Advanced Storytelling



Read the following excerpt from the book Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain. (pp. 85–92)

Scene Structure is as simple as a-b-c.

    1. Goal
    2. Conflict
    3. Disaster

Just to see how this works, let's build a scene or two or three.

Take a boxer. His goal is to knock out his opponent. His opponent has a goal too: to knock him out.

Warily, they circle . . . feinting, punching, counterpunching.


Now Our Boy lands a solid blow. His adversary lurches—staggers—goes down.

Our man steps back. Triumphantly, he sweeps the arena with his glance.

Only then, incredibly, in that tiny moment of distraction, the other fighter comes up from the canvas. He throws a wild haymaker.

It connects. Our man falls.

Desperately, he tries to rally. But his muscles have turned to water. Numbly, he hears the referee count: ". . . eight . . . nine . . . ten!"

A knockout.


Goal . . . conflict . . . disaster. All the parts are there. It's a scene.

Let's try it again, with something not quite so neatly structured.

Start with a character, any character—John Jones, say.

We zero in on John as he sits down beside cute Suzy Smith at the campus malt shop.

Why's John there? What does he want?

Enter goal: Ever and always, in scene John must want something.

In case classification systems intrigue you, "something" always falls into one of three categories:

  1. Possession of something . . . a girl, a job, a jewel; you name it.
  2. Relief from something . . . blackmail, domination, fear.
  3. Revenge for something . . . a slight, a loss, betrayal.

Here, this time, we'll be arbitrary: John wants Suzy.

But what does he propose to do about it?

Axiom: A goal is not a goal until it's specific and concrete and immediate enough for you to take some sort of action toward achieving it. The essence of goal choice is decision to act. Your character's decision.

Ideally, this decision should focus on a target so explicit that you might photograph your hero perfomring the act to which he aspires. If you can't the goal isn't yet specific and concrete enough. "To win love," as a goal, is weak. "Te get Letitia into bed"? Stronger!

Maybe John's goal at the malt shop is to persuade Suzy to go to the prom with him tomorrow night. There, helped along by a pale moon, soft music and spiked punch, he hopes to convince her that she should marry him.

Enter conflict.

Conflict is another name for oppostion: a man trying to walk through a locked door. It's irresistable force meeting immovable object . . . two entities striving to attain mutually incompatible goals. For one to win, the other must lose.

Readers like conflict. It creates and heightens tensions in them, as we'll see later. Thus, it enables them to vent repressed feelings of aggression and hostility vicariously, without damage to themselves or others.

Back to John and Suzy: He wants her to go to the prom.

To that end, he gets together with her.

Conflict presupposes meeting. A fighter can't fight if his opponent doesn't show.

Then, he states his case.

Your reader needs to know what your hero proposes to attempt. Or at least that he proposes to attempt something. For if no attempt is made, how can there be struggle?

If Suzy is as eager for the date as John is, in turn, you have no conflict; no reader-intriguing, interest-provoking question of who wins and who loses; no scene.

So we make Suzy hesitate. It seems she's already tentativley agreed to go to the prom with George Garvey, the school's star halfback.

This means that John's going to have to fight if he's to get his way, achieve his goal.

If he takes no for an answer easily, we can assume one of two things:

    1. He didn't really want the date very much after all; or,
    2. He lacks the strength of character to fight for what he wants . . . hence is weak and ineffectual and why should anyone—least of all your reader—give a damn what happens to him?

But let's assume that John is strong, and does want the date and Suzy. So he fights, via anything from blandishments to persuasion to blackmail.

Finally Suzy agrees. O.K.?


Why not?

Because we've made it too easy for John. The conflict is too limited, the scene too soon played out.

Maybe the two of them can debate at greater length?

No. The endless rehashing of a single issue soon grows dreary.

Is there a remedy?

Yes: Bring in additional external difficulties related to the situtation. Offer new developments: more hindrances, more obstacles, more complications.

In a word, make it harder for your character to win his goal. Treat him rough. Throw roadblocks at him.

How can you do this?

Emphasize the strength of the opposition. Build up the forces that block John.

This is another way of saying, let John receive new and unanticipated information that makes his situation worse.

This information may be received verbally, or it may come visually, or via any of his other senses. Information is still information, even though you acquire it by opening a door and discovering your bride's stark, mutilated corpse; or by catching a scent of violets and thus learning that your husband still has contact with his mistress; or by noting the bitterness of your drink and realizing that Uncle Alph is trying to poison you again.

Like maybe, here, John successfully brushes off Suzy's date with George. Wereupon she brings up another matter:

"What about Cecile?"

John shifts uncomfortably. "Please, Suzy. You know that's all over."

"George doesn't think so."

It's a new tack, but John rallies to it: Who, he wants to know, is Suzy going to believe: him, or George?

Suzy shakes her head ruefully. "I'm sorry, John. But it isn't a question of me believing."

"What do you mean?"

"Just what I said. It isn't me; it's father."

"Your father! What about him?"

"He believes George."

Again, a twist: new information received; a new complication, new trouble.

"He's forbidden me to date you," Suzy confesses.

"What's that got to do with it? You're a big girl now!"

"Not that big."

More groping on John's part. More fumbling for an angle. "Suppose I can get him to change his mind?" he asks at last.

That would indeed solve the problem, Suzy agrees. And so it's settled: If John can persuade her father to O.K. the date, she'll go with John to the prom.

Do you see how much more meat this scene now holds, even telescoped as here? Thanks to new developments, new complications, action and interest continually rise. John, stimulated by the seeming progress of the opposition, puts forth renewed effort. And this in turn intensifies reader excitement over which side ultimately will win or lose.

Finally, as we've seen, he persuades Suzy. But even this victory has consequences projected into the future, for it commits him to changing her father's attitude . . . a chore which, viewed objectively, may prove to take a bit of doing.

For the moment, however, everyting is sprigged with roses.

Enter disaster.

What is disaster?

Disaster is a hook.

What's a hook?

A hook is a device for catching, holding, sustaining, or pulling anything—in this case, a reader.

To this end, disaster (as we use the term) offers a logical yet unanticipated development that throws your focal character for a loss. It puts him behind the eight-ball but completely—"Sudden and extaordinary misfortune; a calamity," in the words of Mr. Webster.

Such a development upsets your reader as well as your hero. Instantly, it raises a new question to hold him fast on the tenterhooks of suspense: What oh what will the focal character do now?

Disaster comes in the form of new information received—like the unanticipated arrival of George Garvey at the malt shop, to illustrate the principle in terms of our example.

George is outraged to discover that John is attempting to beat his time. He swears that if Our Boy ever again so much as looks at Suzy, there'll be mayhem.

To emphasize his point, he throws John bodily from the shop.

Time out for a few objections:

    1. "But suppose my hero doesn't have a goal when the scene starts?"

Goals are of two kinds: goals of achievement, and goals of resistance. The first is explicit, as in our examples; the second, implicit.

Let's illustrate: This time, pretend that John already has his date with Suzy scheduled. She's agreed to it delightedly.

Enter George. He announces that he's taking over, and that he'll rend John limb from limb if there's any further talk of dating Suzy.

Observe: Though John had no goal when this action started, now, abruptly, he acquires one: to resist George.

In other words, the goal of achievemnt is George's; that of John, counterpoint.

So, John resists. George promptly turns to violence. The malt shop's proprietor threatens to call the police. Panicked, Suzy tells John to forget the prom.

John refuses. Whereupon—disaster. For George throws him out, precisely as in the original version.

    1. "I want to write about life, not artificial, contrived conflict."

Pardon me, but you don't want to write about life; not if you'd eschew conflict.

For again, what is conflict?

It's opposition. It's two forces striving to achieve mutually incompatible goals.

To describe conflicts as artificial or contrived is merely to damn yourself for your own ineptitude in the handling of them.

There's conflict in birth, and in life, and in death; in an ax murder and, equally, in the softly whispered words of seduction. Confict is in the plight of the refugee who seeks a path across a hostile border, and in that of the stepmother who strives to break through the sullen silence of her husband's children. It engulfs the old man thrust from his job by retirement rules, and the public-health nurse who tries to bring solace to the parents of a malformed child. Wherever you find him, man stands in conflict with other men, with nature, and with himself. He can clash with a mountain, an animal, a robot, a dollar, a germ, a neurosis, a theory. A touching scene can be built around the stubborness of a drinking glass opposed to a child too retarded to fee himself, or a grain of sand wearing at a pump vlave.

True, man against man, human opponents, are most eaisly handled while you're learning. But that only makes the challenge of less obvious struggles all the more intriguing.

You want to write about life? By all means.

But don't confuse life with mere word photography. It's not a cruise through the alimentary canal with gun and camera, nor the sterile, egocentric thought-spirals of the immobilized neurotic brooding over his plight.

Life is conflict. If you deny it, the scene indeed isn't for you. But neither is commercial ficton.

    1. "But must a scene always end in disaster?"

It must raise an intriguing question for the future—a question designed to keep your reader reading.

To that end, no better device has ever been conceived that the confrontation of your focal character with disaster. That's the reason the old movie serials always ended with a cliff-hanger—Pearl White tied to the railroad tracks and the five-fifteen roaring round the curve.

Once you've gained sufficient skill, however, you can make the disaster potential and not actual. Thus, George might not throw John out, literally. Maybe he just hints darkly at trouble to come, all the more menacing because it remains not quite specific.

Similarly, you can reverse the disaster, as it were. Instead of ending your scene on a down-beat note, with the focal character sucked into a bottomless whirlpool of trouble, you play the other side of the record and set him up to ride for a fall.

For example, you might let him launch some diabolically clever scheme to do in his foes.

This gives you some devastating question "hooks" to pull along your audience: Are things really going to work out this well, this easily, for Hero? Will Villain fall for such a stunt? Or, has he some trick up his sleeve with which to turn the tables?

(I must add that though this "reversed disaster" system sounds fine in the abstract, it's harder to make work than appears at first glance.

For one thing, it takes the initiative away from your focal character and gives it to the opposition. This forces your hero to wait more or less passively to see how said opposition is going to react. And that's a dangerous situtaion, always, where you the writer are concerned.)

In any event, you do have a choice as to how to end a scene. So take whatever path you prefer, so long as you conclude with your story pointed into the future: some issue raised that will keep your reader turning pages, ever on the edge of his chair as he wonders just what's going to happen now!


Instructions for the Quiz

Answer the questions.