What do your characters go through?
Now that sounds straightforward enough, no? What they go through is your plot.
But how do you make sure they experience what matters—to both plot and characters—and not get bogged down in superfluous action?
Therein lies the key to a great novel.
But we’ve gotten to know our hero well, right? Done the exercises from part one, identified strengths and weaknesses, found seminal moments in her history or her story.
Now, how do we bring all of that out through the course of the novel?
Novels are created through scenes, and therein holds the true key to what our characters go through. In essence, we can’t truly divorce plot and characters, although we veer toward one or another when dissecting them. But characters drive the plot, and the plot changes the characters.
Whether you outline the entire novel, or write from discovery, or anything in between, it makes all the difference in the world to at least have an idea of where your people and storyline are going.
And that all comes back to scenes and how those are structured from Once Upon a Time to The End.
This can be easier to effect once the first draft is down—especially if you write from discovery. So, once you have that big blob of an initial draft, we can get to the nuts and bolts.
A note on revision here: It’s not polish. Revision is rewriting, restructuring, and where you see the holes, the belabored or unnecessary parts, and reshaping the entire thing.
Structure is a bit different from shape and form, as Structure is what holds your story together. It’s flowing, not rigid, and this isn’t about paint by numbers. Rather, it’s like the infrastructure of a bridge—the concrete and steel that hold it up.
The shape, on the other hand, is what you build around the structure. And whatever the shape—novels of all genres, short stories, memoirs, narrative non-fiction—the structure is the same.
Scenes just form the building blocks of this structure.
Stories are comprised of a series of interconnected scenes. That’s how you plot a novel, or work of narrative nonfiction. This forms the Arc of the Storyline.
And most importantly, a Scene has conflict at its very core.
We’re talking about Cause and Effect (and you have to have both). The cause is the background of the scene. How it came to be. And the effect is the plot development or plot point. This is how you keep a story moving. Otherwise, we end up with those dreaded sagging middles.
So, let’s talk about Scenes. This is really a bit of a misnomer, as it really should be called Scene and Consequences. And every one has to have both (albeit not always at the same time).
A Scene has five basic parts. But as above, only the first 3 compose the Scene. The last 2 compose the Consequences:
1). First, you set the scene.
You create the people within it–their roles, their feelings, etc. Evoke metaphor and imagery to evoke this.
Don’t think scene setting involves your narrator? It actually accomplishes two main things:
- It places the reader smack dab in the scene, using sensory input. The more sensory input, the more real the scene is to your reader.
- Again, you evoke the emotion of your viewpoint character. USE this. That way you don’t have to tell me what the viewpoint character is feeling. Again, use metaphor, imagery to evoke that.
This doesn’t necessarily come in to begin the scene. If the setting is important, say, you open on a boat in the middle of the Atlantic with a hurricane approaching, and the motor has died, showing me immediately the immensity of the waves is helpful. On the other hand, in most cases I want to be dropped into something that is already happening. Again, enter late. And then weave the scene setting in.
This is where you show how the viewpoint character’s mood changes through the scene, by evoking metaphor and imagery, etc.
2). Then, you create conflict.
Conflict should comprise 95% of the scene. Conflict encompasses five main themes: Man against himself. Man against man. Man against environment. Man against nature. Man against machine.
How did the conflict come about? What were its roots? How is each person within it involved? How is the reader involved?
Conflict has very little to do with guns firing. It is rather what blows apart within a character. However, this conflict has to be external. Something has to give. Something or someone has to get. Something has to be happening in your story. The protagonist is in conflict with an antagonist while enroute to a goal. The character must resolve his conflict–within, without—for the story to have meaning.
Ask yourself going into the scene (before you write it):
- How did the conflict come about?
- What were its roots?
- How is each person involved?
- How is the reader involved?
Get a 3X 5 card for each Scene. Write on it:
- Who, Where, How long in Story time is the conflict to last.
- We need at least 4 twists and turns
- What is the Disaster at the end of the conflict?
This is of VITAL IMPORTANCE: For both the whole story, and for each scene:
Establish right off the bat what the Story Question is to begin the first scene of the book. This is your main point of the story. And each scene has to have a piece of this main Story Question.
Craft your inciting incident (your Story Question) with care. This event upsets your main character’s equilibrium and arouses his desire to restore balance—and creates a bond with the reader by arousing her curiosity as to whether the protagonist can achieve his goal.
Not sure? Ask: What is the worst thing that can happen to my protagonist? This can reveal to you his deepest desire, and point you toward his story goal. In turn, this will help you construct an inciting incident that carries the story through to the end–and provides the tension for readers to keep turning the pages.
This question brings a significant change in the character’s reality—it challenges his status quo, and knocks him out of his comfort zone. Under any sort of pressure—from beginning to end—we find out what our hero is made of.
This question also gives the reader something to worry about—which keeps him reading.
NOTE: the reader will lose interest with everything but the Story Question, so make sure every scene has a piece of that—something which relates to it, and the character has to manage to get to the Holy Grail at the end of the book.
3). Then within each individual scene, the conflict comes to a climax.
With this conflict/climax, the external conflict must mirror the internal core conflict of the character.
This must lead to a Disaster. But it’s a tactical disaster of some sort. Which brings up a new setback for our character.
But not so complete a disaster that it dooms his quest. If it’s too trivial, it won’t matter. If it’s too huge, the reader won’t believe it. But the character is now in worse shape than when the scene began.
The character can either: withdraw from the conflict; accept the conflict as unresolvable; resolve all or part of the conflict.
Depending upon pacing, you can end the scene here, especially to leave us hanging. But eventually, you have to come back for the next two parts.
Now, the Consequences part comes in. This is the internal part. The process is, in this order: Feelings, Thoughts, Decisions, Actions.
The scene slows down. The smoke begins to clear. What is left after the conflict’s fire can be seen.
Even if you’ve ended the chapter/scene at the conflict’s climax, you have to return here for these consequences at some point.
We get the Feelings of the character first. Then his Thoughts about it. Then Decisions he makes. And then Actions.
Something is learned from the conflict, even if the knowledge is that the character knows he cannot resolve it. Or, that he now has a piece with which to resolve it later. Our character can:
Withdraw from the conflict.
Accept the conflict as unresolvable (but if it speaks to the central conflict, help must come in a bit to cause our character to dive back in).
Resolve part of the conflict.
But something has to be gained. Something is learned from the conflict—a piece to resolve bigger questions later.
This leads to decisions, which then leads to action. Which sets up the next scene.
Zero-in on emotional turning points. We want tight, concise writing everywhere but lavish word count on emotional turning points, which are crucial both to character development and the reader’s sense of story movement.
As things go from good to bad or bad to worse, what does your character learn about himself, and how has he changed?
Example: A daughter risks losing her mother, realizes that she will not always be cared for, and now sees herself as more than just a dependent. Turning point! Now, choose powerful words to end that scene and let the impact resonate across the white space.
Any scene that does not compose these elements should be omitted from the book. Every single scene must enhance the characters, further the plot, or both.
In essence, the Consequences part is expanded internalization. It’s what links your scenes together. Again, what’s happening outside mirrors what’s happening inside.
Keep upping the stakes. Keep plot points coming. A book needs conflicts in every scene, on every page.
The thing is, we need an objective, through which the hero is driving the plot, rather than just reacting to events in the story. But the plot is also changing the character—they work hand in hand. We need something to be at stake—something for which if the goal isn’t reached, the grail not achieved, the consequences are dire. And we need confrontation, whereby the characters grow.
Yep, a lot goes into what your people go through during the course of a story! But this is how you flesh out fully human, multi-sided, flesh-and-bone characters rather than cardboard cut-outs.
In essence, you’re creating who they are by what they go through in the story, rather than telling your reader about them.
And that makes all the difference as to whether we love/hate/remember them, or they fall off into the sea of obscurity.