Anyone who has written, or studied writing, understands that a good scene does more than advance the plot: It develops characters, introduces or enlivens conflict, and (we hope) deepens the reader’s connection to the protagonist or particular point of view character. In a sense, that’s the default aim of every good scene: To further the journey of the protagonist toward her story goal.
We’ve all read – and written – stories that are a string of these “default” scenes. And they read just fine, especially if there’s plenty of action and interesting characters to engage us. But we may put the book down afterward and feel that the story is, perhaps, a little thin. One thing happens after another in a linear fashion, but the story doesn’t quite have the rich texture that we sense would make it more satisfying.
But how do we achieve that texture?
We might start with the idea that if we have more characters or more plot points, then we’re creating texture. But I suspect we’d quickly discover that our story veers out of control as we attempt to juggle too many point of view characters or too many characters generally or too many plot lines. The story might feel disjointed thematically or muddy in terms of its action. In the wise words of Sabrina (1995), “More is not always better. Sometimes it’s just… more.”
Examination of our “default” linear story, however, may reveal several opportunities with the characters we already have.
Consider the writer’s adage, “The villain is the hero of their own story.” If the villain has their own story, so shouldn’t our secondary characters? If a secondary character’s mini-arc intersects our main character’s story arc in a way that creates conflict or throws an obstacle at the protagonist, we start creating texture.
This is how one of my favorite dark moments in literature comes about: In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy is on the verge of renewing his proposal to Elizabeth Bennett on the very day Elizabeth receives news that her foolish sister, Lydia, has run away with, but not married, the dashing scoundrel, Wickham. There’s no way even Mr. Darcy can thumb his nose at strict social convention and propose to Elizabeth because her sister – and by extension the entire family – is ruined.
In this case, Lydia’s story goal is basically to have as much fun as possible; Wickham represents an endless supply of fun. Wickham’s story goal is to marry into some portion of money; he’s figured out that he can exploit Lydia to squeeze money from the Bennetts or, more likely, their wealthy relatives. So Lydia and Wickham’s joint working to achieve their goals throws a massive monkey wrench into Elizabeth and Darcy’s goals.
That’s a wonderful example of how the dark moment can be impacted by a secondary character’s storyline. But what about scenes other than the dark moment?
Since we’re now talking about secondary characters having their own mini-arcs, you will probably instantly see that each scene could potentially advance not just one arc – the protagonist’s – but that of a secondary character (or even two secondary characters). In an early scene in Evelyn (coming soon, I hope!), several goals clash in subtle and not-so-subtle ways among the five main players:
- Evie receives a promotion she believes should have gone to a more deserving coworker, Gloria.
- A quiet exchange between Gloria and Evie’s old boyfriend suggests more than collegial respect between the two.
- A too-hearty congratulations from the handsome new salesman indicates his special interest in Evie’s success.
- The boss is convinced that Evie’s promotion will keep him in good standing with his boss.
Chances are, readers won’t consciously notice the layering and intersection of goals in such scenes. But allowing the characters to engage with their goals in this way can increase the reader’s sense of story depth at an unconscious level.
Should every scene have texture in the way I’ve described here? Definitely not! Sometimes a scene needs to concentrate only on furthering the protagonist’s progress or provide her a chance for introspection and reflection. Those “default” scenes are necessary!
But including one or two scenes that cultivate the story goals of multiple characters simultaneously can generate more conflict, suggest greater difficulties lie ahead, and yield interesting twists and turns both for writers and readers.
Sandra K. Moore has been writing one thing or another since she could scribble on a Big Chief tablet. A former Silhouette Bombshell author, Sandra has given up (temporarily) the kickass heroine and is now writing from her softer side for the self-published Promise House series. This novella quartet explores the journeys of four young women finding their way — and remaining true to themselves — through the social expectations and turmoil of 1950’s Houston.