In another post (Every Scene Needs…A Question) we talked about how every scene has an implicit question related to whether the character will get what they want.
This is how you build tension, which is the key to powerful storytelling, whether it’s fiction, non-fiction, or any other kind of story.
But you have to do more than just plant questions.
You have to answer them.
I’ll show you!
A Refresher on the Questions
There are two questions in every scene. If you’re writing romance, make that three.
You can’t avoid them. I’m sorry, but you can’t. Trust me, I’ve tried, and written crappy scenes as a result, only I didn’t know this is why they were crappy until much later.
It doesn’t matter if we set these questions up intentionally, with full knowledge, or if we fumble through them accidentally, or if we miss seeing them entirely.
The questions don’t need the writer to exist, because these are what the reader is reading for.
They’re implicit & essential. They’re living on the page like little invisible microbes (nice, right?) whether we plan for them or not.
What are these microbial questions?
- Will the character get what they want or expect? i.e. Will they achieve their scene goal (aka: plot. At a meta level, this also is their story goal.)
- Will they change? (aka: arc. Will they learn/discover/understand something vital?)
- The Romance Special: Will they get their Happily Ever After?
In other words, every scene moves the character closer to or further from:
- Scene/Story Goal
And The Story Replies
And The Story Replies
Here you are, with these little infectious story questions.
Now you have to answer them.
The core question, on every axis, is, “Will they get what they want?”
Or more accurately, “Will they get what they want in the way they want it?”
The answer is: “Not if you want the story to continue.”
Pro Tip: You cannot give your character what they want or expect in the way they want or expect it and expect your story to be dramatic.
You have to give them things they didn’t want or didn’t expect and in doing so, force them to change.
Drama And Reversals
Drama & Reversals
Drama feeds on reversals. Reversals of fortune. Reversals of hope. Reversals of expectation.
The unwanted/unexpected must happen to your character.
In every scene.
OMG, here she goes again.
If you don’t upend your character’s desire or expectations, if they get what they want or expect, they’ll never have to change.
The trajectory of their life will stay the same.
That’s not what Story is for.
The whole point of Story is transformation. But transforming is hard work. Seriously, who wants to transform??
We just want enough gas in our car to get home from work so we can hang with our peeps and binge watch Game of Thrones.
:falls over writhing from Season 8:
The point is, none of us change unless we have to.
Humans always take the (seemingly) most direct route from A to B, whether or not we should want B, unless & until we hit a roadblock.
Your job is the roadblocks.
The 3 Replies for Powerful Drama
The Three Replies For Powerful Fiction
There are only three possible replies if you want great drama.
Don’t worry , this isn’t formula. Unless you consider haikus and sonnets formula. Because within these three ‘replies,’ there are limitless possibilities.
Those 3 replies are:
- Yes, but…
No, and furthermore…
A “Yes but” reply is where the character gets what they want or expect, but it comes with additional, unexpected (& usually unwanted) strings attached or new complications.
This is tailor-made for the romance genre!
The hero gets the coveted contract…but he has to work with the other hero.
The heroine gets the coveted job…but her boss is the guy she had a one-night-stand with two weeks ago.
Have fun with this one, because it is a lot of fun.
Or, if you prefer, “hahahaha, no way.”
This one is pretty self-explanatory. Your character doesn’t get what they want or expect.
It’s important, though, that it’s not just a dead end.
You want to introduce something in the “No” that offers a new goal for the upcoming scene(s). Ensure the “No” doesn’t just stop the story in its tracks.
Maybe your protagonist discovers some information that gives them a new direction, once they reflect on it. Or maybe the “No” triggers emotions that cause them to act in a certain way, which creates other opportunities, conflicts, or goals in the upcoming scenes.
The lawyer hero goes into a meeting with his obviously-innocent client and finds out the client might actually be guilty.
It’s a “No.”
But the client also mentions something that raises a new, unexplored possibility, that lawyer-hero can now go explore.
Ensure the “No” keeps the story moving by introducing new, revised goals and requiring new, more difficult actions to finally succeed.
No and Furthermore...
No, and Furthermore…
This one’s my favorite!
Not only do they not get what they want, but it’s WORSE than they ever imagined.
The situation gets worse or more difficult or more complicated, &/or as a result of their failed attempts they’ve made things worse, and now life is really in the toilet.
(At least as far as they can see right now.)
This is another reply that’s ubiquitous in the romance genre. It’s great for building romantic conflict & tethering the romantic leads together.
Hey kid, not only are you not getting what you wanted, but by the way, you’ve got to deal with the other romantic lead now too. So…have fun in there.
Pro Tip: You can often use the character’s reaction to the “No” to fuel the “And furthermore.”
For example, maybe you heroine doesn’t get the promotion she expected (“No”) …and anger takes over her good sense. Maybe she tells off her boss. Now she’s fired.
That’s a big “and furthermore.”
This creates a whole new set of circumstances she now has to deal with, that will help or hinder her pursuit of her ultimate story goal.
And that right there is some story fun.
Story Replies Introduce New Goals
Story Replies Introduce New Goals…& Require New Actions
I talked about this a little bit in the “No” section, but I want to touch on it again, because it’s important.
These story ‘replies’ must create new situations the character has to respond to. Every reversal sets up new goals, adds complications, layers on new stakes, or deepens the previous ones.
These increased difficulties or new opportunities require new, more difficult actions if the character wants to succeed, which they very much do.
This is what forces them to change. To grow.
Their response then creates even more new questions & answers that construct your next scene.
And on and on and on.
Reverse things. Make the outcome better or worse than your protagonist expected. Give them unwanted strings & silver linings. Add a twist that layers on complications or introduces new opportunities. Make things even worse than they expected…or unimaginably better.
I promise it’ll be fun!
Reversals Can Be Good
Reversals Can Be Good
This is a good place to mention reversals can introduce positive value change too.
Things can get better as a result of the “Yes but…”, “No,” or “No and furthermore…”
Maybe something is introduced that helps more than the “Yes” would have. Maybe something that looked awful at first, turns out to be better than they could have expected.
This is the essence of the romance genre, aimirite??
It can also be a positive value change if the character was expecting a ‘bad’ outcome.
They thought a friend was going to roast them, but she offered understanding. They go into the scene thinking they’re going to get fired, and they get a promotion instead.
Pro Tip: (-) to (+) reversals are just as satisfying for drama.
Change The Trajectory
Change The Trajectory
The essential element of these story ‘replies’ is that they change the trajectory of the story. They shift the direction the story is going, or the velocity it’s moving at.
Your character was expecting X, planning for X, got packed for X…and they got a+b (4-y)=OMG.
The trajectory of a scene should never be a straight (aka: predictable) line or a smooth (aka: predictable) curve.
You’re the author. You’re the Roadblock-Maker. The Reversal-Maker. Go do your job.
Backtracking Can Be Your Friend
Backtracking Can Be Your Friend
What if you absolutely need a particular scene to end a particular way? There’s no way you can change it.
Revise so they start the scene wanting/expecting something different than what happens at the end.
Does your character get fired at the end of the scene? Can you start the scene with her expecting something different? Maybe she expects a regular day at work…heck, maybe she expects a promotion!
Try it out. You’ll be amazed how much fun it is to turn a character’s world on its head.
Depending on your story, you may only need to go back to the end of the previous scene, or you might need to go back several scenes to set it up properly. You may find you need to dig in a bit deeper, mine the character a bit deeper, to make that scene be a complete upset/reversal at an emotional level.
The point is, strongly establish &/or amplify what the character wants or thinks is going to happen….then deliver something different.
Neccessary "There are Exceptions" Clause
Do you need to do this all the time, every scene?
No. Sometimes you delay a ‘reply’ until a later scene.
No…and furthermore, if your story is humming along, and readers are engaged, awesome. Stick with whatever you’re doing. (My guess is you’re planting questions & answering them, in some way, without even realizing.)
But if the story is dragging…
If your characters feel boring…
If everything feels predicable and uninspired…
If you’re losing interest as the author…
Chances are your readers will too.
Stories need drama. As we said at the start of the article, drama feeds on reversals. Consider putting a few more of them into your story,
Your readers will thank you.
Then buy your next book.
I hope so!
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