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
Scene 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:
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?
Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).