Lately I’ve been struggling to figure out how to improve the pacing of my scenes. Enter the SinCNE-sponsored online class taught by Mary Buckham. The class covers much more than scene pacing, but scene pacing has stymied me for a very long time, and Mary’s class assignments in that area are driving home key concepts that have long mystified me.
Of course, for many of us it’s intuitive that a good scene starts with a hook and ends with a cliffhanger. And it’s not that I haven’t studied this topic, going to some of the seminal books dealing with the subject, such as Dwight V. Swain’s book, Techniques of a Selling Writer, or Debra Dixon’s, Goal, Motivation & Conflict.
From these I’ve learned that a good scene provides interest and moves the plot forward; that such a scene is based on a pattern of goal, conflict and disaster; and that it’s followed by a sequel, a place for the focal character to react emotionally and intellectually to the previous scene-based disaster and to choose the next goal.
More specifically, I’ve learned that a scene goal should be concrete and discrete—a photographical moment. I’ve learned that sequels give the scene plausibility by showing how the focal character’s emotional reaction and thinking through options leads to their next goal.
But still somehow, a sense of what the key is to pacing a scene has eluded me. Enter Mary’s online class, her guidance (some would say handholding), her assignments, and the sharing of assignments between classmates is moving me to a deeper level of understanding as I study distinct scene/sequel pattern—goal, conflict, disaster for story action, reaction, dilemma, decision to connect scenes—whether in my reading of other authors, or in my own writing.
Let me share a scene/sequel breakdown from a book by Annette Blair, in her amateur sleuth mystery, A Veiled Deception. I hope you find it useful. And please feel free to share any examples of your own.
Goal: Focal character, Madeira, wants to find her sister, Sherry, who, along with Jasmine, an interloper at Sherry’s engagement party, is missing.
Conflict: Madeira looks upstairs, enters an upstairs bedroom, page 20, “I had to push on the door and it wailed in protest.
Disaster, page 21: “… Jasmine, lying on the hardwood floor like a white Madonna….veil….tied tight around her throat.
Reaction, page 22: I fell to my knees, ignoring the pearls digging into them, and struggled to unknot the veil with trembling nails.”
Dilemma, page 24: Madeira fears that Sherry will be blamed. She also worries about how her father will react to a dead woman being found in their home.
Decision: Since Sherry is nowhere to be found, Madeira decides she’ll her next goal is to inform her father.