Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Designing Scenes

I thought I’d talk about designing scenes a little bit since I seem to be doing an awful lot of it lately. It’s not something I do all the time, but it comes in particularly handy when I’m under a deadline and have to produce pages at a certain rate.

For me, scene design is a way of nailing down the structural support beams of a scene so that I can begin filling in around that. It’s also a way for me to get a handle on what a scene is about, both internally and externally, so I don’t have to write as many versions of it.

The traditional idea of outlining a scene talks in terms of identifying a characters goal or objective in a scene. What does the character want, who is standing in her way, and how does that get resolved.

However that doesn’t really work for me for a couple of reasons, one of which is my own limited ability to see beyond the nose to nose type of conflict that creates. Also, my characters tend to be reactive rather than proactive. Part of that stems from them being kids moving in an adult world; their ability to devise concrete goals is greatly curtailed. I deal with this by having them have concrete emotional goals; wanting to keep their family safe, longing for their old life, etc.

However, once an external event happens, they have a goal in how to deal with that, but I seem constitutionally unable to write a book where a character starts out with a concrete goal and pursues it until the end of the book.

So when brainstorming or designing scenes, I tend to think more in terms of:

What has to happen in this scene?
What sort of event has to take place in order to force the character out of her comfort zone and get her to take action?
How does her action further the plot?
How does that decision and subsequent action affect her internal arc/growth?
Is it a huge step forward? (And if so, how does that feel for her?)
Or is she falling back on old behaviors?
Does anything in this scene change her world view? Change how she views the people around her?

Then of course there are the fundamentals:
Where will the scene take place?
Is there a location that would give it more drama?
A time of day that will create even more tension?

Often a lot of that has to be researched. Usually, in that research, I will find some hidden gems that add to the scene or plot.

An Example: Theo has to sneak out and do X.

So the stuff I have to figure out before I even write the scene might include:

Where is she going to sneak to?
Whom does she have to evade while sneaking?
What sort of travel is involved, and what sort of complications does that bring? i.e. How hard will it be for her to hire a carriage on her own, walk the three miles, etc.
Will there be someone waiting for her when she gets there, either friend or foe?
What physical challenges will she run into? A locked door, being followed, not knowing where she is going, needing directions, etc.
Then once she gets to where she needs to be and completes X, how does that make things worse or add complications?
If it doesn’t, is there something I can do so that it does?
Does the scene ending create a false sense of completion? Or does it tumble the reader directly into the next scene? (And I think you need a variety of both in a book.)

Another, less dramatic scene might evolve this way:

Theo is in Egypt with her mother, having been allowed to come along on a dig. Being on the dig is a big part of Theo’s Egypt experience, but it’s not where the heart or heat of the action of the book is. Still, I need to include some of it because it’s a fundamental part of the book.

Scene: Theo goes to excavation sight with Mother

What are the physical characteristics of the sight?
Do they lend themselves to complications or revelations?
Is there a way to connect any of those complications or revelations back to the major plot going on? Can her actions in this scene lead her to an epiphany she can use later in the book?
Do they encounter anyone unexpected at the sight?
What other characters are in this scene?
Can I use those relationships to echo or contrast with the main plot?

Et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum, you get the picture.

One last important element for me in scene design is to sit down and figure out what the other off screen characters have been doing and how their off screen actions might impact what’s going on in the scene. It’s also where I check to see how Theo’s actions might be affecting other aspects of her life. It’s surprising how much stuff I can dig up that way.


Becky Levine said...

I love the bit about what has to happen to force characters out of their comfort zone. I think I need to think about this--my MC has a pretty big comfort zone, but something's going to shock her somewhere along the line. It better. :)