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16.04.2013 21:49    Comments: 0    Categories: Writing Scenes      Tags: patricia kay  writing  scenes  sequels  

This time we're going to talk about story construction. Many times, writers confuse plotting a story with the construction of a story. The two are not the same. Plotting is what you do before you write--the planning of your story. Story construction is HOW you write what you've planned.


First let's talk about what a story is. In the simplest terms, a story is a narrative of events, a retelling or recounting of something that's happened--either in the real world or in the fictional world.


Cinderella's stepsisters are going to the ball. They talk about it all day long, every day. Cinderella wishes she could go to the ball, too. The day of the ball, her fairy godmother comes to visit her. Cinderella tells her fairy godmother her wish. She goes to the ball. She meets the prince. They fall in love and live happily ever after.


The story of Cinderella is a narrative of events.


Any story is a narrative of events, but is every narrative of events a story? No. An example: Pat gets up in the morning, brushes her teeth, takes a shower, then gets dressed. She goes into her office at 7:00, sits down, and begins to work. She breaks for lunch at noon. At twelve-thirty, she goes back to work. At three o'clock, she takes another break, but this time she goes for a long walk. At three-thirty, when she comes home, she watches "Jeopardy." When "Jeopardy" is over, she goes back to work. She works until six, when her husband comes home. They send out for Chinese food, eat their dinner, then her husband watches a football game on cable, and Pat reads until bedtime.


This is a narrative of events, too, but it isn't a story. And the reason it isn't is because the events are not of interest. To make a narrative of events a story, they must be of interest. So what if Pat goes for a walk? So what if she reads in the evening? Who cares? These are just boring, mundane details of a person's life. Your narrative of events must be consequential and of interest to the reader and must involve characters we care about. And those characters much change as a result of those events.


When I talked about conflict, we learned that if a character glides through a story without changing, unaffected by the events and sufferings he sees and endures, then the narrative of events is not a story at all, but merely an adventure.


In a dramatic story--the only kind worth reading--the characters will struggle.

What if, in GONE WITH THE WIND, Scarlett and Rhett got married when they first met, had five children, all the money they wanted or needed, and Tara was never in any danger. Would we have wanted to read that story? No, of course not. Scarlett's struggle to rebuild Tara, to survive and triumph over all the problems she faced, were what made the book worth reading.


Characters MUST STRUGGLE if you are to have drama. Struggle is conflict, and conflict is struggle.


James Frey, in his HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL, says a reader may sympathize with a character in pain, but true reader identification--where the reader completely loses himself in the character's world, which is what we all strive for--only occurs when the character is struggling.


So if we are to achieve our goal of a dramatic story, one readers will become engrossed in and want to read, we must present our characters with dilemmas to struggle against.


THE DILEMMAS YOU PRESENT TO YOUR CHARACTERS ARE CALLED STORY QUESTIONS. Story questions make your reader want to read on and find the answers.


So how do we begin constructing our story--our narrative of consequential events involving worthy human characters who must struggle to attain their goals?


Dwight Swain, in TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER, tells us to begin on the day that is different. James Frey tells us to begin before the beginning.


These two statements are not contradictory. When you begin a story, you are going to tell about a particular part of your character's life. You choose this part because it is the potentially most dramatic and intense.


In my March 1993 Special Edition, MOTHER OF THE GROOM, my heroine's life was going to change dramatically when she met the hero. But instead of starting with the meeting itself, I started the day before, when Diana's son Kent comes to her office and tells her he's engaged. Diana doesn't the like the girl he's going to marry, and she's uneasy. When Kent says that his fiance's father wants to host them to lunch the following day, Diana is filled with trepidation. It is essential for the reader to know Diana's state of mind before the luncheon to completely appreciate her reaction when she meets Lee, the father of the bride, and the hero of this particular story.


In the sequel to this story, HERE COMES THE GROOM, the dramatic incident revolved around Allison Gabriel coming face to face with Kent Sorensen, the man she jilted three and one-half years earlier. Instead of opening the story at this meeting, I chose to open it a couple of days earlier, when Allison is on her way home and thinking about what's in store for her. The reason? It's important for the reader to know Allison's state of mind, her fears and her concerns, before she has to confront Kent.


Frey says, to explain this theory of beginning before the beginning (the day that is different), that "events can only be understood within the context of the character's situation at the time the event occurs; therefore, it's important to the reader to know the status quo situation, which is the state of things at a particular time."


The events prior to the dramatic incident that is the beginning of your story take place within the status quo situation. The core conflict would begin with the dramatic incident.


In THE WRITER'S JOURNEY by Christopher Vogler, he lists the twelve Steps of a hero's journey. The first step is "the hero's ordinary world," which is what Frey means by the "status quo" situation, and the second step is "the call to adventure" which is the same as the dramatic incident that propels your hero into the conflict.


Let's go back to my first example: MOTHER OF THE GROOM. The core conflict in that book revolved around Diana's reluctance to get romantically involved with the father of her son's fiance, because Diana didn't think her son's marriage would last. She could see how the eventual breakup between her son and Allison would directly impact her own relationship with Lee. This core conflict is not apparent in the first part of the book because that part deals with the status quo situation. It is only when Diana and Lee meet, later in Chapter One, that the reader can see what the conflict will be.


Beginning before the beginning is setting the stage. Getting the reader ready. The status quo situation shows the reader the character's ordinary world as it is before the core conflict begins.


There are alternatives. You can begin your story at the moment the dramatic incident occurs. I could have started MOTHER OF THE GROOM when Diana walks into the restaurant and meets Lee. I would, of course, then have had the problem of informing the reader of Diana's situation, of the fact that she isn't happy about her son's impending marriage and why. If I don't inform the reader of these things, the reader will withhold sympathy for Diana. The reader won't understand why she acts as she does. We don't want our reader to be confused or to withhold sympathy. In fact, at the beginning, we want to create as much sympathy as possible.


The other alternative is to begin AFTER the beginning of the story. Diana is leaving the restaurant after having just met her son's future father-in-law. The problem here is that not only do we miss knowing about Diana's uneasiness and worry BEFORE meeting Lee, but we miss one of the most dramatic scenes: the meeting itself. In a romance, telling the reader in flashback about the meeting of hero and the heroine would be the kiss of death.


The tension and suspense would be completely lost.


Much better to set your stage, then show the drama of the event that will propel your story and initiate the core conflict.


Then bring your actors out and let the story unfold in a series of scenes and sequels.


Before we talk about scene and sequel, let's talk for a while about planning your story.


Frey talks about how the incidents in your story must evolve from one another, the theory of cause and effect. Such and such happens which causes such and such to happen which causes such and such to happen. Everything in your story should be related in this way. Because everything is causal, readers have a strong desire to read on, to find out what is going to happen as a result of what just happened.


When you plan your novel, you need to plan not only those events/incidents, but the stages of the characters' development or growth as it is related to the events. In order to having rising conflict, the character must be developing, changing through stages, growing incrementally from pole to pole.


This can be accomplished in the planning stages of a novel through the use of a step sheet. A STEP SHEET IS A DETAILED PLAN OF THE INCIDENTS OF A STORY. Think of the step sheet as your blueprint. In a sales training course I once took, the instructor said, "If you don't know where you're going, you can't know how to get there." The reverse is also true. You can know where you want to end up, but if you don't have a route (a blueprint), you're going to make it very difficult to get there without getting lost and having to find your way back.


A novel can be broken up into three parts: beginning, middle, and end. The beginning is the setup, it creates the tension. The middle builds up and intensifies it. The ending breaks down into two segments: climax and resolution.


Each part of your story will be written in a series of scenes and sequels. If you've never heard the terms before, scene refers to a unit of conflict lived through by the character and the reader, and a sequel is a unit of transition that links two scenes.


Let's take them one by one. First, scene. A scene is a unit of conflict lived through by character and reader. Dwight Swain says that the functions of scene are twofold--to provide interest and to move your story forward. It can provide interest in a variety of ways. It can raise a question to intrigue your reader. It can be used to build characterization. It can provide information. But it always has to move your story forward.


Someone--I think it might have been Anne Stuart--once said a writer should have three reasons for writing a scene. The first can be to introduce a character. The second might be to show the protagonist's feelings about that character. The third might be to introduce an element of romance into the story. But overriding all of these reasons are the two main reasons--providing interest and moving the story forward.


If a scene doesn't move your story forward in some way, eliminate it. It doesn't belong in your book.


What unifies a scene and holds it together?


Swain says that time holds it together. You live through a scene, and there are no breaks in the flow of life.


your story forward. And how does a scene provide interest? It pits your focal character against opposition. In so doing, it raises a question to intrigue your reader. Will this character win or won't he? Will the girl say 'yes' or won't she? When will the character find out the truth? And what will happen when she does?


In another of my Special Editions, LET'S MAKE IT LEGAL, Sydney is a high-powered attorney who calls a legal temporary agency for a paralegal. The agency says they'll send her a paralegal named Terry Whipple. The following morning, Terry Whipple calls in and says she's got the flu and can't make her assignment. The owners (twins, brother & sister) of the agency are panic-stricken. They don't have another paralegal to send. Janet says John will have to go. (John was an attorney in another life). When John reaches the law firm, Sydney's secretary thinks he's Terry Whipple and before he can correct her, Sydney says she has no time for excuses, he's late and they have lots of work to do. John thinks Sydney is rude. He decides to hell with her. Let her go on thinking he's Terry Whipple. By the end of the scene, John is already regretting his hasty decision and hoping Sydney Wells will never find out the truth.


But the question has been raised. The reader knows that Sydney WILL find out the truth (if not, might as well end the story right there, right?). The question is WHEN? And how will she react? And how will this disclosure impact the story?

Actually, I cheated when I told you about this "scene." The way I wrote this, it is actually two scenes linked by a sequel. Later, after we get into sequel, I'll explain what I did.


Now, let's talk about scene structure. Scene structure is as simple as A-B-C. A meaning Goal. B meaning Conflict. And C meaning Disaster.


Goal: The POV character in a scene must want something. Something meaning (1) possession of something, (2) relief from something, or (3) revenge for something. Axiom: a goal is not a goal until it's specific and concrete and immediate enough for you to take some sort of action toward achieving it. The essence of goal choice is decision to act. Your character's decision.


Conflict: conflict is struggle, opposition, a man tryiing to walk through a locked door, a man resisting something, two entities striving to attain mutually incompatible goals. For one to win, the other must lose.


Readers like conflict. It creates and heightens tension.


Disaster: disaster is a hook--a device for catching, holding, sustaining, or pulling anything--in this case, a reader. Almost always, disaster raises a question. Disaster comes in the form of new information received. And remember, you can also use the "reversed" disaster as a hook. Having a scene end on a wonderful note, e.g. "Paula knew that nothing would ever spoil her happiness." The reader immediately knows that not only will something spoil her happiness, but she's probably going straight down the road to disaster.


Just to see how Goal, Conflict, Disaster works, let's build a scene. Let's start with a character. Any character. How about Diana Sorensen, the heroine of MOTHER OF THE GROOM? I told you Diana finds out her son Kent is going to marry Allison Gabriel, and Diana does not like Allison. She thinks Allison is spoiled and self-centered, that she will make Kent miserable, and that the marriage is doomed to fail. All right. The next scene takes place at the restaurant where Diana will meet Allison's father, Lee. Diana's goal is to get through the lunch without letting Lee, Allison, or Kent see how she really feels about this marriage. We've established our goal. Goals usually come in one of two forms: goals of achievement or goals of resistance. In Diana's case, hers is a goal of achievement.


Now what about the conflict in our scene? The conflict occurs when Diana meets Lee and is attracted to him. He is also obviously attracted to her. He flirts with her. Not only is Diana not interested in a romantic relationship, she's darn sure not interested when the man in question is the father of the bride-to-be! There's your conflict. Remember, conflict is struggle, opposition, two forces striving to achieve mutually incompatible goals. Lee is interested in Diana. He wants to pursue the relationship. She isn't interested in him (well, she IS, but she is pretending to herself that she's not). Conflict. Struggle. Opposing forces.


And disaster? Disaster occurs when, at the end of the scene, Diana cannot stop thinking of Lee and knows, by the way he's acted, that he is going to pursue her.


Let's talk about disaster a little bit. Must a scene ALWAYS end in disaster? Yes. Just what is disaster? Disaster is a hook. A device for catching, holding, sustaining, or pulling in your reader. To this end, disaster offers a logical yet unanticipated development that throws your focal character for a loss. It puts him behind the eight-ball. It raises an intriguing question. Will Diana be able to resist Lee's advances? What will she do if Lee calls her? How will she say 'no' to him without causing problems for Kent.


Another way to end a scene is with a reversal. You reverse the disaster. You end the scene on a high-note, set your character up for a fall. This can also raise intriguing questions. Will the hero really win his case? Or will his star witness disappear before he can testify?


Let's talk about scene construction for a while. A scene is made up of action, reaction, action, reaction. Can a scene have only one character? Yes. Let's say we have a character climbing a mounting, encountering obstacles, acting and reacting. That's definitely a scene. Goal--to reach the top of the mountain. Conflict--the obstacles keeping him from getting there. Disaster--falling down and breaking his leg so he can't climb anymore. Or, reverse disaster--reaching the top and being jubilant, e.g., shouting, "Nothing and no one can touch me now!"


But you, the reader, know better!


However, most scenes seem to have more than one character. Usually because that's the way to include dialogue and move the story forward faster.


When you plan your scenes, look at your characters, their goals, the obstacles to those goals, and how the scene will end (disaster/hook/reversal), then decide who has the most at stake. Now you begin the actual writing of the scene. Remember to use action verbs, keep the internal thought to a minimum, and use lots of dialogue. Dialogue is a nifty way to show how people feel without telling the reader. Here's the way the scene should go: action, reaction causes new action, reaction causes new action, reaction. Cause and effect. Cause and effect. Also remember that flashbacks have no place in a scene. Save those for your sequels.


A lot has been written on passive vs. active writing. Many of the articles I've read equate passive writing with the use of the verb "to be". Romance writers are constantly cautioned against using "was" verbs. Sometimes "was" verbs have nothing to do with whether or not writing is active or passive.


Here's an example. You could write: "Mary had a splitting headache, so she downed two aspirins and plopped down on the couch. She hoped the headache would go away, because she had to teach a class at seven, and she knew she wouldn't feel like going otherwise." The word "was" isn't in either sentence, yet the writing is very passive.


But what if you wrote this instead: "Mary's head pounded. She thought about the students she had to face tonight. Oh, man, no way, not unless she got rid of this monster clawing at her temples. She stumbled out to the kitchen, yanked open the cupboard, and groped around for the bottle of aspirin."


Much better, isn't it?


Personally, I never worry about the word "was." In fact, I use it a lot. For me, the key to active writing is getting deeply inside the character's head. Show me his thoughts, exactly the way he's thinking them, let me feel what he's feeling, and I'll be actively caught up in the story because the writing WILL BE ACTIVE.


Things to remember when writing a scene:


1) Establish time, place, circumstance & viewpoint at very start of each scene.

2) Demonstrate quickly that some character has a scene goal.

3) Build to a curtain line

4) Don't go into flashback (save those for sequels)

5) Don't accidentally summarize (show vs. tell)



Now sequels. Remember I said sequel is a unit of transition linking two scenes? It sets forth your focal character's reaction to the scene just completed, and provides him with motivation for the scene next to come.


A sequel can be short or long. Are all sequels transitions? Yes. Are all transitions sequels? No. A simple transition can be used to link two scenes, something like "The next morning John hurried through his morning ritual and arrived at his office at seven. He'd no sooner walked through the door when Mary, his secretary, said ---------- " The reason that transition is not a sequel is it doesn't contain the elements of a sequel. The three elements of a sequel are: Reaction, dilemma, decision. If that transition I just read to you had contained some internal thought while John was getting ready for work, something like remembering the scene at work the previous day where a vendor had called, irate, and demanded full payment for services rendered. John could think about how angry he was. (REACTION), then think about what he was going to do if he couldn't raise the money (DILEMMA), then think, well, he could bo to the bank and borrow the money (DECISION). Then he could arrive at the office, etc. etc. Now we've got a sequel instead of just a transition.


The sequel is the decision-making area, the bridge from one scene to another. Most exposition is handled through sequel. If you don't understand what exposition is, it's anything the reader needs to know about what happened in the past in order to better appreciate what's going to happen in the future. It's the way you present necessary information to the reader that can't be presented in a scene because if you presented it in a scene, it would slow down the scene so much your reader would forget what was happening.


Let's say you want your reader to know that John has been married before and the marriage was a miserable one. You want to give the reader some background information about the marriage because that will shed light on the decision John is going to make about a woman he is seeing. While John is thinking about the previous scene, and trying to decide what to do, he will remember his marriage. This information will provide logic and plausibility to the decision John will eventually make.


Thus sequel is the aftermath--the state of affairs and state of mind that shapes your character's behavior.


Sequel also has a 1-2-3 structure, the same as scene.


Reaction. Dilemma. Decision.


Since the sequel is the decision making area, the bridge between scenes where the reader finds out everything the character is thinking and agonizing over, it is the place for flashbacks as they pertain to the dilemma facing the character. Sequels provide logic and plausibility to your story. They let readers know WHY a character is doing what he's doing, the thought processes behind his upcoming actions. Sometimes--many times, actually--a character will decide something in a sequel, then do exactly the opposite. This should confound and frustrate the reader, right? Not if, in the very next sequel, we find out WHY. Human beings often do the opposite of what they intend to do, based on what happens to them. The same with your story. In fact, this makes for a more dramatic story. If our characters always stuck to their good resolutions, the story would be awfully dull.


So sequel is aftermath. The state of affairs and the state of mind that shapes your character's behavior AFTER disaster has knocked him down.


Earlier I talked about LET'S MAKE IT LEGAL. Remember how John has gone along with the mistaken identity, thinking it won't matter, because his client won't ever know? What if I were to tell you that Sydney (the client) really liked John, and when her paralegal calls her the following week saying she's pregnant and has been ordered by her doctor to stay in bed for the first three months because of her previous history of miscarriage, Sydney decides she wants John back--permanently. She calls the agency. Disaster, right? John isn't who she thinks he is, and if she finds out who he is, she'll be furious and take her business away from his firm, which needs it. So in a sequel to this scene where Janet is forced to lie to Sydney and say John has taken another full-time job, John thinks about how he wishes he hadn't lied to Sydney to start with. This is the sequel. The aftermath.


With sequels you can control the tempo of your novel, the pacing, the peaks and valleys. Long scenes equal big interest and long sequels indicate strong plausibility. So, in writing, you must decide which element is most important to you at each given point.


Here's a few practical hints about sequels from Dwight Swain:

1) If your story tends to drag or grow boring, strengthen and enlarge the scenes. Build up the conflict.

2) If an air of improbability pervades your masterpiece, lengthen your sequels.


Copyright by Patricia Kay


About the Author


Patricia Kay taught fiction writing classes at the University of Houston, Cinco Ranch, for three years. She has given workshops on a variety of writing-related subjects at dozens of local, regional, and national conferences. She is a former national board member of Romance Writers of America. If you would like information about her availability to speak to your chapter or appear at your conference, you can contact her at P.O. Box 441603, Houston, TX 77244-1603 or e-mail her at trisha@pdq.net.

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