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SCENE IT! Consequences and Rewards (a.k.a., Scene and Sequel)

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Picture this scenario: You’re watching your absolutely favorite show. Things are getting dicey for the heroes. All of a sudden, there’s an explosion! Your heroes’ lives are in danger! What’s going to happen to them? Are they okay? Will they survive? Then, the screen goes black. And then you see: TO BE CONTINUED. “NOOOOOOOOOOO!” you scream. “I have to know what happens next!”

What Does Happen Next?

Well, you tune in when the next episode airs or the new season starts. Why? Because you’re HOOKED. Because you need to know the sequel: what happens next.

In another example of fiction imitating life and vice versa, “what happens next” is all about consequences. We’ve already looked at how it’s our job as authors to make our characters fail to reach their goals often enough to generate more conflict for the story. But why? Because failure creates consequences that generate conflicts that necessitate setting new goals—in addition to the story goals that must still be met. These consequences now become your scene goals.

For each conflict generated, there are multiple outcomes depending on which decision is made by the character, which action is taken. This is the driving force behind the pacing and tension of your scenes—but also what drives the plot of the story forward. For example, in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Frodo and Sam’s main story goal is to take the One Ring to Mordor to destroy it. Yet all along the way, they encounter roadblocks, interruptions, setbacks, and other characters with different goals that keep setting them along paths they don’t necessarily want to be on. They must work their way through each of those conflicts—they must resolve those consequences—before they can resolve their story goal.

To reward, or not to reward—that is the question

Along with consequences come rewards. Stein, in How to Grow a Novel, states that in a discussion with playwrights once, he jotted down the phrase, “You must reward your audience” (pg. 18). As we discussed in the Plot or Plod series, you cannot just pile up the conflicts one on top of another in an ever increasing intensity, or else the reader is going to be overwhelmed. Once you’ve finished your first draft and are ready to start revisions, take the time to write out a scene-by-scene outline (or use scene cards) and pinpoint scenes where you’re rewarding the reader for sticking with you by revealing something important, resolving a conflict, or allowing a breather-scene where your reader can fall in love with your characters a little bit more. This will also help you in tracing the conflicts and consequences and making sure that each scene ties in with the scenes that follow in some way, and that each ends with some kind of a hook.

You need to have both simple conflict (simple narrative interest) and compounding conflicts (compound narrative interest) in your story. Simple conflicts are resolved within a scene or two. A lost dog is found, the contract on the new house comes through, a long-anticipated event goes well. But you also need compounding conflicts—conflicts or questions that linger, with complications compiling until you have to have a payoff or risk losing your reader. As I stated in the original post about Narrative Debt, this is like maxing out a credit card and then only paying the minimum payment each month. Yes, you’re keeping your account alive and in “good standing” but you’re not paying it off. It’s a big debt-monster sitting there waiting to devour your character(s).

Science fiction likes to toy with the idea of consequences—for each decision made, there are an exponential number of possible outcomes, each happening in an infinite, and exponentially growing, number of alternate universes. In one universe, you went right; in the other, you went left. In fiction, we need to be aware of “what happens next”—what consequences do the decisions and actions (or inaction/indecisiveness) of our characters create? Sure, we’ve resolved one conflict, but what are the results of that—where are the ripples in the pond going? Will they dissipate or will they trigger a tsunami?

Release the power of your inner three-year-old.

When writing each scene, you want to get back in touch with your inner toddler and constantly be asking “why?” Why would she make that decision? Why would she go there? Why would she think she would be able to get away from the bad guy by running UPstairs? Why is the bad guy a bad guy? Why is the hero going to the place where he is going to have a humorous run-in with the heroine?

Crafting scenes is about chain reactions. If your character makes a decision, there must be consequences—for good or bad. Things can’t “just happen” in your story. Unlike in real life, the events that your characters experience must have meaning, must connect with something else going on in the story. Otherwise, you’re leading your reader down a bunch of rabbit trails, but actually going nowhere.

Keep asking: Does this dialogue / introspection / action / description / scene have an important role in the plot? Comb through your scenes to make sure that everything your characters do connects somehow with the forward progress of the story.

And don’t forget to ask WHY!


Works cited:

Bickham, Jack M. Scene and Structure. Cincinnati, OH: Writerʼs Digest, 1993.

Stein, Sol. How to Grow a Novel: The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make and How to Overcome Them. New York: St. Martin’s, 1999.

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