Monday, May 23, 2011

Scene Layering -- Character Arc and Scene Structure

Last week I blogged on adding texture to your novel by layering each scene. The goal is to up the emotional impact of your novel – which is what readers want and editors buy. We looked at the top level, the Plot Level, and asked the questions does this scene either

  •  advance the protagonist towards her/his goal?
  •  or add to the conflict?

 If neither, then the scene isn’t pulling its weight. Either cut it or revise it to make it pull its weight.

This week we’re going to look at the second level: the Character Arc Level.

In most novels (there are a couple of exceptions), the story is essentially about how the character changes, in other words, the Character Arc. The character starts with one idea about him/herself and the world (Lori Wilde calls it the Mistaken World View). As long as he/she holds onto this philosophy or world view, it blocks her/him from achieving his/her goals, which includes a happy union with the love interest. The action of the story (i.e., the plot) is basically a series of experiences that steer the character into change. No change, no Happily Ever After ending. (For those of you who feel a little unsteady about developing a Character Arc, check out my blog post.)

So when you’re looking scenes on the Character Arc Level, you need to have clear, first of all what your Character Arc looks like, for both the hero and heroine. (In a romance, both have to change.)

Start by writing out for each major character (and any minor characters who have their own subplots):

    • Original character flaw (mistaken world view)

    • Change needed to succeed/have a HEA

Then look at the scene. How does it contribute to character development? Write out:

    • Character strength or weakness/vulnerability the scene reveals

    • What happens in the scene or sequence to upset the character’s equilibrium and move her/him further
        on the road to change?

Have you shown the change? (It should be a micro-change.) Is the micro-change justified by what just happened?

As you’re working through the rewrites of your novel, this is also a good time to step back and look at the novel as a whole in terms of the stages of character development.

  • Is each leap forward incremental?
  • Or has the character made some huge leaps forward that aren’t justified by the action in the plot? (This is one of the signs of melodramatic writing.)
  • Do you need to add a scene that shows the missing bit of growth?

One final, very important question to ask yourself: Does your scene work in terms both Character Development and Plot? In other words, does the plot point provide impetus for growth? Or did that growth come from something totally superfluous to the plot? If it did, then you’re in for more major rewrites, because the two have to connect.

Once you’re satisfied with how the scene works in terms of the book’s overall structure (Plot and Character Arc) it’s time to look more closely at the scene itself. I usually start with the internal structure of the scene – the Scene Structural Level.

According to Dwight Swain, author of Techniques of the Selling Writer, there are two kinds of scenes, which he calls Scene and Sequel. In the “Scene” something happens. In the Sequel, the character reacts to what has just happened (and its result) and formulates a new plan.

Both types of scenes have three parts, but what happens within those parts is slightly different.
In a Scene:

  • Character goes into the scene with a Goal (what he/she wants to accomplish in this particular scene.) For example, in the armory scene in my Arthurian novel, The Deadly Peace, my heroine’s goal is to figure out a way to get her father, the Regent, to set a date for her Coronation.
  • Something happens to block the character from achieving her/his goal. This is the Conflict. In my scene, my heroine and her friends come up with a plan, but it involves sending out invitations. None of them has handwriting good enough to write out official invitations, and everyone in the castle who does is in her father’s employ.
  • The character takes action or makes a decision and there is a Result (sometimes called the Disaster) which sets back the character or somehow causes him/her to change direction or try a different tack. In my scene, my heroine is forced to seek help from someone she considers her enemy. 
In a Sequel:

  • Character Reacts emotionally to the Result or Disaster. Swain suggests this should be a visceral response, which I’ll discuss more in a later blog.
  • Character considers his/her Options, none of which are particularly good. This sets up a hard choice, which creates more tension or conflict.
  • Character makes a Choice or Decision, which then creates the Goal for the next scene.

 Your scenes need to follow one of these two patterns. If they don’t, nothing is happening. Chuck that baby. (Or at least put it in the Outtakes folder). Scene and Sequel can be compressed into one scene, but all the parts need to be there.

In addition to the two types of scene patterns, there’s also an emotional structure experienced by the reader – that rising tension that makes a scene work well. No matter which of the two scene patterns you have, the tension of the scene itself is actually structured the same as a novel, with an introduction/set up building to a climax and culminating in a resolution, which is the hook for the next scene. As you read your scene to yourself, you should experience the same growing tension as you would in reading the novel as a whole.

More questions to ask yourself regarding scene structure:
  • Have I set the introduction/opening of the scene as close to the action of the scene as I can? Or is there time wasted doing things like getting the character into the room, making polite introductions, pouring tea, etc?
  • Does the scene build to a climax in which the protagonist is forced to take an action he/she may not have wanted to take?
  • Is there a disaster in the outcome? (This provides your hook.)
  • Did I get out of the scene immediately after that, or does the scene peter out and lose its tension?
OK, what if your character actually manages to achieve his/her scene goal, as happens in the chapter of my YA that I was revising today. It’s about three chapters from the end. I need for my protagonist to achieve this goal (it’s part of her character growth and a plot point) but the minute Sophie achieved her goal, the tension went out of the scene. Definitely not what an author wants happening right at the climax. The solution came from something I learned from Diana Gabaldon’s early books: turn a victory into a disaster. Sophie achieves her goal, but that puts her in a position where she now has no excuse not to do something she’s been trying to avoid. I added a final line of dialog that puts her on the spot.

Disaster equals a hook.

Margie Lawson, whose EDITS course (in fact all her courses) are must-dos for serious writers, makes a great point about chapter breaks. End it where you don’t expect a break and it will create a hook. Don’t have the scene where the debutant is rifling through the antagonist’s desk during his ball end with her having found the evidence she needs. End it with him coming into the room before she’s completed her search.
Next post: Scene Layering and Show and Tell


  1. Very helpful. I love learning about craft. You did a good job.

  2. A couple of additional thoughts:

    Alexandra Sokoloff, whose blog posts on structuring your novel and your scenes are among the best on the internet (she's one of the blogs I follow -- see the list at the right) says that you should verbalize both the character's scene goal and the stakes (what will happen if she/he doesn't achieve the goal.)