Every scene must end in disaster. Really? EVERY scene?
OK. Most scenes.
I only say that every scene must end in disaster because if I give writers wriggle room, they run with it. So, yes, let’s work on the premise that every scene must end in disaster. What disaster? How do you choose?
Progressions. In general, your disasters need to be some sort of progression from bad to worse to absolute worst. Look at your story to find the natural progressions and then try to exaggerate a bit. For example, if a ballerina wants to try out for a dance part, what would be the absolute worst? Showing up drunk, out of shape and sloppily dressed–looking and acting like a bum.
Is that too extreme? Probably. So, back off the Worst scenario to find something reasonable: an injured Achilles tendon; just recovering from emergency appendectomy; a secret habit of drinking; grieving from a family death or tragedy. I like to plan the worst possible then back off from that for about mid-story and back off from that for the story opening. Working backward from Worst seems to ensure for me that I actually GO to the Worst and don’t try to avoid it.
Multiple Disasters. Also think about the subplots and how each of their narrative arcs can add to the overall disasters. By the time you slot into your story plan the Bad/Worse/Worst for the main plot and for a couple subplots, then you’re on your way to every scene ending in disaster. Then, you’ll just have to find ways to create disasters for the extra needed scenes of your story.
One tool in your toolbox should be the ambiguous disaster. This is when the character appears to win, but in the end, s/he doesn’t. In this scene from Good Will Hunting, Will, Chuckie and their gang go into a Harvard bar (warning: PG-13 for language). Chuckie tries to pick up a couple girls and a Harvard guy steps in to humiliate him. Will steps in, though, to humiliate the Harvard guy. On the surface, Will’s intelligence wins out; but in the end, the Harvard guy wins simply because society recognizes a Harvard degree over native intelligence. It’s a great example of an ambiguous disaster: Will wins on one level but utterly fails on another. It demonstrates (Show-Don’t-Tell) exactly what Will faces in the rest of the story: society’s expectations about intelligence and the role of a college education in getting jobs.
If you can’t see this video, click here.
So, while you must end each scene in a disaster, you can let your character have some level of success–just don’t let it go too far, too early. Remember the mantra: Bad, Worse, Worst.