Using Enneagrams to map out your character arcs will create realistically flawed characters and make their transformations feel real.
This week I was working with a friend who was considering a professional line edit and wanted my opinion if the cost was worth it. Normally, I encourage anyone who wants to hire an editor, but in this case, I said no. The reason: a line edit wouldn’t have fixed the real issue. The problems with the sample scene were structural.
What is a structural problem?
The structure of the scene is the logical progression of meaningful moments that creates an event in a story. Sounds simple enough, but many writers interpret this to mean “a list of what happened during a specific time in the character’s life.” The problem with this approach is two-fold: first, the moments included in the scene aren’t meaningful, and second, info-dumping on the reader.
These include little life moments with no effect on the plot: waking up, getting dressed, brushing teeth, etc. Writers include these because they happened, but they only pad the story with useless filler. These moments don’t have a defined purpose. Cut these bits without mercy!
Info-dumping (or the magic fix-it scene) is more difficult to identify and fix. This is one place where “show, don’t tell” gets writers into trouble by creating dead-dull, convoluted scenes.
Types of info-dumping scenes
- Character building scene– this is the scene that exists purely to “show” the reader some aspect of the character’s personality. (Your normally bad-ass UF heroine spends five pages playing with her dog so she can be more “likable,” for example?)
- World building scene– This is a scene that exists purely to “show” the reader some aspect of the world building. There is no reason for the character to sit at her desk and think through all the reasons her government is corrupt. If it doesn’t cause her to do something, then it’s info-dumping.
- Backstory– This is the most difficult for writers to identify and fix. This scene happens at or near the beginning of the story. (Every have a beta tell you your story begins in the wrong place?) In this version, the writer intends to “show” the critical event that started the character’s journey. Normally, this would be the correct choice, but in this scenario the character did not have agency (the ability to effect change in their story). This lack of agency or choice means the event really belongs in the character’s backstory.
Let’s look at a few scenarios:
A lottery winner becomes disillusioned with her new life
You may be tempted to show the scene where she sees the numbers flash up on the screen one-by-one and she realizes her life is about to change forever. The problem with this scene is that the character is passive through the entire sequence. She doesn’t have a choice to make, so there’s no tension. Unless there is a reason she might not choose to cash in that ticket, the story actually begins after she’s settled in her new life.
Hiker gets trapped on the mountain
We don’t need a scene showing her packing for the trip, or even her deciding to go. The story begins with her choice to go despite the bad weather report.
Two teens escape from post-apocalyptic work camp
We don’t need to see what led up to their arrest.
In these scenarios, the opening doesn’t effect the outcome. On the surface, that statement seems false, but the distinction is the lack of agency and conflict. In the first two scenarios, there’s no conflict. The character didn’t make a decision, so the entire scene does nothing except relay information to the reader. In the last scenario, the chain of causation is broken by the arrest. The girls want to escape from prison, the reason they got there is irrelevant to the goal. In all three scenarios, the beginning scenes are actually backstory.
How to tell if your scene is necessary
If you are still not sure, Jami Gold’s scene goal worksheet can help you evaluate wether you are heading in the right direction.
In her worksheet, she states that a scene must have one of the following: plot point, character goal, action to advance plot, action to increase the tension/stakes. I’m going to edit this slightly and suggest that every scene must have a character goal, which results in: a plot point, an action to advance plot, or an action to increase the tension/stakes.
Jami lists several secondary goals on her chart such as characterization, world building, etc. These cannot be the primary purpose of your scene. If they are, your scene will not engage the readers. Editors will tell you that these elements should be “sprinkled in” other scenes. These types of scenes do nothing to move the action forward. This is why they are considered info-dumping. Even showing can be info-dumping. Scenes must have story-driven goals.
Structuring a scene
Make sure your scenes have these components: (or download my scene planning worksheet)
- Beginning: The POV character needs to have a goal
- What does your main character want at the beginning of the scene?
- What will happen if she doesn’t get it? (stakes)
- What does she do to achieve this goal?
- What stands in her way? Show this conflict
- End: Results
- The character wins, but the solution causes a new problem (advance plot)
- The character loses and the situation is worse because… (increase stakes)
Let’s look at an example:
Beginning: Dorothy wants to go back to Kansas (goal) Never see her family again (stakes)
Middle: She asks the wizard to help her (action to achieve goal) Wizard is a jerk and doesn’t want to help. (conflict)
End: Wizard agrees to help, (win) but only if Dorothy kills the Wicked Witch (new problem, advances plot)
All three components must occur to create a cohesive narrative that tells the story of an event. The event must change something. Either it changes the character’s goal (advance plot), or it increases the tension (stakes). If your scene does not tell a cohesive narrative, then it likely isn’t working.
The structure of every scene should be designed to tell the story of that scene’s goal. A scene that changes nothing, but only relays information to the reader, is info-dumping. Don’t fall into this trap. Scenes are miniature stories. Make sure you structure yours properly.
Enjoy this article? Share it with other writers on social media, or pin one of these images. Thanks!
Let The Manuscript Shredder help with your next book. Order your copy of Your Novel, This Month today
Don’t mess with your reader’s sense of time
Time marches ever forward, and so should your story, but too often writers unintentionally bend the reader’s sense of time. In deep POV, these mistakes create distance by jarring the reader’s connection with the character’s experience. Watch out for these micro-time trips.
Words like presently, soon, etc. are often used to indicate things that will happen in the near future. One of the rules of deep POV is keeping the reader’s and the POV character’s experience in sync. This means the reader cannot know something before the main character experiences it. Using words like soon and presently to indicate actions that will happen in the near future bends the reader’s sense of time.
Auora shifted in her saddle. An entire day lost in the forest, but she would soon stumble across the castle.
The reader cannot know something before the main character., If you mention something that will happen in the future, make sure your POV character also knows it at the time.
The “When” Trap
I fell when I tripped.
“When” is constantly guilty of putting the consequences before the actions. In deep POV, the reader and the character must experience everything simultaneously. The character tripped and then she fell. Make sure you write it that way.
Wrong: I gagged when I smelled the flowers
This creates distance because it gives the reader a sense that this happened in the distant past, rather than at that moment, and that the information is being related through a narrator rather than being experienced first hand.
Right: The heavy floral smell made the air too dense. My throat clenched, and I gagged.
Here, we have the cause and effect back in their proper order. The reader experiences these two events just as the character did. There sensation of a third party narrator is eliminated.
Conclusion Before Evidence
The room had been ransacked. The sofa cushions were sliced open, stuffing flung around the room. Tables, lamps overturned. Books lay everywhere, mixed into the glass and wooden debris.
The thieves had gotten what they came for. The door of the wall safe hung open. The contents missing.
The character has already made her conclusion before seeing the evidence. Characters must take in information before they can react to it. Now, reread the same passage with cause and effect back in their proper places.
The sofa cushions were sliced open, stuffing flung around the room. Tables, lamps overturned. Books lay everywhere, mixed into the glass and wooden debris. The door of the wall safe hung open. The contents missing. The thieves had gotten what they came for.
You may have noticed I deleted a sentence in the rewrite. Showing all the evidence and allowing the reader to come to the conclusion is more effective than “telling” the reader what happened and supporting that later with details. I could even delete the last sentence to further tighten the prose.
Bending the reader’s sense of time will break the deep POV illusion
The purpose of deep POV is to create the illusion of being in a characters head, watching the story as it unfolds. Anything that breaks that illusion creates distance. Don’t force your reader to time travel. Keep her and your character’s experience in sync.
Enjoy this article? Let The Manuscript Shredder help with your next book
Order your copy of Your Novel, This Month today
It’s IWSG time again!
(If you’re here for my writing lessons and have no need for this warm-fuzzy-feeling stuff, I’ll see you Friday after next. I’m on vacation.)
June 6 question –
What’s harder for you to come up with, book titles or character names?
Book titles, hands down.
Maybe because I’m a pantser, but I never have any problem with character names. My entire writing process begins with a character. The characters begin with their names. If I don’t have a name, I don’t have a character. Next, I learn what this person wants. Followed by who is standing in the way. Once I have those things, I can determine how far he or she is willing to go to get it. Other bits I will pick up along the way. Nervous ticks? Physical description. These all come from the seed created by the name.
Why is the name so important? People are defined by their names. In some way a person’s name will have an effect on them throughout their lives. Winston Beaumont III or Billy Ray Jones? Whose scholarly article would you implicitly trust? Even if you personally don’t hold these prejudices, many people do, and a lifetime of reinforcement will have an effect on a person. Names are integral to identity.
As for the second half, finding a title for a book is an impossible quest. My working titles are usually named after the main character and the number in the series. Or I use sarcastic titles, for my own amusement. For example, in one WIP, the female character picked up an evil curse from a rock, so I called the book “Stoned.” I still don’t have a serious title for that one. Probably never will.
The idea of naming a book before it’s finished seems ludicrous to me. I have to have the entire story finished before I can pick a phrase to surmise the meaning. The only reason I follow any naming convention at all is because Scrivener forces me to name the file. That and I couldn’t keep calling all my books document1.
To continue on the blog hop