Stories that Lose Focus
In Writing for Story, Jon Franklin says that, “As length grows linearly, complexity expands expotentially.” It’s easy to write a scene; to write a novel is hard. When someone writes without planning ahead, the danger is what Franklin calls “spaghetting.” It’s small things that cause this, the small omissions, additions, or things slightly off target that gang up on the story to send it into a spaghetti mess. It ‘s so out of focus that you can’t untangle it.
Franklin says, “A story is not a line of dominoes, it is a web, and tugging on any filament causes the whole thing to vibrate.”
That’s why every scene needs to have a tight focus. And it’s why every scene needs to fit into the story overall. Or, as John Ciardi and Miller Willams say, a story is a context for making choices; the important thing is connotations speaking to connotations.
Tweaking the Goal of a Scene
So, let’s look at some ways scenes might go wrong, starting with scene goals
Scope. The main character must have a goal that moves the story forward. If the scope of the goal is too large or too small, the scene doesn’t work. For example, if a student’s goal for a scene is to pass a class, that’s too large a goal. It can’t be particularized with specific actions. A goal to answer one test question correctly is too small; the consequences are too small. A better goal is to pass a certain test. That is small enough to be contained in a single scene, and large enough to have consequences that matter and can carry over to the next scene.
Immediate. Scenes need immediate goals, something that can be answered yes or no, right now. Will a student pass a course? That is rarely answerable in a single scene because it’s not immediate, the answer extends over several weeks or months. Passing a test, however, happens immediately. Well, taking a test does anyway, who can say when a teacher gets around to grading a test. But a character can go away with a feeling of having done well or poorly.
Finality. Scenes need to end. Resolutions which allow for undoing something later are weaker than those which end with some finality. For example, if our student finishes the test, only to find out it was a practice test and the real test is tomorrow–the reader will be aggravated with you. You made him worry and live through this test taking and it was just a sham. You just lost a reader! On the other hand, you don’t want results that are too final. A test that’s booby trapped and blows up when you answer incorrectly, well, that really is a Final Test. End of story.
Focus. Scenes need to relate to the main story or throughline. If our test taker suddenly starts editing the grammar of the test itself, he’s got a future as a copyeditor maybe, but our story just went off on a tangent. And you lost the reader again. Keep the focus on passing the test.