Examining a Scene

I opened up As High as the Heavens the other day. It was my first book. Man, did I love this book. I poured my heart into it. It has some chunks of great writing. Even some three-dimensional characters who experience some pretty gripping stuff.


It’s not publishable.

Here’s why.

I wrote that novel before I had any idea that stories have structure. I wrote it before I had any idea that scenes are the skeleton holding that structure together.

According to Debra Dixon, a scene is:
Action. A scene happens. It is not a lengthy explanation of what happened or what will happen. Or even a big stretch of internal dialogue. It’s not wonderfully evocative description or exposition or backstory.

According to Jack Bickham, a scene is:
A segment of story action, written moment-by-moment, without any summary, presented onstage in the story “now”.

According to Dwight Swain, a scene is:
A unit of conflict, or struggle, lived through the character and the reader.

Dwight doesn’t say that the scene is lived through just the character, but the reader too. Which means the writer must find a way to make the reader experience the same feelings of conflict. The only way to do this is to bring the scene to life. And the only way to do that is to make the scene immediate and urgent. Most importantly, make sure something is happening.

What I noticed, while skimming over that first beloved novel of mine, is that I didn’t do this. I didn’t bring my scenes to life. I often plunked my scenes in the midst of exposition…telling the reader what happened already, instead of giving them a front seat and letting them experience it themselves. Without knowing it, I distanced the reader. In my mind, all this great stuff was happening…but I didn’t bring that to life for my reader. Instead of letting them watch the movie, I sat them down and explained what the movie was about, or what the characters were about.

So how do we avoid this? How do we make a scene come to life?

We give our character a goal, a motivation for that goal, and a conflict – something that gets in the way of the goal. Each scene should move your novel forward and it should contain at least one of the following elements (from Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, by Debra Dixon):

1. Move the character toward their ultimate goal

2. Provide an experience for the character that changes their goal

3. Provide an experience for the character that strengthens their motivation

4. Bring the character into conflict with opposing forces (I think this should be in every scene, but that’s just me)

So what about you? How are your scenes holding up?

Consider asking yourself these questions:
– Is the majority of my novel told via scenes?

– What’s the purpose of this scene? (if there’s not a strong answer to this, then that’s your sign to cut it or give it one)

– Does this scene move my story forward?

For more on this topic, see posts on goal, motivation, and conflict here, or posts on story structure here.

Questions to Ponder: What have you learned about the craft of writing that’s really taken your writing to the next level? How do you feel about story structure? Do you embrace it or resist it? I’d love to “hear” your thoughts.removetweetmeme

Final Post on GMC

This will be my last post on GMC. Sad, I know. If you’re interested in purchasing Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon, click on the link to purchase it. It’s really an eye-opening read.

I thought for my closing post, we could do a little recap.

G stands for goal. Every main character needs one. External and Internal. What does your character want? And what’s at stake if your MC doesn’t reach her goal? The higher the stakes, the better. (check out the G in GMC)

M stands for motivation. Every goal needs one. Why does your character want what he wants? The motivation needs to be believable. You can make your character want anything, as long as the motivation behind the goal is compelling. (check out the M in GMC)

C stands for conflict. Every story needs one. What stands in the way of your character reaching her goals? (check out the C in GMC)

Every scene you write needs to advance your character’s GMC in some way. If one of your scenes doesn’t address a G, or an M, or a C, then you must ask yourself, why is the scene in the book?

Some fun little, helpful add-ons Debra Dixon includes within the GMC chart are: a tag line and a dominant impression. She writes the tag line above the chart and the dominant impression below the character’s name.

The tag line is the overall theme, or message of the story. This can be stated in one sentence.

The dominant impression is two words – an adjective and a noun – describing the essence of your character. For the adjective, you want to avoid physical description. I love the dominant impression, because it’s an excellent two-word description to go back to when checking for character consistency.

Here are the examples Debra gives from the movie, The Wizard of Oz
Tag line: There’s no place like home.
Dominant impression (Dorothy): unhappy teenager

The GMC is the road map to your story, guiding you as you work through the plot. Once you have a strong, focused GMC, writing the elevator pitch for your novel is a piece of cake.

The basic outline of an elevator pitch: Character wants (goal) because (motivation), but (conflict).

Here’s an example from Beneath a Velvet Sky, my third novel:
An up and coming architect wants to associate herself with the innovation and grandeur she never knew as a child. But when tragedy forces her home, her ambitions are challenged by an estranged best friend, a farm she doesn’t want, and the handsome man who lives there.

Here’s an example from The Wizard of Oz:
An unhappy teenager wants to get home because her aunt is sick, but first she must fight a witch and win her broom in order to get help from the wizard.

Today’s Challenge:
I thought it might be fun to play around with some GMCs. Here’s the only rule: no using whatever you are currently working on. Make something up! Have fun! Think of something outrageous. Something heart-wrenching. Something absurd. What GMCs are rolling around in your mind today?

Here’s my crack at it:
Dominant impression: sensitive writer (AKA Jimmy John)
Goal: to win a pie eating contest and prove he’s a man
Motivation: to show his dad that skinny guys can eat too
Conflict: he has the appetite of a bird and he’s competing against his big, burly brother who has the appetite of a horse

Elevator Pitch: A sensitive writer wants to win the local pie eating contest in order to prove to his dad that he’s a man, but he’s never been able to eat more than a sugar snap pea without getting full, and he’s competing against his big brother, a world champion sumo wrestler.

If that’s not the next best seller, I don’t know what is. Have fun!removetweetmeme

GMC: Looking at the C

Let’s pretend for a second that a story is the same thing as a car. Let’s say our creative mind concocts an idea that might as well be a beautiful, cherry-red, brand-spankin’ new Ford Mustang. Do you know what we need to get the vehicle moving? Literally, gasoline. Figuratively, conflict! Conflict is the gasoline that drives our stories forward. Every story needs conflict, because without it, our fancy ideas are just going to sit in the garage.

In Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, Debra Dixon says the goal is the what (to learn more, check out the G in GMC), the motivation is the why (to learn more, check out the M in GMC), and the conflict is the why not. Let’s reacquaint ourself with Jimmy John.

Goal: to win a pie eating contest
Motivation: because he wants to prove he’s a man

What kind of story would this be if Jimmy John has a great two months of training, enters the contest, and wins? Talk about boring. We need something. And that something is the Why Not? Why can’t Jimmy John win the pie eating contest? What stands in his way? There could be any number of things. Maybe he’s competing against his big brother, who’s appetite is bigger than a horse. Maybe Jimmy John is super poor and can’t buy the pies he needs to practice. Or maybe he’s got a horrible case of IBS. I could keep going. The point is, every story needs a why not. Because without a why not, why should your reader care? Without a why not, how is your character going to grow?

Debra Dixon says: The strength of your book is your conflict.

Wow, that’s a big statement. However, it’s important to keep in mind that all the conflict in the world won’t mean a thing if we don’t establish an important goal and a compelling motivation. If Jimmy John doesn’t really care all the much about winning the pie eating contest, or he only wants to win because it would be fun, it won’t matter how many obstacles I throw in Jimmy John’s path, because if Jimmy John doesn’t care that much about the outcome, why should my readers?

Some things to know about conflict:
-It can be anything, as long as it prevents your character from reaching his/her goal
– Every page needs it
-Villains make excellent conflicts (Jimmy John’s older brother)
– Internal conflict brings out emotion
– Be careful not to go overboard with the conflict. You don’t want to numb your readers
– Bickering is not conflict
– Misunderstanding is not conflict

Ways to establish conflict:
– Raise the stakes: take your conflict, and kick it up a notch. Imagine the worst case scenario and run with it for a page or two
– Setting can increase conflict. How many horror films take place in creepy settings?
– Fish out of the water: Throw your MC in a situation that is so far out of his/her comfort zone that conflict is inevitable 
-And the ever famous, two dogs, one bone. Pit your characters against each other. They both want the same thing. Automatic conflict. (in Beneath a Velvet Sky, I do this. The bone is the farm, and the two dogs are Evan and Bethany)
Question to ponder: How do you come up with your conflict? Do you have a hard or easy time establishing the conflict? Are you an anti-conflict type of person in every day life?