Sunday, October 24, 2010

Action Scenes

In a truly staggering moment of genius, I scheduled this post and the "Reaction Scenes" post in the wrong order. Thus we have reaction before action, which may be fine for Blogger, but is going to seriously mess up physics. The laws of causality should never be tampered with, folks.

In the post on scenes, I broke them down into two kinds: action and reaction.

Action scenes show the point of view character trying to change the direction of the story. They begin with a goal, and end with that goal either achieved or lost.


A goal is a simple, short-term objective. Don't confuse it with motive. A character's motive is a long-term desire, likely the focus of the entire novel. Winning the hand of the princess is a motive; getting into the castle where she's imprisoned is a goal. Bringing down the syndicate is a motive; discovering who controls the mob is a goal. A lot of project management guides focus on goal setting and lay out criteria for good goals. If I adapt their philosophy to the goal of a scene, I'd say it has to be:

Specific: I think what the POV character wants has to be clear to the reader going in. The prince wants Rapunzel to let down her hair.

Measurable: A reader ought to be able to tell, when it's all over with, whether the character achieve their goal or failed. Either the hair drops or it doesn't.

Achievable, Realistic: The character has to stand a reasonable, although slim, chance. If he keeps his voice down, he should be able to attract Rapunzel's attention without waking the ogre guarding the castle.

Timely: I don't think a scene should drag on forever. Nor do I think it should be over too quick. The goal should be something the POV character wants and could achieve in the near term. The Prince has to get Rapunzel out of the tower before the ogres eat her for dinner, and by the smell of things, someone's already heating up the cookpot.

I'd also throw in another criteria:

Staked: In order for the reader to invest in the scene, they have to have some understanding of the consequences of the character's success or failure. If the Prince succeeds, Rapunzel lives. If he fails, she dies.

I believe it's vital to get the goal right because so much that follows depends on it.


Once the character has a goal, there has to be some obstacle throwing his/her achievement of it in doubt. Without opposition or obstacles, the scene has no drama. "Rapunzel lowered her hair," is not a dramatic scene. It's a sentence, and not a very interesting one. "The Prince called to Rapunzel, but she could not hear because the window was shuttered," isn't a scene either, but it's the start of one. There's a goal and an obstacle which throws the success of the POV character into question.

Butcher believes that opposition ought to be in the form of another character. I can understand that, because character interactions are always the most interesting. I don't necessarily believe that's something I can pull off all the time, though. I have a subplot in the Somnia Secundus where the protagonist has to solve a puzzle. The obstacle is the puzzle itself, not another character. I like to think the scenes involving the puzzle are dramatic, but I'd be foolish to believe they come close to matching the drama of scenes where the protagonist has to deal with opposition from other characters. It is far more interesting to have the Prince convince an ogre to open the window than it is to have him attack the shutters directly.


Here's the payoff of the dramatic scene, the resolution. Ingermanson insists on calling this the "Disaster," and I can see his point. Butcher points out that a dramatic scene can have four possible resolutions:

1) Success -- The character succeeds. Yay. We're done. How boring. This outcome really ought to be saved for the final confrontation of the book: the climax. Even then, the only drama for a scene that ends in success comes from establishing before hand that success is only remotely possible and is going to be achieved at tremendous cost.

2) Success, BUT... -- The character succeeds, but has set off some unintended chain of events that is going to make things much, much worse going forward. Rapunzel's hair made so much noise coming down that all the ogres are now alert. Getting out of the castle is going to be tricky. This is inherently more interesting and dramatic than success because it makes the reader question the success of the next step in the plan.

3) Failure -- The character has failed, and the goal has been denied. If they're going to act further on their motive, they're going to have to set a new goal and try something else. Rapunzel's hair has been hacked off. If the Prince wants to rescue her, he's going to have to come up with some other way into the castle. Failure is always more affective than success because it raises the question, "Now what?" in the reader. In the next action scene, the stakes are going to be higher and the chance of success slimmer. It's going to be more dramatic.

4) Failure. AND... -- Not only does the character fail, but that failure has made the situation worse. Rapunzel's hair has been hacked off and their whisper back and forth has attracted the attention of the hungry ogres. This is always the most interesting and dramatic outcome. you've put your character up a tree and surrounded it with alligators... and now you've taught the alligators to climb. "Now what?" has become, "What's left?" in the reader's mind.

Dramatically, the flow of a novel should consist of scenes with worse and worse setbacks until, at the climax, the reader believes the situation to be almost hopeless. At that point, success is surprising, welcome and emotionally satisfying, which is the whole point of the reading experience.

"Now what?" is the question that should be raised in the reader's mind at the end of every scene. Seeking the answer to that question is what keeps them reading. But it doesn't pay to raise questions without ever providing answers (Lost, anyone?). That just frustrates the reader and encourages them to put the book down.

I don't want that ever to be an option in something I write, so as a writer, I'd better answer it.

Next time: Reaction scenes.

No comments: