Posted On August 16, 2013 by Print This Post

Make a Scene! or, Why Scenes Should Be Seen and not Heard – Miranda Liasson

Please welcome Miranda Liasson, winner of this year’s Golden Heart in Contemporary Series Romance. She’s going to talk to us today about building scenes.

Miranda LiassonScenes work hard. Really, really hard. Like cells in the body, they truly are the basic building blocks of the life of your story. They’re sneaky and clever without smacking you in the head with their brilliance (hence, the second part of my title).

They need to read SEAMLESSLY, without making your reader snooze or jolting them out of your book to see all the machinations you are working behind the scenes, if you excuse the pun.

All this means YOU have to work extra hard to squeeze all the juicy goodness out of them, just like you’re making fresh O.J.

I did not know any of this until I had written three manuscripts, none of which is likely to see the light of day. I would sit down at the computer and ask myself, well, what has to happen next? Then start writing. La-de-da. And wherever my mind wandered, there went my keyboard.

Bad, bad bad. Panster or plotter, scenes need careful attention and FORETHOUGHT. Here’s why. The scene is the driver of your story. Each scene propels the plot forward in some crucial way. The movement should be obvious as you examine each and every scene. If nothing really happens, cut them! Cut them all! I MEAN it!

 AE Jones, Miranda, Eloisa James and Sarah MacLean

AE Jones, Miranda, Eloisa James and Sarah MacLean

So let’s get started.

Basic scene structure can be learned in a short book called Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham. Bickham basically says that each book has one major STORY QUESTION that drives the reader to keep reading. That story question gets answered little by little, one scene at a time, by giving your character a SCENE GOAL. Goals along the way can change but the ultimate goal does not get attained satisfactorily until the very end—or boredom sets in and the book is emotionally OVER.

So in a romance, your characters do not profess undying love at page 100. Whatever life-changing problems are occurring do not get resolved until the end of the book—and the romance gets resolved after the story goals.

Bickham says the basic components of a scene are the GOAL, CONFLICT, and DISASTER.

Here is a goal for a scene I’m currently writing:

GOAL:   BET ON THE BACHELOR.

MOTIVATION:  SAVE THE (proverbial) FAMILY FARM.

Let me set the stage. There is a charity Bachelor Auction where the prize is an entire weekend with a bachelor. The heroine is desperate to save her family’s 75-year-old company, which is being bought out by a venture capitalist (the hero, who is one of the bachelors being auctioned). The heroine is broke from dumping her savings into the company, but she has access to a trust fund with $10,000. She thinks that if she can bet on the venture capitalist (her old lover), bring him home to face folks in their old home town, he’ll change his mind and give her a chance to resuscitate the company which is in peril after her father had a stroke.

IMG_0957NOTICE the goal is concrete, attainable (not “seeking world peace”), and not vague or philosophical (“are venture capitalists nice?”) and must be able to be answered YES or NO (but not just a simple yes or no, as we’ll discuss below). In this example, if my heroine bids on the bachelor and loses, she goes home and the story is over. If she wins him outright and he agrees to save her company, the story is over.

CONFLICT. Ask yourself:  what is the EXTERNAL conflict that PREVENTS the character from achieving his or her goal?

In my scene, the bidding for the bachelor is driven up because he’s really popular. He’s the Ryan Gosling of bachelors:  successful, driven, handsome and everyone wants him! All this other bidding is the external conflict that prevents my heroine from getting her goal. She realizes pretty quickly she doesn’t have enough money to follow through on her scheme.

INTERNAL CONFLICT: Ask yourself:  What is the INTERNAL conflict that impedes the character from achieving his or her goal?

My heroine is desperate. She’s out of ideas. The hero has already bought the majority of stock holdings of the company. She’s quit her (good) job to take the helm of a company that is capsizing. Also, she’s a graphic designer. She has no business degree or experience. And she would rather bet her last dime than tell her ill father the company is lost, even as she realizes this is a stupid idea that will drain her bank account. All these things going through her mind make her reluctant to place her bid—they impede her goal of betting on the bachelor.

Remember to make the internal conflict have the HIGHEST STAKES you can and BE TIED TO EMOTION, EMOTION, EMOTION.

DISASTER! A scene must always end in a “disaster,” which is defined simply as whether or not your character achieved her goal. The word “disaster” simply means that the scene question is not resolved in a tidy way. The characters will have hurdles and problems to overcome until the very last word of the book. No scene should end with a lapse of tension until the very end of your book. Tension is a good thing and you must have LOTS. OF. IT.

There are two possible answers to your scene question, DID MY CHARACTER ACHIEVE HER GOAL? YES, BUT… or NO, AND FURTHERMORE…

Both of these answers guarantee that the book’s conflict will not die with the end of the scene. It guarantees that the scene will end on that all-important HOOK.

So in my scene, I could have had my heroine NOT win the bachelor. But then something would have to happen (the FURTHERMORE) to bring the hero and heroine back in conflict and together again.

I chose the YES, BUT option. Yes, she wins the bachelor (by begging her sister to lend her the money she’s saving for her wedding!) BUT my heroine’s life savings are drained, she’s in debt to her sister,  she’s going to have to spend a month on the phone soliciting matching donations from business associates and—she’s bet it all on a man who is cunning and ruthless and has every reason (a very personal family reason) to want her family’s company to be dissolved.

Remember the disaster MUST answer the scene question, does she win the bachelor? It cannot be, I’m not sure but she left the auction depressed. Or, We never find out  because a hurricaine destroyed the ballroom (That’s a disaster, but the wrong kind!).

So in this very brief example, you see something very, very important:  scenes aren’t accidents. They don’t just appear out of the top level of your consciousness. You may be a panster and the first draft of your scene may be just that. But I encourage you to GO DEEPER. PLAN the tension, set up surprises and twists, do the unexpected, show your character’s depth and path to growth—and then go back and make this all appear totally seamless. (Easy-peasy, right?!)

When I am going back over a scene, I ask myself, what would I like to read about as the reader? How can I be MORE surprised, MORE worried, MORE sympathetic with my characters?  What would make me laugh more or cry more? What makes me go OMG! She didn’t really just do that, did she? No, she would NEVER do that!  No way!

Watch your own reactions to your scenes—if you are falling asleep writing them, guess what—so will your reader.

The book mentioned above is Scene and Structure by Jack M. Bickham, Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, OH, 1993.

***

RU Writers – do you plot ahead to make sure your scene is all it can be?

Join us tomorrow – yes on a Saturday! for Amy Alessio’s new column – Reader Roundup: No Danger of Running Out of Good Romantic Suspense

***

 Bio: After entering the Golden Heart six times, Miranda Liasson was a double finalist this year. Her series manuscript Baby on Board—Help!, about a high-powered career woman who suddenly finds herself the mother of an infant back in her small home town, won the Golden Heart for Series Contemporary Romance. She holds a masters degree in English Literature and lives in Ohio with her husband, three kids and her critique partners, a yellow lab named Maggie and a crazy rescue cat named Posey. She is represented by Jill Marsal of The Marsal Lyon Literary Agency.

Please find Miranda online at http://www.mirandaliasson.com, on Twitter @mirandaliasson, and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/Miranda.Liasson.

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51 Responses to “Make a Scene! or, Why Scenes Should Be Seen and not Heard – Miranda Liasson”

  1. I found this to be helpful in a big way. It’s the MORE MORE MORE that I need more of in my historical romance. My heroine is somewhat restrained, in part because of her position in the household. However, she is alone and reflecting in her room and I could probably have her sweat it out more when she is alone.

    Posted by Peggy | August 16, 2013, 12:55 am
  2. Great post, Miranda! Excellent job showing how to use a scene to ramp up the stakes. Another excellent book on story structure is Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer.

    Posted by Krista Hall | August 16, 2013, 5:49 am
  3. Hi Peggy,
    Donald Maass cautions that most manuscripts are too predictable and ordinary and that it’s hard to overdo larger-than-life qualities.
    Do you think your heroine needs to leave her room and sweat it out with someone else…maybe the hero? Internal conflict is great but often is coupled in a scene with external conflict.
    Best of luck with it and thanks for stopping by!

    Posted by Miranda Liasson | August 16, 2013, 5:49 am
  4. Hi Krista! Thanks for mentioning a classic. We may as well throw Deb Dixon’s Goal, Motivation, Conflict in there too, although she deals more with the overall story rather than the scene.
    Appreciate your comment!

    Posted by Miranda Liasson | August 16, 2013, 5:54 am
  5. I just wanted to shout out a big THANK YOU to Carrie and the RU Faculty for inviting me here today! I’m so honored.
    If anybody has any questions, ask away!
    So glad it’s Friday! Yay!!!

    Posted by Miranda Liasson | August 16, 2013, 5:55 am
  6. Wow, I thought I was an early riser! This was a great column Miranda. I tend to write my way in to the story and then plot so I guess I’m a planster. Or something. Anyway, I look forward to reading this new story!

    Posted by Piper | August 16, 2013, 6:42 am
  7. Planster–I love it! Not that early, Piper–the times are wrong at the ends of the posts! Thanks for stopping by, fellow Lucky 13!

    Posted by Miranda Liasson | August 16, 2013, 6:57 am
  8. Hi, Miranda! Great post! You’ve put a LOT of information into a small space – and I will be bookmarking this column for future quick reference.

    Only recently did I finally understand the concept of ‘hooks.’ Thanks to my critique partners, the idea began to sink in. Then I read Conflict & Suspense, and Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell, both Writers Digest books. He uses the term ‘death’ in place of ‘disaster’, but it means the same thing. The character must face physical, emotional, or professional ‘death’ (or failure) at the end of each scene. That’s what keeps the reader turning pages.

    My favorite type of research is to read a book where the author has mastered this concept, in an attempt to understand and apply it to my writing. Problem is, I always get so sucked in to the story that I lose track of the craft that got me there!

    Thanks, Miranda, for a great post!

    Smiles,
    Leslie

    Posted by Leslie Lynch | August 16, 2013, 7:07 am
    • Hey Leslie! Another Fellow Lucky 13!

      Thanks for clarifying “Death” and “Disaster.” Something uncomfortable has to happen at the end of the scene to be unsettling–no comfort for the reader until the last page!

      LOL. Yes, how many times do I start “studying” books, only to get sucked in and forget what I’m looking for! That’s the true art. To be able to do all this work but the end product is seamless and unobtrusive.

      Thanks for the James Scott Bell book recs, too!

      Posted by Miranda Liasson | August 16, 2013, 7:32 am
  9. Morning Miranda-

    This was a helpful and insightful post. A lot of good information that hopefully I”ll be able to absorb.
    It was wonderful to be able to share in the celebration of your Golden Heart win. I’ll never forget it. And I’m sure the audience won’t forgot us!
    You truly are one of the nicest, most sincere and patient person I know. It’s an honor to be your chapter mate. I’ll be first in line when you sell that first book.

    Cleveland Rocks and lady you are awesome!
    Dyanne

    Posted by Dyanne Conner | August 16, 2013, 7:14 am
    • Dyanne, you are a sweetheart and I feel the exact same way about you!!!

      We had so much fun in Atlanta. It was crazy, something to remember always. Like, so crazy it’s unbelievable. As you all can see in that pic, my chaptermate and I, AE Jones, both won our categories (AE for Paranormal), and we had a very raucous and loud contingent of Northeast Ohio RWA friends screaming for us–very loudly!! It was awesome!!!

      So get that GH entry in so we can do it again next year!!! (And visit the Alamo :)

      Thanks for coming by, Dy!!!

      Posted by Miranda Liasson | August 16, 2013, 7:41 am
  10. Great post. The ‘disaster’ word has kind of always hung me up for some reason. I like your way of summing it up, and the ‘yes, but’ or ‘no and furthermore’ seems much more clear and useful to my tiny little brain!

    Thanks for a very useful post.

    Posted by Callene Rapp | August 16, 2013, 7:38 am
    • Hi Callene,

      Yes, “Disaster” was very difficult for me to get. All it means is whether or not the character gets her/his scene goal. If they get it, there’s a BUT, and if they DON’T get it, things get EVEN WORSE. Either way, the character is worse off than when they started. Think: “Worser and worser”!

      Posted by Miranda Liasson | August 16, 2013, 7:44 am
  11. Great post, Miranda. Lots of info for us to think about. This re-emphasizes the whole GMC concept. Thanks for showing exactly what you mean with snippets from your own work. It makes more sense. Look forward to more of this from you.

    Posted by Barb H | August 16, 2013, 7:49 am
  12. Okay, Everyone, I have to go somewhere for the next hour but I promise I’ll BRB as soon as I can!

    Posted by Miranda Liasson | August 16, 2013, 8:01 am
  13. Hi Miranda~

    Great way to break this HUGE concept into easily understandable bite-size pieces.

    Congratulations (again) on your much deserved Golden Heart win. What a great night!

    I concur with Dyanne-it is an honor to be your chapter mate and friend. You are an inspiration!

    Di

    Posted by Di R | August 16, 2013, 8:10 am
  14. Fantastic post, Miranda! I haven’t read Scene and Structure, but I’ve added it to my must-buy list of books on craft.

    Thank you for the clear, vivid example!

    Posted by Reese Ryan | August 16, 2013, 8:20 am
    • Hi Reese,

      The next step is to read a scene in a book you’re reading and see if all this fits.

      There are other things that great authors do in their scenes too that are more complex, but you can usually spot this skeletal structure.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Posted by Miranda Liasson | August 16, 2013, 9:46 am
  15. Morning Miranda!!

    Congrats on your Golden Heart – what a thrill that must be!

    I do have Bickham’s book, and need to read it again. He’s got some brilliant ideas in there I need to have pounded into my head. =)

    For some reason I struggle with making things worse for my characters..I’ll need to remember this part of your blog…

    How can I be MORE surprised, MORE worried, MORE sympathetic with my characters?

    more more more!

    Thanks for posting with us today!

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | August 16, 2013, 8:43 am
  16. By the way, that flower up there belongs to my neighbor. Hers look gorgeous, mine look like dog poo due to being doused by the constant rain all summer :)

    Posted by Miranda Liasson | August 16, 2013, 10:08 am
  17. Really enjoyed this post, Miranda. I am a panster, so this is something I really have to watch for when I go back and work on revisions. I have a tendency to want my H/h to be happy ASAP. :-)

    Posted by Sandra Owens | August 16, 2013, 10:19 am
  18. Great post, Miranda! We had discussed this scene in depth before your post, but seeing your blueprint of the scene spelled out like this elevates it in my mind. I now see where you’re going with the scene and the story. I call myself a hybrid pantser–I outline the major plot points, but each scene isn’t spelled out in such detail. I let me characters tell me where they want the story to go. But when I go back over my first draft, I’ll definitely keep your goal-conflict-sequence in mind. And kudos on the GH win!

    Posted by Becky Lower | August 16, 2013, 10:22 am
    • Hey Becky,

      Whatever you are, it works, judging by your amazing ability to create stories in past and contemporary worlds!

      A “hybrid panster”–sounds like Piper’s “Planster” above. Honestly, I don’t know what I am as a writer, but the word “Desperate” comes to mind! Thanks for coming by!

      Posted by Miranda Liasson | August 16, 2013, 10:47 am
  19. Miranda- Your post was just what I needed today. I’m a panster but that isn’t working with my current manuscript. I think I’m going to go back over the few chapters I have written and make sure my scenes have tension, surprises and twists.:) I think the problem is I’m bored with the story. And if I’m bored…

    Congrats on all your success. I’m so happy for you.

    Posted by Angelina (Barbin) Jameson | August 16, 2013, 11:02 am
    • Angelina!!! Thanks for coming by!!! You know, I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way. First step when things aren’t going well is to vomit out the words (sorry for the imagery) and get SOMETHING down. As La Nora says, you can always fix it (just not a blank page!).

      Good luck with it and have a great weekend!

      Posted by Miranda Liasson | August 16, 2013, 11:05 am
  20. Miranda,

    Thank you, Thank you. I have completely stalled over a scene. I’m going to go back and really look at the goal, conflict and disaster. I think I have been way to good to my characters. I need to go in and mess up their structured little world.

    Vicki

    Posted by Vicki | August 16, 2013, 11:26 am
  21. Fabulous post, Miranda! Good job. I thoroughly enjoyed the refresher course.

    Posted by Jamie Denton | August 16, 2013, 12:38 pm
  22. Miranda –
    Great post. You actually are making me think on a Friday which is really hard for me to do!
    I will definitely be using this process to work on my scenes – especially those that I stall on. I’m not surprised you took home the GH this year! Can’t wait to read this new one you’re working on.

    AE

    Posted by AE Jones | August 16, 2013, 1:05 pm
  23. Fantastic post, Miranda! I have Jack Bickham’s book, but I see that it’s been too long since I last read it. Time for a refresher!

    I am a plotter who likes (if my muse cooperates!) to write a brief blurb about each scene before I start writing. I find it helps organize my thoughts and frees up some brainpower for deciding how to flesh out the bones of my story. For me, making scenes as strong as possible needs constant attention from the first day of starting a story to the last day when someone pries it out of our hands :)

    Posted by Jacqui Nelson | August 16, 2013, 2:26 pm
  24. “Yes, but” and “No, and.” Succinct and perfect. This will stick in my brain. Thank you, Miranda! Awesome.

    My son just insisted I read MAZE RUNNER, by James Dasher, which is the first novel in his current favorite YA dystopian series. I zipped through that thing. The way Dasher constructed it, it’s absolutely impossible to put down. Why? Almost every scene ends with a huge twist, a massive BUT HERE COMES TROUBLE. It’s like a freaking master class in tension.

    Posted by Talia Quinn Daniels | August 16, 2013, 4:07 pm
  25. James Dashner’s books are on my son’s shelf. I will have to pick that one up! Thanks for the tip, Talia, Lucky 13 Sister!

    Posted by Miranda Liasson | August 16, 2013, 4:21 pm
  26. Hi Miranda,

    Congrats on the Golden Heart! For my characters greet every step forward with two steps back.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | August 16, 2013, 4:30 pm
  27. Wonderful advice, Miranda! I’ve been guilty of that, “ooo, it would be great if THIS happened” syndrome, where you don’t think about moving the plot forward.

    No wonder you were a winner this year. You definitely know your craft. I’m really looking forward to reading your books!!

    Posted by Joanna Shupe | August 16, 2013, 4:43 pm
  28. …And yours as well, Lady J. I mean Your Grace!

    Posted by Miranda Liasson | August 16, 2013, 4:54 pm
  29. Thanks so much for an excellent post! (Also, congratulations on the Golden Heart!)

    I KNOW this – I really do, or at any rate I SHOULD know it by now. But I don’t think it’s entirely sunk in, so I appreciate the reminder.

    Now I need to go make sure I’ve got goals, disasters and easily answered yes/no questions in all my scenes!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | August 16, 2013, 8:02 pm
  30. Thanks again to Romance U for having me today!

    Posted by Miranda Liasson | August 16, 2013, 10:08 pm
  31. Thanks so much for posting with us Miranda….we thoroughly enjoyed having you on board! =)

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | August 16, 2013, 11:10 pm

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