Conflict in every scene? Disasters in every act? Yes and no

15517166590_fabb8e02ee_oI’ve had an interesting question from Ben Collins.

I have read that each part of a novel should contain a ‘disaster’ and that every scene should either contain conflict or be deleted. Is this too rigid a formula, or do you think it is correct?

That’s a good question with a lot of answers.

So let’s take it apart.

‘Every scene should either contain conflict or be deleted’

I certainly subscribe to the view that every scene should feel like it’s moving forwards. Something should change, and in a way that keeps the reader curious.

In my plot book I talk about the 4 Cs of a plot – crescendo, curiosity, coherence and change. You can hear me discuss it here with Joanna Penn on her podcast. Three of those Cs are relevant to this question – curiosity change, and crescendo. Crescendo is a sense that the pressure is building – which, if we’re thinking in terms of formulas, comes from a constant state of change.

creative pennThe change in a scene might be major – a secret uncovered, a betrayal. Or it might be lower key – perhaps deepening the reader’s understanding of a problem, or weaving an ominous atmosphere.

So what about that other C, conflict? Well, plots come from unstable situations. They can be epic scale – character flaws, character clashes, impossible choices, regrets in the deepest recesses of the soul, attacks from outer space. They can be tiny – two protagonists who irritate the hell out of each other. Good storytellers will sniff out every possible opportunity to add conflict to a scene.

But do you need conflict in every scene? It depends what you’re writing. In a high octane thriller, you need to pack in the punches. If your book is quieter, your developments might be sotto voce. Nevertheless, it’s good to think of keeping the story bounding forwards, in whatever steps would be suitable for your readers.

Beware of overdoing it, though. Even the fastest-paced thriller or suspense novel needs downtime scenes or you’ll wear the reader out. Relentless conflict is exhausting after a while. The most famous illustration of this in action is the campfire scene in an action movie. Usually before a climax, there’s a quiet scene where the characters get some personal time, in a safe place away from the main action. This is a great time for a romance to blossom. Or to drop in a personal piece of back story – a character can finally tell their life story. It lets the tension settle so that the audience is ready for the final big reckoning.

Is it keeping up the sense of change? Well yes it is, because it usually deepens the stakes. The characters might grow to like each other more. It might add an extra moral dimension, so there’s a deeper reason to right a wrong.  And the reader will feel more strongly bonded to the characters, so it becomes more important that they succeed – which is onward movement in the pace of the story.

Remember I said earlier on that a change in a scene might be a change in the reader’s understanding? This is an example.

So your scene should definitely contain a change. But there’s a wide definition of what that might be. Each scene should deepen the sense of instability and trouble. It should have something that makes the reader think – that’s not what I expected, or this is now a bit more perilous.

And now to part 2 of the question:

structureShould each part of the story contain a disaster? 

First, let’s define what might be meant by parts. I’m guessing this will be the major phases of the story, or acts. If you’ve seen my posts on story structure you’ll already know what that means. You’ve already got a steady pace of change, with each scene adding something to keep the reader curious. As well as this, you need bigger changes. Something that breaks the pattern and punts everything off in a different direction.

And yes, it might be a disaster. It’s usually something that makes the situation much worse, and sends the story off in a new direction. The murderer strikes again. The Twin Towers fall. The husband begins an affair. It’s a point of no return. a one-way threshold.

Ben’s question

So Ben asked: Each part of a novel should contain a ‘disaster’ and every scene should either contain conflict or be deleted.

Let’s amend that statement: each act of a novel should contain something that propels the story into a new, more serious direction; a point of no return. And every individual scene should contain a change, whether big or small.

Thanks for the pic KIm Stovring on Flickr

Clear as mud? Let’s discuss. What would you say?

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  1. #1 by Marialena Gallagher on July 3, 2016 - 8:23 pm

    This was really thorough and helpful🙂

  2. #3 by acflory on July 3, 2016 - 11:07 pm

    Well said, Roz! As writers, our aim is to entertain, not bore, and too much of anything becomes boring in time. I guess the trick is to get the balance right.

  3. #5 by Kim Knight_Author (Romance/Suspense & Crime Fiction Writer) on July 3, 2016 - 11:13 pm

    Very interesting and helpful reading here. I’d agree 100% with keeping the story moving forward each scene, each chapter does have to add something in terms of progression other wise what’s the point? Conflict in EVERY scene as a reader probably would annoy the hell out of me, and as a writer I don’t personally feel it should be in EVERY SCENE and a lot does depend on your genre of writing. So I guess my vote would be NO to this question but do be mindful that your story is progressing…. does not always have to be with conflict though.

  4. #8 by Kim Knight_Author (Romance/Suspense & Crime Fiction Writer) on July 3, 2016 - 11:26 pm

    Reblogged this on KimKnight_Author and commented:
    Some good points can be taken from this for us writers. Useful especially as I’m about to re-read a few chapters I’ve wrote, I’ll be reading with this advice in mind making sure the story is moving forward in each scene if not -delete!

  5. #9 by Ben Collins on July 4, 2016 - 8:26 am

    Roz, thank you so much for kindly taking the time to deal with my question in such detail. I was struggling with applying this guidance to my own synopsis, and you have made it much clearer. I am pleased it will be helpful to your other followers as well.🙂

  6. #11 by Don Massenzio on July 4, 2016 - 12:33 pm

    Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog.

  7. #14 by Karen Lynne Klink on July 4, 2016 - 2:07 pm

    One thing I find boring is the growing tendency to write detail descriptions of a character’s dream or nightmare. If his or her emotions have been sufficiently shown previously, I don’t see the necessity of repeating them in this way.

    • #15 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 4, 2016 - 11:24 pm

      Aha, the old dream sequence problem, Karen. Yep, the repetition can be rather unwelcome. Good example.

  8. #16 by DRMarvello on July 7, 2016 - 10:03 pm

    The “disasters” reference sounds very familiar. Randy Ingermanson’s “Snowflake Method” is famous for its structure, which Randy describes at a high level as “three disasters plus an ending.” For a little background, the Snowflake Method reflects “four-part” story structure theory. The four parts are essentially Act 1, the first half of Act 2, the second half of Act 2, and Act 3, all more or less equal in length. (Larry Brooks is another major proponent of four-part structure, FWIW.) Randy suggests that the first three parts should end in disaster, with the final one setting the stage for the resolution in Act 3.

    I think some students of the Snowflake Method read too much into the term “disaster.” A disaster does not necessarily mean something blowing up or someone dying. The term has to be considered in an emotional context, and how that translates to the story depends upon genre. A disaster in a romance has a different expression (and probably a different purpose) than a disaster in a thriller. If one were to substitute the word “serious setback” for “disaster,” I think the concept would be more approachable.

    However you term it, I do believe each story part should end in an event that forces the protagonist to react in some way. Those events define the stakes and build a desire to see how the protagonist will prevail. No struggle; no story.

    As for “conflict in every scene” or even “conflict on every page,” I agree that sounds exhausting, but the word “conflict” is like “disaster” in that it has a lot of range. To illustrate what I’m thinking, a scene from “Romancing the Stone” comes to mind. The protagonists, Joan Wilder and Jack Colton, are kicking back in an old crashed DC-3 in the Columbian jungle. They have lit a fire using kilos of old weed they found inside the smuggler plane, and they are sharing a bottle of Jose Cuervo. During the scene, they have a quiet conversation that does little more than give the viewer a better insight into the passions and motivations of the characters. That scene has no conflict to speak of (except a brief moment of conflict between a snake and Jack’s machete) until the very last minute when Joan passes out and Jack sneaks a peek at the treasure map she’s carrying with her. You can see the wheels turning in his head as the scene closes out. It’s subtle, but it’s definitely conflict.

    So, I’m with you, Roz. Every scene should contain change. Change usually results from some form of conflict, but that conflict may be more psychological than physical or more internal than interpersonal. The most important thing is that every scene has a purpose that moves the story forward.

    • #17 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 8, 2016 - 6:09 am

      Hi Daniel! Yes, yes yes. If we’re to boil it down to absolutes, we’re looking for change and forward purpose. Thanks for these handy examples.

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