Friday, 21 July 2006

Stuck in the middle with you

Okay. I’m stuck in the middle of chapter three, which I seem to do every time, but this is an odd one for me. I know what the next scene should be, but I can’t seem to get started on it because the previous scene seems a bit flat. I feel I need a better foundation before I keep on writing.

Normally this would not be such a problem, but since I still have a black hole in my plot at the beginning of act 2, I need to make sure things are tight and focused now, otherwise I won’t be able work out what happens next. I’m reading Debra Dixon’s “Goal Motivation Conflict” at the moment, which is helping things a little, but I’ve decided to resort to another little tool that helps when I need to focus on what I’m writing. (The plot board isn’t helping – it’s just sitting in the corner, with a big blank space, laughing at me.)

I'm going to use a scene sheet. It’s an amalgamation of ideas I’ve got from various books I’ve read. James N. Frey uses a “step sheet” described in “How To Write A Damn Good Novel” and Raymond Obstfeld recommends little index cards with scene info on in "A Novelist's Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes". I’ve taken the basic idea, used bits that work for me and added anything else I wanted to add.

I don’t use them all the time – in fact, I only have an example for the first scene in my book. Sometimes the ideas flow and I don’t want to stop to mess around with scene sheets. But, when I’m stuck, it can help to go back and do one for each scene to make sure I’m building on the last scene in a consistent way. Here’s what I put in my scene sheet:


  • Scene no. & title I like to title my scenes in the same way I give a working title to my books. It gives me a hint as to the purpose of the scene.
  • Aprroximate word count
  • POV – who’s point of view am I in for this scene?


  • Plot - I give a brief as possible outline of the plot.
  • Purpose - three reasons why this scene should be there. Does it move the plot forward, develop a character, develop the theme, add suspense? Is it needed introduce a character, develop a character's motivation, provide the next obstacle to the protagonist's goal? (Debra Dixon suggests that if you can't find three good reasons for a scene, it should go!)

3. Goal, Motivation and Conflict

I then like to summarise what’s happening with my characters. I find distilling all the info into a few sentences helps me keep focused on what they are feeling and thinking.
I like to add a little sentence at the top to remind myself what’s going through the character’s head.

In my first scene in "Magic Hour", Adele is thinking: “I do not need a man to help me catch a spider!”. It shows her fierce independence, even when terrified, and sets up the idea that she doesn’t want to need a man at all – especially not the man who’s just about to ring her doorbell (estranged husband Nick).

Then I look at the GMC – internal and external

  • Goal: what does this character want?
  • Motivation: Why do they want it?
  • Conflict: Why can’t they have it?

Adele’s external GMC for this scene could be expressed like this:

“Adele wants to have a bath at the end of the day, because she needs to de-stress, but a spider is lurking in her bath and she is terrified of them, sending her stress levels even higher.” By the time Nick rings the doorbell, Adele is already completely wound up, increasing the tension of the situation.

Adele’s internal GMC could be expressed like this:

“Adele wants to prove to herself that she doesn’t need anyone else, because she has loved people in the past and they have let her down, but the man who hurt her the most turns up out of the blue and threatens to weaken her resolve.”

See? Now I have homed in on what is making Adele tick at this point in time. Having that knowledge in the back of my head as I write or edit helps me see where I need to go or make changes. Maybe the dialogue doesn’t reflect this strongly enough. Maybe the emotion isn’t coming through clearly enough. If I want my readers (please, let there be readers!) to become engaged with my characters, then I need to make Adele and Nick's fears and desires clear and attention-grabbing.

4. Foreshadowing and payoff.

This is a little note to myself of things I may be able to use in the future, or emotional moments I can intensify by adding something in earlier in the book.

For example, my heroine in my second book "Her Parenthood Assignment" admits to the hero that her ex-husband never told her she was beautiful. I slipped this in a few scenes before a big party when the hero is completely gobsmacked by how gorgeous she looks, even though she thinks of herself as ordinary-looking. The heroine's revelation sets up a bigger emotional hit (the pay off) a few chapters later. Of course, the fact that the hero thinks she's beautiful on the outside, echoes that he thinks she's beautiful on the inside too - a fact her ex-husband sadly missed.

So, all I need to do now is go back though the last couple of chapters and make sure I focus on the right emotions and thoughts. As I do this, I often go one layer deeper in understanding my characters and will get a brainwave for where the next scene should go and I'm up and running again.


Anonymous said...

Hi Fiona,
I just read this on yesterday's blog:
'The thing that stuck most was the phrase “screw the punch” (a boxing term), meaning deliver the emotional hit, then echo and repeat it, making the situation worse.'

Can you remember from the talk what an emotional hit is and how you echo and repeat it. Sounds very interesting

Sue aka MsCreativity said...

Thanks for sharing this Fiona. I'm trying to get back into my writing after several weeks/months absence and I'm struggling. I've got most of Ch. 3 drafted and the beginning of Ch.4., but I seem to be stuck.

I love your suggestion of using a scene sheet. I think if I go back and do this it may help untangle the mess I've got myself into - thanks!!

Fiona Harper said...

Janet, I'm thinking on this. I don't want to use any examples from my first book because they give away the plot too much. Trying to find a good example. It's one of those "I'll know it when I see it" things that are hard to put into words.

Ms Creativity, I'm through chapter three now and staring at the plot black hole. Well, maybe a black hole with stepping stones...


Phillipa said...

Well: I am in awe at this because I am a total pantster and don't plan at all. Or read any writing books. My mind and office are a total tip. Help!

Jessica Raymond said...

Fiona, this post is sooo helpful -- I love your clear explanation of internal and external GMC (which I have never managed to get my head around). Am in the middle of post-NWS-report revising and I shall be returning to this post often! Jess x

Fiona Harper said...

It's worth buying the book, Jess. I found it really useful. don't bother looking on amazon, though - the marketplace sellers want £90 for it! I bought it direct from Gryphon books for about £20 including postage.

Jacqui D. said...

I know I'm late on this - but better late than never!

*bowing to the great one* Fiona, you ROCK. THANK YOU for these posts!

I've got my notebook and taking notes on what you point out here and when I thought about them I realize that yes, almost ever book I've read (lately anyway) contains exactly what you spoke of in this post and the one earlier on the Echo.

Fiona Harper said...

Thanks, Jacqui! I've still got my "L" plates on myself, but I like learning and talking about the craft of writing.