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Goal-Conflict-Resolution-Cliffhanger: The Elements of a Scene

This post is part of the Write With Me series. For more like this, check out the writing your novel page.

Over the course of a week or month or year, each of us lives through countless real-life “scenes,” some more memorable than others. When writing it’s easy to get caught up in the mundane if the world in which you’re writing is as vivid to you as the one in which you’re sitting as you type. Characters need to eat, right? Characters need to drink and to sleep!

Unless you’re writing a survival story in which those three basic needs are the hardest thing to come by for your protagonist, realistically your readers don’t need to know when your characters eat, sleep, and drink.

Think again about the statement above–that there are some “scenes” in our own lives that are more memorable than others. What makes that so? When reflecting on your day, what is it about the things you remember most that helps you cling to them?

Would you say it’s normally because of some conflict, something unexpected that happened, or something that caused a change in perspective? You would? Great! Thanks for letting me put words in your mouth.

A good scene will have all of the above elements written into it. But how does one achieve that, you ask? The answer is simple. Before I begin to write any chapter, I map it out using the below set-up.

SCENE:
GOAL:
CONFLICT:
RESOLUTION:
CLIFFHANGER:

For every change in scene within a chapter, I repeat this exercise until I’ve outlined the chapter in its entirety. Let’s take a look at how to use each of the above to create a memorable scene, one line at a time.

Scene

This sentence of the outline should contain the who, the when, and the where of your scene.

When it comes to the who, it’s critical to include only the minimum number of characters possible. That isn’t to say you can’t write a scene in a crowded bar or at a sold-out concert, but the characters featured in the scene should all have something critical to contribute. Don’t include your protagonist’s best friend, for example, unless there are story- and character-motivated reasons for his inclusion. Best friends can spend time apart, I promise. You’re not reading this with your best friend now, are you? You are?! Well then I offer a big “hello” to all two of my readers!

Where the where is concerned, try to avoid repetitive wheres. Now, it is true that there exists media in which all or most of the action occurs within a single environment (think of the premise for the book Room or the Breaking Bad episode, “Fly”). What makes these examples exceptions to the rule is that there is a great deal of tension that the where imposes–it drives the action in the scene. If writing something that isn’t so setting-anchored, try to give your characters the opportunity to explore their world a bit. It’s often surprising to see how differently a scene reads when characters are given the opportunity to hang out in different locales.

The final component of the SCENE line is the when. This goes beyond things like time of day, though that is a critical component of your scene’s setup. When thinking on the scene’s when, consider the following questions. Where are these characters in their daily schedules? What transpired for each of them just before the scene begins? How are they feeling about that? How will that affect the manner in which they treat the goings-on on the page? Where do they have to be next? Do they not have anywhere to be? Though these questions treat matters of what and where, they are a critical component of the when for the establishment of the scene in question.

Using the above parameters, let’s draw up a SCENE line.

SCENE: Dale and Doctor Zygbo encounter one another in an abandoned parking lot at daybreak.

If you’ve followed the saga of Dale at all, you already know the action is about to get real, but let’s see what happens when we continue to flesh out this scene by defining its GOAL portion.

Goal

The GOAL line is when one finally includes the what of the scene. What is it that your protagonist is trying to accomplish in this scene?

That being said, every one of the characters on the scene should have a goal. The story may revolve around your main character, but the world certainly doesn’t! In order for your scenes to emanate with authenticity, every character must want something. That doesn’t mean your scene outline necessarily requires the explicit statement of every character’s goal, but it’s worth keeping in mind as you write.

Given the above, let’s add to our outline.

SCENE: Dale and Doctor Zygbo encounter one another in an abandoned parking lot at daybreak.

GOAL: Using the modified laser rifle he stole from Doctor Zygbo, Dale plans to do away with him once and for all.

Yes! He’s gonna do it! Dale is finally gonna do it!

Maybe.

Let’s see what happens when we dive into the scene’s primary conflict.

Conflict

The conflict in any scene will naturally stem from one of three possibilities–your character vs. another character, your character vs. herself, or your character vs. nature.

When crafting a scene, it’s important to ask yourself what will happen in order to cast doubt on your character’s ability to achieve his or her goal. Will some new information be revealed? Will an unforeseen event occur? Does a new antagonistic force rear its ugly head?

While examining these questions, ensuring that the conflict relates directly to your protagonist’s goal is essential. If the scene’s CONFLICT doesn’t tie in directly to the GOAL, then it’s time to back up and start reevaluating the scene. Sure, unexpected conflicts can come up all the time, but check out the two possible CONFLICTs below, and ask yourself which has more resonance.

CONFLICT: The paper cut on Dale’s hand reopens when he reaches for the laser rifle.

–versus–

CONFLICT: Doctor Zygbo reveals that he anticipated this encounter and has brought along a laser-rifle shield. He also has laser snipers in the woods.

Yes–Dale could reopen that pesky paper cut when he reaches for the rifle, but that’s not the central conflict of the scene. If a paper cut is all the adversity Dale is going to face here, that’s a huge missed opportunity for tension. We can do better (and did, in the second CONFLICT above).

Just like with GOALs, every character in a scene should encounter some sort of CONFLICT as well, even if it’s same conflict for all of them. They should all react differently to the adversity they confront, but they must confront it all the same. Without conflict of their own, it’s easy for supporting characters to begin appearing to readers as though they are cardboard cutouts, merely in the story for your protagonist to bounce ideas off of.

When looking at the second CONFLICT above, also keep in mind what a difference the SCENE line made for the possibilities available. There certainly couldn’t be snipers in the woods if Dale and Zygbo ran into one another in an elevator. If a scene is feeling a little stale after you’ve outlined or written it, try switching up the location or put something in your characters’ hands. These can change the entire dynamic of a scene in big ways.

Looking at our outline, we now have:

SCENE: Dale and Doctor Zygbo encounter one another in an abandoned parking lot at daybreak.

GOAL: Using the modified laser rifle he stole from Doctor Zygbo, Dale plans to do away with him once and for all.

CONFLICT: Doctor Zygbo reveals that he anticipated this encounter and has brought along a laser-rifle shield. He also has laser snipers in the woods.

Let’s hop into the RESOLUTION component of our outline and see where that takes us.

Resolution

When thinking of RESOLUTIONs, don’t think of them as the “resolving” of your character’s goal, per se. Think of this as the resolution of the scene. More often than not, protagonists aren’t achieving their goals–at least not likely until at or around the midpoint of your story, when momentum may start to swing back in their direction.

Think of the RESOLUTION line as more of a setup for the protagonist’s future goals relative to the GOAL at the start of the scene. Once the current scene has ended, what will your character be in pursuit of? How will they set out to accomplish this?

With the above in mind, let’s add a RESOLUTION line to our outline.
 

SCENE: Dale and Doctor Zygbo encounter one another in an abandoned parking lot at daybreak.

GOAL: Using the modified laser rifle he stole from Doctor Zygbo, Dale plans to do away with him once and for all.

CONFLICT: Doctor Zygbo reveals that he anticipated this encounter and has brought along a laser-rifle shield. He also has laser snipers in the woods.

RESOLUTION: After a tense battle, one of the snipers in the woods critically wounds Dale.

We’re all sad for Dale, I know, but let’s reserve judgment until we move into the chapter’s CLIFFHANGER.

Cliffhanger

The first things that used to come to mind for me when thinking of cliffhangers were any sort of cataclysmic events that would redirect the story or its characters going forward. As it turns out, this is only partially true when thinking scene-ending cliffhangers.

Though there will be a handful of earth-shattering events over the course of your protagonist’s story, not every scene can end in one. That would get tiresome fast, and all too predictable. In this way, then, CLIFFHANGER is something of a misnomer, as it’s likely that not every scene can end with an actual scenario in which a character’s life is in danger, for example.

Aside from the oh-God-will-our-protagonist-survive cliffhanger, there are also those that create shifts in perspective. Maybe your character gets some new information or comes out of the scene’s conflict as a slightly changed person. If a scene ends with a reflection (explicit or not) from a character on what they’ve just endured, a writer can use this to tease readers with what might come. The idea is to essentially induce a wave of predictions within the mind of your reader. Empower them to feel as though they know where things might be headed, and use your cliffhangers to suggest they keep reading to find out.

A final note on cliffhangers is that these, like the other components of your scene outline, should be organically motivated when possible. Imagine that the CLIFFHANGER line for the scene we’ve been outlining were something like this:

CLIFFHANGER: The ground begins to shake. Dale realizes it is an earthquake.

Okay. Sure. An earthquake? I mean, it’s possible–but do we have any precedent to expect an earthquake might happen at this time? Maybe earlier in the story Zygbo has mentioned he has some device that controls tectonic plates, but if readers have no such information available to them, the earthquake thing will come across as wholly unmotivated and sloppy on the part of the writer. Can things like earthquakes unexpectedly happen? Yeah, they do all the time–but not in your story. Not unless you’ve motivated it earlier in the text.

Compare the earthquake scenario above with the below:

CLIFFHANGER: After Zygbo snatches back the laser rifle Dale stole from him, Dale smiles as he continues to bleed out on the pavement–the laser rifle was modified to detonate once 30 meters away from him.

Whoa! Dale! Oh, how bittersweet! We’re getting two cliffhangers for the price of one here.

First, Dale is critically wounded, so who knows what will happen to him in the next scene. Secondly, the “modified” laser rifle the outline hinted at all along? It was modified to become a spatially-tied bomb.

See how much better that is than an earthquake? Information the reader already has motivates the rifle-turned-bomb’s existence, and it also reveals more of Dale’s character–he had the foresight to account for this sort of scenario, didn’t he? What a guy, that Dale.

Realistically, it’d be nice to have a “tighter” CLIFFHANGER line, though in this exercise we couldn’t presume any previous knowledge of the story, despite the fact that this scene reads as a second plot point or climax. If some of these points had been explicitly stated earlier in the outline, the final sentence of the scene outline could have been significantly shorter, ie. The laser rifle detonates once over 30 meters from Dale.

So what happens next? That’s up to you. Try out this exercise using the scene described above as a starting point, or use the template below to get started with your own scene. Feel free to share on Twitter or by email through the contact page. Let’s make our scenes better, together.

Template

SCENE:
GOAL:
CONFLICT:
RESOLUTION:
CLIFFHANGER:

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