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.
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.
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:
- What does the hero want that she can’t have? Because you can’t have conflict without desire.
- 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.
“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:
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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