Writing Scene: A Review

My McDaniel students are going through hell right now because we’re revising their first scenes, and I, of course, lack tact. In an effort to avoid scars, I gave them a general scene writing review sheet with self-editing questions at the end. Since I haven’t done a decent post here in weeks, and since I don’t see my future becoming any less fraught before 2013, I am giving you the same thing I gave them. One big difference, I’m not harassing you about your writing, line by line. Be grateful, they’re suffering.

Scene Lecture Review:

SCENE: A scene is a unit of conflict between a protagonist and antagonist that escalates through beats into a climax that throws the reader into the next scene.

A scene starts when the conflict starts and ends when the conflict ends. Other clues a scene is over: the antagonist changes, the time changes, the setting changes, but the big one is The Conflict Ends.

CONFLICT: Scenes must have conflict. Not a protagonist in trouble, CONFLICT, an active, ongoing, and escalating struggle between the protagonist and antagonist. If you do not have conflict, you have Chat (see below).

CHARACTER: The reason a scene must have conflict is because people who are not under stress are polite and reasonable, hiding their true selves. Character is displayed through conflict because conflict strips away people’s facades; the stronger the conflict, the stronger the stripper. We connect to flawed characters (depending on the flaw, we’re not going to attach to puppy killers), not flat Nice People, so get those fascinating flaws out there, showcased in conflict.

Conflict also makes a reader takes sides; if the conflict is structured correctly, she or he will side with your protagonist and root for her/him to win and the antagonist to lose. This gives the reader an investment in the outcome and a reason to turn the page.

Another reason scenes must have conflict is because conflict changes character and that moves story. If your character is the same person at the end of the scene that she or he is at the beginning, your story isn’t moving because your conflict isn’t strong enough.

CHAT: Chat is not conflict. Chat is Nice People Exchanging Information. That’s fun for them, but boring for readers. Chat is almost always Stuff You Want the Reader To Know. It is almost never Stuff the Reader Wants To Know. Your reader may humor you and read Chat to get to the story, but if story hasn’t shown up by the end of the scene, your reader is out of there, and some readers will exit if there’s no story on the first page. Chat is Bad. Do Not Chat.

INFODUMP: Infodump happens when you stop the now of the story to unload huge amounts of back story because you think the reader needs to know that to understand your characters and the now of your story. She doesn’t, and even if she does it doesn’t matter because she’s going to skim that big block of text looking for short pieces of text with white space because white space at least means two people are talking. God help her if what they’re saying is Chat or As You Know dialogue (see below). Chat is bad, but you will go to Writer’s Hell if you Infodump.

AYK DIALOGUE: As You Know dialogue. “As you know, Patricia, both our parents died when we were young and we inherited their whaling business and now we’re in danger of losing it because our rat bastard cousin Ahab embezzled our working capital. Pass the ketchup.”

HEADHOPPING: Since one of the things you want your reader to do is attach to your protagonist, if you’re writing third limited, for the love of god, start and stay in her head. Leaping from head to head confuses the reader and destroys any attachment to the protagonist. You know that circle of Writer’s Hell that’s full of Infodumpers? They’re playing a neverending game of Candyland with Headhoppers.

CONCLUSION: Start with a protagonist-with-a-goal and an-antagonist-with-a-goal-that-crosses-the-protagonist. Have them struggle over this goal in escalating beats that end in a climax where one of them wins and one loses and they are thrown into the next scene of the story, separately or together, doesn’t matter, just make the reader turn the page to see what happens next.

Here is your revised Self-Critique List for Scene:

1. Who is my protagonist in this scene?
2. What does she want?
3. Why does she want it?
4. What’s her plan for getting it?
5. Who is my antagonist in this scene?
6. What does he want?
7. Why does he want it?
8. What’s his plan for getting it?
9. Who makes the first move to get his or her goal in this scene? What is it?
10. How does the other character in the conflict respond?
11. How does this response escalate the conflict?
12. Lather, rinse, repeat until . . . Who wins the conflict?
13. How is the protagonist changed by this outcome?
14. How is the antagonist changed by this outcome?
15. How does this outcome make the reader want to turn the page? (Hint: Expectation established during scene.)
16. How does this set up the next scene?

No chat, no infodump, no headhopping, no AKY. No, really, you can’t.

54 thoughts on “Writing Scene: A Review

  1. I see this is a more comprehensive list, than the one you posted awhile back for critique group questions. (Of course, it makes sense for self-editing). I like seeing the character change and reader’s expectation added in there.

    1. As an author, you know a lot more than is on the page, so a reader critique can’t be this thorough. For example, I just did this for the first scene of You Again, and there’s a lot of information in my analysis about the antagonist’s motives than can be on the page because the scene is in the protagonist’s POV. In the third scene, we’re in the antagonist’s POV (although she’s the protagonist in the third scene) and that’s when the reader finds out exactly what she was doing. BUT I have to know all of that when I write the first scene so that that character makes sense. In one of the rewrites, I have to see that first scene from the antagonist’s POV or she won’t come alive on the page. So the author’s critique has to go deeper than a reader response critique.

          1. Oh your charm IS a huge part of why we love you. It’s just that we adore your giant brain and your lovely willingness to share this sort of thing with us as well.

          2. Ha. Have you met you? (Charm anyone can have, but it is the snark and the smartass and the funny and the brilliance that shines through.)

    2. Thank you so much. Just got a revision letter and this helps. I was asked not to “tell” so much. That’s inner telling in my case. How the character feels, etc. So I changed it to “chat” — bad move. Your list saved me:)

      1. One way to gauge how much thought there should be:
        What is the other character(s) in the scene doing while the POV character thinks? If it’s a brief thought, it doesn’t matter, but if the thinking goes on too long, you’re left with your POV staring blankly into space while the other character(s) wonder WTF is going on.

  2. I finished the first draft of my first novel in something like June. Haven’t touched it since other than to do a read-thru that both appalled and delighted me. Now I have to revise it. This will help me a great deal.

    It’s really sad: none of my writing teachers in college ever talked to us in detail about conflict and scenes and all of that. I got a lot on plotting from one teacher, but I cannot remember a lot of what else any of them taught us. Dialogue and characterization. No infodumps. And showing not telling, in general. But this seems like the meat of what they should have been teaching and it wasn’t. And I took all the undergrad fiction courses they had at my school. (A long time ago ….)

    1. fwiw, Skye, I have an MFA, and they didn’t teach this stuff. They were all about the literary aspects of the writing, the themes, the characters, the meta messages, but not a single freaking teacher covered conflict (except my screenwriting teacher, which is why I ended up in screenwriting…. it was about conflict and structure, and finally, I could understand what I was at least supposed to be doing, even if I wasn’t doing it all that well).

      1. I have an MFA, too, but I had a brilliant mentor who’d gotten his MFA with a guy who wrote pulp fiction, so he’d been drilled in the basics, and he drilled us in them. Then I took Michael Hauge’s screenwriting course and that finished it off.
        And then I staggered through twenty novels trying to remember it all and forgetting most of it.

  3. Writer’s hell is a neverending game of Candyland? Oh, yes, I have SEEN the light, I shall go forth and chat no more. LOL! (What a memorable way of putting it.)

    Seriously, though, there are several different kinds of scars. There are those inflicted by someone who is doing it out of helpfulness and will actually help (think appendix scar), and then there are mystery scars — like from editors who keep rejecting one’s best efforts and NOBODY will say why. They both make a writer cry, but at least one can do something about the first kind.

  4. Since I relate everything to character, this is my takeaway:

    “the stronger the conflict, the stronger the stripper”

    Seriously. This is way more than a catch-phrase. And a great name for a Jenny Crusie book on writing 🙂

    1. Did anyone else get a mental image of a really freakishly sexy guy, all buff and [insert image of your choice] stripping in front of an appalled protagonist? No? Just me?

      Okay, then.

      1. I think the number of like checks on your comment = number of people with similar image. So, not just you. And yes, I checked it.

  5. Yep, Toni.
    On my recent return from Australia I’d clicked on the movie Magic Mike, thinking it was great ’cause I hadn’t seen it. Within seconds, M.McC was doing a hot and heavy strip and getting his audience all worked up and I was sweating. Looked around and saw I was surrounded by male passengers and quickly switched over to Snow White and the Huntsman. Ha ha.
    So, yes: The stronger the conflict the stronger the stripper.

  6. Speaking up here as one of Jenny’s McDaniel students. I just read her response/review of the first scene. I’m not in hell. Jenny, you gave me “what’s good” and “what needs work” at a very deep level. This is not hell. This is a phenomenal gift.

    For any of you tempted to believe Jenny’s inference that she’s torturing us, let me see if I can paint a more accurate picture. Imagine that you and Jenny are sitting across the table and going over your writing together. In detail. Oh, and this happens after she’s spent several hours already hashing out your characters, their goals and their conflicts with you along with a ton of other important stuff all geared to help you develop into a better writer.

          1. Oh, yeah. Honest, and kind, for sure.

            The way we look at our own work is so crazy, I think. When we are on the writing high, it looks like the greatest freakin’ stuff since Shakespeare. And when we are on the low-end of the cycle, it looks like pure, robotic crap with the grace of CP3O on ice. It’s so nice to have a clear, experienced set of eyes . . . and I was very fortunate in my critiquers, too. I really am going to have to cultivate some sets of Beta readers; I see that now.

        1. It’s okay if your antagonist is total dick – unless he’s also the hero. Then you’ve got a problem.

          Tell you what Mary Stella, I’ll trade you some of my emotion for some of your conflict!

  7. I’m not a writer. Heck, I can barely write letters/emails. I can honestly say I’ve never thought much about the agony writers go though to get something GOOD on the page. So thanks Jenny.

  8. Thank you! I am not a writer, nor do I aspire to be one, but this post was the perfect antidote to a really hard week. I love the way you make me laugh AND think at the same time.

  9. Another great lesson … thank you. I’m on my last couple of scenes … I’ll let the story rest for a couple of weeks then print it out and check the scenes with your Self-Critique List.
    Thank you! 🙂

  10. Oh, and Jenny– if the current sturm und drang of your life makes it necessary to throw any more of your McDaniel’s material at us, I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that that’s just fine: fling away!

    1. They’d probably be grateful it wasn’t being flung at them. They’re working their butts off, crawling toward next weekend and the month-long break.

  11. I’m another non-writer who likes reading your ‘lessons’. Maybe something will rub off eventually. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the education along with my tea and LornaDoone’s.

  12. Apologies for being so off-topic but my friend’s beloved dog has been diagnosed with renal failure. She is battling to get her to eat – I know you mentioned you were a member of a great yahoo group which had helpful tips etc for Lyle; could you please tell me the name of the group. Many thanks.

  13. Sorry to jump back… I can’t help with puppy info, but best of luck.

    Well, Neal Stephenson’s done pretty well with info dumps (the Baroque Cycle). I suspect it’s one of those rules that generally holds true, but can occasionally – by the right writer, with the right material and the right readers – be broken good and hard (a nod to Granny Weatherwax & Nanny Ogg).

    1. No. No he has not done well with his infodumps. He needs an editor. He can write fantastic stuff – I’m a fan from way back – but my friends and I still call “Quicksilver” “Craptonomicon”. (A word, btw, which was in the autofill menu, so we’re not the only ones.). I tried a couple times to make it thru QS and gave up. One friend persevered and read book two, which he liked more, but everyone else pretty much bailed on him due to egregious infodump.
      (That said, I reread CrYptonomicon last year, and while infodumpy, the story clicks along, has charming characters, and the quaternary honking system reliably makes me laugh until I can’t see. And if it weren’t for Snow Crash, I might still be wondering what an “avatar” is. )

      Jenny – thanks for this list. Several questions on there explain to me why the horrible movie “The Master” was horrible, if well acted. (no conflict in many scenes, no like able protagonist, had no one to root for.) it also explains why Despicable Me is good – both antagonist and pros are like able and have wildly opposing goals.

  14. This wonderful. And of course I printed it out. And put it in my JC file.

    I remember when you critiqued a chapter of mine a few years ago, and the comments you made. And yes, I kept a copy of those too. Your honesty was the best thing that ever happened to my writing. I still may not get it all correct, but at least I’m a lot further ahead than I was then. You’re so generous with your knowledge, and I’m so appreciative.

    1. Wow.
      Definitely encouraging, in a very weird way. I don’t think I could write on top of stuff to the extent she does – new material over a scene she’s completely cut. It just feels so oppressively cluttered. But I do love the way she sticks with it, regardless. And her editor must be a saint!

    2. That’s great! I also write encouraging notes to myself on the first draft . . . some of them are almost word for word. “JUST KEEP WRITING!!” If I can acknowlege it’s crap, then I can let it go for a little while and just keep moving on.

      (-: Re-writing is different. I know what’s going on in the story, but I have to figure out just the right words to convey what’s in my head . . . it’s kind of like a jigsaw at that point, and I’m fitting pieces together.

  15. Jenny, perfect timing for this, thanks. I’m madly hammering out a don’t-look-down draft after not writing in way too long. Even while I’m not looking down, I still hear your voice from MWC – especially the “As you know . . . “. I’ll be referring back here when I finish the DLD and start revising it into some semblance of order and submission. (pun intended heh heh heh – invoking my inner Mary Strand)

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