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?

A Jedi Like Your Father: What Luke Skywalker Taught Me about Writing Characters

For the longest time, I struggled with strong character motivation. Still do, actually. Unless I make a conscious effort to do otherwise, I tend to write reactive characters to whom shit happens — who just sort of blunder from one encounter to another, maybe having an emotion or two about it, but with no all-consuming wants of their own. It’s an instinct I still have to actively fight, even though I know how weak it is writing-wise.

It didn’t click with me until I started examining the stories I loved from the inside, and realized all the best characters have a driving need that moves them forward — and then story circumstances that move them further and further from those goals.

Since I’m a sci-fi / fantasy buff and I love to cite movie examples, let’s go with one of the nerd classics: Star Wars. (I thought about aiming for some literary credibility by busting out, I don’t know, Silas Marner or The Brothers Karamazov or something, but come on, we both know I’d be faking it.)

  • Luke Skywalker wants to get away from his dead-end life on Tattooine. He finds out about Princess Leia, and wants to find out who she is and help her (goals).
  • Hoping to join the Imperial academy (goal), Luke gets frustrated by his uncle, who refuses to let him off the farm (setback). He seeks out Obi-Wan to find out more about Leia (goal) but gets waylaid by Sand People (setback).
  • Later, he manages to get off Tattoine, although it costs him the only family he has left (setback, which then leads to another goal).
  • Now Luke also wants to become a Jedi, and rescue the princess. (goal)
  • He makes a little progress on the whole Jedi thing, but then loses his master when Obi-Wan gets killed by Vader (setback). The Jedi goal won’t get picked up again until the second movie, and won’t be fulfilled until the third.
  • Luke rescues the princess, presumably with romance in mind (goal), but Han breezily cockblocks him (setback). Which turns out to be fortunate for everyone involved, as it prevents Darth Vader from having flipper grandchildren.
  • Having rescued Leia, Luke gets caught up in the Rebellion and the attack on the Death Star… (goal)
  • ….but his new best buddy Han wants nothing to do with it (setback).

The final battle is then one setback after another, as Luke watches his buddies botch their attack runs and get picked off like flies. But, finally, he gets the job done. The Death Star is destroyed (only there’s a second one), Han gets his reward (but no longer seems to care that much), Luke gets the girl (only not really), and everyone is happy but Grand Moff Tarkin and those dead contractors.

This is a pretty basic rundown of Luke’s character arc, which I’m sure has been combed over in painstaking detail by more devoted nerds than myself. The point is, Luke, even though he’s frequently thought of as a whiny kid who just sort of bumbles around, he actually has very clear goals.

You can graph Han Solo much the same way. His basic objective is “get paid,” a goal so beleaguered by setbacks that he begins to question it (“no reward is worth this”). Obi-Wan has more elusive and far-reaching goals, some of which transcend his own death — which, from a story perspective, is pretty cool.

On the other hand, Star Wars does have a character who blunders through the story being batted around by life, who just reacts to things as they come along: C-3PO. Does he make good comic relief? Sure. Would he make a good protagonist? Hell no.

The same goes for Chewie. Okay, calm down, I love Chewie as much as the next Star Wars dweeb, but what’s Chewie’s motivation? It’s kinda Han’s motivation. Follow Han around, collect a paycheck. He’s a good supporting character, but on his own, he doesn’t have much going for him.

Good characters want things. They want things badly — and they frequently don’t get them, until the end of the story. Or, when they do get them, they become gateways to greater, more troublesome motivations. If you want a strong protagonist, you should be able to break down their goal in one succinct sentence. Harry Potter wants to survive (and later defeat) the machinations of Voldemort. Frodo wants to get the Ring to Mount Doom. Roland wants to get to the Dark Tower. Indiana Jones wants to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant. And so on. (Raiders of the Lost Ark is actually a really interesting example, because the hero basically never gets what he wants, which is the Ark in a museum. He loses out at every turn, right through the ending, but the story is compelling anyway because he wants it so damn bad.)

So if you have a story that seems to be flailing around, take a good look at your main character. Much of the time, a directionless story points straight back to a directionless protagonist. Do they have an all-consuming goal that’s constantly moving them forward? If not, you’d better give them one, because an indecisive, noodly protagonist will erode reader sympathy like sulfuric acid. If your characters don’t invest in something emotionally, how do you expect your readers to invested emotionally in your story? It’s simple: they won’t.

Make them want it.

Half-Witted, Stuck-Up, Scruffy-Looking Book Hoarder

TwistAPlotSome people’s reading histories have formidable pedigrees. For example, I have a close friend whose favorite book of all time is Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Another speaks highly of Stephen Jay Gould. Dig through my literary history, and you’ll find nuggets of Melville and Dostoevsky buried under broad strata of Dragonlance.

My earliest reading memories from grade school are dominated by Big Little Books, a squalid literary form rightfully lampooned by James Lileks as a “joyless synthesis” of books and comics. I owned both the Spider-Man and Fantastic Four titles in the Big Little Book series, and re-read both many times. Humorously, the Spider-Man edition I owned had a printing error in which two chapters of the book repeated themselves verbatim, which my young self took as some kind of intentional time-warp that I accepted as canon.

After that came the seminal Choose Your Own Adventure books, and their ill-fated and disreputable cousins, TwistAPlot. Golden Sword of Dragonwalk was my favorite, even though its narrative payoff in both swords and dragons turned out to be woefully lacking. My second favorite was Time Raider, which I only recently learned was written by the God Emperor of Goosebumps himself, R.L. Stine. Time Raider’s central conceit, as I recall, was a time machine that had a lever that read PAST and FUTURE and buttons with increments of tens, hundreds or thousands of years in either direction. Talk about user friendly. I distinctly remember writing the page numbers of these time increments on the back cover, so I could relive the thrill of the same brief story arcs over and over again. Like a lot of kids, I had a really high tolerance for reptition.

As adolescence approached, my reading tastes emerged into the ghetto of movie novelizations, leavened with the occasional sci-fi classic like Dune or the Foundation trilogy. I’d love to tell you that I’ve read Lord of the Rings a dozen times, but I haven’t. Mostly, I read the parts about Gollum and skimmed the vast swaths of history and geographical detail until finally getting serious about it circa 2002. On the other hand, I probably read Dragonlance Legends a dozen times in my eighth-grade year alone (a series I abandoned without remorse when Raistlin Majere’s kid came galumphing along like a spell-slinging Cousin Oliver). But I probably read the novelization to Terminator more than either of those works, because the author went into fetishistic detail about the guns involved and there was an amazing scene where Reese shared a slice of stolen pizza with a stray dog. Oh my god, you guys.

In my defense, there was a reason I read so many movie novelizations. I grew up in a time when cable was mostly a wasteland of crappy B-movies, punctuated with the occasional major motion picture. I once saw a stand-up comic joke about cable in the early Eighties being “Krull and Beastmaster five hundred times apiece,” but that’s not actually a joke. That’s how it really was. My parents didn’t own a VCR until probably 1993, and as a lazy kid with a small allowance and an undying thirst for Star Wars figures, I didn’t have the disposable income to see a lot of movies in the theater. So, to relive my favorite cinema experiences over and over again, I re-read the Star Wars novels like a junkie, little suspecting that there would come a time when there would be such an unholy glut of Star Wars in the popular culture that I’d lose interest in absorbing it. But I digress. The point is, my dog-eared, much-abused copy of the Star Wars novelization, ghost-written by Alan Dean Foster, was probably my favorite book in the world for several years following 1977.

High school brought an obsession with the blue-collar horror sensibilities of Stephen King, still the most influential author in my personal lexicon. I used to lug the unwieldy hardback of It to class with me and read it during study hall, to the revulsion of my classmates, who couldn’t believe I would read such a gargantuan doorstop on purpose. (This brings to mind an anecdote from a close friend who, while sitting in a small-town diner reading a paperback, was approached by some patrons whom she thought asked “what are you reading?” What they’d actually asked was “what are you reading for?” Good times.) People often seem surprised when I tell them I nearly flunked out of high school. It wasn’t because I wasn’t bright enough; I was just far more interested in the antics of Pennywise the Clown than my actual studies. This persisted well into college, where I picked up The Brothers Karamazov and Moby Dick on top of the books I was already reading for my classes; at that point, even my professors treated me as if I’d lost my mind.

Still, despite years of relatively voracious reading, I have huge gaps in what are generally considered the genre classics. I never got any further into Herbert’s work than Children of Dune, for example, nor have I ever finished Asimov’s Robot series. I could rarely do more than skim Arthur C. Clarke’s work, as hard sci-fi makes my eyes glaze over almost instantly. I’ve read exactly one Heinlein novel in its entirety (Stranger in a Strange Land), and didn’t get much out of it beyond a B+ book report. Even though I speak very highly of Ray Bradbury’s work on the craft of writing, I’ve never successfully made it through the Martian Chronicles (although I did watch the TV miniseries, and I’m genuinely sorry about that).

I never cared for Narnia. I couldn’t stomach Harry Potter. I recently gave up on George Martin’s magnum opus because I realized that after five books in fifteen years, I just don’t care anymore. (Having the outrageous cheek to criticize Martin probably deserves its own blog post at some point.) I’ve never read the original Grimm’s fairy tales. I have, however, read the Sword of Shannara series. Probably two or three times. I liked the original Hitchhiker’s Guide, but found the third volume in the series kind of flat and pointless. And so on. My favorite authors tend to be slightly more out of the way: James Morrow, A.A. Attanasio, Glen Cook, Matthew Stover, Robert Sheckley, Robert Anton Wilson (whom I recently found out a lot of nerds seem to despise, which I find dismaying).

Splinter of the Mind's EyeSure, these are just my personal tastes, but sometimes they feel like a thousand tiny heresies eroding whatever eventual credibility I might have as a writer, or even a reader. A lot of my favorite authors tend to be obscure, but it’s not even dime-store hipster snobbery at work; I genuinely wish those guys were immensely popular, and it bothers me that they’re not. Having obscure tastes is more irritating than anything. Who likes blathering about their favorite book and getting a blank stare in return? And where do I get off criticizing Douglas Adams, anyway?

So the lesson here is probably that when it comes to matters of sci-fi and fantasy, my opinion is probably not to be trusted. Still, I’m trying. I’m currently plowing my way through Steven Erikson’s Malazan series, for example, and have picked up Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn and Iain Bank’s Culture series and Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, in the hopes of getting on board with the current genre darlings. I’m not sure that will lead to productive conversations with my book-reading friends at the end, but at least I’ll be able to recommend something that’s in print.

Speaking of which, I wonder if I still have my copy of Splinter of the Mind’s Eye somewhere…

So tell me, reader. What are your genre gaps? Any trashy series that you unabashedly love? Any classics you unreservedly hate? I’d like to know.