Often when we talk about plotting and structure, we automatically think of the story we’re working on as a whole. That’s fine and you should absolutely have this in mind when you set about outlining your book.
But treating each and every scene like a mini-story with its own little plot will help you as well. It makes for compelling passages that keep your story and action moving along at a solid clip, cleaning out any detritus that might be clogging the book.
To do this, write each scene as if it is a three-act play. We’ll use a scene from my book Alien Salvation in which Nobek Japohn is planning to confront a group of enemy Tragooms on his own despite his leader Bacoj’s objections.
Act One: Introducing the Conflict
Two or more characters are butting heads with each other. Or the situation they’re in is presenting problems. Or someone is plotting to do something against someone else. You get the idea: trouble or at least some form of tension is on its way.
This is how your scene gets started. In Alien Salvation, conflict has already begun at the start of this scene. Stubborn warrior Japohn has learned of Tragooms killing helpless Earthers nearby. He is determined to put a stop to it. His inexperienced clanmate Bacoj is not confident enough to stop him, though the young leader is sure Japohn going off on his own is a bad idea.
Bacoj’s stomach roiled as he watched Japohn prepare for battle. The Nobek strapped on black body armor before attaching an assortment of knives to his belt. No percussion blaster. Bacoj clenched his fists. Stupid, bloodthirsty Nobek.
No, Japohn wasn’t stupid. Thick-skulled and stubborn, but not stupid. Still, the foolhardiness of his actions was going to leave the clan without a Nobek. Even a former bounty hunter of Japohn’s prodigious fighting skills got unlucky once in awhile. This might be one of those times. Especially since the idiot was obviously planning on hand-to-hand combat.
Act Two: Complicating the Issue
As you move along in your scene, raise the stakes. Make the peril more perilous, the trouble more troublesome, the stuff hitting the fan more … well, you get where I’m going with this. Emotions are heightening. The characters’ struggles increase as the situation grows in intensity.
Bacoj battles his insecurities, trying to assert his leadership and make Japohn see reason. Even after Japohn leaves on his ill-advised errand, the conflict continues to grow because Bacoj’s bigger fight is with his own self confidence. The stakes are rising because three major things hang in the balance: Bacoj’s status as clan leader, Japohn’s life, and the opportunity to have the woman they love join their group.
“I don’t want you going after those gurlucks alone.” At least Bacoj kept his voice steady. One didn’t waver with a Nobek, especially one as willful as this one.
Vax stood in the corner, watching them silently. He wouldn’t speak against Japohn, though Bacoj knew he disapproved of their clanmate’s actions. Vax had let him know soon after they clanned Japohn it was up to Bacoj to claim his leadership over the Nobek.
“Japohn won’t respect you unless you stand up to him on your own. Until you do that, having me gang up on him with you will only diminish you in his eyes.”
Bacoj knew Vax was right. But what would happen if the young Dramok asserted his authority and Japohn refused to listen? Worse still, what if the Nobek did accept his leadership and things went terribly wrong? Especially in a situation like this one, in which so many lives hung in the balance?
“I’m going with you,” Bacoj told him, reaching in for his own body armor, suspended among formsuits in their shared closet.
Japohn shook his head, frowning. “You have to stay here where I know you’re safe. I’m used to working alone, and I can hit them before they know I’m even there.” He patted Bacoj’s shoulder, his tone condescending enough to set the Dramok’s teeth on edge. “It’s not the first time I’ve fought half a dozen Tragooms.”
“It would be safer to sneak the Earthers out. We can’t afford to lose you, Japohn. Even your bloodlust can’t hide that from you.”
The Nobek refused to address his concerns. “You won’t lose me. I’ll do a sweep of the perimeter to make sure everyone here is safe before I go. I’ll leave in about ten minutes, so be ready to receive fifteen refugees pretty quick.”
With that, Japohn walked out of the sleeping room, leaving Bacoj seething impotently. He heard the Nobek mutter something to someone in the main cabin. Bacoj learned which of the Earthers had stepped into the shuttle when Lindsey’s voice rose in disbelief.
“Where do you think you’re going?” she asked. There was no answer.
“You need to stand up to him before he gets himself killed,” Vax growled.
Before Bacoj could respond, Lindsey stormed in. “What the hell is Japohn doing?”
Bacoj ran his hands through his hair. He was getting a headache. “Japohn being Nobek.”
Lindsey stamped her little foot in frustration. If Bacoj hadn’t been so furious, he’d have found the gesture of temper adorable. “He’s not taking on those Tragooms alone. You have to stop him, Bacoj.”
Sure. While he was performing miracles, he’d wind back time and save Earth too. “He no listen me.”
She came close to him, her slight body at once arousing his interest. The woman was an addictive creature. Last night had left no doubt in his mind he wanted to clan her.
“Make him listen to you.” Lindsey rose up on her tiptoes and pressed her soft lips to his. In an instant Bacoj’s arms were around her, molding her hard against his very interested body. Fury at Japohn fed his ardor. It was never a good idea to arouse an angry Kalquorian. Only the greatest control kept him from ripping her clothes off and taking her with ruthless need.
Lindsey broke the kiss with effort. Her hands trembled against his chest and her scent wafted to his nostrils. Her eyes lowered, her submissive instincts coming to the fore in his demanding embrace. His manhood turned to iron in response to her softening body. A growl leaked from deep in his throat.
With obvious effort she asked, “Do you have any ideas on how we can rescue the rest of those people?”
It took a moment for his brain to register the question. Right. He had a problem on his hands, a problem that left no time for lovemaking no matter how desperate he felt for her. Bacoj gently pushed Lindsey away from him, putting space between their clamoring bodies.
“Idea. Yes. I think good idea.”
Her chin raised and her gaze rose to meet his. “Then stop Japohn. Don’t let him do anything stupid.”
His little Earther was strong when sex wasn’t involved, an equal to him. Bacoj was relieved. He admired her spirit and didn’t want that part of her lost just because she enjoyed handing over the reins during intimacy. It made her sensual surrender that much sweeter.
He gave himself a mental shake. Concentrate on the problem at hand. Stop thinking about sex, you fool.
“Japohn hard to stop.”
“But you can do it. You’re the Dramok. He’s supposed to listen to you, right?”
Bacoj sighed, glanced at Vax. The Imdiko raised his eyebrows, his thoughts obvious. Go ahead, Bacoj. Are you our Dramok or not?
Damn them both. If it was that easy, didn’t they realize he’d do it?
Steeling his voice to appear patient with Lindsey, Bacoj said, “Japohn know more. More experience.”
Act Three: Resolution
The end of the scene means the immediate situation is at least partially resolved. The characters make a decision or have a realization that drives the story onward. Or circumstances change, putting a new spin on the story. Or new information comes to the fore, sending the tale in another direction. Or things get worse, heightening the tension. Whatever it is, you have a concise ending to your scene.
At the close of the scene I’ve taken from Alien Salvation, Lindsey and Vax continue to argue with Bacoj in their efforts to get him to rein Japohn in. While the scene doesn’t end with the knowledge that the young leader will be successful in his efforts to do so, it does come to a specific conclusion:
“Would he have chosen you for a Dramok if he didn’t believe in you?”
Her statement startled him. He’d never considered Japohn might actually want him to take control.
Vax grinned at Bacoj’s stunned expression. “Lindsey correct.” In Kalquorian he said, “Japohn pursued us. He campaigned to be our Nobek. He must have seen you as a worthy Dramok to do so.”
Bacoj rolled the idea around in his head. Nobeks were by nature fierce protectors of their clans, quick to advise their Dramoks, but even quicker to carry out orders. The members of the warrior breed were dedicated to a fault, their trust in the clan’s leadership unshakeable.
But even if Japohn took Bacoj’s orders to heart, there was still the matter of gross inexperience. “What if idea bad?” Bacoj worried.
Lindsey shrugged. “Run it by all of us. We’ll discuss it, find any weaknesses and keep Japohn from getting his Nobek hide handed to him.”
Vax nodded in approval. “Nobek, Imdiko and Matara advise. Dramok decide and lead.”
Bacoj felt a thrill when he heard Vax mention Matara. His clanmate was considering Lindsey a part of their clan already.
But to make Lindsey ours, I need to be a real leader. She can’t be the Matara to a weak Dramok.
Bacoj drew himself up. “I am Dramok,” he asserted, more for his own benefit than theirs. He gently pushed Lindsey aside, her smile giving him the courage to walk out to confront Japohn.
The real value in structuring your scenes like mini-stories is discovering whether or not they advance the book as a whole. If the scene is floundering because it doesn’t have conflict, increased trouble, and resolution, then you need to consider whether or not it should be entirely cut or valuable elements of it placed in other scenes.