One scene can tell a story. Or make it memorable. You want to have a scene like that. If you can find those scenes and tune them so they sing, they’ll delight readers and audiences. But, more than that, they’ll guide you through a rewrite that will make your novel, screenplay, or short story as powerful as it can be. And you can use a version of this approach to sharpen an act or a chapter or a sequence of scenes.
So… this is the first of three posts exploring what I’ll call pivotal scenes: Finding the best candidates, Tuning for power, and Working backward for unity.
Spoiler alert - I’ll be mentioning key scenes from several movies. I’ll head of each of these as Example (Spartacus) “I’m Spartacus” in bold so you can skip those you’d prefer to keep as surprises.
My starting point in understanding pivotal scenes was reviewing 24 of my favorite films. I simply wrote down those moments when these stories got a strong reaction from me. Then I analyzed each to determine what the essence was in each case. From this analysis, I created a list of ten questions (which led to twenty — as I tried to find another spin on each). Here are the pairs I came up with:
1) Was there a secret revealed that matters to your protagonist (or another key character)? Was there an important discovery, even the answer to the story question? Example (The Empire Strikes Back) Vader reveals he’s Luke’s father.
2) Was a key character humiliated? Or recognized (honored)? Example (Singin’ in the Rain) The curtain is pulled open on Lina Lamont as she lip-syncs to Kathy Selden’s singing.
3) Did a serious threat emerge, terrifying and dangerous? Was safety and rest attained? Example (Alien) An alien bursts from Kane’s chest and escapes into the ship.
4) Did the character fall into a trap? Or escape? Example (2001: A Space Odyssey) Bowman is caught outside the spacecraft without his helmet.
5) Was life narrowed in some way by a serious, irreversible loss? Did life’s potential broaden through wonder? Example (Ghost) Sam, mugged and killed, discovers he is now a ghost, separated from the woman he loves.
6) Was a character betrayed by someone trusted or loved? Did the character behave with cowardice or seriously fail someone? Example (Chinatown) Gittes fails to save Evelyn and to protect Katherine from Cross.
7) Was a vital relationship permanently severed (at least apparently)? Did two or more characters bond? Example (The Shawshank Redemption) Andy offers to show a guard how to shelter his inheritance from taxes and becomes the financial manager for prison employees.
8) Did a character get blamed or held to account? Was a character forgiven or did characters reconcile? Example (Big Fish) Will tells his father the story of the daring escape from the hospital to the lake.
9) Did a character become separated from society or come to learn he or she was weird? Did a character connect with others or find out how he or she fit in? Example (Amadeus) Salieri (ironically) presents himself as the patron saint of all mediocrities. (“Mediocrities everywhere... I absolve you.”)
10) Was the true power of the character revealed? Was the character’s vulnerability, flaw, or powerlessness revealed? Example (The Wizard of Oz) The Wizard is revealed as a humbug by Toto.
There is nothing canonical about this list. You can come up with your own. In fact, I found that these might be sorted into connections with basic needs, following the Maslow hierarchy. All that is pretty left brain and dry, but I had a critical filter - my gut. And I found that a good way to interrogate my answers was to take a closer look at what each scene cost the viewpoint character. In fact, this led me to an interesting observation:
The gap between the price the hero expects to pay to achieve the goal and the actual price is the story. The bigger the gap, the more emotionally involving the story is.
It’s not a rule. It’s not perfect. But I found it to be a highly useful tool as I looked at the movie scenes.
I did something else before I turned to my story. I went through pivotal moments in my own life, actually listing out 16 that easily came to mind as both emotional and transformational. Then I tried to match them up with the questions, looking for where they landed and filling in more pivotal moments prompted by the questions. These added a level of authenticity to my analysis and raised the bar for scoring potential pivotal scenes in my stories. (This is not an easy exercise, but you may find it valuable.)
Here’s how I recommend you use the questions: 1) Choose a story of yours to analyze. This is easiest if you have a finished draft, but you may find you can do it for one that isn’t completed. 2) Pick out three questions that your intuition tells you might be related to your ending or pivotal scene (known or unknown). 3) See if asking the questions gives you more insight about your ending or pivotal scene. 4) If the essence of your ending or pivotal scene does not fit any of these questions, try more questions (or develop your own).
By the time you’re done, you should have discovered a scene that has the potential for power and you probably will have some fresh insights about how it fits in with the rest of the story. Your next step will be to make it all that it can be. I’ve already hinted at what that might entail (emotion, price gap, irony, authenticity), but that will be the subject of next week’s post.
Related: Bigger 8 - The Essence of the Scene