Writing Tips

Does Every Scene of Your Novel Have This Essential Ingredient?

I’ve been reading Game of Thrones. It’s a bit like eating chocolate. Not terribly fulfilling, but it goes down easy.

More to the point, George Martin is a master storyteller. His tale may be fluff, but his technique is worth studying in depth.

Now, for years I’ve been puzzling over a half-page bit of advice in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! As a screenwriter, he lays out his screenplays on beat cards (“The Board”) before writing his stories. I find doing the same for a novel an excellent way of organizing my structure.

Each scene, each card, he tells us, should contain the following symbols:




The first symbol, ><, denotes conflict. Who wants what from whom? What is the central conflict of the scene? If you don’t know the answer to this, you don’t have a scene.

That part’s easy.

But I never understand the +/- until reading George Martin. The symbol, according to Snyder, means that there’s an emotional change in the scene: happy –> sad, hopeful –> hopeless, etc.

Maybe it’s how Snyder explains it, but that never really made sense to me. Reading Game of Thrones, however, you see straightaway how to do it:

+/- means a reversal.

Not just “an emotional change.” But a reversal of fortune. Character X starts the scene with a crown, but ends the scene on his knees begging for his life. Character Y starts the scene a beggar, but at the end of the scene sits on a throne.

Those are big examples to be illustrative. The reversal need not be as big, but it must be a radical shifting of opposites.

On the rare occasions George Martin fails to do this, I find myself faulting him–and asking myself why the hell I haven’t been doing this all these years!

Bottom line: Every scene must be a complete story in miniature. And no story is complete without a radical reversal of forture. Doesn’t matter whether you’re writing Game of Thrones fluff or something deep and meaningful–if you want to capture and keep your readers’ attention, make sure you know the +/- for each scene before you sit down to write.

Written by: J.M. Porup

Novelist J.M. Porup is An American Dissident in Exile. Read More


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