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Story Structure: Crafting the High Moment and Using Conflict

A strong high moment and relevant conflict are important components of effective scene crafting.

Crafting the High Moment

Scenes within a story should mimic the overall story structure, meaning it should have a beginning, middle, climax/high moment, and an ending.

The high moment of a scene uses elevated emotion, action, or revelation to impact the character(s) in some way. This does not have to be a major event or action scene, but it should be noticeable to the reader and stand out in some way.

The high moment typically comes at or near the end of the scene, with the previous parts of the scene building or leading up to the high moment. It should be something that produces a reaction in the character(s) involved in the scene. The more important the scene is, the more important the reaction should be. Reactions might include, fear or happiness, making a decision or increasing uncertainty, hiding or running, pulling away or moving forward, etc.

The high moment reveals the purpose of the scene. The character should learn something, either about his or her self or the other characters, which then affects their perceptions or choices. It should also lead the reader into the next scene by setting up the next step the character(s) will take after the revelation in the current scene.

Emphasizing Conflict

Every scene needs some form of conflict: internal, external, or both.

The conflict in a scene needs to have meaning, not be pointless arguing or endless internal lamenting. Have a clear reason for the conflict and consider how it will eventually be resolved, even if the resolution won’t take place until later in the story. Focus the conflict no the purpose of the scene to keep it from meandering.

Conflict, in general, should get progressively worse throughout the story. This increases the stakes for the character(s). Keep this in mind while planning individual scenes and make sure there is an overall progression throughout the story. When considering the main conflict, break it down into smaller pieces or steps and plan its progression with particular scenes.

It’s also important to vary the type of conflict in subsequent scenes. Too many action scenes or scenes with external conflict in a row can be exhausting for the reader and not provide enough time to take in information or impacts of the action. Internal conflict slows down the action and gives the reader a chance to process the conflict and information along with the reader. Scenes with mostly internal conflict won’t be as explosive, but should increase the overall tension.

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Story Structure: Scene Position, Purpose, and POV

Where a scene is located in the story structure, what role it plays, and whos tells that section of the story are important elements in deciding how to craft a particular scene.

Positioning

Opening scenes should introduce characters, set up the story premise, and give hints at backstory. Don’t go overboard on any of these elements. Orient the reader, and fill in the details later in order to avoid overwhelming the reader with too much information or names to remember.

Middle scenes should continue to introduce and work through complications, provide twists, and increase the stakes. These scenes contain the bulk of the story. They should build on each other and provide story progression. Scenes that lag or lack clear purpose should be eliminated or revised to prevent the reader getting bored.

Climactic scenes will build to a climax, and are typically toward the last third of the book. They are often shorter and use high levels or emotion and action. Be careful not to string too many climactic scenes together. This can overwhelm the reader. Give the reader a break every so often with scenes more focused on recovery, discovery, or introspection.

The tone, feel, and purpose of a scene should correspond to its place in the story.

Purpose

Every scene must have a purpose. That doesn’t mean that every scene needs action. Purposes might include advancing the plot, revealing something about the character or world, or providing information about the overall plot, highlighting change, etc.

For writers who outline, it is usually easier to make sure each scene will have a purpose before it is written. For pansters, this may be more challenging, because you don’t always know where a scene is going when you start writing it. Pansters need to revise critically to make sure there are not superfluous or meandering scenes.

The purpose should be able to be condensed into a one sentence summary. For example, This scene will show David blowing up and scaring Emily away by proving to her that he can’t control himself. If a scene doesn’t have a purpose, it likely doesn’t need to be there or need to be revised with a stronger focus on accomplishing something relevant to the story.

Point of View

It is important that a scene be told from the most impactful point of view.

This is usually the character who is most impacted by the events of the scene. If you find that emotion isn’t coming through in the scene like you wanted it to, reevaluate whose POV it’s being told from. Think about what the stakes are for each character involved and who has the most to gain or lose by the outcome of the scene.

POV is often tied to the purpose of the scene. Make sure you have a firm purpose and then evaluate who will learn the most, change the most, react more strongly, risk the most, etc.

There are exceptions, of course, often stylistic ones. If the emotional elements are so strong they may impact the reader in a negative way or be overwhelming, writing the scene from a peripheral viewpoint might be a better option. This may be the case with traumatic experiences or a particularly gruesome encounter.

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Story Structure: 3-Act Structure

One of the most commonly taught and used story structures in the 3-Act Structure. In this post I’ll break down each act and what should be in it.

Act 1 – The Beginning

Act one compromises about the first 25% of the story and has three main parts.

  • Introduction: The introduction should establish who the main characters are and what their “normal” life looks like at that point in time.
  • Inciting Incident: The inciting incident presents a situation that will prove to be a catalyst for change and which will set the story in motion. In a romance novel, this is usually the meet-cute.
  • Plot Point 1: This first major plot point will introduce the central conflict and present a call to action for the character. The character(s) then react to the inciting incident and call to action, usually accepting the call and setting themselves on the path of the story and character arcs.

Act 2: The Middle

Act two compromises about the middle 50% of the story and contains the bulk of the plot.

  • Confrontation: During the confrontation, the main character faces the first obstacle to achieving his or her desire or goal. In a romance novel this is often something that will prevent a real relationship or keep the main character’s apart, either physically or emotionally.
  • The midpoint: At the midpoint, the main character faces the central conflict in some way. The realization causes a change in the character. This is often a revelation about the self, information about another character, shocking news, reflection on the main conflict, etc.
  • Rising action: During the rising action, the stakes must rise for the main character, building up to the central conflict he or she must face. This is usually achieved through subplots and new information about the central conflict.
  • The second plot point: This is the highest point of tension. It is a crisis that makes the desired ending seem impossible. This should use high emotion to engage the reader and make them concerned for the character. This MUST be believable enough to make the reader think a happy ending may not be possible. This should be big enough that it can’t be resolved easily.

Act 3: The End

Act three compromises the last 25% of the story and contains the worst moment for the characters as well as the resolution or climax and the final ending.

  • Pre-climax/darkest night: In this blackest moment, the character faces the possibly of not achieving their goal during a final clash with the antagonist and deals with the fallout of the crisis The character may realize a new goal that will help them move past the crisis (often alone).
  • Resolution/Climax: This is the final moments of the main conflict where it is resolved by providing an answer to the main problem/conflict. This is normally a single scene, but may extend to several scenes if the resolution/climax is complicated or involves interactions with multiple characters.The main conflict’s resolution MUST be believable and not a simple misunderstanding. The solution should be real and still have an element of risk. The benefits of taking the risk should outweigh staying safe.
  • Denouement:This final ending fulfills all promises to the reader. Make sure to tie up loose ends, answer questions, underscore the theme, in order to leave the reader satisfied.

There is, of course, room to make changes or try new tactics within a 3-Act story structure, but it is still important to make sure you hit all the main elements in some fashion.

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Writing great scenes that connect with readers

What makes a scene stick with a reader? Is it the emotion, the revelation, purpose? It can be any or all of these things when done well. Let’s take a look at what makes a great scene.

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A great scene has a purpose and climax. If a scene doesn’t advance the plot, reveal important information, or develop the character, it probably shouldn’t be in the book at all, but it certainly won’t stick with the reader as meaningful or important. Identify the purpose of the scene and build the other elements around that purpose, leading to the climax.

A strong scene has good pacing. Things need to happen in a scene, whether that’s action, the character learning something, romantic tension increasing, or the reader putting clues together. Break a scene down to the individual elements that will support the overall purpose. Skip unimportant details that don’t serve a purpose. Watch out for long sections of exposition or narration, don’t stay inside a character’s head for too long, and stay focused on movement throughout the scene.

An impactful scene shows rather than tells. Telling becomes boring very quickly and tires out the reader. While some long passages of dialogue are needed to explain a lot of information, break it up with movement, action, or input from other characters. Use all five senses to bring the scene to life and show what the characters are experiencing. Don’t tell the reader the character is upset, show them through body language, dialogue tone, or physical action.

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A memorable scene creates an emotional connection with the character. This connection may come in many forms, whether it’s disgust, sympathy, romantic feelings, or compassion. A scene should reveal something about the character that makes them more real and shows their depth. This can be done through backstory, dialogue, action, etc. Readers connect more with characters they have something in common with, whether it’s something major like an abusive childhood, or jealousy over a friend doing well. Use traits and experiences that are universal to build a base for connection, then delve deeper into more personal or unique traits to deepen the connection.

A good scene has real conflict. Conflict can come in any form, but it should be integral to the scene. Internal conflict delves deeper into what makes up a character and where they are on their journey of change. External often conflict moves the story along and pushes the character to discover their abilities and strength.

A complete scene shows change and development. Change is a critical factor in any story. The characters, situation, and possibly setting change or develop through the story and character arcs. Each scene should show where the story/character is in the arc and where they are heading next. Change and development isn’t linear. Use ups and downs to create more tension and a more interesting arc. Characters need to fail and struggle. Nothing should come easily, but it should continue to progress.

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Posted in characters, contemporary romance, creative writing, romance, writing, writing advice, writing thoughts, writing tips

HEA, HFN, and Realism

In most romance subgenres, happily ever after endings are a requirement. What exactly is an HEA ending, and how does it differ from an HFN or happy for now ending?

HEA and HFN both end happily. The main differences between them are for how long and on what terms will the characters be or remain happy?

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HEA’s simplest definition is that everything turns out for the best for the protagonists and any side characters. If there is an antagonist, they get what they deserved. HEA leaves the reader confident the happiness will continue long term with no major roadblocks or disasters.

HFN is often consider a more realistic type of ending. Not everything is perfect, but it’s pretty good for the moment and the circumstances. The protagonists’ lives have improved to a satisfying level, even if it isn’t the end goal and may not be permanent.

Now, let’s discuss making HEAs a little less predictable and, let’s admit it, less cheesy.

Make the characters work HARD for their HEA.

No quick resolutions or easy forgiveness. Leave the reader doubting it will happen right up to the last second. The “work” may be external or internal.

External work might be distance, others who keep them apart, lies or mistrust, etc. Internal work is a character overcoming internal issues, such as past hurts, commitment phobias, or held secrets.

Whatever type of work a character must do to reach their HEA, give them roadblocks and roller coaster ups and downs. Any time it starts to feel like things are getting to easy for them, hit them with another one that pushes them back a few steps.

Put a twist on a trope.

Romance has plenty of tropes to chose from. The difficulty is often making them unique and not just another Disney ending. HEA doesn’t always have to end with a kiss, sex, or a proposal.

What else signifies commitment? Exchanging house/apartment keys, adopting a pet, meeting family, etc.

The important thing to remember here is that the twist has to make sense and be relevant to the character’s arc. If a character is open and welcoming by nature, introducing her new love to her family at the end isn’t much of a twist, or very exciting. However, for a character who’s had to work through major issues with her domineering mother and has trouble opening her private life to people, introducing a new love to her mother would be a big step that showed trust and commitment.

Try unique situation and settings.

Very few real relationships reach the HEA moment over a candle-lit dinner or during a grand romantic gesture. Take a page out of reality and spice up a conversation over pizza or taking a walk and falling in love with a house listed for sale. Look for everyday moments that can be made special.

I love the scene from The Office when Jim proposes to Pam at a gas station. It’s a powerful moment, not only because it’s unexpected, but because his previous attempts at a grand gesture kept getting messed up and he simply couldn’t wait to start his life with her any longer.

Make the reader wait.

Whether this is a planned meeting that gets held up and makes a character doubt, a tough decision that is held off until the last moment, a sacrifice the reader isn’t sure a character will make, or something else, a pause before the HEA can up the reader’s anticipation.

In most romances, the reader knows there will be an HEA, but they don’t know how it will happen. If you’ve developed a strong story arc, every time the MCs get close, they’re pushed back apart, making the reader doubt their ideas of how it will all play out. Keep this up until the big moment. Then you can follow it up with a glimpse of what their HEA looks like long term.

One last note…

Make sure each character has their OWN happy ending before their relationship gets a happy ending. HEAs are even more unrealistic when the characters haven’t shown enough development for a reader to believe “true love” will last forever.

This doesn’t mean they have to be perfect, but they DO have to be capable of sustaining a long-term, committed relationship. Each character should have their own development arc and need to reach the climax of that arc before the story/relationship arc can reach it’s own climax.

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Writing a well-crafted ending readers will love

One of the worst endings to a TV series, for me, is still “Lost,” but it provides some good lessons in what not to do when crafting the ending of a story or series.

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Every subplot has to be relevant and tied up at the end. Readers hate being left with unanswered questions. When dealing with a series, of course some subplots span multiple books, but they still need to be resolved by the end of the series. Don’t introduce a subplot simply because you feel a chapter is lacking and you need to add something interesting. First, make sure it’s relevant to the main storyline and then follow the subplot to its conclusion to see if it is worth incorporating. Every subplot should have its own complete arc.

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Keep your subplots manageable. Every story has subplots to provide characters with a fuller life and help them grow and move toward their ultimate goal in stages. However, this can easily get out of hand if you try to develop subplots for every little aspect of the story. How many subplots is too many often depends on the length of the story. Novellas or short stories really can’t handle more than one. An average length book of 60-80k words can usually handle 2-3 subplots. 80k and up can handle 4-5 when the story is complex. Anything more than that runs the risk of leaving unanswered questions and upset readers, unless you’re Robert Jordan.

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Don’t forget what your characters wanted or needed to learn at the beginning. No matter what the story is about, it’s really about the characters. A plotline can’t exist independent of the characters. Maybe the MC needs to solve a mystery, and it’s a plot-driven story, but readers still have to get invested in the character moving through that story, which means the character’s arc has to be tied up as neatly as the story arc. Look back at who the character was at the beginning. Have they changed? Have their achieved their goals? Have they learned something important? If the answer is no to any of these questions, the character hasn’t arrived at the ending along with the plot.

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The ending has to make sense! This doesn’t just apply to avoiding Dues Ex Machina endings where something completely outside the story swoops in and fixes everything at the last second. It also applies to endings that don’t match the characters’ stories or personalities, defy logic, or seem completely unreasonable. Sometimes, you start out with an ending in mind, but the characters and plot elements change while writing. The ending needs to adapt to those changes as well.