Scene Structure: Your Opening Scene

For this week’s Throwback Thursday, we’re looking at excerpts from past posts on Live Write Thrive that tie in with our exploration on scene structure.

From The Crucial Question You Must Ask in Your Opening Scene:

The True Definition of a Scene

One of the main points discussed in previous posts involved picking just the right starting place to begin your book. This means the story starts in present action, in the middle of something happening, with your POV character right in the situation and revealing her (or his) fears, dreams, needs, or goals and the obstacle that is in the way and presenting a problem. I like the way Jordan Rosenfeld in the book Make a Scene defines what a scene is: “Scenes are capsules in which compelling characters undertake significant actions in a vivid and memorable way that allows the events to feel as though they are happening in real time.” I talked before about eliminating back story and starting right in with your protagonist and hinting at her visible goal.

Mind Your MDQs

You’ve now learned why the visible “goal” of your protagonist needs to be revealed in some measure in the first few pages, and what we’ll explore today is the need to establish both the plot question and the spiritual question your book is raising. For the plot question is tied up in the visible goal (they are pretty much the same thing), but the spiritual question is a little different but just as crucial, if not more.

You may not have a deeply themed book, but there must be some reason you are writing this story. We talked about this in an earlier post. What is your story about? If you were asked, “Why did you write this book?” (and spend months, maybe years of your life doing so!) how would you answer? Hopefully, there is a specific thing you want to say to your readers. It doesn’t have to be a “message” or sermon on life, but every story deals with themes on one level or another, and your views as a writer will come through the story, sometimes whether you intend it or not. Better to begin a book with intention—intending to say something and leave your readers with that “take-home” thought when they read the last line and close the book.

This ties in with your MDQ or major dramatic query (or question). I think the most important, mind-blowing material I learned in recent years that helped me in my writing craft was to learn about the MDQ. And I hope after you read this you will feel similarly. Now, with every novel I write, I begin with this. And don’t worry, you can learn about MDQ PDQ (pretty darn quickly).

Yes or No?

The MDQ or major dramatic query is a yes-or-no question you ask at the start of the book. Very simply, it’s a question that MUST be addressed in the first scene, as it sets the stage for the entire novel. It is also called (by Michael Hague) the “visible goal” or plot goal (which you have now learned about if you’ve been keenly following these posts). Your question may be “Will Mary save her brother before he kills himself?” or “Will Frodo destroy the ring and save Middle Earth before Sauron gets his hands on it?” or “Will Dorothy make it back to Kansas or be stuck with those annoying munchkins for the rest of her life?”

You get the idea. The are only a few variations of this plot question, and they involve the character either getting something or somewhere, saving someone, finding something, or escaping something (this will sound familiar if you read the last two posts).

Now, the answer that you reveal at the end of the book can be either yes or no. Maybe Dorothy will, after all, end up living in munchkin land, but she might enjoy it, and find her true path to happiness there. You’re the writer; it’s your choice. You do have to answer this question, by the way, and that’s why you set it up in the first scene. It’s the key to your story. But . . . it’s not the heart.

The Heart Is in the Spiritual Query

But now we turn to another MDQ, and that’s the spiritual query or question. It’s a little harder to pinpoint, but it reveals the heart of your character and the heart of your story. Without it, you might have an exciting plot, but will anyone really care about the story, or even read it to the end? Without a spiritual question for your protagonist, the answer may be no.

When I say “spiritual” question, I am not talking about faith or faith-based stories. Every good story has one. A question that involves the character’s spirit—her heart—is what we’re concerned with.

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Think about Frodo. His MDQ spiritual question might be: “Will Frodo be able to live with himself and his world by the end of the book if he makes the choice to undertake his journey?” or “Will Frodo find peace and inner joy through his journey to destroy the ring, even if it kills him?” Dorothy’s spiritual question might be: “Will Dorothy find her place in the world, feel she fits in, feel at home somewhere?” Think about how these spiritual MDQs are raised at the start of the stories, alongside the plot MDQs.

Now, what it crucial to realize is that BOTH questions get answered AT THE SAME TIME AND IN THE SAME SCENE at the end of the book! This is amazing, and when done well, makes your book a winner. Dorothy gets home (plot MDQ) but at the same time she realizes she’s always been home; that here, with Aunty Em, is where her heart truly lives (spiritual MDQ).

So before you even start writing (or if you are partway through your novel), write down your two MDQs—the plot and spiritual questions you need to raise in the first scene that will be answered in one of the last scenes in your book. This is what should shape and give impetus to your entire novel—-these questions. Your plot arc and character arcs will all begin and end based on these questions. They seem simple, but the reader needs to know what they are.

This doesn’t mean you state them blatantly (although in my novel Conundrum, I decided to actually have my main character, Lisa, in first person, ask the MDQ in her head—literally and exactly word for word. That worked for my book, and it sure left no confusion on the reader’s part as to what the novel was about and what Lisa’s plot and spiritual questions were).

I’ve given you a lot of important, big things to think about, and I hope you will see how mind-blowing the MDQ topic is! For more on MDQs, get Writing the Heart of Your Story.

If you’re interested in more about scene structure, be sure to subscribe to Live Write Thrive so you don’t miss the posts. Mondays we’re going deep into scene structure, and Wednesdays we’re looking at first pages of great novels to see why they work. Join us!

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