According to Wallace, a scene should consist of one goal and one subtextual element. This is the formula he uses to streamline the process of writing scenes.
This helps you to keep your purpose in sight. Writing a scene becomes much easier when you know where you need to go; the middle will fall into place as you write toward the goal.
The 1-2 Punch
Goal: This is usually an author goal, not the character’s. This will be something that, if removed, would alter or damage the overall story. What information do you need to get across to your reader? Or what has to happen for the characters to move on through their next challenge?
Subtextual Element: A hint of something weird, a teaser for what is to come. It’s a question being raised that will be answered later in the plot.
In my current WIP, one of my early scenes moves at a fairly relaxed pace, but is crucial to the bigger, racing plot. It’s set at a family gathering for a special occasion. My goal for the scene is to unmask insecurities that will follow my main character throughout the book. My subtext is to hint that his best friend, who slipped away from the party, might be up to no good.
My Goal: When my MC’s insecurities are touched upon, he quickly becomes center-stage and it’s clear this is an important moment marking his “starting point” from which he will (hopefully) grow.
Subtextual Element: My MC relies on his best friend as one of his right-hand guys. The reader gets a little more information than MC does, but not much. I leave them in the dark, only guessing at what the best friend’s motives might be, and whether they’re good or bad.
There are also bits of information that tie up the previous scene, conversation to entertain the reader and keep them grounded with the cast members, as well as a funny moment of family craziness—but my goal is to get one crucial bit of information across and put in my subtext tidbit to flirt with the reader to keep them engaged for the long run. These two elements should have the most weight when you’re thinking about your scene. They’re the bread and butter of the plot. The rest of the characterization and witty lines and descriptions is just fluff.
Constructing Complex Scenes
Now I’d like to take it a step further and explain that you can apply this idea to even extremely complicated scenes. Let’s say there’s a moment when you’re tying everyone’s character arcs together and making it clear who wants what and which team everyone is playing on. For each essential character, I would focus on what their goal is, how it adds to the overall plot, and if applicable, add a subtextual element that hints at something to come later.
But I would warn against giving every character both elements of the one-two punch. The scene itself should serve only one goal, and that goal can be anything BUT info-dumping or starting five new subplots at once. Keep it simple, stupid. (That’s what I mutter to myself.)
If you have to pack in a lot of information back to back, try splitting off a couple of characters from the main group to show a moment of reflection, brainstorming, bickering, whatever. Readers want their information to be paced out as a red string to follow through a forest. Not an encyclopedia of plotline and details.
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