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On Writing Technique: Chasing Catastrophe

I started the week talking about writing 17,000 words in three days…and all the catastrophes that made it necessary in the first place. Then yesterday I talked about a new writing technique I’ve been studying in class that pushes a novel toward lots of conflict and catastrophe. Today I want to make the connection.

And there certainly is one. The only way I managed to get my words written at all was by applying those two techniques I talked about yesterday.


As I mentioned, I’ve long been a proponent of conflict. I’ve preached here before about the Conflict Resolution Cycle. Teaching my dad to write, I told him, “You’ve got to find the conflict. You’ve got to put it in your story. The more conflict, the better.”

Looking at it now, that advice is…well, it’s not bad. But it’s clumsy. It’s blind. More conflict is good, yes, but it’s got to be deliberate. It’s got to be directed. And until a few weeks ago even I didn’t know how to direct it.

Using Deborah Chester’s scene structure gives it direction, though. It gives your conflict a boundary and a purpose. Conflict defines your scene. It exists within the scene, and it focuses unerringly on the point of the scene — the scene question.

When you write conflict like that, it creates inertia (the good kind). It gets your story moving and keeps it moving. That’s the whole point — it does that for the reader, which gets them all caught up in your story — but it does the same thing for you as the writer.

If you’re really invested in the conflict, if your protagonist and antagonist are really wrestling, then the stimulus and response should flow. Everything the antagonist does will automatically get a rise out of the protagonist. So you write down that response. And you’d better bet whatever snappy comeback the protagonist comes up with is going to get a response of its own.

That’s a powerful kind of inertia. When you fall into it, the scene writes itself (as they say). All you’ve got to do is go along for the ride.

Magnetic Force

There’s more to it, too. The other half of the scene structure is the closing catastrophe. If you know your scene is going to end in a major setback, you’ve got something to write to.

Way back when, I wrote a post about plot points — act breaks — and I encouraged you to figure out your story’s plot points because they have a kind of magnetic force to them. As you’re working your way up to them, knowing you’ve got to get there, they keep you on track. They pull you forward.

And they represent an inherent turning point, so you have to know the from and the to. As a result, you always know what you’re writing, and even after you get to the plot point, that magnetic force turns repulsive, pushing you down the to path until you can get close enough to the next plot point for it to start attracting.

To my surprise, as soon as I started trying to follow Deborah Chester’s advice for scene structure, I started experiencing that same effect within my scenes. The scene’s catastrophe began to exert that same sort of magnetic force, but it’s so much closer. In every scene in the book I found myself flying through the pages, pulled inexorably toward the catastrophe I knew was coming.

And as soon as it came crashing down on our poor, bewildered hero (ending the scene in the process), I had to take a moment to describe what it had done to him. That was still part of writing the catastrophe, really — exploring its effects — and suddenly I’d written two or three extra pages, and found myself already turning my attention toward the next scene.

Clarifying Your Scene List (Creative Writing Exercise)

The lovely Kelley, writing at a coffee shopThat last bit is a hint at what I mean when I say “Scene and Sequel,” but I’ll get into more detail about that next week. For now, it’s enough to know that focusing your conflict and chasing toward an inevitable catastrophe are powerful writing tools.

Or perhaps I should say “prewriting.” As I said, those two techniques made it possible for me to write an extraordinary number of words last week, but I was only able to achieve that effect because I’d done the preparation work in advance.

When we first started discussing the techniques in class, I had a little Eureka! moment. See, I’ve talked here before about several powerful types of prewriting documents, including a Mock Table of Contents, a Conflict Resolution Cycle Worksheet, and several others.

I always throw in the Detailed Scene List, but that one doesn’t have a big long post to back it up. It barely has a paragraph. That’s because I’ve never had a very precise definition of what exactly should go into a scene description. A sentence? A paragraph? A “complete thought”?

That’s changed now, though. I know. All you need to clearly define a scene is three sentences containing five pieces of information:

  • Who is the Scene Protagonist, and what does he want?
  • Who is the Scene Antagonist, and what does he want? (As a reminder, it should be in direct opposition to the protagonist’s goal.)
  • What’s the Catastrophe that ends the scene?

That’s it. Simple as that. Sitting in class, I immediately started scribbling some down to see how well it would work, and it was magical. My scenes came into focus, my plot snapped into place, and my characters became a lot stronger — without my ever writing a word of narrative.

Here are some samples scene descriptions from my upcoming fantasy novel (currently undergoing rewrites):

  • Daven wants the other boys to respect him. Coop wants to humiliate him. Coop reveals he’s been recruited to the Guard (which is Daven’s secret dream).
  • When the king’s soldier arrives to arrest Daven and picks a fight with him, Daven wants to survive. Othin wants to kill him. Daven wins the fight by a stroke of luck, but he makes a dangerous enemy.
  • When the king’s wizard shows up mysteriously and starts leading Daven away, Daven wants to know why Claighan is there. Claighan wants to evaluate the boy’s potential before committing to anything. He tells Daven the Guard will never accept him (and why).
  • Daven wants to know more before he commits to anything. Claighan wants to take him away quickly. Jemminor (Daven’s master) wants to keep him around. Claighan drags Daven away in a huff, at night.

That last one is going to be trouble. It’s got three characters (all in conflict, incidentally). That doesn’t mean it’s a bad scene, but laying everything out like this I can clearly see that it’s going to be more complicated to manage than the more straightforward scenes that come before. That’s incredibly valuable information.

It’s all incredibly valuable. That’s my default outlining method, going forward. It tells so much about the story, in such bite-sized snippets.

What do you think? Could you describe one of your own stories that way? Give it a try — whether it’s a couple scenes from one you’ve already finished, or a new way of thinking about scenes you still need to imagine for your WIP. Let me know if it benefits you as much as it did me.

2 Responses to “On Writing Technique: Chasing Catastrophe”

  1. Joshua Unruh says:

    This is applicable across multiple platforms. What you have here is, more or less, the game master advice in Smallville the roleplaying game. Your job, as GM, is to create situations and additional characters whose sole purpose is to put the relationships of your players into conflict. Thus, you drive them toward catastrophe. It’s a pretty revolutionary way to think about both GMing and writing, even though it shouldn’t be.

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