Our POV character enters the scene. Why is she in this scene? What does she want to get out of the scene? Does she have a problem to solve? Is there something she’s trying to find or accomplish? Does she want to meet someone and fall in love? Or solve a murder or interview a potential witness or maybe a suspected murderer? Is she running for her life and needs to hide from the person stalking her? Is she interested in taking karate lessons in an attempt to protect herself from the creepy man that sleeps under the lamppost outside her apartment?
Before you get too far in creating the scene you want to have a reason for the scene to take place. That is the goal. Your character’s goal.
Let's say, your character, Suzy, is trying to start a business, a bookstore. Your character has ordered a few boxes of books to stock her shelves and is expecting the shipment to arrive today. She is opening her book store tomorrow so she’s anxious to receive the books today.
The goal at the start of the scene is she wants to receive her books and stock her shelves before tonight’s closed door opening celebration with friends.
The second part of a scene is conflict. You don’t want your scenes to be happy people in happy land. Many beginning authors make this mistake. You want to give the reader a picture of the happy childhood the character had before the bad person entered the picture. But happy people in happy land (yes even one chapter) is boring. People read books to see how people similar to themselves handle conflict, pain and suffering. Your job as an author is to be mean to your protagonist, your hero. Readers will read to experience emotional change. They want to feel and by reading your novel they will live as someone else and experience emotional heartbreak, the joy of winning a championship game or the satisfaction of putting a killer behind bars.
So we’re going to be mean to our new bookseller.
She’s expecting the books to arrive by 10AM. It is now 11AM and the delivery driver hasn’t shown. Conflict. She calls John the guy at the warehouse whose company is providing the books. He’s a good ole boy and he says, don’t worry mam, our driver, Billy, is probably running late, give him another hour.
Conflict. Now we can look internally into Suzy’s mind and body. Her blood pressure is rising. Her heart is beating faster. She’s thinking about the party tonight, plus all the work she has to do and still finish in time. She is mad at Billy and John the warehouse guy. Maybe she calls someone to let off some steam or maybe she internalizes it all. She just knows she’s lost two hours.
Conflict. Another hour passes and Suzy is getting ready to call John and really lay into him with as many expletives as she can. But the phone rings. She sees the caller ID and it’s John. She might be relieved thinking that her shipment is about to arrive or her heart might drop as she fears the worst.
John says, “Sorry lady but the truck broke down and Billy won’t be able to make the delivery until tomorrow.”
Now, she lays on John all the expletives she stored up the last hour. She demands to have John come up with another way to get the books to her. John isn’t a service oriented person. He says, “Sorry lady, no can do. We’ll deliver them tomorrow or you can hire yourself another truck to make the delivery.” He hangs up on Suzy.
Now Suzy might call someone to help. She might be sitting on the floor of her new store in tears. She might be strategizing on a way to get those books into her store. We don’t know. She might do all three. It’s your story, so you can come up with how to solve her problem. She has sunk her life savings into this store and has no working capital to hire another truck.
When working on the conflict part of the scene I recommend you come up with a minimum of ten things that can happen to your character in this scene. Twenty would be better. Do you have to use all ten conflicts? No, but by doing at least ten you are able to push through the clichés you picked up from all the TV, movies and books you’ve read. This way you can be creative and pick ones that will work for your story.
The rule here is without conflict you don’t have a scene.
Am I saying that the scene has to be all conflict and no happy people in happy land? No, but you use the happy people in happy land to segue into the next conflict. Maybe after the first phone call to John the warehouse dude, we see Suzy call her friend Tracy to complain, but then they get chatting about the party that night and what kind of food Suzy will have and who did she invite. This allows us to introduce characters and Suzy can tell us a little bit about the person she hired to cater the event.
Next we have the disaster or crucible section of the scene. Suzy fights through her problems of the day, personally drives out to where the truck broke down, loads as many boxes into her car as she can and runs them back to the store. She does this ten times and it is now 4 PM with the party starting at 6PM. She’s dogged tired. She hasn’t opened any boxes yet, she has to stock all the shelves and she does a count of her boxes and finds out she’s missing five boxes. Disaster has struck.
Out of all the conflicts Suzy has experienced today one is going to seem insurmountable to her. That’s known as the disaster or crucible. This will be the one that really will test her. As a reader we will learn more about her character, personality and ability to reach her all-encompassing goal for the book. This will be the one that might break her. And if you leave the chapter hanging at this point, you’ve guaranteed that your reader isn’t going to go to bed until she finds out how Suzy handles this problem.
Our hero started the scene with a goal. This isn’t the goal for the entire book, but a goal for just this scene. The goal will be a minor goal to reach the big goal for the end of the book.
But right after she set her goal conflict began to happen in her life. Readers like conflict. It gets their heart rate up. It makes them sympathize with the character and if she handles it well they will like the character. Conflict is good.
We end the scene on a disaster or crucible. Merriam Webster defines a crucible as a place or situation in which concentrated forces interact to cause or influence change or development. That is what we need for our character to experience concentrated forces to influence change. Because our character won’t be the same person at the end of the story as at the beginning. She will change. Maybe get stronger. Maybe not.
A number of crucible experiences will test her and make her change.
Not all novels require the character to change. A mystery writer who keeps the same protagonist book after book will find the character won’t necessarily change, since the experience is more in the hunting for clues and less about the person changing.
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Eclipse of the Triple Moons is Book 1 in the Mountain King Series.
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Understanding the Scene Process
What is a Scene Purpose or Focus
The Reaction Scene or Sequel Scene
What are the Building Blocks of a Novel
Your Writing Effort is Front Loaded
What I Learned from Reading Lee Child Books
Six Reasons to Describe Your Characters
Why I Wrote Eclipse of the Triple Moons