Disaster and Dilemma
The other day I received a piece of advice which has made the world so much simpler: all novel-scenes should be either a disaster or a dilemma.
A disaster-scene is one where something goes horribly wrong for the hero: for example Mrs Baker the nefarious teacher who hates our hero’s guts, condemns him to spend wednesday afternoons with her while the rest of the class goes to Catechism or Hebrew class.
A dilemma-scene is where the hero must choose between two terrible alternatives: does she apologise to Mrs. Lynde, or does she spend the rest of her life in her bedroom?
This simplifies things marvellously: all we need to do is pick a disaster or a dilemma and build a scene around it. If there is no disaster or dilemma to base our scene off, then that scene probably doesn’t belong in the novel at all — or maybe it should be merged with another scene. The obvious exception is the falling action and denouement at the end of the novel where there is little conflict.
Dilemma scenes are always followed by disaster scenes, because dilemmas force the hero to make a bad choice — a choice that ends in disaster. If John’s dilemma is whether to care for his sick wife, or to go to work to earn money to buy medicine for her, then whatever choice he makes, the result is her death. If his dilemma is whether to eat a durian given to him by a potential sponsor — just before his fund-raising speech — then he either offends the potential sponsor by not eating the durian, or he eats it and as a result wretches so badly all through the speech that nobody sponsors him.
Scenes can have history, or humour, or other non-conflictuous elements, but the centrality should be the disaster or the dilemma. If this is not the case, I believe the scene is more of an intermission — and gripping novels don’t have intermissions.