For two million years of human pre-history we roamed in small bands, and conflict could be deadly. A chance meeting with another group might be a first contact with armed strangers that could result in the grisly deaths of everyone we knew. And conflict within our little group could also be deadly: A falling out could mean the band expelled us, in an environment where that meant loneliness and death.
We’re hard-wired to understand conflict and stakes and to pay attention when they’re present.
Scene Goals and Disaster
Scene Goal Stated. One kind of conflict that really makes our scenes pop is to have our point of view characters come into a scene with a clear scene goal, chosen for good reason, and made clear to the reader. (Scene goal stated: This is often by an internal thought or in dialogue.) This gives us readers something to root for in the scene and sharpens the conflict over it. Have that conflict escalate until there’s some kind of turning point in the scene.
Disaster. Then have the scene usually (but not always) end in one of three kinds of disaster (from the standpoint of the goal): No (goal not achieved) Yes, But… (goal achieved, but new complication introduced in the process) No, And Furthermore… (goal not achieved, and a new complication has also been introduced.)
Sequel and Causation
Sequel. Usually, the point of view character then must decide what to do, as a result of this new development. That is called a “sequel” which follows the scene. It can be a sentence, an internal thought, a paragraph, a page, or a chapter. (In more modern fiction, with faster pacing, sequels have gotten shorter.) That decision will reveal character and generate new goals for future scenes. And it will then lead to those future scenes and chapters through a clear causal relationship to what went on before.
Causation. In a short lecture on storytelling advice, Matt Parker and Trey Stone (South Park, Book of Mormon) explained to a freshman class at NYU that between the things that happen in the plot (storytelling beats, in their parlance) there should almost always be a “therefore” or a “but” before the next development, and almost never an “and then.” “And then” means there’s no strong causal relationship between the two developments—it’s just one thing after another, which isn’t as compelling and doesn’t drive the story forward. A “therefore” by contrast shows the tight sinew of causation—the decision leads to the next development—and a “but” shows a new complication interfering with the new decision. It’s a fun video, and barely over two minutes long, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vGUNqq3jVLg
When Character-Driven, It’s Not a Rigid Formula
Like anything in writing, scene goals and scene-and-sequel format shouldn’t be followed with a rigidity that gets in the way of your character-driven story. They are tools, though, that supply a handy framework for letting your character’s desires and choices drive that story.
If you, as the writer, understand why your character is choosing this goal, then it comes from character, making it a character-driven novel. Even then, if the adversaries in various scenes come across as unrealistic, unbelievable, or tropes, then the scene won’t work well: If the adversaries are just being dragged around by the author’s puppet strings to oppose the character’s goal, rather than pursuing their own agendas (or personality traits) that creates the conflict, they won’t seem realistic. One way to fix a scene that feels stuck that way is to—as a side-writing exercise—rewrite the scene from the point of view of the adversary, understanding their goals and why. Their actions in scene become more believable and the conflict will be more interesting. Then go back and rewrite your original scene with the benefit of this new learning.
If this approach is interesting to you, here are a few of the many resources out there with further details:
Goals, Scenes, and Sequels: Jack Bickham, Elements of Fiction: Scene and Structure, chapters 4-7.
Sequels: Jim Butcher, author of (among other things) the Harry Dresden urban fantasy series, has a livejournal entry on sequels, here:http://jimbutcher.livejournal.com/2880.html
Dean Gloster has an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is a former stand-up comedian and a former law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court. His debut YA novel DESSERT FIRST is out from Merit Press/Simon Pulse. School Library Journal called it “a sweet, sorrowful, and simply divine debut novel that teens will be sinking their teeth into. This wonderful story…will be a hit with fans of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars and Jesse Andrews's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” His current novel—full of, well, scenes and some sequels--is about two funny brothers who have to team up with their friend Claire to save the world. It has the usual Dean Gloster novel ingredients: Death, humor, the question of whether it’s possible to save someone, a love interest to root for, dysfunctional parenting, and an off-kilter sensibility, including a mergers and acquisitions lawyer dad who is missing 54 percent of his soul.