Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Scenes That Demand to Be in Your Stories 1: Purpose, power dynamics, character challenges, and choices

My works in progress provide laboratories for this blog. Often, what I'm writing – especially if I'm facing difficulties — will find its way into approaches I recognize as worth sharing, or I'll be forced into experimenting and end up documenting the experience.

Recently, I've been involved in developmental revisions on a few stories. It occurred to me that this effort was worth analyzing and this would be a good place to offer what I've learned. While I have several ways that I go about adding scenes, in each of these cases, I used the same method.

1. Purpose — Write a sentence that states why this scene is needed in the story. What's the point? What does it accomplish?

2. Power dynamics — Survey all the characters in the scene (and as needed, characters who overshadow the same) and look at what powers they had. Minimally, determine who begins the scene in the strongest position. (Often, that person sees a power shift before the scene is over.)

3. Character challenges — How the character's status, identity, plans, hopes, opportunities, etc. were knocked out of equilibrium during the scene? What might push the character into taking action, making a decision, saying something publicly, or reevaluating a position?

4. Choices — What are the options the character will have during the scene? As a result of the scene? Think in terms of who the character is, motivations, current state of mind (especially in terms of what most recently happened), and what traumatic triggers might need to be handled. In addition, experiment with the character just accepting what he or she has been given or what would happen if he or she made a decision without consideration were thinking. One choice the author should always investigate is one that would have the worst consequences.

I'll go through each of these in future posts. For today, I'll touch on some of what happened with one of my scenes. Here are the four scenes I had in front of me:
  • The protagonist’s main rival invites her to discuss her current project.
  • The main character must avoid capture by law enforcement while attending a party with someone he cares about.
  • The heroine must listen to the confession of her best friend about how she betrayed her.
  • A secondary character abandons the project, leaving wreckage in her wake.
Those sitting down and actually writing the scenes in ways that are true to the character and fit elegantly into the rest of the story isn't easy, each of these offers fun opportunities. A roll in the ditch, and escape, a betrayal, and a messy exit? There's built-in drama no matter which you choose. Let's look at the third scene.

1. Purpose – The point of this scene is to reveal information to the protagonist. Fundamentally, she needs to understand that she was humiliated because of a deliberate act by someone she trusted. It wasn't a mistake. And she hadn't caused it herself.

Now it’s possible to elaborate on this. The friend was not being cruel. She was acting in a way she thought would be helpful. The friend, in confessing, relieves herself of a secret, but she takes the chance of ending the friendship, facing revenge, and (in this story) losing her job.

2. Power dynamics — In terms of wealth, authority, and reputation, the main character has advantages over her friend. The friend's advantages are softer. She has better social skills. She is dependent upon by the main character as a confidant and emotional support. Overall, the decisions following the revelation are in the main character's hands, but both characters face important consequences.

3. Character challenges — With the revelation, the main character could become a victim and lose status. She will definitely be forced to change her relationship with her friend, which is frightening to her. The friend has already broken trust and must accept moving into a relationship where she will be doubted, at best. A likely beat in the scene is an explanation for the betrayal. How it is expressed and received will probably determine the emotional texture and shape subsequent scenes.

4. Choices — 1) cool: betrayal? That's no big deal. It's over. Let's move on. 2) warmer: betrayal? How could you? I was protecting you. Okay, thanks. 3) still warmer: betrayal? You scoundrel! I did it for your own good. You had no right. 4) hot: betrayal? You rat!! It was payback, and I'm glad I did it! We'll see how glad you are when I finish eviscerating you in public!

Okay, I hope you get the idea. In practical terms, I found that I was revisiting each of these four steps as I worked. I also wasn't afraid to jump ahead. And the choices? About 20 were explored before I was done.

Note, this isn't a scene writing machine. The details are all contingent on what else is going on in the story. The choices are somewhat constrained by who these characters are (although my inclination was to push hard to make a choice work before it was rejected. I actually ended up drafting half pages of three choices before I made a decision and completed the scene. (At times, I've experimented with writing the same scene as humor or melodrama or from a different perspective. When I got really stuck once, I wrote a scene in the voices of half-dozen favorite authors.)

One reason why I made such an investment in the scenes is because each of them provides the opportunity to really elevate the stories in which they take place. In addition, I hate the idea of anyone's noticing they were added in revision. When fixes and addenda are too obvious in the story, they can wreck the whole experience. On the other hand, when they feel like they belong, they can become the best parts of stories.

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