My last post, “How to Plan Your Novel — Scene Design”, provided a list of things you might want to think about before you start writing. It also focused on one of those things in particular– the importance of establishing goals for the characters in the scene.
Once you have decided on a goal, it is time to give some thought to how to crush any hopes and dreams the character may have of achieving or benefiting from accomplishing the goal. This is called “the disaster”. The basic formula is GOALS –> CONFLICT –> DISASTER. The drama that gets your readers to turn the page is rooted in conflict and disaster. The oft-quoted metaphor that you should get the protagonist up a tree and then throw rocks at him applies here. Maybe a better way to think of it is to throw your character in a hole and try to bury him before he can dig his way out.
There are four basic answers to the question–will the character achieve his goal in this scene? They are “yes”, “yes–but”, “no”, and “no–and”. The first answer–“yes” should rarely, if ever, be used before the ending of the book. A few months ago, I read an action thriller with a pretty good premise and plot and some decent characters. It could have been a good novel, but the story’s glaring problem was that the protagonist was successful at everything he did. The answer to every goal he had in the book was yes, and that lack of drama made for a mediocre story.
There are three appropriate answers to the question in the middle of a novel. The first is in the “be careful what you ask for” department. The answer is “yes–but”. In this scenario, the character achieves the goal she is pursuing in the scene, but there are unpleasant consequences to that success. Maybe the gal gets the guy, but she also gets a dose of the clap.
…throw your character in a hole and try to bury him before he can dig his way out.
An example of this is in the book “Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris. The protagonist, Clarise Starling, an FBI academy trainee, fulfills her goal to get a role in the Buffalo Bill investigation. That success nearly costs her a chance to graduate from the academy and subjects her to an internal affairs complaint that threatens to ruin her career before it even gets started.
“No” is the second answer that creates a disaster. In this case, the character is seeking something and gets the metaphorical door slammed in her face. In “The Godfather” by Mario Puzo, Michael Corleone meets with mobster Moe Greene to tell him the family wants to buy out his casino share. Greene’s response is, “I’ll buy you out. You don’t buy me out.” His answer is a firm no that throws an obstacle in the way of Michael’s goal to move the family to Vegas. It also provides the impetus for a dramatic scene with lots of great conflict and sharp dialog between characters.
The scene with Moe Greene in The Godfather is notable in that not only does Moe say no, but Michael says no to the no of Moe. (Sorry for the bad poetry.) Michael’s no is an example of the third type of disaster–“no–and”. This disaster is perhaps the most effective. Not only is the goal of the character blocked by a firm no, but there are far-reaching consequences from the character’s desire and attempts to accomplish the goal. In Moe Greene’s case (spoiler alert), the no he receives from Michael costs him both his share of the casino and his life.
So as you plan your scenes, know what the characters in the scene want and use one of the three disasters to dash their hopes. Hit them with the shovel as they try to dig their way out of the hole.
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