Wayne posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
I like your take on Dwight Swain’s scene and sequel breakdown. What is your take on his mentor at the U of Oklahoma, Foster Harris and his ideas of “reversal” and “moral equations”? Could you use your scientific mind and explain it more clearly with examples. Thanks for a great blog.
Randy sez: I wish I could comment on this, but I can’t. I know almost nothing about Foster Harris, except that I vaguely remember Dwight Swain mentioning him in his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer, one of my favorite books on writing fiction.
TJ asked this question:
Fantasy novels and series marketed towards children and teens seems to be all the rage today–it also seems to be how authors are becoming immensely famous and wealthy. What can’t be done in a youth fantasy novel, and what cliches and archetypes should be avoided?
Randy sez: That’s a good question. I don’t know if there are any limits on YA fiction. I’m pretty sure you can’t have a sex scene in a children’s novel, but it wouldn’t surprise me if somebody somewhere has done it. YA is fairly hot right now, with numerous authors doing very well. J.K. Rowling is the most obvious YA author, but James Patterson is doing YA and he’s one of the biggest of the big in current fiction.
I would avoid all cliches in any fiction, YA or not, except in dialogue. Showing a character using cliches in dialogue tells the reader something interesting about that character. Archetypes are by definition not cliches, and I can’t think of any to avoid. Archetypes are good starting places for characters. Obviously, they are not a complete character, and you want to build out unique characters starting from any archetype.
Is every scene always reactive or proactive. While reading other writers, I’m looking for these things and sometimes finding them hard to spot. Many scenes don’t seem to fit either paradigm, but still make for compelling reading.
I know you’ve probably beat this subject to death, but I’m a slow learner.
Not every scene in fiction is either reactive or proactive. (“Reactive scenes” and “Proactive scenes” are explained in my book Writing Fiction For Dummies. I’m not entirely sure who coined these terms. I don’t believe I was the first to use them, but I can’t quite think who did.) I am reading through Sense and Sensibility right now with my family, and there are a few scenes that just sit there on the page, neither proactive nor reactive, and frankly quite boring.
The real question is whether every scene in fiction would be better if it were revised so as to be either reactive or proactive. I don’t know the answer to that question for certain, since mathematically, the space of all possible scenes is just about infinite, and since there is no objective way to measure how good a scene is. But my gut instinct is that the vast majority of scenes would be improved if they were edited to be either proactive or reactive.
A Proactive Scene begins with a Goal, continues through most of the scene with Conflict, and concludes with a Setback.
A Reactive Scene begins with a Reaction, continues through most of the scene with a Dilemma, and concludes with a Decision.
In my view, it never hurts to look at a scene and ask whether it fits one of these patterns. If it does, how well does it fit the pattern? If not, will it be improved by editing it to fit the pattern?
Note that I am very much against a “paint-by-numbers” scheme of writing fiction. However, I do believe in using design patterns to help edit fiction, and the Proactive Scene and Reactive Scene are two powerful design patterns.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.