TAP045, The Anatomy of a Scene: Goal, Tension, Conflict and Stakes | How to Write Great Scenes
So, how do you write a great scene?
But not just a great scene but a scene that keeps a reader engaged and turning the pages, no matter what genre you’re writing. The answer is in the details. In order to write great scenes, you need to pay attention to the anatomy of the scene.
So, what do I mean by anatomy?
I’m referring to the elements of a scene, which include the goal, tension, conflict and stakes of a scene. In this episode, I’m going to break down these individual elements and share tips on how you can incorporate them into your writing.
Without further ado, let’s get into the episode.
About the Mini-Series
You’ll probably have noticed that I’ve mentioned that this is part of a four-part mini-series on writing great scenes. But, I’m still leaving this open-ended because I want to leave room for a topic that I might have overlooked, so I can give the series as many episodes as it needs.
Because I want this episode to help you to write better scenes. And in the spirit of that helpfulness, I’ve also included another writing exercise in this show as well.
Coming up in this series, you can expect episodes on:
- What is a scene?
- Scene Cliffhangers
- Turning points of a scene—also called value shifts
And, just in case you’ve missed it, the first episode in this series answers the age-old question: what is a scene?
If you’re new to this podcast, I want to say a huge thank you for stopping by and trying out my show. To those of you who have been faithfully listening, thank you for regularly listening in and supporting me; your support means more to me than you know.
Also, I want to say a huge thank you to Jim Ward for buying me a coffee after reading my blog post on how to get interviewed on podcasts.
The Anatomy of a Scene
When writing great scenes, there are four things you need to consider: Goal, Tension, Conflict, and Stakes.
In terms of a scene goal, there are two ways that you can look at this. The first and most obvious relates to character motivation. What does the character want? The second way that you can approach a scene goal relates to the purpose of a scene. But, in this episode, I want to focus on purpose, and then in another show, I’ll focus on the character goal, but that will be coming later in the season or next season.
So, what is the purpose of the scene?
Why does this scene exist? Not every scene needs to be about moving the plot forward. Sometimes, it can be important to show a character’s reaction to events that have taken place. And that can be the goal or purpose of the scene. Also, the purpose of a scene would purely be to set up an event or conflict that will take place further on in the story.
However, every scene must have a purpose or something to achieve and not be present in your story purely because you enjoyed writing it or getting to know a character; it has to serve the story in some way and exist for a reason. And if it doesn’t, you need to remove it from your story.
Notice how I didn’t say delete?
Move it to a deleted scenes folder because you may end up using parts of it at a later stage or might need to refer back to it. You never know.
Before I dive into the tips on creating tension in a scene, it’s essential to highlight the difference between conflict and tension. Conflict is two opposing forces pitted against each other, whereas tension is the threat of something terrible happening. Often, when writers talk about tension, they talk about emotion, fear, or physical danger experienced by the protagonist. But there’s more to tension than what you read on the page. What is often overlooked is the tension the reader experiences while reading a story. Tension keeps the reader engaged and doesn’t give them an excuse to look away from the story.
So, how do you create tension for the reader?
Tension for the Reader
One way to create tension for the reader is to build sympathy and empathy for the main character. Figure out what your character wants, make it specific to their life, and keep them from this goal. This experience is common for a lot of us mere mortals; we’ve all wanted something in life and struggled to get it—it’s a common human experience, and the struggle can unite us.
Tension also lies in that state of imbalance and uncertainty before answers and solutions arrive, which is why I like to pile on the obstacles, suspects, and clues and not provide the answers to the questions that arise from these things until the last possible moment. Usually, I reach a point in the story where, in order to open a new thread, I need to close another, but by the beginning of the third act, the majority of these threads are wrapped up, and two possibilities remain. But the same can be true of giving your readers more information than your protagonist. Or, tease and drop hints about potential dangers and get the reader worrying about what might happen.
Tension at the Sentence Level
From a technical standpoint, shorter sentences and words can help create tension on the page. In dialogue, tension can be made when a character isn’t completely honest, leaving the reader to wonder whether the protagonist will catch them in a lie at another point in the story. Or, dialogue can be overtly confrontational, depending upon the character and their personality. And now for tension in the plot.
Tension in Plot
The easiest way to discuss adding tension to the events of your story is to share examples of what I’m referring to—so, here are a few examples of how to create tension in the plot of your story:
- A character eavesdropping on your main character’s murder investigation, or your main character eavesdropping on a conversation, then hearing footsteps approach and having nowhere to hide.
- Two characters want the same thing for different reasons, but only one of them can win.
- The main character’s internal conflict is at odds with something they feel compelled to do.
- Hint at a shared history between two characters but leaving it unsaid.
- Or hint at an upcoming wrench about to be tossed into your character’s well-laid plans.
- Set up further complications yet to be added between your character and their goal.
- End the scene with a cliffhanger hinting at a possible danger lurking in the shadows and start a new chapter.
Every form of conflict within a story can be boiled down into five categories. Without conflict, the story would simply be about everything going right for a character, and that’s a boring read. Before we discuss these five types of conflict very briefly, It’s important to point out that the conflict is something that prevents the character from achieving their goal. It should be present throughout the story, but at a minimum, it’s present in the try/fail cycles plot point in Three-Act-Structure.
The first type of conflict is Direct Opposition, which is also referred to as Man versus Man. This is usually a character’s actions, weather, or event, getting in the way, usually physically, from the character achieving their goal, which is why Direct Opposition is a better term.
For instance, in a mystery, the character might need to call the police after discovering a crime, but maybe they’re snowed in, or the roads are flooded, another character has cut the phone lines, and there’s no internet and mobile phone reception. Sure, that’s layered conflict, but all of these things are directly opposing the character. But it could also be as simple as another character telling a lie. As a result, the protagonist is on a wild goose chase down a rabbit hole, thus pushing the character’s goal further out of reach.
This type of conflict focuses on that internal struggle we all have and is sometimes referred to as Man versus Self. In its simplest form, in a mystery, a character might change their mind about the whodunnit and take the investigation in a new direction. It can also be that internal struggle you have when you’re forced to work with someone you don’t like, but you have to be polite and suck it up. Maybe their own personal struggles are getting in the way of achieving their goals, like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other things of this nature, or they need to face their fear or inner demons that are holding them back.
Now, Circumstantial Difficulties is a simple but effective form of conflict within a story. Perhaps they need to fly to a destination last minute, but there are no flights available, or they’re on the run with nothing but the clothes on their back and need a phone but have no money to buy one. So, this one is about a physical lack getting in the way of the character achieving their goal.
The fourth type of conflict is usually what most people consider when the word conflict comes to mind. It’s that physical fight between the villain and the hero. Or a verbal confrontation between the protagonist and another character with an opposing goal. Usually, you see this type of conflict in the Hero at the Mercy of the Villain plot point. The tension in the story builds to this moment where the two characters face off, but you can also use this at other points in the story, especially if you’re writing Fantasy, Science Fiction, or an Action Thriller.
This last type of conflict is something that I didn’t consider conflict as a new writer, but it’s nonetheless effective. Passive conflict occurs when a character is being kept in the dark or ignored by other characters. In Duplicity, this was a type of conflict that was brewing in the background and came out of nowhere for James, but the reader slowly became aware of this as the story progressed—the clues were all present for the reader to discover. Over the years, my understanding of conflict has evolved as I’ve written more books. And that’s normal.
In episodes TAP009 and TAP010, I discuss the five types of conflict and how to add more conflict to a story. So, if you want a deeper dive and a different perspective on conflict, then check out those episodes.
Much like conflict, I used to look at scene stakes a certain way, but this soon changed as I grew as a writer. I used to solely look at stakes with respect to what the character has to win or lose in a scene. But, stakes don’t always have to be about life and death being on the line. Scene stakes are related to the character’s goal and compel a character to act—this is essential to move the story forward.
So, there are three types of stakes in a scene.
The first type of stakes focuses on the larger story world. In a locked room mystery, the amateur sleuth might focus on a false suspect due to the evidence they discover at the time, leaving the actual murder suspect free to roam around the world unhindered. This leaves the possibilities wide open for the killer to strike again if needed. While the story world is small, the stakes are high but are also unrealised.
As you’d expect, internal stakes focus on emotion, thoughts, and perception. In a murder mystery, the sleuth might receive a threat after another character is murdered. This creates a sense of fear and compels the protagonist to solve a crime before they are next in spite of whether they are actually in any real danger; it’s about the perception of danger.
The final type of scene stakes is Personal. This focuses on why an action needs to be performed or why a goal needs to be achieved. On the flip side, it can also relate to what they are personally putting at risk in a scene. For instance, a character turns up to a reunion dinner with friends, and during the night, one of them is murdered. On a personal level, the character is putting friendships at risk by pointing the finger or questioning them; if the protagonist pushes too far, they may lose friendships out of this. But they are compelled to do so despite this risk because they want justice for their friend and this family. In terms of raising the stakes as the story progresses, layering the stakes in a scene is a good way to achieve this.
Before you write the next scene in your current work in progress, outline the scene goal, moments of tension for the reader, the conflict, and stakes.
And if you’re yet to write your first book or are on a break between novels, then consider your favourite scene in a novel you’ve recently read. Write out the scene goal, moments of tension for the reader, the conflict, and stakes, then consider how you can achieve a similar result in your next book.
I hope this episode gives you a basic understanding of the elements of a scene and how to write them. As always, I have a few important questions for you.
- Did you do the writing exercise?
- Would you like me to continue setting writing exercises like this?
I want to hear from you. Share your process or struggles with writing scenes in the comments section below or over in the Am Writing Fiction Facebook Group. If you like, you can submit your writing exercise to me in the Am Writing Fiction Facebook Group.
In the next episode of the podcast, I will delve deeper into the scene cliffhangers.
Thank you for listening, and happy reading and writing, everybody.
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I’m Amelia. When I’m not hosting the Authorpreneur Podcast™️ and the Book Nerd Podcasts, I write Mystery Novels under the pen name A. D. Hay. And, I’m the author of Suspicion, the Lawn, and the Candidate.
On this blog, I help new writers to finish their first draft, prepare their manuscripts for professional editing, and when they get stuck in the first draft phase or are confused about the revision process.
Right now, I’m editing and preparing my soon to be published mystery novels, Suspicion, Duplicity, 24 Hours, and Immunity for publication.