How Can You Tell if a Scene Is Working? It’s Child’s Play

Last week, I was doing some research for an education company I work with, and I stumbled across a teacher resource designed to help elementary students learn how to summarize stories they’d read. It was called “SWBS,” which is short for “Somebody wanted but so.”

Fill in the blanks, and you have your summary.

But you know what else you have? A great formula authors can use to take a critical look at their own work. 

Because don’t superobjectives drive plot? 

Gatsby wanted to marry Daisy, but she chose someone who could give her money and status, so Gatsby got involved in some shady business dealings and began throwing elaborate parties in order to win her affection.

And don’t short-term objectives drive scenes?

Mr. Collins wanted to marry in order to please Lady Catherine, but Elizabeth refused him, so he asked Charlotte instead.

Charlotte wanted security, but she didn’t have any suitors because she was poor and “homely,” so she accepted Mr. Collins’s proposal.

Mrs. Bennet was desperate for her daughters to marry, but Elizabeth refused Mr. Collins, so Mrs. Bennet appealed to her husband to talk sense into Elizabeth.

SWBS identifies the character, her objective, the primary obstacle, and the action she takes to overcome that obstacle. All the structural elements of a successful story.

So as you’re mapping out new scenes or reviewing the ones you’ve already written, see if they pass the test. If you can explain each character’s role using the SWBS formula, you probably have a sturdy framework for a scene that advances your plot. If not, it might be time for a rewrite.