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Friday, April 8, 2011

Tension in Fiction Writing, and the Individual Scene

There are both plot-driven and character-driven stories, but in my humble opinion they both need tension in order to move forward. Tension must be in every chapter, every paragraph, every sentence. Tension is the uncertainty of at least one issue in the story. For example, here is a conversation between character A and character B:

A: Do you like eggs for breakfast?

B: (answer #1) Yes.

B: (answer #2) My mom used to make eggs, soft boiled, you know, and she'd break them over toast so that the egg yolk would soak in.

B: (answer #3) Why is it any of your business?

Answer #1 stops the conversation, and the story. There are times when this answer might be appropriate -- say, to establish an abrupt interchange -- but in general, #2 or #3 might be a better choice. #2 opens up a chance to deepen character background in a natural way, and #3 suggests a brewing fight. My general rule for questions in writing, whether spoken or implied, is *never* to put down a direct answer.

When I write, I like to plan out the broad outlines of a chapter before I start in. I often end up changing it, mind you, but I at least start with a direction.

According to Jack Bickham in Elements of Writing Fiction: Scene and Structure, there are two units of story construction: a SCENE and a SEQUEL. Very roughly speaking, the scene follows the advancing plot, and the sequel describes the POV character's reaction to it. Bickham describes that all stories are beads of Scene-Sequel-Scene-Sequel, although many times the sequel can be pulled to speed up the action.

While I don't agree with everything he describes in his book, his thoughts on Scene/Sequel were quite helpful, and allowed me to develop a technique for planning each chapter. Here's my technique, for what it's worth:

At the top of the page, I'll copy in my little outline:


POV stands for the point of view character, in whose head I am writing from. Hmm, maybe I should write a blog on character viewpoint. Basically, since I prefer the 3rd person limited, everything is told from that character's perspective: what HE can see, what HE knows.

GOAL: what is the short-term goal that my POV character is trying to achieve within the next few pages? When writing the draft, I try to have the character actually state his goal clearly close to the beginning.

CONFLICT: what obstacles will stand in the way of this goal? Obstacles can be both EXTERNAL (other people, physical obstacles) and INTERNAL (fears, worries, lack of knowledge). I like to come up with at least 5 conflicts. Even though I can't always come up with 5, and even if I do come up with them I don't always incorporate them into the draft, they are still helpful to prevent writers block -- if I'm stuck I can always throw another problem at my poor POV character.

DISASTER: the scene should not end happily. Even if the POV character is successful with his goal at the beginning of the chapter, he should be in a worse situation at the end of the chapter. More questions are raised! The reader thinks, I'll read just one more chapter...


I also use sequels, the emotional reaction of the POV character, although less frequently. When I'm ready to write a sequel, I post this outline at the top:


EMOTION: refers to the POV character's emotional state immediately following the previous scene. Is he frightened, worried, angry, desperate?

THOUGHT: once he's had some emotion, he's able to logically evaluate the circumstances.

DECISION: the character is in a bad situation, and must decide what he is going to do.

ACTION: He begins to do what he decided.


There is no easy way to write, but doing this little bit of preplanning at least for me is quite helpful to prevent writers block. Often my scene shapes up differently than what I'd thought, but that's OK too -- I go with the flow.

So, how do you go about facing the computer screen every day?

1 comment:

Kat Heckenbach said...

Facing it? Or avoiding it? :D

Just kidding.

I have to say that short story writing has helped me immensely with this process--I look at each scene like a short story in itself. Obviously, not a free-standing one, as there is an overall plot arch. But thinking of each scene/chapter as a short story keeps me focused on a single conflict and helps me put everything into that one moment as possible.

Good post, Amy!