. To look for options. And the problem is that there aren’t any . . .
  2. Dilemma: A Dilemma is a situation with no good options. If your Disaster was a real Disaster, there aren’t any good choices. Your POV character must have a real dilemma. This gives your reader a chance to worry, which is good. Your reader must be wondering what can possibly happen next. Let your POV character work through the choices. Let him sort things out. Eventually, let him come to the least-bad option . . .
  3. Decision: A Decision is the act of making a choice among several options. This is important, because it lets your POV character become proactive again. People who never make decisions are boring people. They wait around for somebody else to decide. And nobody wants to read about somebody like that. So make your character decide, and make it a good decision. Make it one your reader can respect. Make it risky, but make it have a chance of working. Do that, and your reader will have to turn the page, because now your POV character has a new Goal.
And now you’ve come full circle. You’ve gone from Scene to Sequel and back to the Goal for a new Scene. This is why the Scene-Sequel pattern is so powerful. Read more here.

If you think this is too hard or doesn't make sense, then open your Bible to your favorite Bible story and compare this to how the story unfolds in the Bible. It is the same. No kidding.

Later we'll analyze a story using these "rules". Hopefully, you'll be able to see how it all packs together.


Review: Shadow Hand

Shadow Hand
Shadow Hand by Anne Elisabeth Stengl

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first one in the series that I read. While I did not feel lost at the beginning of it, I began to feel like something was missing as I kept reading. I didn't know why the things that happened, happened. Without motivations, it is difficult to have empathy for any character. There was no clear villain or hero.

Character development must happen in previous books.

I think the book is very well written, and I'll certainly look for more by this author. But you really need to start from the beginning of the series because this is not a stand alone book. Too much happens before it to comfortably start here.

I received this book from the publisher at NetGalley for an honest review.

View all my reviews


Review: Caught in the Middle

Caught in the Middle
Caught in the Middle by Regina Jennings

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Jennings has several novels under her belt. This is the first of hers I've read. I'd like to know why editors, publishers and authors think it is okay to put out historically incorrect novels?

If I may rant for a bit here. One reason I love the books better than the movies is because the books have, heretofore, been generally historically correct. Hollywood takes such liberties there is no reason to believe anything that comes out in movie form. They made Belle Starr a hero for crying out loud. There is no excuse, absolutely none for a novel to have inaccuracies these days. I spent hours and hours in the library researching my first novel about the Old South back in the 1980s. Nowadays one need only do an internet search. Why don't editors insist upon it? Powdered formula for babies was not introduced until 1915. This story takes place long before that, but after the railroad was finished. But let's set that aside for the moment.

The premise of this story is extremely good. Very much like the remake movie Bundle of Joy with Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. Single girl gets stuck with abandoned baby. While Bundle of Joy was a cute comedy, Caught in the Middle is not so much. For me, the premise does not match the writing/storyline. [shrug]

The question of what happened to Anne back east to make her hide as a buffalo hunter in the west drags out way to long to make me even care what happens to her. It's like playing "I've got a secret that is too secret to tell you right now. I'll tell you later, maybe." Why? Get on with the story already. But most importantly develop those characters to a fine point so they will interact with the reader not just with each other.

Flipping back and forth between two storylines makes for a piecemeal story with a jagged feeling. The different stories for Anne and Nick do not have transitions so moving from one to the other has a jerky stop-start feel, which is rather jolting.

Such a great premise that just didn't follow through. I have to give this one 2 stars.

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Review: A Cast of Stones

A Cast of Stones
A Cast of Stones by Patrick W. Carr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are some authors who can write gripping action/adventure, but cannot capture a real empathy for the main characters. And there there is Patrick Carr who goes far beyond great storytelling of action/adventure and fantasy into the realm of roller coaster emotional experience rarely offered to readers today.

Hooray! Finally, a single main character and the story is told in third person completely from the main character's point of view! No head hopping, no head jumping, no wondering how did he/she know that. Excellent storytelling and superb character development. The story actually goes somewhere with a satisfying ending even though there are more in this series to come. You do want more, but still the ending is satisfying.

Carr has mastered character development. He has done everything right in telling this story. He thanks Dave Long (editor) for helping him become a better writer. I've read several books edited by Dave, and I recognize the excellence of Dave's skill. However, an editor cannot make a bad story premise great, and cannot make a good writer better if the writer is unwilling to master the skills of writing. This is an excellent example of both author and editor in top form.

We first meet Errol Stone as a small, drunken lad who had the misfortune of being an orphan. He was taken in by a stone mason but that man was killed, and Errol couldn't face that horror so he drowned the memories. Ever mindful of a way to line up tankards of ale in front of him, he did odd jobs for the people of his tiny village. The people knew the cause of his problem so didn't think too ill of him. So when Errol offers to take a message to a hermit priest through the gorge, Cruk assures the messenger that the message will get to the priest. But, an assassin follows Errol shooting whining arrows at him. Thus begins Errol's epic journey to the Green Isle, the conclave, and King Rodran.

What I love so much about this novel, is that you can see Errol grow into a strapping young man, but his basic character is enhanced not transformed. The character development is along the same lines as Alexander Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo. If this book series does not become a classic, it should. It could proudly sit beside Lord of the Rings or The Three Musketeers.

Cruk calls Errol "a good lad", and this is echoed by the healing woman, and others. Anyone who has lost a loved one, or who has experienced some life changing catastrophe, or who has lived through some kind of bullying will identify with Errol's lot and empathize with him rooting him on cheering his successes. There are acute disappointments as well, which makes the story's roller coaster so effective. I especially appreciate how Errol's wisdom grows.

Well worth the money, and a keeper. This is a worthy book for anyone's library. It is excellent for adults and young adults.

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Mark of Evil Review

MY Review
I give this book 3 stars because it is well-written and it is centrally based on scripture.

However, I just could not get into the book or care about what happens to the characters because I did not read the first two in the series. This is not stand alone!!!! You cannot just step into the series because so much has happened before, and I guess character development had already been set.

From reading previous reviews, I can tell this book begins after the rapture. So I can imagine reading from the beginning would be fascinating. Sorry I can't be of more help with this book.

About the book
Economies have fallen, freedom has been suppressed, and peace is a distant memory. The world is falling apart. Joshua Jordan’s protégé Ethan March, along with Jimmy Louder and Rivka Reuban have been left behind in a world that is rapidly coming under the complete influence of the Antichrist.
Technology is growing by leaps and bounds, with BID-Tag implants, robotic police units, and drone-bots flying overhead . . . all designed to control and dominate those who resist the Antichrist’s reign of evil. As Biblical prophecy is fulfilled each new day, Ethan and the others in the Remnant struggle to eat, to procure necessary goods, and to avoid the Global Alliance---in short, to survive.
But when the forces of evil attempt to pervert the world’s most powerful information system to their own sinister ends, eliminating everyone who gets in their way, it’s up to Ethan and the Remnant to subvert their dark ambitions. From New York Times best-selling author Tim LaHaye, creator and co-author of the world-renowned Left Behind books, and Craig Parshall, Mark of Evil is the final thrilling chapter in The End series.
With high-tech thrills against a background of prophetic events that seem to leap from today’s news, this is the story of global tribulations bringing the world one step closer to the reign of the Antichrist and the return of Jesus Christ in glory.

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