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.
Scenes 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!
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.
NOTICE 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.
- Weekly Lecture Schedule – August 12-16
- How Not to be Boring with Miranda Liasson
- Ask An Editor: Understanding Submission Guidelines
- Ask an Editor with Theresa Stevens
- The Romance University Library