Making scenes out of soy milk
Here’s what happens: I go into a Starbucks in Los Gatos, California, stressing hard about the wedding ceremony I have to write and officiate for my cousin in less than 24 hours. I’m hyped-up and anxious about getting it done, investing too much faith in the 16-ounce, whole-milk latte I’m ordering to jumpstart my brain and unleash the heartfelt verbiage she’s trusting me to produce. The line to the counter is fifteen deep. I wade in, mouth watering, synapses barking like tiny Pavlovian dogs when the barista takes my order. Five minutes later a cup with my name on it appears, steam rising out of the sip hole. I take it to an empty table, new hope about the job ahead blooming warmly in my chest, but something’s off and I can’t quite place it and I take the first sip and it’s...
Soy milk. A soy milk latte. Order botched. My reaction’s immediate: tight gut, spike of irritation, flood of not-so-nice thoughts about the barista, the line, corporate coffee, weddings, myself. Standing at the table, staring at the cup, I try to decide what to do next, my pulse speeding up as the matrimonial clock ticks down. The line’s at 20, maybe more, barista scrambling, bodies at the counter too dense to penetrate.
Oh well, I think. Soy milk’s okay. Less fattening than dairy. Get over it. Get on with it.
Disheartened and disappointed, I open my laptop and get to work. The ceremony takes a couple hours to finish. The wedding goes off without a hitch. I fly home. Life goes on.
Good writers brew conflict from everything
Tedious little anecdote, isn’t it? But wait a sec, because it contains information that no fiction writer can afford to ignore. Everyday life, however boring it may be, is full of the magic ingredient that makes brilliant stories: Conflict. From botched coffee orders to relationship stress to wardrobe decisions, it’s literally everywhere, happening all the time. Sometimes it’s big and meaningful and shapes the future; sometimes it’s small and insignificant and fades from attention like so many soy milk lattes. Either way, if we pay attention to how it operates in our lives--when it’s happening and what it’s made of and how we respond to it--we can use it to write better fiction. Much better fiction.
Some writers deny the necessity of conflict in their stories because the word brings to mind overblown situations like car chases, screaming matches, gunfights--things they don’t necessarily want to write about. But broken down, conflict is nothing more than desire impeded: somebody wanting something—as big as galactic dominion, as small as a 16-ounce drink—and struggling to get it. Without conflict, you have no story, no plot, no character development, no tension, no emotion, no agent, no publisher, no readers. If you want those things, conflict is your friend. Watch for it in your life and learn its quirky ways. Get to know it better. Spend time with it. Then fall in love and say ‘I do.’
No conflict equals no buzz equals sleepy readers
Back to the coffee shop to break things down. When I went in there, what I wanted--call it a desire, goal (my preferred language), intention, need, or whatever works best for you--was a whole milk latte. Running alongside that was also the goal of finishing my cousin’s ceremony and delivering a good wedding, but for simplicity’s sake let’s leave that out for now. My goal of getting a whole milk latte was impeded, or complicated (my preferred language), by getting the wrong thing. As soon as that happened, conflict was on the scene. Here’s how it looks in outline form:
Feel the conflict? It’s nothing earth-shattering or warlike, but there it is, the precursor to plot and character development and that mysterious thing we call “story.” In the true-life version of what happened I decided to live with the botched order and focus on my work. The latte conflict dissipated without major repercussions and life went on. One could say I revealed myself to be a person who ruminates over minor snafus before letting them go, or who should stand up for himself and get what he ordered, but for the most part character development was thin and the plot of my life was unaffected.
Unfortunately, the same is true for the vast majority of fiction I read in workshops and in my coaching business--meaningful conflict fails to develop--and when that’s the case even gobsmacking prose, mind blowing images, riveting dialogue, etc. can’t disguise the fact that nothing’s happening and there is no story. Talking like this makes me think of a quote by novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz: “I say that glorious prose is a fine and laudable thing, but without an enthralling story, it's just so much verbal tapioca.”
A barista makes drinks, not stories; a writer makes stories, not tapioca
Lucky for us, we’re fiction writers, which means we get to play with the ingredients of story to engage our readers and make meaning on the page. Let’s play with my coffee shop conflict; let’s go all fiction on it and make something happen. What if, after getting the wrong drink, I shove bodies aside in a frothing rage and throw my soy latte at the barista? Or what if I run into the bathroom and dump it in the toilet and berate myself in the mirror for being such a milquetoast? Or what if I quietly leave, give it to a homeless person outside and go to Dunkin Donuts to finish my work? The point is, decisions made and actions taken in the face of conflict are what develop (or reveal) character and set the stage for what happens next in the plot. Here’s the outline again, using the latte-throwing version of me instead of the real one:
Now we have a violent, ramped-up hothead who’s probably going to have the cops called on him--or any number of other possible scenarios--depending on what kind of story this is and who’s writing it. What we also have is the skeleton of a Scene. What exactly “Scene” means is a matter of debate among fiction writers, and we’ll talk about it more in a minute, but let’s finish ours first, because an important ingredient is missing.
Emotion in fiction is a byproduct of coffee--I mean conflict
Remember how, when I first went into the coffee shop, I was in a state of anticipation about my latte? And then how disappointed I was when I got the wrong one? That was my real-life emotional arc; I went from one emotional state to another, and conflict was the fulcrum. Without the conflict, there’d have been no meaningful emotional change. In life this isn’t always the case: emotions come and go, sometimes randomly, sometimes not. Occasionally this might also be true of a character in fiction, but the majority of the time emotion in stories is a direct byproduct of conflict. Rarely will you read a Scene--or see one on a movie or TV screen--that doesn’t have a clearly discernible emotional arc. Let’s add one to the outline of our coffee shop Scene.
Now we have the outline of a fully arcing Scene, based on a mundane event from everyday life. Character has been revealed; the plot is set to develop; emotions shift from one state to another. Our story has moved inevitably forward--it’s passed through a doorway that is forever closed behind it, because once I throw that latte, not only am I a raged-out jerkweed, I’m also looking at assault charges and running from the cops and nothing will ever be the same. In my mind--and of course you have to decide this for yourself--we have hit upon a viable definition of Scene: it’s a real-time event seeded in conflict that develops character, drives plot and moves the story definitively forward.
Starbucks raises prices; writers raise the stakes
Let’s go back to the ceremony I was writing and my desire to get it finished and deliver a good wedding for my cousin. That goal was also operating in the coffee shop--and in the bigger picture of the story--and it’s important to consider because it layers onto our scene something we need to think about: Stakes.
Raise the stakes! You’ve heard it before, right? But what does it mean? How do you do it? For the real me who was in Starbucks waiting for a whole-milk latte, the stakes had a lot to do with my cousin’s wedding; i.e., I wanted the latte for the mental boost I thought it would give me to write the ceremony and not screw up the most important day of her life. Without the wedding bearing down, the soy milk snafu wouldn’t have mattered as much and my emotional reaction wouldn’t have been as strong.
To get at stakes both in real life and in fiction, identify the goal that’s operating during conflict and ask “so what if that doesn’t happen?” So what if Doug doesn’t get his whole milk-latte? Well, he might not be able to finish the ceremony on time and give his cousin a good wedding. Those were the real-life stakes. In our fictional version of the scene we can play around and raise them. So what if Doug doesn’t get his whole milk-latte? Well, he won’t finish the ceremony on time and he’ll botch his cousin’s wedding, upon which rests the large inheritance he may or may not get from his rich uncle. Stakes raised.
As should be obvious now, all the parts of a Scene are related: conflict, stakes, emotion, decision/action, etc. They form a web of relationships that the fiction writer can and must manipulate to tell the best possible story.
A fridge of basic ingredients, a world of unlimited drinks
You might be thinking that the scenes you write are more complicated than our coffee shop example. You’re probably right. Multiple goals might be operating in multiple dimensions--internal, external, interpersonal. Emotions might be complex, contradictory, latent, repressed. The outcome of a decision and action might not reveal itself for many pages. All of which is fine. Some of that complexity can be built into our outline, along with a place for you to make revision notes, like this:
Even our more complex Scene outline won’t perfectly capture everything you do on the page. What it will do is give you a strong sense of how things are working, where they’re broken, where they can be improved. Think of it as a tool to help you create conflict, raise stakes, develop character, drive plot, tell a better story. It might feel clunky and burdensome at first, but with practice you’ll become adept, fluid and creative in how you use it--kind of like a good barista. She has coffee beans, a fridge full of ingredients, a machine. Once she gets the basics down and understands the relationships between the parts, her creativity can flow through them to produce any number of drinks. She might botch the occasional order, but her lattes taste like no one else’s.
Back to mundane reality
We’re fiction writers, which means we’re alive, which means we have a life that’s full of conflict. Reach into it and you’ll become a better writer. Pay attention to the thoughts, emotions and body sensations that tell you when conflict is happening. Then stop, right then and there, to break it down. What’s your goal? What’s complicating it? What’s at stake? How are your emotions affected? What are you going to do next?
What happens in life--in my life, anyway--is often out of our direct control. We can’t design the scenes we live in the same way we can the Scenes of a story. But if we develop our awareness of how we operate in everyday conflicts--both large and small-- we can make conscious choices that influence our growth as people and what happens next in the plot. And for a fiction writer, that pays off both in reality and on the page.