In the post before last, I said I’d write about the second error I see most often in editing — the failure to write in scenes. It’s a shame, too, because after one reads Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer, the error is very easy to fix.
Swain said every scene has three parts, in this order: goal, conflict, and disaster. But what does that mean?
Every character has a book goal. For example, Scarlett wants to marry Ashley. But she also has a minor goal for every scene. What is the Point of View character trying to achieve in this scene? For example, Scarlett wants to sneak downstairs during naptime to confront Ashley with her love and make him break off his engagement to Melanie. So many beginning writers just have their characters rambling around, eating dinner, traveling, having boring conversations. There’s no point to the scene, it’s flat and boring – all because the character doesn’t have a scene goal — something important she’s trying to accomplish. And you can’t assume the reader will deduce the goal — you have to tell her outright what the goal is. Why make her guess?
Then, there is something (a conflict) that prevents the character from achieving that goal. For example, Ashley tells Scarlett that he loves Melanie and won’t break off the engagement. This makes for excitement, and the scene moves along with meaning.
Then the scene ends on a note of disaster. So often, beginning writers just let the scene drift away, or, worse yet, they have the character going to bed and falling asleep. Snooze. That’s just what the reader will do. There has to be a major or mini-disaster to keep the reader eagerly turning pages. Things get worse. The disaster doesn’t have to be an earthquake — it could merely be the raising of an eyebrow, but it signals disaster to the character. For example, Scarlett discovers that Rhett was lying on the couch and overheard the whole humiliating discussion.
What could be simpler? And yet, when I try to teach this in classes, lots of writers balk. I guess they think it sounds too mechanical, or they resent having to follow “rules.” But why, when it ‘s so simple, and it makes the pages sing with meaning?
Scenes are followed by sequels, where the character thinks about what just happened and forms a new goal for the next scene. For example, Scarlett cries under the stairs and decides to marry Melanie’s brother, Charles. Voila! Her new goal, and the next scene is her wedding!
Fiction writers — run, don’t walk — and get Techniques of the Selling Writer! You’ll be glad you did.