Every scene, therefore, contains GOAL, OBSTACLE, CONFLICT, RESOLUTION, and NEW OBSTACLE. Eliminate any one of these elements and your scene falls flat.

–William G Tapply

Crafting a Search Scene

After finishing a chapter this afternoon I paced around the house, deep in thought. It wasn’t writer’s block (since we know that’s a myth), I just needed to find some way to write a scene where my characters searched for something without boring the reader to tears.

Picture this situation – you have a couple of well-crafted characters and the readers have bought into your premise. Everything is going well, the readers are cheering for the good guys and your bad guys are the kind that everyone loves to hate. Now, your characters get dropped into some location somewhere and their goal is to find something.

As mentioned in the epigraph of this blog post, every scene (not just mystery scenes, as is the source’s genre) needs a goal, an obstacleconflictresolution, and a new obstacle. To put that into a single sentence: the character in your scene needs a goal, something needs to create conflict to stand between him and that goal, the goal needs to be resolved (failure is a resolution, too), and the character needs to have a new goal at the end of the scene that provides the reader with motivation to read the next scene, to turn the page and keep going instead of putting your book down and picking up a video game controller.

The trick with a search scene is in creating conflict. If you’re in a car chase scene with bad guys shooting at you, it’s pretty easy to craft a scene with obstacles, conflict, and resolution. If your character is in a dank dungeon searching for a key, or roasting in the desert sifting through an archaeological dig, conflict is the only thing that will keep your reader awake.

Here’s a couple of classic ways to create conflict that, while they can be used in virtually any type of scene, lend themselves particularly well to “the search” or “the exploration”:

  • Time – The clock is a great source of conflict. If the characters fail to meet their goal within a certain time period, something terrible could happen. If the antagonist is the one who tipped the hourglass, then there’s your conflict and obstacle right there.
  • Environment – The environment where the characters are searching could be a great obstacle. Putting the characters in unstable ruins that are crumbling around them is an oldy but goody and works extremely well for “Indiana Jones” types.
  • Guardians – This is also another classic. If it’s important that your characters find what they’re looking for, perhaps it is equally important that someone or some other group prevent people from finding it. Again, look to Indiana Jones here with the brotherhood guarding the location of the grail. The guardians can be aligned with the antagonist or out for their own interest, so long as they provide conflict and an obstacle to overcome, anything to keep the scene from reading like “Bob searched for X, and eventually found it.” A great twist I love seeing on guardians is when they are actually on the same side as the protagonist, but they just don’t know it yet.
  • Confusion and Misdirection – If the characters have been given bad directions, deliberately led astray by an antagonist or someone in his employ, then that provides an obstacle to overcome. Confusion and misdirection can be a great way to drive your characters down the “wrong path”, leading them into an ambush, a giant pit of fire, or any other source of conflict. You can double-up on any of these things and use more than one in a scene, provided it doesn’t come off as contrived.
  • The Puzzle – Another one that a lot of people really like, especially in YA books and fantasy, are puzzles and riddles (right, my preciousssss?). Tolkien would call this “Riddles in the dark”. Interspersed with narration of searching, stumbling, going the wrong way, or otherwise heightening the tension and drama of a scene, you can use puzzles. Anything from a combination lock on a door to providing the right answer to a guardian‘s riddle can add a tremendous amount of conflict and intrigue to a scene.

Another thing that scenes like “the search” are good for is exposition. Readers know they’re in for a search, usually, and will tolerate a little bit more dialogue than normal because, until the conflict and obstacles arise, the search time might feel like “down time” to the characters.

This is a great time to create a little dialogue (mixed appropriately with narrative and action, of course, you can’t just stop and spew) that advances the story, reveals some mysteries that have been eating at the reader for chapters, or even creates new mysteries for the reader to gnaw on as they sit back and watch the conflict unfold.

I guess the moral of this blog post is this: out of the potential difficulty in writing any scene can come infinite inspiration. I first asked myself, “How do I have my characters search for something and not bore the crap out of my readers?” The second question was “How do I not bore the crap out of my readers?” I stopped asking questions because I knew the answer to that: conflictobstaclesgoals, exciting narrative, action, revelations, discovery, and all the other building blocks authors use to craft exciting scenes.

So, the next time you read a book and you find your mind’s eye watching a  “search scene” unfold, imagine the raw material the author might have started with and how they might’ve heaped the drama and tension and conflict upon the ingot of that scene to get to the final product.

Then, go write an awesome search scene that would make even Indiana Jones seem dull and boring.


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