Scene Anatomy: Turning on Conflict

Scene Anatomy: Turning on Conflict

Here’s a joke a drunk woman who claimed to be an assassin told me in the back of my favorite café the other day:

“A gorilla walks into a bar and orders a banana-tini. The bartender thinks it’s really strange that a gorilla is ordering a drink, much less speaking English to him. He begins to shake up the order when he wakes up. He realizes that he’s been dreaming and he turns to his wife to explain this absurd experience. His wife isn’t there because his marriage is falling apart.”

This joke seems lazy at first but it works.  It works because it turns well. It turns twice, in fact.

Let’s talk about scenes in narrative fiction. Without really looking anything up, I’d define a scene as a largely non-exposition, action driven piece of writing involving at least one character. The scene itself has a beginning, a middle, and an end and needs to resolve itself cleanly, while also furthering the broader story.

Real quick though, let’s talk about scene length. According to Shawn Coyne‘s analysis of The Silence of the Lambs, the perfect scene length is 1,500 – 2,000 words. That’s the “potato chip” size that’s long enough to accommodate the needs of the story without losing the reader’s interest. The goal here, kind of operating on the same psychological weakness that drugs, alcohol and app developers exploit, is to satisfy the reader with minimal effort such that they will be willing to do “just one more.”

This is dark magic we’re fucking with here.

But that 1,500 word chapter would be just a meaningless number if it doesn’t turn. Scenes need to exist on a hinge, otherwise they become useless exposition. Maybe useless exposition is your style. Maybe you’re making a point. That’s cool. But you’re pretty likely to piss off the readers you want to support you so why don’t you put down your pipe and take off your graduation robes. It’s goddamn July, you high-fallutin-nobody-understands-my-art chunk of ass-granite. You can be subtle and experimental but we’re talking about being accessible here.

Here’s what I’ve learned about turning a scene: you want to use that first 50 words to re-engage the reader with of what is happening– if you did your job right with the last chapter, this shouldn’t be too hard. It’s important to contextualize (but no need to go overboard) because people read books at different speeds. I chew through them like Skittles because I’ve really got nothing better to do. Still, others will read maybe three pages at a time and put it down. They’ll give up if they pick the book back up again and can’t figure out what’s happening. So give them a little help. You’ll notice that in TV shows, the plot of the episode is summarily explained in two pieces of dialogue at the beginning of the third act so that insufferable channel surfers have something to latch onto:

Joey: “No, I didn’t do it because I think you’re ugly, I stabbed your sexdoll because you slept with my sister!”

Joeghy: “Bro!”

(Dan Harmon writing table, here I come.)

In that contextualization, there should already be a conflict present as a continuation of the previous scene. By giving context to what’s happened prior, you’ll ensure that this scene can stand on its own. The remaining 450 words should explore the scene. Are your characters stuck in a tree? What’s that like? This is the best opportunity to flesh out characters and scenery because while you can and should certainly have this later in the scene, it might feel a little sluggish. Think of the introduction to every scene as a reintroduction to the book, because (ifyoudidyourjobrightlasttime) the book has changed since the last chapter.

From the Mother conflict, emerges another, or rather, a complication of the initial conflict, by the characters attempting to solve the previous problem (or from the “exploration” you took earlier). They can solve their immediate situation, but that only lands them into hotter waters. That’s how the next 500 words are used: the bartender wakes up which resolves his cognitive dissonance about serving booze to an ape and he sets himself up for the punchline.

Which blends into the final 500 that should definitively resolve the initial conflict and then maintain the emergent conflict for the next scene. I’m saying conflict a lot. Think of the joke: It’s been resolved that the gorilla ordering a drink was just a dream. The punchline is the grim realization that the bartender is alone and forgets that fact for a brief moment of sleepy vulnerability. HILARIOUS. If the joke existed in a chaptered novel, that would set us up pretty well for the next scene (does he try to date, do we see what his actual workplace is like, does he call his ex-wife to try and explain the dream? the possibilities are endless).

Here’s how I write a complete scene these days: I don’t think in terms of threes, because, if I do it right, that’ll happen naturally. I think in terms of twos. A night’s assignment looks like 750 words the first night, taking the previous chapter into mind, recontextuliazing it to progress along the character’s path and once the character’s figure out what immediate problem plagues them,  I stop and go to bed. The next day I brush my teeth, go to work, think about the shitty situation I’ve left to these poor defenseless characters, laugh (because I’m a sadist), and when I get home, I know exactly how to begin because all I have to do is respond to the conflict set up for them.

That’s really the point here: Conflict is the narrative drive of story. To make a scene interesting, it needs to turn on conflict. Problems make the world go round because problems get solved.

And writing, if nothing else, is just solving a bunch of problems that you’ve made for yourself.

Because you have a problem.