Screenwriter Tips for Novelists: 3 Things that Keep Your Story on the Road (not the Goat Path)

Last week I talked about Mapping the Mushy Middle of a story so that your characters don’t get waylaid on some meandering goat path of grass-eating boredom before finally arriving in Act III. Or worse, get stuck in the swamp and never reach The End! It comes down to knowing your destinations in Act II: the Midpoint and the All Is Lost moment. If you don’t know what these are yet, click here.

Where am I?!
Where am I?!

Now that you know where you’re going, the trick is to get there without losing your readers. But how do you know if a story is on the road or the goat path? The answer: test every scene for Conflict, Stakes and Change.

Yes, EVERY scene. All three things.

Conflict

We all know the mantra that every scene needs conflict, but sometimes we fool ourselves into believing that a story’s overall conflict is enough. It’s not. Be specific about conflict on a scene-by-scene level by asking these questions:

  1. What does the hero want that she can’t have? Because you can’t have conflict without desire.
  2. Who is opposing the hero right now? Not in the last scene, not somewhere in the background of the story, but right at this exact moment. Someone should always been at odds with the hero, even if it’s not intentional. It can even be the hero herself.

Stakes

“But my whole book has stakes, a huge disaster that will befall my character if they don’t overcome something,” you may say, “So obviously every scene has stakes.” If you know your book’s macro stakes, that is awesome! However, that does not guarantee every scene has stakes. Nor are macro stakes enough. Stories also need micro stakes, little consequences in each scene that connect to the macro stakes. To test for stakes in each scene, ask these questions:

  1. Is the hero doing something that has a consequence? For example, if he is deciding what to eat for lunch, there had better be consequences tied to each choice. If not, why are you writing this scene? You’re on the goat path! Get back on the road.
  2. Does the reader feel the presence of the macro stakes? The Hunger Games does this brilliantly. Even in the scenes where Katniss’s life is not being immediately threatened, she thinks about her family or district or Gabe, a reminder that people are depending on her to survive The Games. These macro stakes never leave her mind and therefore the reader feels tension in every scene.

Change

You know that things have to change over the course of a story, but do you know something must change in each individual scene? Sure does, otherwise you’re sitting on the side of the road, story stalled.

  1. What’s the emotional change? Characters enter a scene on either a positive or negative emotion, and exit on the counter emotion. For example, a scene where the hero is physically fighting bad guys to save her brother (obvious stakes and conflict) is weak if the character enters the fight confident and leaves confident when she wins. It’s more interesting if she doubts her abilities going into the fight and gains confidence by the end.
  2. What’s the story change? This can be information or action, as long as something happens to move the story forward along the road.

Now what if a scene has one or two of these things, but not all? I once gave feedback to someone in this situation and suggested they cut the scene. Why? Because it didn’t seem necessary and it kind of bored me. I have no tolerance for meandering. “But,” the writer said, “this scene sets up an important piece of information the reader needs to know for later!” Fair enough. That leaves the writer two options: 1) Insert conflict, stakes and change into the scene so it’s not just information, or 2) Combine that scene with another, so instead of two weak scenes you have one excellent scene.

And now you’re on the road to an awesome, engaging story!

Next Up from Heather… I revise some common writer advice.

For more on story stakes, check out this post: 6 Questions to Ask to Make Sure Your Story has Real Stakes.

Click here for more posts from Heather.

 

Author: Heather Jackson

Heather is a freelance screenwriter, game writer, and novelist based in Toronto. For more, visit her website at heatherjacksonwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

12 thoughts on “Screenwriter Tips for Novelists: 3 Things that Keep Your Story on the Road (not the Goat Path)”

  1. Wow, truly beneficial information and definitely worth applying. I really hate that I’m learning so much “after the fact.” I was also used to primarily writing non-fiction. I’d do the research and the rest would come natural. Now I’m trying hard not to be so “wordy” and focus on more dialogue and more action in my scenes. This information helps in various ways. Thanks

  2. This is really helpful. Right now I’m struggling with how to strengthen a scene where my protagonist tries to commit suicide and her best friend stops her. What I’m struggling with is the change part. I cannot have her realize that suicide is not the way to go. Not yet. So, I’ve got no idea what sort of change she can undergo to strengthen this scene. Any suggestions?

  3. Heather,
    I recently “discovered” Save the Cat, and I’m so glad I also discovered your blog posts on using screenwriting advice got for novels!
    Do you equate scenes and chapters, 1 scene=1 chapter? If not, if a chapter contains several scenes, do you think the “rules” apply to the chapter or to each scene?
    Thanks!

    1. Hi Susan! Glad you’re finding the blog helpful. To answer your question, I don’t equate scenes with chapters. Often there are many scenes in one chapter. However, ideally, chapters would have a scene-like arc as well. Hmm, I may have to do a future post on that. And if you have any other questions, don’t hesitate to ask!

  4. Awesome post.

    I’m not sure I’ve ever read this put quite so succinctly, but I agree with the advice.

    I had to learn it the hard way — weeks researching scene structure and reading advice about what works. But really, it does boil down to those three things.

    Each scene has to answer the question “why does this matter?” Conflict, stakes, and change answer it every time.

    1. Yay! I aim to boil everything down into succinct advice, as much for my own brain as everyone else’s, so I’m glad this post succeeded in doing that. Thanks for the comment!

We love comments and questions.