Stories are made up of scenes. Scenes are the building blocks of stories. Yet, in my years as an editor and as a writing teacher I’ve seen many, many, many scenes that didn’t work. One of the reasons that these scenes didn’t work was that the scene itself was an idea born of the need to show some specific aspect of the character…that she was afraid of heights…that he was deeply distrustful….that she didn’t believe in love…that he was afraid of dogs…or some other facet of his or her character.
While scenes should show these things about the character not every one will. And a scene’s sole purpose for existing should not be simply to show a character is afraid of heights or that she is distrustful or that he doesn’t believe in love or that he is afraid of dogs.
Scenes have much bigger jobs to do than to simply show the aspects of a character.
Scenes are a way of showing and managing the character’s changing relationship to his or her goal or goals. They are also a way of showing and managing a character’s mental and emotional changes, which in general motivate the character’s decisions and actions within the story. This in general forms the skeletal system of the story or the plot. However, what I want to talk about in this post is how to show the character through every scene, even though the scene should not exist merely to show the specific character trait.
A solid scene requires conflict, tension, or suspense. But this conflict, tension or suspense stems from the character’s goal within the scene.
When the character has a goal, the reader understands what the goal is, and the reader understands what the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual stakes are for the character in reaching/not reaching the goal then the reader is engaged in the question of whether the character will reach the goal. At this point they are engaged in the dramatic action which unfolds around the character’s actions/reactions taken in an effort to reach the goal.
Without a goal, without the character having strong stakes in the attainment of the goal the scene will read flat.
This means the primary thing that a writer must do to create a strong scene is to understand the character’s goal and the stakes for the character if he does/doesn’t reach the goal and then to transfer this information to the reader so that the reader is engaged in the character’s efforts to attain the goal.
This is the basis of the scene. It needs to be present in every scene. That said…scenes are bigger, broader, multi-dimensional creations which show the character’s efforts to attain the goal. Within the scene there is a lot of room to show who a character is through the specific thoughts and feelings he has and the actions he takes.
While we wouldn’t craft a scene with the sole purpose of showing that a character is afraid of heights it is possible to show that a character IS afraid of heights within the broader context of a scene. While we wouldn’t write a scene with the sole purpose of showing a character is deeply distrustful we can take every opportunity within a scene to show a character that IS distrustful. While we wouldn’t create a scene for the sole purpose of showing the hero’s lack of belief in love we can take every opportunity a scene presents to show a character who doesn’t believe in love. While we wouldn’t create a scene for the sole purpose of showing a character afraid of dogs we can take every opportunity within a scene to show a character who IS afraid of dogs.
Crafting a scene to show some specific aspect of characterization is a bit like cheating. It begins by thinking, how can I show that he is afraid of dogs?
Taking advantage of the opportunities within a scene means thinking deeply about the scene that the story needs…the scene which shows the character’s goals and what’s at stake physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually for the character if he/she doesn’t reach their goals. It requires FIRST meeting the story needs…devising the parameters of a scene which illustrates the character’s goals/the stakes associated with reaching or not reaching the goals and the character’s actions in trying to achieve the goals. THEN within those parameters looking at how your specific character who is afraid of heights or who is deeply distrustful or who is afraid of dogs would act and react.
If your character needs to find a piece of evidence which is crucial to solving a mystery which has important emotional and physical stakes for the character, maybe you could place that piece of evidence in a junkyard patrolled by pit bulls. Or maybe it is just in Aunt Mary’s office which is patrolled by no fewer than ten yipping, yapping chihuahuas. You can show your character’s fear of dogs through his thoughts/feelings/actions as he approaches the junkyard, sees the “danger, guard dog on patrol” signs and decides how to reach his goal of retrieving the evidence in the face of the guard dogs and his fear of them. Alternatively you could show him sweating as he faces the idea of seeing Aunt Mary and the chihuahuas. In either case you address the needs of the story first. The story needs a scene in which the hero’s goal is to achieve the evidence to solve the mystery and one in which there are some stakes associated with finding/not finding the evidence. Showing the fear of dogs is secondary. The scene may be crafted in a time/place/manner designed to show his fear of dogs…but this is secondary to creating a scene in which the character has a specific story related goal with specific stakes associated with it.
To create a strong scene ask what the story needs first. The character needs a goal which focuses both the character and the reader. Then there need to be stakes associated with attaining the goal. The stakes keep the character going when it would be easier to walk away and the stakes make the reader care whether the character achieves his/her goal or not.
I would generally approach scenes by looking at:
1.) What the story needs. What goal does the character have? What is at stake if he doesn’t reach the goal? How can I impart that information to the reader?
2.) What do I want to show about the character in this scene?
3.) How would my specific character given all I know about him/her act/react in this specific situation. How can I tweak the parameters of the scene to show more about my character? Can I hide the evidence at Aunt Mary’s where he has to tiptoe through the chihuahuas or could I place it in the junkyard or maybe the police impound which is patrolled by police dogs?
It is in thinking about what you want to show about the character and what the specific character would do in a given situation that you can tweak the parameters of your scene to show a character who avoids standing too close to the windows in a skyscraper or who takes the long way around a busy city to avoid crossing a bridge.
This brings us to consistency…which is an important issue when it comes to showing character through the scenes we write. Consistency is about the character who is afraid of heights or of dogs acting in a way that is consistent all the way through the story. You wouldn’t have a hero afraid of heights climbing to the top of the ferris wheel to offer aid to a stranded little boy in one scene and have him avoiding the windows in a skyscraper in the next, at least without some serious motivation for the first. A character who is afraid of dogs in one scene wouldn’t be greeting dogs as they pass by on the street in a later scene. A character who is afraid of heights is afraid of heights and reacts accordingly every time he faces a situation where he has to face being off the ground. A person who is afraid of dogs is afraid of dogs every time he is faced with dogs.