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Monthly Archives: May 2011

Writing scenes that GRIP your reader’s interest

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So I’ve been outlining for the past two weeks. I’ve been using a combination of the W and the snowflake method to try to fill out a solid outline for my Gleaming novel idea, and I’m very happy with the first part of it, but the second half needs a lot of filling in.

Still, I thought this would be a good time to stop and think about the plot at the scene level for a bit.

According to Dwight Swain again (as per the folks over at, there are two types of scenes.

Swain calls these scenes and sequels, though for my purposes I’m thinking of two types of scenes.

First, the scene should have three parts :

Scene : 1. Goal 2. Conflict 3. Disaster.

The scene should always end in disaster unless you’re at the final climax of the story. The second type of scene, which Swain calls a Sequel, is a reaction scene. In this case, the characters is responding to some major event in the story. The three parts of the sequel are :

Sequel : 1. Reaction 2. Dilemma 3. Choice.

Ok, I know many of you out there hate any kind of formulaic writing. But as I’ve noted previously in this blog, I’ve read a helluva lot of amateur writing over the past 5 years or so, and I’ve read tons more than usual in the last year, thanks to my writing group and active participation in Critters and Bookcountry (and thanks to having many friends who are skilled amateur writers).

You’d be amazed how many of these very talented amateur writers are missing all three of these elements (Goal, Conflict, AND Disaster) in their scenes – which means that the scenes simply aren’t hooking readers in. Generally the characters are kind of wishy washy and just wandering around not doing much. Even when written well, this ain’t a great story.

That a character needs a motivation is one of the most basic things taught in creative writing class (or acting class for that matter). No one cares about your character unless your character wants something. Once your character want something, we get emotionally invested in the story, because now WE want something. We want them to get what they want (being the naturally sympathetic creatures that we are). When character’s don’t have strong goals setup in the very beginning of the story, on the other hand, they don’t want something so we don’t want something and the story falls flat.

So give your characters a goal, and make them care about it deeply and strongly, and make us feel that desire. Then, the reader will care about the conflict and we’ll feel sad at the disaster that alway always always results (again, unless it’s the last scene of the book) and we’ll keep reading because we want to see them achieve their desire in the end.

When your character needs to make a big choice, you move to the second type of scene, the sequel, where they have a reaction, dilemma, and decision.

You have reservations about all this, I can see. You think formulaic writing is stupid. But you’re an amateur writer that’s never been published and you’re looking at MY blog (god help you) to get advice. Just give this a shot.

Pick a story or a chapter of a book you’ve written and think about these things. Break it up into scenes in your mind and ask if each scene has 1. goal 2. conflict 3. disaster or 1. reaction 2. dilemma 3. decision.

Try mentally adding those elements in where they’re missing (and I’m positive they are missing) and see if it makes the story more interesting to you.

Try it. What have you got to lose?


Book review : The Inheritance by Robin Hobb and Megan Lindholm

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My review of Robin Hobb’s book of short stories is here.

Great stories – it was a fun read because the stories span her career and reminded me of how much I loved her early stuff, too, which had a lot of erm is magical mundane the right phrase?

Quitting Writing

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Nobody tells this to people who are beginners . . .

Great link from my friend Andy about frustration with your own crappy amateur writing.

You know what? Sometimes I look at my stories and I think they suck. Sometimes I see no point in writing at all.

But I think this article puts a great perspective on it. The reason you get frustrated with your own work is because you are an expert at what you’re trying to do. People who want to play music spend tons of time listening to the best performers around. People who want to write have read thousands of books by the best writers out there.

We are the most critical judges; because of that, we turn our criticism on our own work and see how far short it falls of the vision we had in our minds of what we wanted to create.

But it’s a learning process. I’m too far gone to pretend I’m ever going to quit. I’m pretty sure this will be a lifelong obsession – as it was for my grandfather and as piano playing is for my father (who continues to take lessons and practice obsessively and get jitters when he performs at church, even though he’s in his 60s and will clearly always be amateur). As kayaking and art are for Rachel.

Sometimes something gets in your blood and you have to do it. But it can be depressing when you see how far from perfect you are.

Reading something like this article helps keep me going even when I know that what I created isn’t what I envisioned, because everything I write is another bit of practice to help me get to the point where I can make something good.

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