3 Brilliant Methods for Writing Extraordinary Scenes

It’s vitally important that authors know how to craft great scenes because scenes are the basic building block of narrative fiction.

As I discussed in my article, The Difference between Scenes, Sequences, and Chapters, a scene is a continuous piece of action within a linear timeframe and (generally) contained to a single location. A leap forward in narrative time, or a change in setting/location, usually marks the end of one scene and the beginning of a new one.

Knowing how to write compelling scenes is one the key skills a successful author must possess.

What follows are three methods you can start implementing today to ensure you write extraordinary scenes that grip readers and keep them turning pages.

These methods come recommended by three writer’s craft experts:

  • Cathy Yardley
  • James Scott Bell
  • Shawn Coyne

If you want to hear more from these experts, I’ve interviewed two-thirds of them on The Writing Coach podcast. You can listen to my conversation with Cathy Yardley here and listen to my chat with Shawn Coyne here.

Cathy Yardley’s GMCD Method

Cathy Yardley is the author of 20 fiction and non-fiction books spanning multiple genres and several major publishing houses.

In her book on the revision process, Rock Your Revisions, Yardley recommends running each scene in a manuscript through the GMCD method to ensure the writing is functioning on all cylinders.

GMCD breaks down as follows:

Goal – What does your point-of-view character in the scene want to achieve or attain? In other words, what is the scene’s object of desire.

Motivation – Why does your character want to achieve that goal and why is it important?

Conflict – What is standing in the way of your character achieving their goal?

Disaster (or Resolution) – What is the result of the scene’s conflict? Yardley outlines three possible options:

  1. a) the character doesn’t get what they want;
  2. b) the character doesn’t get what they want and something worse happens; or,
  3. c) the character does get what they want, but something else goes awry as a result.

Yardley has mentioned in blog posts that she adapted the GMCD method from Debra Dixon’s book, GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. I haven’t read Dixon’s book yet, but it’s definitely on my to-read list!

James Scott Bell’s LOCK System

James Scott Bell is a writer of thrillers and a bestselling author of books on the craft of writing.

In his book Plot and Structure, Bell argues that by learning the basic principles of a craft – be it chess or fiction writing – one can quickly develop a solid skillset from which to work. After analyzing hundreds of stories, Bell thus developed his LOCK system, a set of foundational principles for developing a solid plot and dazzling scenes.

The LOCK system looks like this:

Lead – Who is the scene about? Is it a positive character, a negative character, or an antihero?

Objective – What does the lead want to achieve?

Confrontation – Who is standing in the way of the lead achieving their object? This is where the scene’s antagonistic forces come into play. 

Knockout – How does the scene end in way that knocks the reader on their butt with surprise and delight? In the face of confrontation, does the lead win, lose, or make a sacrifice of some kind?

Read more on the LOCK system: “What is Plot, Anyway?”

Shawn Coyne’s Five Commandments of Storytelling

Shawn Coyne has edited and published hundreds of books. He has worked closely with author Stephen Pressfield, and runs a literary agency that represents the likes of David Mamet and Robert McKee.

In his book, The Story Grid, Coyne recommends all writers surrender themselves to the five commandments of storytelling because, as he puts it, every story unit (be it scene, chapter, sequence, or overall story) must adhere to these commandments.

Coyne’s Five Commandments are:

Inciting Incident – Something happens to get the scene rolling. This incident can be causal or the result of a coincidence.

Progressive Complications – Complications arise that signal a polarity shift in the scene’s narrative thrust. This shift is called the “turning point”, and Coyne suggests turning points can either be active (action based) or revelatory (information based)

Crisis – The scene’s protagonist, faced with the progressive complications, is forced to make a decision of some kind. The decision is either a “Best Bad Choice” scenario where all options have negative consequences, or an “Irreconcilable Goods” scenario in which choosing one good option precludes another good option.

Climax – The moment in the scene where the decision is made by the protagonist and action is taken.

Resolution – The results of the action taken by the protagonist at the climax of the scene.

Read more: “The Five Commandments of Storytelling.”

Which of these three methods you choose to implement in your drafting is, of course, up to you. All three are excellent options. And as you’ve probably noticed, they are essentially using different language to get at the same key story component within a scene. (Note the similarities, for example, between what Yardley identifies as the three options for a scene’s “Disaster” moment and Coyne’s “Best Bad Choice” scenario.)

Regardless of which of the three methods to use, you’ve probably already unconsciously put many of these principles to work in your writing. Now, by consciously applying these methods to your storytelling, you’ll be able to take your scene writing and execution to even great heights!

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1 Comment

  • Bill Valley

    Reply Reply August 17, 2017

    Kevin T Johns

    Howdy. Loved the three contrasts of the author’s take on creating scenes. Very informative with lots of info to explore deeper options. Can’t make it to the webinar on dialogue tonite, but sure peaked my interest. Dialogue is my undoing as a wanna be writer. Characters seem so cardboard stiff and lack diversity and clarity with such weak character dialogue.

    miss ya, hope all is well.

    Bill Valley

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