I’ve made so many changes in my process while writing this book. In an attempt to get beyond my innate pantser tendencies and habits of going off into fluffyverse, writing scenes that are the next logical event but that don’t necessarily advance the plot, etc., I have created a set of rules for myself. The whole point of this is to eliminate the deadwood in my plots. Since past habits have seen me writing and axing at least a third or more of the scenes that I wrote (which is hardly efficient or particularly productive), I came up with these in an effort to streamline the process. Streamlining and coming up with ways to create less waste in the story is really important to me. I have limited time to write with all the real life demands, so efficiency is key for me to be productive.
Ideally, I manage to follow these rules and answer all these questions during the plotting stage (which for HiS took three whole months–I’m hoping the next one doesn’t take so long) such that I know, beyond a reasonable doubt, that there is a purpose for including that scene.
This does not take into account those scenes that end up getting axed because my characters take me in a different direction and make me change my outline. But that’s a topic for another post.
I came up with these requirements after reading Debra Dixon’s Goal, Motivation, and Conflict and having a massive epiphany about my characters and how they drive the story. It’s all very obvious AFTER reading the book, but it’s stuff that just never occurred to me before. And I think it’s going to have such an impact on my writing a solid, believable story without deadwood.
So for each scene I have to answer the following:
Which of the following does the scene accomplish?
____ (G) Dramatically illustrate a character’s progress toward the goal or provide an experience which changes a character’s goal.
____ (M) Provide a character with an experience that strengthens his motivation or changes his motivation.
____ (C) Bring a character into conflict with opposing forces.
It can, of course accomplish all three, but minimally must accomplish at least one. This point gives me the broad goal of the scene.
- What are the three reasons for the scene?
Now one of my three reasons for the scene can be answering the GMC question above. But I must have at least 3 total reasons for the scene to be included and make the cut. Why three? Well, if I remember correctly, I think Dixon says something about it in her book, but mostly it’s because I think of something having three points as being stable. If I can come up with three reasons, then more than likely I won’t have to axe the scene later.
Finally I have to answer these questions.
- How does the scene change the character?
- What dimension is added to the character’s personality?
- What is at stake?
- Is it immediate/urgent?
This is a conglomeration of questions pulled from writing advice I’ve read by other folks. Those last two questions I definitely pulled from Alexandra Sokoloff’s fabulous advice. I forget where I pulled the first two, but they are very important questions. Each scene SHOULD change the character somehow, even if it is subtle. And we should learn something new about the character with his/her actions/thoughts in that scene. It’s about advancing the plot. And for a scene to be important, something has to be at stake. And if the reader is to care about it, it should be urgent. The reader should care that it happens NOW and not next week.
Jason Pinter wrote an interesting post this morning over at Genreality. He was talking about the two purposes for every scene: to show the NOW and to show the subtext of the now. The NOW, as he describes it, is the surface action. I don’t think most of us have any problem with this part. It’s the thing that’s actually happening to the characters. They’re having a drink. Packing. Talking to the cops. Whatever.
The secondary purpose is to show the subtext, the underlying currents in the scene. Those characters having a drink suspect each other of having an affair. The person packing is doing so knowing that she can never come back to the home she loves. The guy talking to the cop is really guilty and trying to hide it. It’s this subtext that is often so hard because it’s subtle. Whereas the NOW is like painting the walls of a room, the subtext is the fine detail work, like doing a faux finish marble on the walls. The subtext fits neatly into those three reasons for the scene. Very often at least one of those three reasons will be whatever you’re showing in the subtext.
I find this Scene Questionnaire to be really helpful, so I’ve got it here for download if you care to give it a try. At the bottom, you’ll find a list of follow up questions. These are intended for troubleshooting scenes. I’ll talk about those in another post.