So, how do we do it? First we have to look at our scenes and how we structure them. There is large scale structure and small scale structure. Large scale structure of a scene is pretty simple.
A scene has three parts, (according to the late Dwight Swain in his theoretical breakdown of writing) Goal, Conflict, Disaster
And the follow up SEQUAL - Reaction, Dilemma, Decision.
These may seem simplistic, but it is actually just reducing the patterns to methods that have been proven by thousands of novelists to work. There are other patterns writers use, but they typically work less well. (There may even be patterns that work better, and by all means if you know of them, let the world know.)
1. Goal: A Goal is what your POV character wants at the beginning of the Scene. The Goal must be specific and it must be clearly definable. The reason your POV character must have a Goal is that it makes your character proactive. Your character is not passively waiting for the universe to deal him Great Good. Your character is going after what he wants, just as your reader wishes he could do. It’s a simple fact that any character who wants something desperately is an interesting character. Even if he’s not nice, he’s interesting. And your reader will identify with him. That’s what you want as a writer.
2. Conflict: Conflict is the series of obstacles your POV character faces on the way to reaching his Goal. You must have Conflict in your Scene! If your POV character reaches his Goal with no Conflict, then the reader is bored. Your reader wants to struggle! No victory has any value if it comes too easy. So make your POV character struggle and your reader will live out that struggle too.
3. Disaster: A Disaster is a failure to let your POV character reach his Goal. Don’t give him the Goal! Winning is boring! When a Scene ends in victory, your reader feels no reason to turn the page. If things are going well, your reader might as well go to bed. No! Make something awful happen. Hang your POV character off a cliff and your reader will turn the page to see what happens next.
That’s all! There is literally nothing more you need to know about Scenes using the first three definitions. Now let’s look at the second set of definitions – the SEQUEL, Reaction, Dilemma, and Decision. Again, each of these is critical to a successful sequel. Remove any of them and the Sequel fails to work. Let me add one important point here. The purpose of a Sequel is to follow after a Scene. A Scene ends on a Disaster, and you can’t immediately follow that up with a new Scene, which begins with a Goal. Why? Because when you’ve just been slugged with a serious setback, you can’t just rush out and try something new. You’ve got to recover. That’s basic psychology.
1. Reaction: A Reaction is the emotional follow-through to a Disaster. When something awful happens, you’re staggering for awhile, off-balance, out of kilter. You can’t help it. So show your POV character reacting viscerally to his Disaster. Show him hurting. Give your reader a chance to hurt with your characters. You may need to show some passage of time. This is not a time for action, it’s a time for re-action. A time to weep. But you can’t stagger around in pain forever. In real life, if people do that they lose their friends. In fiction, if you do it, you lose your readers. Eventually, your POV character needs to get a grip. To take stock. To look for options. And the problem is that there aren’t any . . .
2. Dilemma: A Dilemma is a situation with no good options. If your Disaster was a real Disaster, there aren’t any good choices. Your POV character must have a real dilemma. This gives your reader a chance to worry, which is good. Your reader must be wondering what can possibly happen next. Let your POV character work through the choices. Let him sort things out. Eventually, let him come to the least-bad option . . .
3. Decision: A Decision is the act of making a choice among several options. This is important, because it lets your POV character become proactive again. People who never make decisions are boring people. They wait around for somebody else to decide. And nobody wants to read about somebody like that. So make your character decide, and make it a good decision. Make it one your reader can respect. Make it risky, but make it have a chance of working. Do that, and your reader will have to turn the page, because now your POV character has a new Goal.
And now you’ve come full circle. You’ve gone from Scene to Sequel and back to the Goal for a new Scene. This is why the Scene-Sequel pattern is so powerful. A Scene leads naturally to a Sequel, which leads naturally to a new Scene. And so on forever. At some point, you’ll end the cycle. You’ll give your POV character either Ultimate Victory or Ultimate Defeat and that will be the end of the book. But until you get there, the alternating pattern of Scene and Sequel will carry you through. And your reader will curse you when he discovers that he’s spent the whole doggone night reading your book because he could not put the thing down.
However, it’s only half the battle. I’ve told you how to design the Scenes and Sequels in the large scale. But you still need to write them. You need to write paragraph after compelling paragraph, with each one leading your POV character smoothly through from initial Goal to knuckle-whitening Conflict to bone-jarring Disaster, and then through a visceral Reaction to a horrible Dilemma and finally on to a clever Decision.
How do you do that? How do you execute those paragraphs? How do you do it perfectly?
Small-Scale Structure of a Scene
The answer is to use what Dwight Swain calls “Motivation-Reaction Units.” He calls them MRUs for short. Writing MRUs is hard. However, I’ve found that it provides the most bang for the buck in improving your writing. The universal problem for writers is the failure to write MRUs correctly
Writing MRUs correctly is the magic key to compelling fiction.
The Motivation is objective but it is something that your character can see (or hear or smell or taste or feel). You will write this in such a way that your reader also sees it (or hears it or smells it or tastes it or feels it). You will then start a new paragraph in which your POV character does one or more things in Reaction to the Motivation. If you follow a sequence of physiological possibilities you will keep the reader intrigued. Note that the Motivation is external and objective. The Reaction is internal and subjective. If you do this, you create in your reader the powerful illusion that he is experiencing something real. Now let’s break this down into more detail . . .
The Motivation is external and objective, and you present it that way, in objective, external terms. You do this in a single paragraph. It does not need to be complicated.
Here is a simple example:
The sniper dropped from the ledge and stood over Hank.
Note the key points here. This is objective. We present the Motivation as it would be shown by a videocamera. Nothing here indicates that we are in Hank’s point of view. That comes next, but in the Motivation we keep it simple and sharp and clean.
The Reaction is internal and subjective, and you present it that way, exactly as your POV character would experience it — from the inside. This is your chance to make your reader be your POV character. To repeat myself, this must happen in its own paragraph (or sequence of paragraphs). If you leave it in the same paragraph as the Motivation, then you risk whip-sawing the reader. Which no reader enjoys.
The Reaction is more complex than the Motivation. The reason is that it is internal, and internal processes happen on different time-scales. When you see a sniper, in the first milliseconds, you only have time for one thing — fear. Within a few tenths of a second, you have time to react on instinct, but that is all it will be — instinct, reflex. But shortly after that first reflexive reaction, you will also have time to react rationally, to act, to think, to speak. You will present the full complex of your character’s reactions in this order, from fastest time-scale to slowest. If you put them out of order, then things just don’t feel right. You destroy the illusion of reality. And your reader won’t keep reading because your writing is “not realistic.” Even if you got all your facts right.
Here is a simple example:
A bolt of raw adrenaline shot through Hank’s veins. He jerked his rifle to his shoulder, sighted on the sniper’s heart, and squeezed the trigger. “Die, you bastard!”
Now let’s analyze this. Note the three parts of the Reaction:
1. Feeling: ”A bolt of raw adrenaline shot through Hank’s veins.” You show this first, because it happens almost instantly.
2. Reflex: ”He jerked his rifle to his shoulder . . .” You show this second, as a result of the fear. An instinctive result that requires no conscious thought.
3. Rational Action and Speech: ”. . . sighted on the sniper’s heart, and squeezed the trigger. ‘Die, you bastard!’” You put this last, when Hank has had time to think and act in a rational way. He pulls the trigger, a rational response to the danger. He speaks, a rational expression of his intense emotional reaction.
It is legitimate to leave out one or two of these three parts. (You can’t leave out all three or you have no Reaction.) But there is one critical rule to follow in leaving parts out: Whatever parts you keep in must be in the correct order. If there is a Feeling, it must come first. If there is a Reflex, it must never come before a Feeling. If there is some Rational Action, it must always come last. This is simple and obvious and if you follow this rule, your Reactions will be perfectly structured time after time.
And after the Reaction comes . . . another Motivation. This is the key. You can’t afford to write one perfect MRU and then be happy. You’ve got to write another and another and another. The Reaction you just wrote will lead to some new Motivation that is again external and objective and which you will write in its own paragraph. Just to continue the example we’ve created so far:
The bullet grazed the sniper’s left shoulder. Blood squirted out of the jagged wound. The sniper cursed and staggered, then using his bayonet, pushed forward, straight at Hank’s chest.
Note that the Motivation can be complex or it can be simple. The only requirement is that it be external and objective, something that not only Hank can see and hear and feel but which any other observer could also see and hear and feel, if they were there.
The important thing is to keep the alternating pattern. You write a Motivation and then a Reaction and then another Motivation and then another Reaction. When you run out of Motivations or Reactions, your Scene or Sequel is over. Don’t run out too soon. Don’t drag on too long.
Write each Scene and Sequel as a sequence of MRUs. Any part of your Scene or Sequel which is not an MRU must go. Cut it ruthlessly. Show no mercy. You can not afford charity for a single sentence that is not pulling its weight. And the only parts of your scene that pull their weight are the MRUs. All else is fluff.
About Those Pesky Rules
You may be feeling that it’s impossible to write your scenes following these rules. Doing so causes you to freeze. You stare blindly at the computer screen, afraid to move a muscle for fear of breaking a rule. Oh dear, you’ve got yourself a case of writer’s block. That’s bad. Now let me tell you the final secret for writing the perfect scene.
Forget all these rules. That’s right, ignore them. Just write your chapter in your usual way, putting down any old words you want, in any old way you feel like. There, that feels better, doesn’t it? You are creating, and that’s good. Creation is constructing a story from nothing. It’s hard work, it’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s unstructured. It’s imperfect. Do it without regard for the rules.
When you have finished creating, set it aside for awhile. You will later need to edit it, but now is not the time. Do something else. Write another scene. Go bowling. Spend time with those annoying people who live in your house. Remember them? Your family and friends? Do something that is Not Writing.
Later on, when you are ready, come back and read your Great Piece of Writing. It will have many nice points to it, but it will not be perfectly structured. Now you are ready to edit it and impose perfect structure on it. This is a different process than Creation. This is Analysis, and it is the opposite of Creation. Analysis is destruction. You must now take it apart and put it back together.
Analyze the scene you have written. Is it a Scene or a Sequel? Or neither? If it is neither, then you must find a way to make it one or the other or you must throw it away. If it is a Scene, verify that it has a Goal, a Conflict, and a Disaster. Identify them each in a one-sentence summary. Likewise, if it’s a Sequel, verify that it has a Reaction, a Dilemma, and a Decision. Identify each of these in a one-sentence summary. If you can’t put the scene into one of these two structures, then throw the scene away as the worthless piece of drivel that it is. You may someday find a use for it as a sonnet or a limerick or a technical manual, but it is not fiction and there is no way to make it fiction, so get rid of it.
Now that you know what your scene is, either Scene or Sequel, rewrite it MRU by MRU. Make sure every Motivation is separated from every Reaction by a paragraph break. It is okay to have multiple paragraphs for a single Motivation or a single Reaction. It is a capital crime to mix them in a single paragraph. When they are separated correctly, you may find you have extra parts that are neither Motivation nor Reaction. Throw them away, no matter how beautiful or clever they are. They are not fiction and you are writing fiction.
Examine each Motivation and make sure that it is entirely objective and external. Show no mercy. You cannot afford mercy on anything that poisons your fiction. Kill it or it will kill you.
Now identify the elements of each Reaction and make sure they are as subjective and internal as possible. Present them as nearly as you can from inside the skin of your POV character. Make sure they are in the correct order, with Feelings first, then Reflexive Actions, and finally Rational Actions and Speech. Again, eliminate everything else, even brilliant insights that would surely get you a Nobel peace prize. Brilliant insights are very fine, but if they aren’t fiction, they don’t belong in your fiction. If you can contrive to rearrange such a thing to be in a correct fictional pattern, then fine. Keep it. Otherwise, slit its vile throat and throw the carcass to the wolves. You are a novelist, and that’s what novelists do.
When you reach the end of the scene, whether it is a Scene or a Sequel, check to make sure that everything is correctly placed in an MRU and all carcasses are thrown out. Feel free to edit the scene for style, clarity, wit, spelling, grammar, and any other thing you know how to do. When you are done, pat yourself on the back.
You have written a perfect scene. All is well in your world. You are done with this scene.
Now go do it again and again until you finish your book.