Crafting Fiction: Understanding How Scenes In Novels Are Constructed - Part 2a

Posted at 00:35am on 3rd March 2009

I know it’s not very professional to abandon a blog post half way through, and I apologise for having done so yesterday. But when your mother’s poorly and needs you, there’s just no way round it. So in the hope that you’ll forgive me, and have come back for the second half, here it is.

We were looking at the three elements around which a scene is constructed:

  1. Goal
  2. Conflict
  3. Disaster

As I said, yesterday, I frequently use Bible stories to illustrate a point when I’m leading a workshop, because they're good stories; they have all the components of a plot; they’re usually written in a powerful way; they’re succinct; and, providing the legal requirements are adhered to, there will be no infringement of copyright. I promised a well-known parable to illustrate the point, and I’ve chosen the story of the Prodigal Son – partly because it will be familiar to many of you, and partly because it seems relevant to much of what’s going on today.

“There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.”

STORY GOAL IMPLIED:

Here the story goal is only hinted at. This is the driving force of the plot. The younger son wants a life of independence from his father and he’s prepared to rebel to get it. He’s fed up with waiting for his dad to die so that he can inherit, so he goes to his father and asks for his inheritance to be advanced to him.

It’s important to keep in mind that simple possession of his share of the fortune is not his aim. As we will see, he doesn’t want it so that he can invest it; or set up in business; or to buy his dad a big fat present. He wants the dosh solely as the means of achieving his dream of independence from dad: a life he can call his own; a life of pleasure. And in these opening lines of the story, he appears to achieve the first step of his goal quite readily. Dad advances him the money.

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country. . . ”

STORY GOAL RE-STATED IN SCENE GOAL:

Very early in the narrative – the fourth sentence, in fact – the reader is left in no doubt as to the son’s goal. Here it is clearly stated and we see the son put as much distance as he can between himself and his boring old dad, his brother, his family, the family business, his countrymen, the work ethic, all the values instilled into him – everyone and everything that represents dependence to him – the antithesis of his goal. And this view of independence that he holds so dear is reinforced in the last portion of the sentence.

“ . . . and there squandered his wealth in wild living.”

CONFLICT:

The reader is immediately led into the conflict of this story. This boy hasn’t an ounce of common sense. Independence to him means a life of wine, women and song. And having appeared to achieve his goal, he is then confronted by an obstacle. And it’s a bit of a big one!

“After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need.”

DISASTER:

He’s squandered the lot! In fact, he’s sunk almost without trace into utter poverty – and dependence! The very thing he did not want.

Not only has he lost the mean of achieving his goal – this life of independence that he values so highly – but it doesn’t look as if even survival is on the cards. He’s a long way from home. He has no means of contacting his dad. He has no money. No home. The place he’s run away to has no means of supporting him because the country, itself, is impoverished and he’s a foreigner. He’s in deep, deep need!

As the author of a novel, of course, you would want to optimise this need by pulling on the emotional heartstrings of your reader. Here’s a young man, you’d want to say, who – yes, he’s headstrong – but isn’t he someone you can identify with? Can’t you remember what it was like to be young? To want it all? To be foolish?

You can’t hate him. Or despise him. You can’t want him to get his come-uppance. Can you? Where’s your compassion? You want him – you desperately want him – to get back on his feet again. You’re in anguish with him. Wondering what he’s going to do. What fate will befall him.

AND THIS IS WHERE YOU END YOUR SCENE!
Because this is what will keep your reader in suspense, turning the page to find out what terrifle consequences will face our boy. And whether any solution can be found.

Quotation from: Luke: 15: 11-24 NIV

NEXT TIME: In Part 3 we’ll continue with the story, but with the added element of the Sequel: the Reaction. See you then.

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