Writing Scenes: Stepping Forward, Falling Back

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Author of The Breakout Novelist, Donald Maass, discusses writing scenes in today's tip of the day. He explains the importance of setting goals for each scene with an example from George R.R. Martin's book, A Storm of Swords.

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Most instruction in writing scenes begins with this sound advice: Send your character into the scene with a goal. Well, duh. You would be surprised, though, how many middle scenes in how many manuscripts seem to have no particular reason for a character to go somewhere, see someone, find something out, or avoid something. What do they want?

Working that out is essential to shaping a scene in which everything that happens has meaning. At the end of a scene, we want to feel that something important occurred. A change took place. The fortunes of the character and the path of the story have shifted. We won't get that feeling unless we get, in some way, a prior sense of what we're hoping for -- a hope that in the scene is fulfilled or dashed or delayed.

George R.R. Martin is the best-selling author of the massive fantasy saga A Song of Ice and Fire that began with A Game of Thrones (1996) and A Clash of Kings (1999). In the third volume, A Storm of Swords (2000), Martin advances the struggle of the Iron Throne. Summarizing the plot is impossible. There are so many points of view that each volume contains a character guide with hundreds of listings grouped by family and spheres of influence. Suffice it to say that everyone has an agenda, and no one is wholly good or bad.

One of the recurring points of view in A Storm of Swords is that of Jon Snow, bastard son of the king of the North. Jon is a Sworn Brother of the Night's Watch, a badly depleted force charged with guarding an immense wall that protects the southern lands from a mysterious race to the north called The Others. Not all humans live south of the wall. North of the wall, deserters and outcasts called wildlings have formed their own quasi-kingdom. Captured, Jon meets the self-appointed King-Beyond-the-Wall, Mance Rayder, who will decide Jon's fate.

What is Jon's goal in this scene? Survival? Sure. But Jon is loyal to the Night Watch. In fact, he has allowed himself to be captured so that he can spy. His plan is to make the wildlings think he's a Night Watch deserter, a "crow." Everything in the scene then works to advance him toward that goal or away from it. Will he succeed?

At first, his captors' threats cast doubt:

"Might be you fooled these others, crow, but don't think you'll be fooling Mance. He'll take on look a' you and know you're false. And when he does, I'll make a cloak o' your wolf there, and open your soft boy's belly and sew a weasel up inside."

Jon is then brought to the ten of the King-Beyond-the-Wall where the King, Mance Rayder, recognizes Jon and calls him by name. Jon's peril deepens as Mance describes where they've previously met, at Jon's father's castle, Winterfell, when Mance snuck into a feast to take the measure of his foes. Jon now knows that his bluff is weak. He is in danger of exposure. Matrin orchestrates the scene to a moment of supreme doubt about whether Jon will achieve his goal or, for that matter, live through the scene at all:

"... So tell me truly, Jon Snow. Are you a craven who turned your cloak from fear, or is there another reason that brings you to my tent?"

Guest right or no, Jon Snow he walked on rotten rice here. One false step and he might plunge through, into water cold enough to stop his heart. Weigh every word before you speak it, he told himself. He took a long drought of mead to buy time for his answer. When he set the horn aside he said, "Tell me why you turned your cloak, and I'll tell you why I turned mine."

Jon is stalling. Martin is ratcheting up the tension. Mance Rayder reveals that he deserted because of the Night Watch cloak. One day an elk shredded his, and cut Mance up as well. He was tended to by a wildling woman who not only sewed up his wounds, but his cloak, too, patching it with some scarlet silk that was her greatest treasure. The experience changed him, and Jon uses this opening to seal his lie and achieve his goal.

Identifying goals and making sure that every element in every scene in some way makes the goal more likely or more remote keeps readers hanging on page after page. You should say that Martin knows his characters, but I would say that he knows how to fix them in any given moment, understand what they want, make that clear to his readers, and then keep them in suspense about the immediate outcome.

Step-by-step scene building is the business of advancing characters toward goals or away from them. Which direction doesn't matter. What's important is that the readers are constantly uncertain about the outcome.

This excerpt is from The Breakout Novelist by Donald Maass. Learn more about this guide for novel writers and read an exclusive Q&A with the author. Interested in writing a novel? Here are more recommended resources for instruction and guidance on novel writing:

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