Scene: Centered on Conflict

People who write novels are always making decisions, conscious or subconscious, about what to present to the reader in scene and what to present in summary. In previous centuries readers enjoyed long paragraphs or even long pages of summary. And much of today’s literary fiction is written mostly in summary (narrative). But best-sellers are usually written in a back-and-forth of scene and summary that emphasizes the importance of scene.

A scene is an event that occurs in real time, with no interruptions such as a change of setting or a change of time. A scene is actually happening on the page rather than being summarized as having happened. Almost all scenes contain dialogue and almost all involve two or more characters.

creative-conflict-01All scenes, without exception, must contain conflict. If the conflict is missing, the scene is a failure — it doesn’t accomplish its double purpose of moving the plot forward and revealing character. If a scene contains no conflict, the writer should rewrite the scene so that there is conflict. And through the conflict, character is further developed and revealed. The conflict need not be huge. Some conflicts are small. But something is at stake in each conflict.

Below are two scenes depicting the same event. The first scene is taken word for word from Sound Proof. The second scene I wrote to illustrate my point about scenes without conflict. In both cases, a murder occurred just a few hours earlier. Because few attendees know about the murder, the festival events are continuing as usual. Private detective Frank Dragovic, along with everybody else, is eating breakfast in the communal dining area. With him is his love interest, Suzanne Quering, and Nola Grayson, the person who runs Midwest Music Madness.

Scene 1
    Nola Grayson, sitting with Suzanne and me, added sugar and cream to her coffee, stirred it, and settled the spoon alongside the cup. “Mary and I have talked about Shelby’s death,” she said, “and while it is tragic that somebody has died at Midwest Music Madness, it’s important for the festival to continue in the spirit intended. A spirit of fun, relaxation, friendship. And good music.”
    I nodded absentmindedly, wondering if I had missed any clue . . . Bliss smelling of cigarette smoke, Edric English fully dressed, the cut strings twisted around the red fiddle. . . .
    “. . . do you agree?” Nola asked.
    Suzanne prodded my thigh.
    “Huh? Agree with what?”
    “That we want the festival to be a positive experience for everybody, so we should proceed like we usually do.”
    “Sure,” I said.
    Nola nodded. “Good. That’s what I told Aja, and so she wants to talk to you.”
    I stared blankly at Nola. “Aja Freeman?” I asked. “One of the cooks?”
    “Yes,” said Nola in exasperation.
    “What about?” I asked.
    Nola smiled and leaned forward as if we were conspiring. “Aja really wants to win the cooking contest this year, and she’s got it into her head that more table space will help. Do you think you can build a table for the kitchen staff?”
    Build a table. I thought about it for a long minute.
    “Sure,” I said at last. “That’s what I’m here for,” I lied, wondering if Mary had carpentry work planned for me every day. “I’ll talk to Aja this morning.”

blue-enamel-coffee-pot
Scene 2
    Nola Grayson, sitting with Suzanne and me, added sugar and cream to her coffee, stirred it, and settled the spoon alongside the cup. “Mary and I have talked about Shelby’s death,” she said, “and while it is tragic that somebody has died at Midwest Music Madness, it’s important for the festival to continue in the spirit intended. A spirt of fun, relaxation friendship. And good music.”
    “Yes,” I replied.
    “We want the festival to be a positive experience for everybody, so we should proceed like we usually do,” Nola continued.
    “That makes sense,” I said.
    Nola nodded. “Good. That’s what I told Aja, and so she wants to talk to you.”
    “What about?” I asked.
    Nola smiled and leaned forward as if we were conspiring. “Aja really wants to win the cooking contest this year, and she’s got it into her head that more table space will help. Do you think you can build a table for the kitchen staff?”
    “Sure,” I said. “I’ll talk to Aja right after breakfast.”

The second scene, which, I repeat, does not appear in Sound Proof, illustrates what a scene that contains no conflict looks like.

It looks ho-hum. Uninteresting. Dead.

In the first scene, which is the way it appears in Sound Proof, there are several levels of minor conflict occurring. Nola wants Frank to continue in his undercover role as festival carpenter, and as part of that role she asks him to build a table for the kitchen staff. Frank wants to concentrate on the murder (which the sheriff has warned him against trying to solve — but no private eye worth his salt is going to stand back from a case he has a personal or professional interest in). Nola’s want and Frank’s want are in conflict with one another. This is a minor conflict, for sure, but it gives the scene life.

In addition, the scene helps develop and reveal character. What it shows about Frank is that he takes his job seriously: both his job as a professional investigator and his job as an undercover investigator. It shows that he takes murder seriously, too, because although he has been warned off the case, he’s determined to solve it. It shows he’s not a hothead: he thinks about what the best response to Nola’s request is.

The scene also reveals something of Nola’s character. She, too, is professional: a lawyer, and Mary’s festival organizer. She and Mary have thought about what’s best for the festival and the festival participants. As the person in charge, Nola wants Frank to proceed in a certain way, and she requests him to do what she deems best.

And something is also revealed about Suzanne. She prods Frank when he’s not paying attention to the conversation. She could have spoken, said something like, “Frank, Nola is talking to you,” or “Earth to Frank” or something else. But all those would call attention to the fact that Frank is not “there” at the moment. Suzanne does the more subtle thing, prodding him, in a move that Nola probably wouldn’t see. Suzanne knows enough about Frank to know that a prod from her will snap him back to attention. And she cares enough that she wants him to look good.

In the second example, the example without conflict, there is no revelation of character at all.(Except that the scene might make Frank sound like a goody-goody idiot.)

Conflict is the heart of drama, and the heart of scenes. Small conflicts, middle-sized ones, and major ones — each kind can be employed in a scene. Conflict will bring your scenes to life, move your plot forward, and please your readers.

________________________

Sound Proof is full of conflicts of many different kinds, from musical to personal.

2 thoughts on “Scene: Centered on Conflict

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