And now on with the blog...
Folks know the SPINE of a book is that narrow strip you see when they are all arranged on the store shelf, that part that some folks get testy about when someone "brakes" it, leaving those wrinkles running top to bottom and showing that the book was actually read. Today I want to talk about a similar word, but an altogther different meaning: the story's BACKBONE.
<insert "ta-da" music and cymbal crash here>
Scenes are active. They show us vibrant characters who are doing things. Why are they doing these things? There has been an external stimulus, and they are responding to it. EX: A medic is enjoying a quiet evening on-duty when the phone rings. OR A detective has a morning appointment.
Early on in a scene you establish a viewpoint character, a setting, and something happens...not necessarily in that order. Pretty easy to understand, yes? Three ingredients, combine and stir, right?
Sometimes that might be enough.
Just don't forget that character development and conflict are often seeded in between the stimulus and the response. Does the medic cringe with fear at getting called out? Is he new? Did he screw up last time and someone nearly died? Is he waiting on a call from the detective who's following his wife?
This is where you can, BRIEFLY, begin to layer the character with emotions that make them real. But remember, this is a scene, it's action oriented, so don't get bogged down in emotion yet. Just plant that seed of character to build on. Let the action be active. When it is done, you can let that seed sprout...just before the next bit of action happens that somehow, logically, keeps intensifying the story question while pushing towards the scene goal.
If you want to master the skill of scenes and sequels, I HIGHLY recommend Scene & Structure by Jack M. Bickham from Writer's Digest Books.
Chapter four: Structure In Larger Elements: The Scene.
Excerpt (Pg 23) "Readers generally find nothing more enthralling than conflict."
Excerpt (Pg 24) "The scene, you see, has conflict at heart, but is not static. It is a dynamic structural component with a definite internal pattern which forces the story to move forward as the scene plays--and as a result of its ending."
Excerpt (Pg. 25) "The scene question cannot be some vague, philosophical one such as, 'Are bankers nice?' or 'What motivates people like Fred?' The question is specific, relates to a definite, immediate goal, and can be answered with a simple yes or no."
** Mr. Bickham gives the example that if the story goal is "I must be the first to climb that mountain!" said Fred. Then the reader's story question is: "Will Fred succeed in being the first to climb the mountain?" And the individual scenes each have a specific goal that supports the story goal, such as a scene where 'Fred goes to convince a banker to give him a loan to fund the climb' leaves the reader wondering if he will get the loan...and what will he do if he doesn't? And all this drama is deepened by the conflict of a rival climber who is already rich and doesn't need to get funding and can therefore organize his climb without delay.
**Granted, I have not mastered this art even after six books. I frequently return to this chapter, heck, to this book, to review and keep its lessons fresh in my mind.
Excerpt: (Pg. 43) "Remember how stimulus-response transactions work, with an internalization in the middle? ... recognize that there will be a number of sharp twists and small setbacks during the conflict portion of the scene, and your viewpoint character will experience each of these turns as a stimulus; ... you the author have the option of going into his brief internalization concerning what was just said or done. It is in these internalizations that you can remind the reader what's at stake, and how things seem to be going in the opinion of the viewpoint character."
Chapter seven: Linking Your Scenes: The Structure of Sequel
**I call this the "Emotion, Thought, Decision Moment" Something big just happened. It changes things for our character and propels him/her forward.
(Pg. 51) "A sequel begins for your viewpoint character the moment a scene ends. Just struct by a new, unanticipated but logical disaster, he is plunged into a a period of sheer emotion followed sooner or later by a period of thought, which sooner or later results in the formation of a new, goal-oriented decision, which in turn results in some action toward the new goal..."
Also worth noting is Chapter ten: Common Errors in Scenes and How To Fix Them
I hope this has been helpful! And really, go get that book!