Giving Yourself a Little Push

When I plot, I have some basics I shoot for, in terms of each scene. Yes, I want to know things like who’s there, where are they, what are they doing. What I really want to know, though, is the conflict.

The biggest thing I try to figure out when I plot is my MC’s goal. Not her story-long, big-picture goal, but her specific scene for that goal. And then I need to know what the obstacles are–which characters’ goals are in conflict with hers, and how/why. What is going on in the environment/her world that creates extra problems. How does she sabotage herself?

Most of the time this works for me. I get just enough of these goal+obstacle=conflict pieces down, so that I feel I can move on to plotting the next scene or, if it’s time, writing this one.

Every now and then, though, once I’ve plotted I come across a scene that still feels weak to me. It might be a scene that has something big happening at the end, or a scene I need to show some world-building or to seed something that’s coming later in the story. Okay, fine. But what’s the problem NOW? What’s going to create the what-if feeling in the reader as they read?

The WIP I’m working on now is a much heavier (in emotional intensity, NOT density, I hope!) story than I’ve written before. So, yes, I can have a scene that’s perhaps a bit more action-packed, or that lightens the mood a bit with some comedy, but I can’t just drop in a chapter that’s all laughs and car-chases, without something more. That’s the kind of thing that jars readers, that makes them pull out of the story they’ve been dug into, shake their heads, and say, “Huh?” Doing this is breaking the contract you’ve established with this reader, the one that says, “I’m telling you this kind of story.”

What do you do when you’re writing or revising, and you start working on a scene that you don’t quite “get”? You’ve got a couple of choices. You can tell yourself just to write–to let the words go onto the page and watch where they take you and let your ideas develop as you go. Or you can take a few minutes and muse on goal and conflict, push yourself into the more tense places in your characters’ lives, and think about possibilities.

In either case, I think, this is a time to push yourself. Either while you’re writing, or while you sit with a cup of tea and stare out the window, don’t just accept the first idea that comes to mind. Look at it, make a note, write a few paragraphs about it, and then think. Is this workable? Is this taking you that extra few steps into your characters’, into the conflict & tension that will deepen your story and keep your readers hooked?

It’s amazing how little time this can take. Yes, of course, you are going to run into walls, especially during an early draft, where you just don’t understand enough yet about your book, where you have to throw up your hands, say, “I don’t know!”, leave some kind of note for yourself, and keep writing. But it’s always surprising to me how often, if I have the patience to slow down and listen, that another idea comes to me–a link to the deeper elements of the story. An idea that makes the scene better.

When and how do you push yourself to take that extra time, to sharpen your focus and see what comes?


  1. Perfect post, to refer Joyce and my students to today. As it turns out, I’m talking about conflict this afternoon. this is an other blog post for our wiki! Thanks. Carol


    • beckylevine says:

      Conflict is such a biggie for me–I think it’s the most important thing I can figure out to keep myself from drifting all over the place as I write.


  2. Brilliant post! I’m revising a story right now so this is great to keep in mind. One trick I’ve started doing to help me create the arc in each chapter is to write each chapter in a separate document. For some reason this helps me see each chapter as individual and I’ve done a much better job of making sure that the conflict and rising tension are there.


    • beckylevine says:

      I started doing that a while ago. When I was a tech writer, I’d get whole manuals in one file & there’d alwas be a problem with things getting slow or crashing, so I figured chapters are good places to break. I actually write a scene-per-file, for the same reason you mention here–and I’m not making any decisions yet as to whether/how they combine into chapters. 🙂


  1. […] I am going to open up one more slot in my brain and, as I keep writing, take a little of that extra time to look at the stakes for each scene. To figure out why Caro’s immediate goal matters and […]


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