This article that I wrote originally appeared on Suite101.
Writing Conflict-Filled Scenes
The Classic Scene as Described By Dwight Swain
Dwight Swain’s Scene can be broken down into easy segments to enable the writer to write a high tension, interesting story segment.
One of the most famous writing books is Techniques of the Selling Writerby Dwight Swain, where he breaks down fiction writing into modules. One of his most popular techniques is Scene (described in this article) and Sequel.
Swain describes a Scene as “a unit of conflict lived through by character and reader.” The key word here is Conflict.
The Scene moves the story forward by changing your character’s situation. To do that, the character has to want something different than what he already has: the Scene Goal. Basically, what the character is striving for in the Scene. He doesn’t necessarily achieve it, but he has to at least have an idea of what he wants at the beginning of the Scene.
There are three general classifications for Scene Goals:
Possession of something
Relief from something
Revenge for something
The character enters the Scene intending to accomplish his goal by the end of it.
The key is to make the Scene Goal a concrete action, something specific rather than something vague.
The character also should have to need to accomplish the goal right at that moment, creating an immediate need for it. Otherwise, the character has the option of just walking away and trying again later.
The majority of the Scene is filled with conflict or obstacles that try to hinder the character’s Scene Goal. They can’t be just “bad things that happen” to the character—they have to work directly against that specific Goal.
Conflict is what keeps the reader reading. While we don’t like conflict in real life, it’s what creates page turners in fiction. So the more conflict, the higher the tension ramps in the scene.
So be creative and be a bit malicious in the opposition you create for your character. Swain writes: “It’s irresistible force meeting immovable object.”
Your opposition doesn’t need to be another person, but there should be strong obstacles. Don’t make it easy for your character.
End the scene on a hook, which keeps the reader reading. Throw something unexpected at the character that sinks his battleship—a new turn of events or new information.
The character doesn’t need to accomplish his Scene Goal—in fact, often he doesn’t. Many times, the Disaster ensures that.
But this Disaster will end the Scene with a bang and make the reader wonder what the character will do next—which is shown in the Sequel following the Scene.
An option to the Disaster is a False Positive—the character accomplishes his Goal, and then triumphantly assumes nothing bad will ever happen to him again. This is a sort of “Disaster” because the reader is already waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Follow This Principle But Use Your Judgment
Swain himself insists that these are just guidelines for Scenes and Sequels, not Law. Take this format and bend it to your own will, your own creativity. This general structure helps the story flow, but your novel doesn’t need to rigidly follow this. Insert your own subtlety and variation on the theme.