Essential Element #4: Dramatic Action
Dramatic action that unfolds moment-by-moment on the page makes up the next layer of scene.
In our example, the dramatic action intensifies because of the “ticking clock” – will Charlie stop Jerry in time or will he get shot?
Essential Element #5: Conflict
Embedded within the dramatic action lies a layer or two of conflict, tension and/or suspense. The conflict does not have to be overt but it must be present in some form. Fill a scene with tension or suspense or something unknown lurking in the shadows and you have yourself an exciting story. Remember that setbacks and failure create suspense, conflict and tension, not success or good news.
Charlie’s dilemma has conflict, tension and suspense. Will he or won’t he? is a simple and powerful set-up.
Essential Element #6: Emotional Change
Just as the action in every scene affects the overall emotional growth of your characters as a reflection of the entire work, the action also affects your characters emotional state at the scene level. In other words, the character’s mood changes because of what is said or done in that specific scene.
In Ava’s Man, Charlie starts the scene angry that Jerry hurt his friend, Hootie, “just for the sport of it.” The more he thinks about “now this man had come to his house, bringing the treat of violence to where his wife and children lived,” the angrier and more determined he becomes.
Anger consumes Charlie. Then Jerry says he is coming inside the house and Charlie becomes furious (an emotional change in intensity).
Charlie’s anger gets him to his enemy in time to stop him cold only to see “a huge figure hurl itself at him from the shadows,” changing his emotional state again, moving it even higher.
Essential Element #7: Thematic Significance
Thematic significance not only creates mood, it also creates the final layer of scene and the overall spirit of your story. Your reason for writing the story, what you want your readers to take away from having read it holds the key to your theme. When the details you use in scene support the thematic significance you have an intricately layered scene that provides meaning and depth to the overall plot.
The theme of Ava’s Man could be that a man who drinks too much but is loyal and just inspires respect and becomes legendary.
Our example scene, Charlie’s friend Hootie is accused of stealing Jerry’s whiskey. Charlie is not drinking or drunk in this scene but the fact that alcohol is the object of the conflict creates thematic significance.
Early in the scene, Bragg establishes that Jerry has done wrong to Hootie. As much as anger motivates Charlie’s actions, so does his deep sense of loyalty to Hootie. This reinforces the idea that Charlie is loyal and, by emphasizing the concept, also strengthens the theme.
At the end of the scene, in summary we are told that Jerry never came back, “maybe because [he] respected [Charlie].” Yet another of the thematic elements is highlighted, deepening the thematic meaning to the entire piece.
Creating a Scene Tracker
Create a Scene Tracker for your project using all seven essential elements for a scene that sizzles. Track each scene for the seven elements. The elements you locate right may very well be your strengths in writing. The missing ones may create more of a challenge for you.
Take it one layer at a time. Trust the process and good luck!
Martha Alderson, M.A., is the author of Blockbuster Plots Pure & Simple and an award-winning writer of historical fiction. She teaches plot workshops privately and through UCSC-Extension, Learning Annex and at writers’ conferences. She offers plot consultations to writers anywhere in the world. Writers receive a personalized Plot Planner for their individual project.