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Hooking the Reader: That Scene Is a Disaster!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Hooking the ReaderOn Tuesday, we discussed the five elements of keeping the reader hooked into our stories: characters, POV, suspense, balance, and bomb-dropping. Today, we’re going to look at what goes into the development of an individual scene, and for help, we’re turning to my new favorite writing-craft book, Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham.

According to Bickham, the structure of a scene is threefold:

  • Statement of the character’s goal
  • Introduction and development of conflict
  • Failure of the character to reach the goal; a disaster

The scene should start with the POV character who has a definite, clear-cut, attainable goal: Anne is going to show George potential sites for (what she thinks is) his engagement party. George is going to reveal the identity of his employer to Anne before the man shows up at the site for the party. Meredith is going to the pet store to buy food for the puppy she found. Major is attending his employers’ New Year’s Day open house because they’ve asked him to come to talk to him about something. And so on. Each scene should start out with a goal that is an important step in the character’s game plan—a small goal that gets them one step closer to attaining the main goal of the story (or what the character thinks is their main goal for the story—that’s where the conflict/disaster part comes into play). But the goal cannot be easily attained—it’s your job as the author to make sure your characters suffer.

Once you know what your character’s goal for the scene is, you must determine what Bickham calls the “disaster” that will happen at the end of the scene to keep them from reaching that goal. Now, when I first read this, I thought, but that doesn’t work in every genre. But I think I’ve figured out what he means. From the examples above:

  • Anne is going to show George potential sites for (what she thinks is) his engagement party. However, by the end of the scene, she’s actually ended up sharing with him the details of her past: that she survived a plane crash that killed her parents—pushing her ever closer to the edge of what she believes is falling in love with a client (because George, after all, is the Stand-In Groom). For Anne, at this point in the story, her real goal at the beginning of the scene was not getting him to choose a party site, but trying to keep herself from falling ever closer to the precipice of falling in love with him.
  • I’m not going to reveal the disaster that George faces—you’ll have to read the book!
  • Meredith is going to the pet store to buy food for the puppy she found. She’s dressed in her skuzzy clothes because she’s been at her house, which she’s refurbishing, stripping paint. In trying to get the puppy out from under the back porch, she fell in the grass and got soaked (because it’s pouring rain). Though she’s dried off and cleaned up, she’s definitely not looking like she does when she’s planning black-tie events for her parents’ Fortune-500 company. So, naturally, she runs into the recently elected mayor’s wife—a woman who was not only in Meredith’s mother’s sorority, but the woman whom Meredith must work with to plan an upcoming black-tie fundraiser event. Not a great first impression, and Meredith dreads news of the encounter reaching her always very proper and appearance-minded mother.
  • Major meets with his employers at their open house and receives an offer for a business opportunity he can’t pass up. Not a disaster, right? Well, he then meets someone who has the potential to make-or-break his career—and his personal life.

See how it works? It’s not a disaster in the truest sense of the word: a car accident, a stock-market crash wiping out the hero’s livelihood, a death, or whatever. It’s a disaster in that it puts our character further into the hole of narrative debt—a setback, a redirection. And, as in Major’s case, it doesn’t even have to be an immediate setback, as he won’t know for several more chapters that this woman he’s met has the potential to affect his life so greatly.

In other words, you’re starting the scene out with a question: can the character do/attain this? To keep a reader hooked into the story, the answer at the end of the scene should be no. Or at least yes, BUT . . . or yes, IF . . . —if it’s a yes answer, it cannot be unconditional. The end of the scene has two primary jobs: to answer the scene question (preferably “NO!”) and to make the reader want to read the next scene to find out when the character will attain that goal.

Sometimes, you may have to work a scene backwards. If you know the disaster that needs to happen—because of what comes after it, because it sets up what happens next (a.k.a., “sequel,” which we’ll get into later in the series), examine the disaster and determine what it is that the disaster is stopping the character from doing/attaining. But don’t forget that all of your “disasters” must also fit logically into the main “disaster” (climax) of the story.

“Well-planned scenes end with disasters that tighten the noose around the lead character’s neck; they make things worse, not better; they eliminate hoped-for avenues of progress; they increase the lead character’s worry, sense of failure, and desperation—so that in all these ways, the main character in a novel of 400 pages will be in far worse shape by page 200 than he seemed to be at the outset.”
~Jack Bickham, Scene & Structure, pg 44.

A good scene will end with the characters making “backwards” progress; it eliminates options for an easy answer or solution; it makes the walls start closing in (think about the trash-compactor scene in Star Wars); and it has an impact on later events (consequences/sequel).

But one caveat: don’t contrive a disaster just to create a cliffhanger—hooks should be unexpected, but they should also be realistic and logical for your plot, the world of your story, and the development of your characters. Make the lead-up to the disaster subtle enough that the reader is suspicious something’s going to go wrong, but not so that they can see it coming from a mile away.

For Discussion:
Pull a scene from your WIP and examine the structure of it. What’s the scene question/the character’s goal at the beginning? What conflicts build during the scene? And, finally, what’s the “disaster” that happens at the end of the scene that keeps your character from attaining his/her goal? Did you find, as I did with Anne’s scene above, that the character’s goal at the beginning of the scene was actually more subtle than you originally thought?

  1. Thursday, March 27, 2008 9:38 am

    I just read the MFR progress page — congratulations! And another big congrats on how your thoughtful and well-written Austen entries have catapaulted you into the world of the Austen blogging elite! (I will refrain from mentioning how jealous I am that you get to watch S&S PRIOR to this weekend…what a second, I just mentioned it…dang it… :P)


  2. Thursday, March 27, 2008 12:03 pm

    I do so love to make my characters suffer. It really makes my day 🙂


  3. Thursday, March 27, 2008 10:05 pm

    I’ve enjoyed reading your series on hooks, partly because I’m currently writing a workshop on the topic for Forward Motion

    Good info!



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