Wednesday, August 10, 2016

From Namby-pamby to Devasting: Creating Scenes My Characters Can Survive

Over the past couple of months I’ve shared some of the lessons I’ve learned from James Scott Bell on structuring a story. I’m applying these pieces to my current work in progress. Today I want to explore one element I didn’t cover in the earlier posts and how I’ve modified it to meet my needs.

Scene Cards
My first experience with scene cards was in the drafting of my first novel, Breathing on Her Own. I once heard a successful author say the best way to draft a novel was to identify eight to ten scenes, create a storyboard based on those scenes and write, in essence from scene to scene. It worked for me in constructing my first draft. Of course the scenes changed as I came to know my characters and I added a few critical scenes as I traveled the path of my storyline.

Bell also uses scene cards. However, in his book, Super Structure:The Key to Unleashing the Power of Story, Bell gives the reader a glimpse of his own writing process. When an author of more than twenty-five books who is also well respected as a writing coach allows me in to peek over his shoulder to see how he writes, I pay attention. Bell creates fifty or more scenes before crafting his story. Will he use them all? Probably not but he has a large pool from which to draw creative juices while writing. The scene cards are viewed as a tool in brainstorming his story. He’ll sort them into acts and begin writing them to shape his novel.

My Attempt
I took a stab at describing fifty scenes and fell flat after about twenty-two. At first I felt like a failure. I know that a good novel is built around conflict. Conflict makes us turn the page. Conflict makes us root for the protagonist. Conflict makes us live life on the edge albeit vicariously through characters on a page. Scenes need to drive us forward in ever mounting conflict.

I took my twenty-two scene cards and sorted them by degree of conflict. Basically I sorted them into “stressful for my character,” “bad for my character,” and “devastating to my character.” I also had a few scenes that served a purpose but perhaps only hinted at conflict. I named that stack “breathing scenes.” As a reader, I need those moments to catch my breath. For the moment, I set the “breathing scenes” aside.

I looked at the remaining scenes and the types of conflict represented in each. Then I made sure I created additional scenes so each type of conflict was represented in each category of “degree of conflict.”

Let me give you an example. In my current work, I had scenes where Dottie argues with her son over his insistence of controlling her finances. Stressful? Yes. Her son has been helping to manage her finances for several years now. He does her taxes. She is ready to take charge of her own life. I asked myself how could this conflict with her son be ramped up?  How can I move his controlling nature from “stressful for my character” to the “bad” category?

I decided to have poor Dottie go through an IRS audit and discover some discrepancies. That sounds like a tough scene to me. I think she’ll sit there stunned when she realizes how much she owes the IRS. And it will take more than a financial toll. There is an emotional price to pay as well. Can she trust her son?
Hmm…I’m on a roll here so I create a scene where Dottie discovers her son is a gambler and has been shuffling funds all around to cover his mistakes. She stands to lose everything. So does he. This is “devastating.”

I’m probably too much of a Pollyanna to make all of that happen. I want Dottie and her son to have a solid relationship and he has those two sweet children…can I really make him that corrupt? Time will tell.

Lesson Learned
What I learned through the crafting of scene possibilities is that I indeed have options. If I created a story that was completely made up of those sweet namby-pamby “breathers,” I could market it as a sleep aid.

There needs to be a purpose for each scene and the scenes need to drive the story to a climax and conclusion. My characters need to accomplish something in each scene—good or bad. Because of the scene developing exercise, my story has taken a new direction. I can’t wait to see what happens next!

Have you tried using scene cards? How did that work for you?


  1. maybe it's not gambling, maybe it's a layoff at his work, or legitimate investments that went bad—but leave it in!!! and build their relationship after, better for it

    1. I think I'm leaning there, too, Robin...Thanks for the affirmation!


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