Scene and Structure: Make Something Happen!

Imagine if Star Wars began like this:

A Corellian blockade runner sails peacefully across the stars.

Oh dear! Princess Leia, if Darth Vader attacks us, what will happen to the Death Star plans?

I don’t know, Threepio. I guess we’ll just have to try to safeguard them somehow. Captain, are there any signs of a Star Destroyer on our tail?


Oh, good. It would certainly be bad if he attacked. Darth Vader is a monster.

Princess, you might be interested in knowing we’re now orbiting above Tattooine, a desert planet of the Outer Rim. Tatooine has two stars, as it is in a binary star system. Tatooine’s G-type and K-type twin stars (Tatoo I and Tatoo II) heat its surface, making water and shade hard to come by. The planet’s indigenous lifeforms—such as the Womp rat, bantha, Sarlacc, and Krayt Dragon—are well-adapted to its arid climate, but human settlers often become moisture farmers and live in subterranean dwellings in order to survive. The planet’s lack of resources, brutal heat, and decentralized population have made governing the planet nearly impossible…

Exciting, huh? No. No, it isn’t.

Seattle Ain't Bullshittin'

I’ve seen a lot of beginning writers trot out scenes like this. Hell, I’ve done it myself. Scenes where the action is waiting to get started. Scenes where, as David Mamet says in his infamous master-class memo, “two characters are talking about a third [and] the scene is a crock of shit.” Nothing’s happening, but people are talking about how something might happen at some point. And that builds tension, right?

Not necessarily.

Scenes like this are ripe for the proverbial cutting-room floor. Why? Because they’re unnecessary. For example, look at how Star Wars actually begins, as compared to the dull hypothetical above.

The attack’s already taking place. Leia’s already in trouble. The fifteen-second prologue crawl has already filled us in on the situation. We don’t need Leia to explain that Darth Vader is a badass. We learn it easily enough when he shows up and snaps a guy’s neck like a candy cane. Badassery established!

Similarly, the reader isn’t going to give a good goddamn about the details of Tatooine. It’s hot, it’s dry, it’s empty. We learn this when the droids are wandering around lost. The only setting details we learn are those that impact the story right now. The exposition and the action develop at the same time. That’s the essence of a good scene.

Another vital principle of scene structure is that no character leaves the scene unchanged. If your characters learn some information, say “huh, that’s interesting” and then go on with their lives as if nothing happened, then the story probably isn’t moving forward.

Two characters talking about what a third character might potentially do isn’t action. There’s the possibility for something to happen, but nothing actually happens. You want to be very sparing with this kind of scene, because essentially, you’re asking your reader to wait while you get the story moving.

Unless your scene somehow ramps up the tension or raises the stakes somehow, you’re just marking time, and your reader may start losing interest. Raymond Chandler used to solve this problem by having men burst into the room with guns whenever things started getting stale. That may not always be an option for you, but it’s in your best interest to push your characters and story forward.

To further strip-mine the opening sequence of Star Wars: Leia begins the scene as a princess fleeing with the Death Star plans. She ends as a prisoner, the fate of the plans now out of her control. R2 and Threepio begin the sequence as two droids on a starship, minding their own business. They end as fugitives in possession of a galaxy-changing secret only one of them knows they have. Nobody just goes on with business as usual… except maybe Vader, who, for the moment, is the least interesting character in the room. The next time he shows up, it’s torture time. And he’s interesting again.

So the next time you’re peering at your prose and wondering why it seems flaccid or dull, ask yourself: what’s happening in this scene? And furthermore, what can I make happen right now?

Two Kinds of Obstacle-Stacking

The basic unit of the dramatic scene is this: give a character a goal to pursue, have them pursue it, then move that goal further away. Rinse, raise the stakes, repeat. The harder your characters fight to reach their goal (and the further they’re driven away from it), the more your readers will love it.

This is sometimes called obstacle-stacking, and my favorite example of the technique actually comes from a movie: the famous V-Wing fight from Raiders of the Lost Ark. I was hoping to track down a video of the sequence to post here, but unfortunately, no dice. Basically, it goes like this:

  • Indy and Marion emerge from the Well of Souls and attempt to escape the Nazis on a stolen plane.
  • Indy sneaks up to try to knock out the pilot. Before he can get there, he’s spotted by another guy.
  • Indy gets back down off the plane, beats the other guy unconscious, but now the pilot sees what’s going on.
  • The burly mechanic shows up and starts beating Indy to a pulp.
  • Marion takes the blocks out from under the plane’s landing gear.
  • The pilot draws a pistol and nearly shoots Indy, but Marion knocks him out with the blocks.
  • The unconscious guard falls on the plane controls, the plane is now spinning slowly in place with the propellers running.
  • Now Indy and the burly mechanic have to avoid the deadly propellers while they’re fighting.
  • Marion tries to stop the plane, but the hatch closes on her and she’s locked in.
  • The rotating plane knocks open the gas tank of a truck. Gas spills across the runway.
  • A whole mess of guards show up in trucks, armed with machine guns.
  • Marion machine-guns the guards, but one of the trucks explodes, and now gas is now flowing toward the flames.
  • The plane is about to blow up, Marion’s trapped inside, and Indy is being beaten senseless as deadly propellers whirl over his head.

All they wanted to do was get on the plane! To me, this is a pitch-perfect example of how to create drama: a simple goal, and things relentlessly going wrong. This is the good kind of obstacle-stacking: the kind that gets your readers turning pages, forsaking sleep, missing appointments, and alienating loved ones.

But there’s a different kind of obstacle-stacking, which is neither dramatic nor gripping. I’m talking about the obstacles people set in front of them when they plan to start writing. Here’s an example, which is completely fictional and totally not from my own life, especially not from earlier this week.

  • A hypothetical author (TOTALLY NOT ME) gets up, plans to do some writing.
  • But first, better check email. And blogs. And Twitter.
  • One can’t write on an empty stomach, so breakfast time. Better make it as complicated as possible.
  • Oops, just got another email because I didn’t turn off my email client. I mean he didn’t. Oh, screw it.
  • I need coffee. I have to wash the coffee pot and filter because I didn’t do it last night.
  • Is it dark in here? I better adjust the shades. Now it’s too bright. Now it’s too dim. Now it’s too bright again.
  • Better clean this desk off too. A dirty desk is the sign of a dirty — coffee’s done! Oops, too much cream. Now not enough. Now too much again. Now I spilled hot coffee on my crotch. Time for several minutes of screaming and worrying about my future offspring, followed by laundry triage.
  • Okay, NOW I’m ready — maybe I should read a few more blogs, you know, for inspiration. Inspiration to do what, you ask? Look, nobody likes a wise-ass.
  • The cat needs attention. Well I can’t neglect the cat, that would make me some sort of monster!
  • And I don’t want the other cat to get jealous, so…
  • Now to spend ten minutes finding just the right piece of music.
  • All right. I’m finally all set! Everything’s perfect and —
  • Now my coffee’s cold.
  • You know, it’s almost lunch, I’ll catch up this afternoon.
  • Ad infinitum, up to and including social obligations, TV series, the gym, the laundry, the telephone, the doorbell, and so on.

If this looks like textbook procrastination, that’s because it is. But that’s what procrastination amounts to: stacking obstacles between you and your writing. Sometimes they’re perfectly legitimate circumstances that come up. Sometimes they’re just situations you make up. Life will make it hard enough for you to write without you helping.

I still struggle with the urge to wait for the “perfect” circumstances to write in: the day that I’m well-rested, have big blocks of unbroken time, feel inspired, and meet any number of ephemeral criteria. While these days do happen, they’re like a combination of leap year and Christmas. You can’t depend on them coming along very frequently.

Moving yourself further from the act of writing is drama you don’t need, and no one’s going to find it riveting, least of all you. If you want to create a series of insurmountable obstacles, put them in front of your characters instead. Your readers, and your muse, will thank you.