In this craft essay, B.B. Garin returns to the basics—the plot arc we’re all familiar with—and recommends utilizing this structure within your scenes in order to create momentum and elevate tension and conflict. Apply this advice to your work over the weekend!
Once upon an English class, a teacher presented you with a picture of a dumpy little hill with labels like “inciting incident”, “climax”, and “dénouement” along its spine. She probably told you this is how stories are built. Clear. Simple. Anyone can do it!
You may expect me to lament that misguided teacher and explain how brutally complicated the story arc really is. But funnily enough, that teacher was right. Most writers do successfully employ some form of this structure. In fact, most of us have encountered it so continuously, from our earliest picture books to our latest Netflix binge, that it’s almost impossible for us to formulate a story that doesn’t climb the hill. It’s instinct.
Where the molehill becomes a mountain isn’t with the story at large, but at the scene level. I’m often frustrated by a piece that is chugging away—interest incited, conflict built—then hits a plateau. Nothing is changing, the characters are circling around, having the same conversations, mulling the same problems they started out with. Effectively, the momentum, that magical fuel propelling us upwards, is gone.
I find one solid method for avoiding this pitfall is to treat each scene like its own mini-story. This means starting the scene on unstable ground, moving quickly into rising action, and concluding with a changing point, which ideally carries the reader into the next scene. Easy to say. Less easy to do in scene after scene, until they all build up into a story.
Don’t despair just yet, though. On a basic level, you already know how to do this. Or more importantly, some things not to do. We know a character can’t sit at a window staring at the rain for five pages. That’s a pretty boring scene. Sure, Virginia Woolf could pull it off, but I find it best to always assume I’m not a canonical author. So, we lesser mortals put our character at the window in paragraph one and by paragraph two, a tree is hit by lightning, or a naked man runs across the lawn. The point is, as writers we know something has to happen. A character can’t just exist in stasis. That’s not a story. And it’s not a scene either.
A common mistake is confusing movement with momentum. A character may spend a scene making coffee, doing her laundry, scrolling through her Twitter feed, and chasing the toy poodle when he chews on her shoes. Such a scene contains a lot of movement. You may be forgiven for thinking something is happening. But unless all these incidents add up to something larger (by the end she’s had enough, she’s moving out, her boyfriend can keep the damn dog!) it’s all just metaphorical staring at the rain.
Similarly, dialogue often fails to deliver the momentum we’re hoping for. Again, it creates the illusion that something is happening here. Two characters sit down in a cafe, they talk about a TV show they like, they leave. Sounds like a scene, doesn’t it? But if nothing has changed as a result of this conversation, it’s not an effective one.
A scene adhering to the plot hill structure would go something like this: Two characters sit down in a cafe, one hoping to borrow money. The would-be borrower compliments the other’s new car. The unsuspecting lender talks about the exotic vacation he’s planning. The borrower becomes too disgusted to ask for the money and leaves abruptly, sticking his friend with the check.
The same actions have taken place as in the first scenario, but this one has become a full scene. It’s started out with our protagonist on unstable ground—he needs money. We’ve had the rising action of the new car being compounded by the vacation bragging. Then comes a change. The protagonist decides he’s not desperate enough to beg for money from this self-absorbed jerk. And finally, the resolution—his quiet act of defiance in walking away without paying. Our scene has climbed the mountain and come down neatly on the other side. Notice that not everything has been resolved. He still needs money. But now this avenue of obtaining money is no longer available, and the story as a whole has become more complicated.
Most stories spend the majority of their time on the rising action upslope of the mountain. Well-constructed scenes do the same. When existing tensions escalate over the course of a scene, we gather the momentum to keep climbing. Often scenes feel flat not because they lack conflict, but because that conflict fails to build. In other words, what makes or breaks a scene is change.
Sometimes we writers are too sympathetic to our characters. We’ve put them in horrible situations and to make up for it, we let them skate around the edges of their problems. In such scenes, there’s a clear source of tension, but it’s up there in the clouds. It casts a shadow, but no one’s looking at it. If we don’t force our characters deeper into their conflicts, the conflict itself becomes stagnant. It’s entirely possible for a story to be loaded with tension and still feel repetitive because the characters are simply existing in their besieged states.
This doesn’t mean every scene needs to be a knock-down, drag-out fight. But every scene should add or subtract from the tension in a meaningful way. Even if a character is avoiding their problems, because that’s what real people do after all, that avoidance needs to visibly compound things. If you create the expectation that a direct confrontation is coming, and when it does it will be worse because of this current avoidance, that’s an escalation.
An easy way to test the vitality of a particular scene is to read your story through skipping that scene. Ask yourself: How is the story different? If the answer is not at all, then the scene isn’t successfully advancing up the mountain. You may find that this is, in fact, an unnecessary scene and decide to do away with it. But if you wish to save it, consider what needs to happen in order for the story to be unable to return to the scene’s initial state. A story should always feel like it is forcing its characters, and the reader along with them, forwards. So, if your scene is two friends at a table, what needs to be said (or not said) that will mean this conversation can never happen in this way again?
A good question to keep in mind is, why this moment? Of all the moments in a character’s life, why have you chosen to show us this one? The answer for many scenes is likely subtle. Scenes with bold, obvious changes are far easier to come by, but usually only occur once or twice a story. Everything in between is built of the tiny changes; the cutting of a flower, the buying of a new coat, the decision to turn right instead of left. These are the everyday alterations that carry a scene over the mountain, and those scenes in turn, carry the story.
by B.B. Garin