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Structuring Your Story’s Scenes, Pt. 5: Options for Disasters in a Scene

The disaster is the payoff at the end of the scene.* This is what readers have been waiting for—often, with a delicious sense of dread. This is the answer, at least partially, to that all-important question, “What’s gonna happen?

The final act in the three-act structure of your scene is the outcome. The first two parts of the scene (the goal and the conflict) asked a question. The outcome answers it. If our hero in our previous examples asked the scene question, “Will I be able to go out with the girl next door?,” the answer—the outcome—will be either yes or no.

 

As mentioned earlier, some authors resent the use of the word “disaster” for this final part of the scene, since it seems to indicate every scene must end with a Perils-of-Pauline-esque cliffhanger. But we’re about to discover that the disaster is a master of disguises and can come in just about any shape or size necessary to fit the needs of your specific story and scene.

The important thing to keep in mind is that disasters drive the plot forward. If everything turns out hunky-dory and the protagonist gets his scene question answered exactly as he hoped, the conflict withers up and dies and the story peters to an end.

This is why I prefer the emphasis on disaster. At the end of every single scene, you should be looking for a way to thwart your character’s hopes and make his life miserable. This does not, however, mean he should never gain ground toward achieving his goal. He can achieve part of his goal while still experiencing setbacks. The point is to keep the pressure on and never let up.

Options for Scene Disasters

Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding StoryScene disasters are probably the easiest of all scene components to spot. If it’s bad, it’s a disaster. Disasters come in every variety imaginable, but we can attempt to narrow them down into the following basic categories:

1. Direct obstruction of the goal (e.g., the character wants info which the antagonist refuses to supply).

2. Indirect obstruction of the goal (e.g., the character is sidetracked from achieving the goal).

3. Partial obstruction of the goal (e.g., the character gets only part of what he needs).

4. Hollow victory (e.g., the character gets what he wants, only to find out it’s more destructive than helpful).

These disasters can manifest in any and every way your sadistic little imagination can dream up. Some of those ways might include:

1. Death.

2. Physical injury.

3. Emotional injury.

4. Discovery of complicating information.

5. Personal mistake.

6. Threat to personal safety.

7. Danger to someone else.

Make Your Disaster Disastrous

This is where the fuse on your scene’s firecracker runs out. Are you going to give readers a bang or a fizzle? Don’t skimp on disasters. This is not the time to play nice with your characters. A weak disaster will leave readers feeling dissatisfied. Worse than that, a piddling disaster leaves you with a soggy foundation for your following sequel and scene. Each scene’s disaster is the set-up for the next scene’s goal.

Weak disaster=weak following scene.

The intensity of any given disaster will always depend on your character’s personal desires and needs within your plot. A burnt cake may be inconsequential in a spy thriller, but it might be calamitous in a YA story about a teen who’s pledged a spectacular three-layer cake to her school’s bake sale, in order to get in good with the cheerleading squad.

If your story demands a burnt cake, don’t settle for one that’s slightly overdone. But, by that same token, why settle for plain ol’ charbroiled? Why not consider the implications of an oven fire that turns the kitchen into a war zone and gets the attention of the whole town when the fire engine comes clanging up to the teen’s front door?

Push the envelope every chance you get. But don’t forget to use common sense. Disasters must be logical within the context of the story. An atomic bomb landing smack on the teen’s kitchen is probably going a smidge overboard, since it’s not going to make sense within the context of the story, it’s going to smack of melodrama . . . and it’s also going to wipe out your
cast of characters.

The “Yes, But . . .” Disaster

Sometimes, in order to advance the plot, your disasters are going to have to be incomplete. The Partial Obstruction of Goal and Hollow Victory disasters we talked about in the “Options for Scene Diasters” section above are two examples. Jack M. Bickham, in his book Scene and Structure, refers to these partial disasters as “Yes, but . . .” disasters.

“Yes, but . . .” disasters are going to occur when your character gets a qualified or even total “yes” in answer to the scene question. He fulfills his scene goal . . . but there are unforeseen complications.

In a partial obstruction of the goal, he may achieve part of his scene goal (e.g., the neighbor girl agrees to go out with him), but not all of it or not exactly as he envisioned it (she only agrees to grab a quick cappuccino instead of dinner and a movie).

In the hollow victory disaster, he may get exactly what he wants, only to discover he would have been far better off without it. For example, our cake-baking teen might finish icing her gorgeous three-layer cake, only to have her mother show up and reveal the teen just used the last of the flour and now the whole family will starve (okay, so that’s a little melodramatic, but you get the idea).

Questions to Ask About Your Scene Disasters

Once you’ve identified your scene’s disaster, stop and ask yourself the following questions:

1. Does your disaster answer the scene question, as posed by the scene goal?

2. Is your disaster integral to the scene (e.g., is the disaster a direct culmination of the scene conflict)?

3. Is your disaster disastrous enough?

4. If your character partially or totally reaches his scene goal, is there a “yes, but…” disaster waiting to slow him down?

5. Will your disaster prompt a new goal from the character?

Scene Disasters in Action

What do successful scene disasters look like? Let’s examine our chosen books and movies.

Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen: The first chapter ends with an apparent defeat when Mr. Bennet refuses his wife’s plea to visit Mr. Bingley. As far as Mrs. Bennet and the readers can tell, this is a total disaster. She didn’t get a thing she wanted out of this conversation. What she doesn’t know, of course, is that Mr. Bennet is just being a pill, since he already made up  is mind to do just what she asked. In essence, this is a variation on the “yes, but . . .” disaster. However, it’s one to be used with caution, since in most instances it will appear to readers as an authorial lie used to create false suspense.

It’s a Wonderful Life directed by Frank Capra: The opening scene with the angels doesn’t properly end until the beginning of the Third Act when Clarence shows up in Bedford Falls to rescue George, and even then it’s only implied. Technically, the entire movie up to this point is part of that first scene, since it’s simply a dramatization of Joseph’s summarizing George’s life for Clarence’s benefit. The scene’s disaster, therefore, would be the end of Joseph’s story, in which George decides to commit suicide for $15,000 life insurance.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card: The first chapter ends with a bravura disaster, in which the conflict with the bullies forces Ender to take brutal action. He beats up the lead bully Stilson so severely that it is implied (and later confirmed) that the boy dies. Although Ender achieves his immediate goal of escaping the bullies, he will be haunted by Stilson’s death for the rest of the story.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World directed by Peter Weir: After the low-key conflict in which Midshipman Hollom struggles to decide whether or not he should beat to quarters and call the captain to deck, the disaster strikes dramatically when the French privateer Acheron fires on the Surprise from within the fog. A tense and bloody battle, which tears up the ship, ensues.

Once you’ve created a solid disaster that evolves naturally from your scene goal and conflict, you will have created the first of many solid scenes. Piled one upon another, these three-part building blocks will create your story.

*For the purposes of this series, “Scene” with a capital S will refer to the scene in general (which can include in its definition the sequel). I’ll use a small s and italicize scene and sequel to refer to the two different types of Scenes.

Stay tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about Variations on the Scene.

Tell me your opinion: What is the disaster in your most recent scene? 

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I tend to write in a style similar to television, and I find a lot of my scenes follow the pattern of TV serials (especially in my current work, and I talk about this a bit more on my blog, which I’m totally not plugging right now). Obviously US TV shows have a lot of time to fill, with 40 minutes of airtime per episode and 20-something episodes per season, so they throw a lot of hurdles at their characters to keep up the suspense and frustrate the short- and long-term goals of the protagonists. The X-Files was able to draw Mulder’s quest out for 9 years! I find that kind of pattern to be very useful to keep in mind when writing scenes for stories. If you were watching your characters on TV, what could the writers hit you with at the end of that scene to make you absolutely need to see what comes next?

  2. The disaster in my latest scene is a boy casting a love spell without knowing if it will work–and it does, with dire consequences! Dum dum DUM.

    But I was catching up on the TV series Lost Girl, Season 2, last night and was so frustrated with how they played out the season finale. They built up to this huge confrontation, which didn’t go as they planned and ended up as a major setback. Okay, I was on board with that writerly choice.

    But then the characters proceeded to mill around rather than regroup. For the next 2 episodes! I thought I was being overly critical because I’d been working on revisions and perhaps my editor-brain hadn’t turned off. But my husband said he thought the same thing.

    YOur “Weak disaster=weak following scene” point in action! Or should that be inaction? ;)

  3. @Mike: TV shows are masters of the disaster. It’s so much easier even to switch the channel than to put down a book, so they have to make certain viewers are coming back every ten minutes after the commercial breaks. It’s a good pattern for us to observe and learn from.

  4. @Anjelica: TV shows can also teach us a lot about what not to do. One of the major drawbacks of the medium is that the story has to come second to the attempts to drag that show out for as many episodes and seasons as possible. The result is often weak or manipulated plot twists.

  5. I love this scene series! Thank you for writing it. My scenes are becoming a whole lot stronger and better at “getting to the point” because of it.

  6. I find scene structure so exciting. Once we understand it, it brings such clarity to story mechanics. Glad you’re enjoying it too!

  7. I have not figured out the disaster exactly, as I’m still trying to figure out what the exact beginning is. Largely cause I have several choices of where to begin. For example, whether the beginning should be right after the bomb blast, or right when the group settled their first hunting settlement. Or even just before the strike during the war. Sometimes I just roll the dice and get on with it.

  8. Or rather, the phenomenon of being able to end a scene, but not begin the scene.

  9. Outstanding advice, thanks. In my most recent scene, my MC beats up the bad guy, seemingly averting the disaster of getting his own tail whipped. However, its a hollow victory as this induces consequences far greater than a butt kicking.

  10. @Sarah: It’s true that we can easily end up over-thinking our writing, especially in the first draft phases. Rolling the dice and getting on with is often exactly what we need to do. Once the words are on paper, we can always go back and edit for optimization.

    @RF: The classic “yes . . . but” disaster!

  11. I used to write two (or three) different versions of the same scene, and then pick which ones actually have the best disaster thats neither random, or completely mellow dramatic.

  12. That’s not a bad idea at all. I recommend that authors write several endings to their stories, just to push past the first and most obvious solution. Might take quite a bit of time to write multiple choices for *every* scene, but if you’re struggling to find the right fit, it would certainly be helpful.

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  14. Oh by the way, that Gene guy that wrote for the site is pretty cool. I might check out one of his comedy writing book.:3 Although I not intending comedy, it might be good to figure out how to nail a story with a punch line.

  15. Glad you enjoyed his post!

  16. I’ve never had it explained that way. Thank you so much for this great and informative article.

  17. This approach to Scenes was eye-opening to me as well when I first encountered it. Glad you enjoyed the article!

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