by Susan May Warren
Are you in the middle of your NaNoWriMo project? By now, you might have 15-30K words written…and along with feeling tired, your scenes are feeling, well, tired.
I get that. There are only so many ways to describe emotion, and by now, you might be feeling wrung out. At this point in the game, don’t worry as much about getting the emotion on the page as driving the story forward with the right amount of tension. You can go back and layer in the emotions later.
Why is tension so important? Because tension not only drives a story – but it will keep you going all the way to the end. But a scene has to have the right set up to create that key tension. .
Many writers fall into the trap of writing what I call, the police report. They simply tell us what happened/is happening, as if they are narrating the story, or letting the characters narrate what is happening. Sure, there are “things” that happen in the scene the might be interesting, but without the right set up, the scene is boring. It has nothing at stake, nothing for us to root for (or against), and frankly, if we don’t know what the character wants, we are left wondering…why are we here?
How to fix this? The first fix it to prop it up with the right structure.
There are 3 kinds of scenes: Action Scenes, ReAction Scenes and Combo Scenes.
As a review, Action Scenes contain a Goal + Conflict/Obstacle + Disaster (or some compelling element at the end of the scene to push the story forward).
ReAction Scenes contain a Response + Dilemma + Decision. (which translates into a Goal to start the next Action Scene).
A Combo Scene starts with a ReAction Scene (maybe 1-4 paragraphs), then transitions into an Action Scene.
(You can also rearrange and write an Action + ReAction combo, but I find those slow the story. However, they can be compelling, simply because of the new Goal that is raised at the end of the scene.)
The First Chapter of a book is an anomaly: It is mostly Action, however it starts in Home World, which might feel like a reaction to your character’s life so far. Your character walks onto the page with years of “reaction” to his hurts of the past, believing lies and wanting something. This is quickly confronted by some sort of Inciting Incident.
Chapter one, Scene 1 is often followed by a ReAction scene, where your character has to figure out what to do next. And after that, perhaps another Action scene.
However…the story quickly begins to morph into Combo Scenes, which comprise the bulk of a story.
This is where the storytelling seems to turn into boring narrative. However, this can be solved by simply setting up the Combo Scene correctly. Remember, to create tension you need both a Goal and an Obstacle…and the Combo Scene provides these ingredients.
A Combo Scene starts with a ReAction Scene – so you’ll set that up first.
Combo/Scene Set up
Step One: Response. Start with the 5 Ws, Storyworld and the current “state of affairs.” If you have to, reiterate what happened, in the character’s POV (especially if it’s been a while between scenes) and help us understand the Dilemma at hand.
Step Two: Knowing the Dilemma, have your character see his choices, then make a decision. This is your character’s Goal for the Action portion of the scene. *Don’t forget to fortify the Motivations of your character’s action and decisions.* The point of this is to give us a good reason for what is going to happen next.
This is the end of the ReAction portion of your scene. It might be one paragraph, or if there is a bigger dilemma, it might two or even four.
Step Three: Now, you, you move into the Action portion of the scene. Set it up with your Scene Tension Equation, and remember to end with a new Dilemma.
Here’s a quick example from my romantic suspense Expect the Sunrise. The heroine has just escaped from her captors and flung herself from a cliff into a raging river with the hero looks helplessly on from the other side.
[Setting, and Current State of affairs, goals e.g. the REACTION from the previous scene.]
No! Mac froze as he watched Andee fling herself over the edge. She’d materialized from the woods like some forest animal and screamed as she hit the air. His knees gave out as she plummeted into the white water below.
A man appeared right after her, pointed a gun where she’d been, then advanced to the edge, searching.
Mac picked up a rock and with everything he had in him threw it across the gorge. It hit Andee’s shooter in the neck. The man fell back and shot at Mac. He dived behind a boulder. Bullets chipped rocks around him, but it bought Andee time. Precious time.
[Motivation for decision/action]
Except, well, if she didn’t get out of that river fast, hypothermia would grab her like a bear after hibernation and pull her under. That is, if she didn’t go over the falls first.
Go, go, Mac willed the shooter. He peeked to see him disappear into the woods. Good. Maybe they’d believe they shot him.
[Starting the Action!]
Mac advanced to the edge, searching for Andee. He saw her, a black head bobbing in the water. “Andee!” Giving one last look at the hole in the forest left by the shooter, Mac flung himself over the edge.
Short and sweet, we have his reaction, his dilemma, his decision, his goal and the conflict.
A Combo Scene doesn’t have to be high action, however. Here’s the same set up in a low-action scene.
[The State of Affairs, Response, Dilemma- the ReAction portion of the Scene]
The last place Max wanted to be was riding up Jace’s penthouse elevator, about to face his old captain with the news that he’d let him down.
Apparently he’d perfected that MO. First Brendon, then Grace, of course, and finally Jace.
And probably himself, because of the thousands of promises he’d broken, over and over and over during the three weeks in Hawaii. Like, don’t date a girl more than twice. Never date anyone connected to the team. And finally, don’t let a girl into your world—hockey, cooking . . . heart.
Yeah, he’d broken that one and he still couldn’t look at himself. At least Grace had gotten home okay. He’d called to check on her flight. But he should have at least texted her. Wow, he’d turned into a grade-A, first-class jerk.
Or maybe he’d always been that.
The doors opened and he took his time dragging down the hall to Jace’s door. He still couldn’t figure out why he’d agreed to come. But Jace’s voice on his machine, his insistence that Max come over for dinner . . . it sounded less an invitation than a command.
Although, maybe that was just Jace. Bossy. Always the enforcer.
He leaned on the bell, and almost immediately, the door opened. Jace stood there, a mountain of darkness as he glared at Max.
“Get in here.” Jace practically hauled him in by his shirt and it took everything inside Max not to swing at him.
Then he saw her. Standing in the kitchen, her arms wrapped around herself. Looking fragile and beautiful, she took his breath away just as surely as if Jace had hit him. He closed his mouth, swallowed. “Hi.”
“Hi,” she said.
He looked at Jace, keeping his voice low. “I didn’t realize—I mean, you didn’t mention—”
“That Grace was going to be here? Yeah. I was going to surprise you, dude. After what I saw on the Internet, it seemed like you wanted to be together.” He held out his hands. “You can imagine my surprise when I heard that you ditched her in Hawaii.”
Max ground his jaw, looked at Grace, back to Jace. “I . . . I’m sorry.” He glanced at Grace. “I’m sorry.”
And he had nothing more than that. He couldn’t be here, with her. Even as he glanced at her again—just one more glimpse of her before he walked out of her life—he was shaking his head, heading toward the door.
Set up your combo scenes with a short Reaction scene, establishing strong motivations and goals – and you’ll have the ingredients to create a powerful scene.