Answering the Scene Question
We’ve talked about change and conflict in our scenes, we’ve looked at goals and motivation, and we’ve learned how to turn each scene into a question. Today, we’re going to answer those scene questions, and we’ll see, too, how the answer creates change and conflict for our characters.
Whenever we write a scene, the POV character’s goals should be clear enough for the reader to ask, “Will the character succeed or fail?”
From Making a Scene: Part 4
Of course, the way the scene question is actually phrased will depend upon the scene itself. What specific objective is the character hoping to accomplish? Sometimes we’ll state the objective directly. At other times, the objective will be indirectly shown by the character’s location, actions, and dialogue.
We’ll look first at a very direct scene. Our POV character — let’s call him Brad — has an underlying need for financial security and stability in his life. To achieve that goal, he wants to buy his own home, but first, he’ll need a raise. We might write a scene that starts like this:
When Brad arrived at work early Monday morning, he wasted no time. Having made up his mind to ask for a raise, he strode down the hall toward Mr. Ludwig’s office.
Here, we clearly know what Brad wants. The question, therefore, is easy: Will Brad get the raise?
Now let’s look at a more indirect scene. This time Hannah will be our POV character. We’ll give her an underlying need for acceptance. To achieve that goal, she wants to provide care for her elderly aunt with whom she lives. An indirect scene could begin this way:
Hannah sat at her dressing table, running a brush through her auburn tresses. What a long day! She peered at her image in the mirror, and a gaunt face stared back. With a weary sigh, she put the brush down and turned toward the bed.
What does Hannah want? Even though it’s not directly stated, I hope it’s obvious that she’s exhausted, that she wants a chance to rest.
These, of course, are only scene beginnings. Each beginning will lead to scene actions, character movements, and most likely to dialogue, too. As each scene develops, conflict and change will be introduced. These elements are all part of the “scene question” and will become apparent as we answer the question.
Sometimes, our POV character will, indeed, be posing a question. Our example above with Brad presents a situation where he’s going to approach another character and ask a very specific question. In the example with Hannah, however, no actual question will be asked. Even so, the reader should be able to formulate a question based on each character’s desired objective in the scene.
- Brad wants a raise
- Will Brad get a raise from his boss?
- Hannah desperately needs some rest.
- Will Hannah be able to get the rest she needs?
Whenever we pose a scene question it should have a YES or NO answer. I’ve highlighted this because it’s a very important part of scene-writing.
But even with a YES/NO question, there are still several different answers or outcomes for each scene question. Some will be better than others, so let’s take a look at them.
Here are 7 possible ways to answer a scene question:
- Yes, but
- Yes, and
- No, but
- No, and furthermore
Let’s have a little fun now by looking at how each of these answers could be used and how they could affect your characters. Keep in mind the two most important scene elements: conflict and change.
A YES answer in fiction is generally weak. Getting what we want doesn’t create conflict for us, and it’s no different in the stories we write. If Brad asks for a raise and his boss simply nods and says “Sure, no problem”…well, there IS a problem. Your reader wants conflict. Brad’s situation will change a bit because of the raise, but without conflict, the reader probably won’t care. In fact, if the scene question can be answered YES, there’s no reason to write the scene. We can easily provide the information with a line or two of straight narrative to indicate the change that’s happened. Sometimes characters will get what they want and as a result conflict will occur later in the story. Just remember, there’s no need to dramatize a “YES answer” in a scene, unless there’s a little more to it.
Here again, the answer is YES. Brad gets his raise, BUT there’s a catch to it, a condition attached, or another factor that holds a bit of conflict. Maybe Brad’s boss is happy to give him the raise, but only if Brad’s willing to take on a disagreeable client. Maybe the answer is YES, BUT Brad’s work schedule will now include a half-day on Saturday.
Basically, a YES, BUT answer gives the character what he or she wants but then adds a little something the character doesn’t want. Remember, when a character gets something that’s unwanted, it creates conflict.
A YES, BUT answer requires the character to make a decision or take an action and is a useful method for setting up sub-plots.
The YES, AND answer is very similar to YES, BUT except that the character gets something positive. Suppose Brad asks for a raise and his boss smiles. “You know, Brad,” he says, “I’ve had my eye on you. You’re going places in this company. I was actually planning to talk to you about this later today. I’m not only giving you a raise, I’m promoting you to assistant manager.”
Hey, it’s Brad’s lucky day. That’s how it looks. Ah, but looks can be deceiving. As with the YES, BUT response, the YES, AND answer is going to lead to conflicts. Maybe that promotion involves a move to a new location, or maybe the promotion will put Brad in an uncomfortable situation with a woman he once loved. The conflict is usually immediate. The character knows that problems could result, but at the same time, how could anyone turn down such an offer?
A YES, AND response to a question brings both change and conflict. Readers will quickly turn the page to find out how the character handles this unexpected event.
Perhaps nothing in life is more frustrating than the word MAYBE. It’s indecisive. It’s annoying. It’s frustrating. You don’t want to use it too often in fiction, but it can occasionally be used to create a delay for a character. If Brad asks for a raise and the boss says “Well, I’ll have to think about it,” it leaves the situation unresolved. Brad hasn’t advanced toward his goal, but he hasn’t encountered a definite setback, either. Make sure the delay itself creates a problem for your character.
If a scene involves an urgent situation and the goal must be met immediately, a MAYBE answer can generate conflict, but you’ll want to resolve the issue quickly. An illustration might be a scene in which an accident occurs. Let’s say the pilot of a small plane suffers a heart attack. Can your POV character safely land the plane? Using a MAYBE answer here could create suspense for the reader. Show the character contacting ground control and asking for instructions. Build up the tension, and then your reader will breathe a sigh of relief when the plane lands safely and the situation is resolved. Or, if the character fails and the plane crashes, your story can move on from that point.
Another way a MAYBE answer can be used is to provide a “test” for the character. A MAYBE answer might also be thought of as a YES, IF answer. The boss might tell Brad, “Well, I’ll consider giving you a raise IF you increase your sales this month.” There’s no guarantee of the result, so it’s still a MAYBE, but it gives the character a new goal to achieve and moves the story forward. It can also create a little conflict if the task is a difficult one or one that complicates the characters life. These “if” conditions often involve deadlines that can add a sense of urgency to a story.
The simplest answer to a scene question — and a frequently-used one — is NO. It could be “Hell, no,” or even “What part of NO don’t you understand?” In fiction, a NO answer should be strong and unequivocal. When someone says NO, they mean NO. Brad’s boss might be apologetic. He might sympathize with Brad. But when it comes to that raise, sorry, the answer is NO.
A NO answer usually creates conflicts. Brad might protest that he deserves the raise, he’ll probably worry about how he’s going to pay off the loan he’s taken out, or maybe he’s got gambling debts to pay. It could be that his wife considers him a loser because he doesn’t make enough money. Whatever the situation, the NO answer means Brad will have more problems to deal with.
This is another NO answer, but it’s not so harsh. It holds out a promise for something good to come, or gives the character something positive. Sometimes it can be a temporary solution to a problem. “No, Brad, I won’t give you a raise right now, but I’ll let you work overtime if you need a little extra money.” As with the YES, BUT reply, a NO, BUT can lead to possible problems for the character. It’s another way a writer has of introducing subplot elements, too. Again, the character has to make a decision or take an action, and either way, the story moves forward.
You’ll note that the NO, BUT answer is somewhat similar to MAYBE. It leaves the problem unresolved for the moment, but often offers a chance for success later.
No, and furthermore
This is the worst sort of NO answer. Not only does the character fail to achieve the goal, he or she is hit with another blow. Brad asks for a raise, only to hear “Absolutely not, and furthermore, I’m disappointed in your performance. Based on your sales over the last few months, I’m dismissing you.”
Oops! That’s NOT what Brad wanted. Now, he’s got a whole new set of problems to deal with.
Implied Goals and Unstated Questions
It’s easy to see how these different responses work with a straight-forward scene. With Brad, the scene opening stated directly what Brad wanted — a raise — and had we written the full scene we would have included dialogue with Brad asking the question.
What about a scene like the one we began with Hannah, the exhausted young woman who just wanted to get a bit of rest? She’s not going to another character and asking “Can I get some sleep?” We can still use the same principles, though, and show how her question is answered.
Before we go on, take a moment to imagine how you might use the 7 scene answers in response to Hannah’s need for sleep.
Got some ideas in mind?
Here are a few thoughts on how Hannah’s question could be answered.
YES, Hannah goes to bed, closes her eyes and goes to sleep. Nothing happens to disturb her slumber. She awakens the next morning feeling refreshed.
Good for Hannah, but bad for your story. As before, if the answer is YES, there’s no reason to dramatize the scene. Just pick up the story the next morning with a line of narrative to tell the reader what a great night’s sleep Hannah got.
YES, Hannah gets some sleep, BUT she has a horrible nightmare that leaves her frightened and shaking in her house-slippers.
YES, Hannah gets some sleep, AND the man she loves slips into her room and falls asleep beside her. Sounds good, but what happens if he gets caught in her bed?
With an implied question like Hannah’s need for sleep, there isn’t a good MAYBE answer. We might say MAYBE she gets a little sleep, but she still feels exhausted the next morning, but again, it wouldn’t make for a scene worth writing. The conflict — her continued exhaustion — wouldn’t occur until the next morning, so why not just pick up the story at that point and forget the meaningless scene?
NO, Hannah doesn’t get the sleep she needs because her elderly aunt calls out for help in the middle of the night. As a care-giver, Hannah’s got no choice but to rush to the woman’s room to provide assistance.
NO, Hannah’s sleep is interrupted by her fussy aunt, BUT the doctor shows up early the next morning and takes over, directing Hannah to go to bed and rest.
NO, Hannah’s sleep is interrupted when her aunt suffers a heart attack, AND FURTHERMORE Hannah has to summon medical help and ends up spending the rest of the night in the emergency room waiting for word on her aunt’s condition.
In summary, we can answer scene questions in a variety of ways. The best way will depend on the storyline you’re creating, of course.
The answer you choose represents a key point in your scene. It’s the point at which a change occurs. This change introduces new conflict, creates a new complication, or adds to existing problems the character faces.
Once the question has been asked and answered the character must come up with a response. New decisions must be made. A new course of action might be required. The story moves forward based on the changes and conflicts the scene has created.
COMING SOON: Putting a Scene Together