How to Write a Damned Good Scene, Part 2: Who Owns the Scene?

Many new authors will open a tale by telling us about their character: “Johnny Appleseed was a nice little kid with red hair and freckles.” They may want to tell us about how he loves to ride his bike around town and terrorize bluebirds and cats with his slingshot, how he loves his mom and apple pie and America, and so on. That’s NOT how you introduce your character. It often leads to a meandering narrative. In fact, very often I will discover that our little Johnny Appleseed isn’t even a major player in the story. Instead he turns out to be a bystander, a witness to someone else’s tale.

So, let me ask you a question about your character: Why does this person matter? What pain is he in? What goals does he have? What does he care about?

The question that I’m really getting at is this: Of all the potential viewpoint characters in your tale, why should this one get to be the viewpoint?

In his book Characters and Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card points out that the most interesting character in a story is usually the one who is in the most pain. The character who is hurting is the one that the audience will empathize with, the one that they will connect with on an emotional level.

So let’s take Johnny Appleseed above. In a story, no one will likely care about him one little bit. Right now he doesn’t have any interesting problems and he’s not in any pain. I’m far more interested in the poor cats that he terrorizes. I can imagine a mother cat that has been pummeled by a piece of lead shot from his slingshot, clinging to life as she crawls back to her secret den in order to nurse her kittens. In this story so far, the cat is the only one who owns the scene!

Unless something terrible and terribly interesting happens to Johnny, his story isn’t worth writing. In fact, if you mention that he assaults cats, your reader is likely to disconnect with him no matter what story you write.

The first question that I ask when constructing a scene is, “Who is in the most pain?” This is vital because it lets us know who the readers will be secretly rooting for.

Now, you don’t always have to look for the person in the most pain for a scene. A good scene can be written from the point of view of a person who has power. For example, let’s imagine that we have a man who has been falsely charged with a crime. As he sits on the witness stand testifying, trying to save his own life, he would make a reasonable candidate to be the protagonist for a scene. But an equally reasonable candidate might be a woman in the audience who knows for a fact that he is innocent. Perhaps the story is taking place back in Germany during WWII, and the man is a Jew who has been accused of stealing a loaf of bread. In this case, perhaps the woman who could clear him can provide an alibi and save his life, but in doing so, she is afraid that she will be risking her own reputation. Indeed, maybe she isn’t even sure that it is worth it to save the man. Perhaps he didn’t try to steal any food, but he is guilty of being a Jew, after all. So we might find an interesting reason to tell a story from her point of view.

Sometimes a person who is causing a lot of grief can earn the viewpoint spot, but this is much harder to do do.

But in this tale, there are some viewpoints that wouldn’t work well. In most cases, the judge on the case, a trial lawyer, or a jury member would probably prove much weaker as viewpoint characters. They aren’t the ones who will be most affected by the outcome of the trial.

So in choosing my viewpoint character, the single most important answer that I need to determine is “Whose story is this, really?” Once I find that out, I can decide who my possible viewpoint characters are, and then move forward to the next steps of creating the character physically, dressing the character, developing the character’s voice, and so on.

But the single most important thing to decide is “Who really owns this scene?”


I’ll be at Fyrecon in Layton, Utah this June. Learn more here.

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