In the writing world (commercial fiction, specifically, but also in screenwriting), the industry standard, when it comes to crafting a scene, is to use the following formula:




What this means, simply, is that in every scene, the viewpoint character wants to accomplish something (their “goal”), they encounter difficulties in their attempt to do so (the “conflict”), then the scene ends with a setback (the “disaster”).

Example: Upon coming upon an abandoned tent, a starving hiker desperately rummages through the tent, in search of anything to eat (Goal). But the tent is cluttered with rubbish, tattered clothing, and a relentless swarm of mosquitoes, hampering and frustrating his search efforts (Conflict). In the end, the hiker finds a half-eaten sandwich … but it’s crawling with maggots (Disaster).

Of course, there are a lot of ways one can vary from this structure (changing the DISASTER to a VICTORY, for example), but for the most part, this is the “shape” of a scene that the professionals tend to use the most. As a result, it’s what readers (and viewers) are most accustomed to. Vary from it, and you’re likely to encounter some form of cognitive resistance. (“Something about this feels weird . . . off . . . I can’t quite put my finger on it.”)

Now here’s my dilemma: whenever I write, using this structure, my results tend to be mixed. The skeleton is solid. The musculature: functional. But the scene merely marches along, like a dutiful robot, no matter how many flourishes I may insert into the prose.

Simply put: I can’t get that damn robot to sing, or to skip, or to dance.

Now there’s another, looser approach that most writers refer to as “pantsing” it. It’s the colloquial term for writing without a definitive plan. Or, “by the seat of one’s pants”. When I write in this manner, I have no particular scene goal in mind. If and/or when conflict arises, it’s usually something that happens by accident on my part, rather than something intentional. And the scene’s ending often has no relation to the resolution (or failure) of the conflict, either—it merely stops when I feel that I’ve hit some sort of satisfying emotional cadence.

The resulting robot may not know what it’s doing, but it sure looks good doing it.

Here’s where the confusion factor sets in: nearly all of my publishing success, so far, can be attributed to “pantsing” it, whereas nearly all of my efforts to follow the industry standard approach have, more or less, fallen flat.

So, what to do?

The obvious answer would be to stick with “what works”, and to abandon that which doesn’t. Which would mean abandoning the “industry standard” approach, and embracing the uncertainty of writing without a plan. But it does leave a lingering question: what about the GOAL, CONFLICT, DISASTER structure isn’t working for me—and why, if that’s the professional approach, has it yielded less than optimal results?

Am I, perhaps, doing it wrong? Or could this mean that, dare I say, the professionals have it wrong? Is it possible that, maybe, there are effective ways to write, other than the manner in which most of us are taught?

Or am I merely overthinking things, once again, as I’m characteristically known to do?

I don’t really have any answers, at this point, but I’m okay with that. Maybe, when it comes down to it, I don’t really need any. And perhaps this conclusion, in itself, is an answer in disguise—perhaps I’m comfortable with uncertainty. Maybe I enjoy wandering into the unknown.

Maybe you do, too.

After all, isn’t that what life is? A continuous journey into the fog before us? Why must anything we do feel any different?

Does a robot really need instructions, in order to learn how dance?

And so, in this blog’s typical fashion, I leave you with another odd (and sudden) departure: journey onward, my clever confidant, and fear not what lies beyond the beaten path. There might be music within those trees, and a meadow to stomp one’s feet.

< Motivation is an Annoying Housefly — Don’t Let it Flit Away


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