Last time, I suggested an exercise, choosing three questions to pose about a pivotal scene in your own work. This time, as promised, I’ll explore how the power of the scene might be magnified. Four ways to achieve this are emotion, price gap, irony, authenticity.
Let’s start with authenticity. If you looked at the questions in terms of pivotal moments in your own life, you’ve already set the bar for your fiction. The closer you can get to the importance of those moments as you experienced them and the more they feel as true to you as what shaped your life, the more authentic they are likely to be for your readers/audience.
This does not mean you need to use or create analogies of your real-life experiences (though many writers do). You can imagine a completely different event in terms of your characters, and it can measure up to your personal answers. In fact, I find that direct transfers, like dreams, tend to lose context when you relate them to others. And without providing the context for a scene, you may not create the connection with others that’s necessary. You may be able test the authenticity of scenes you’ve produced that are not real-life events by checking to see if they are revealing. Do they expose your insights, including those that make you feel vulnerable? Would the judgment of others concern you? If so, you may be on the right track.
By the way, if you did not answer any of the questions based on your own experience, it is valid to look at the answers in terms of novels or films that moved you. If the ones I mentioned mean a lot to you, use those. If not, answer the questions for works that are important to you personally. And use these answers as your measure for authenticity.
Irony is not for everyone, but it can add zest to your pivotal scenes. The ending of The Graduate, where the hero has rescued the woman he loves (bridal gown and all) and escorted her onto their escape bus, the camera refuses to turn away from the happy ending. It is the brilliance of Mike Nichols, not the script, at work as the actors stay in character and the audience is given time to realize a happily ever after isn’t guaranteed.
This ironic dimension trusts the audience and rewards them for being smart. It also engages the audience, encouraging them to participate. To speculate about about what the situation is and what might happen next. So, irony provides both the literal, expected result in a scene AND a compliment and invitation to the audience. To achieve this, the writer must challenge a pat ending to a scene and offer a different viewpoint, which is almost certainly not apparent to the characters.
The price gap is vital to the power of pivotal scenes. As I stated last time:
The gap between the price the hero expects to pay to achieve the goal and the actual price is the story.
I looked at scenes in a number of my stories to prepare for this article (and to make those scenes better). Over and over again, characters expected easy approaches to work. Ask and you shall receive. Learn the answers and people will welcome them. Develop your craft and you’ll get gigs.
What gets ignored by characters in stories (and people in real life) is usually the social aspects of prices. If you have a good product, I’ll buy it from you if I like you. You can do the job, but others can, too. What’s in it for me if I hire you? Sure, I’ll give you access. But you’ll owe me.
Most of these have a level of fairness. But what about when characters get a “yes” from someone who has a hidden agenda? Or when the “yes” is a trap (now, you’re mine)? Or the “yes” is really a “no”? Or some sort of a betrayal is involved?
Often, the gap becomes evident when the first attempts are met with “no.”
Usually, the gap gets wider and more interesting when the answer is “yes, but.” With these, what is unknown, secret, and underhanded twists the story in a new way. The shape of the world changes and the map to success fills with obstacles, tormenting characters and delighting readers and audiences.
In bold above, I did not quote my full statement. The rest of what I said last time was this:
The bigger the gap, the more emotionally involving the story is.
Which brings this analysis to the last element of power, emotion. There may be an intellectual element to the conclusion of a pivotal scene, an insight or a lesson learned. But it will remain abstract unless it engages readers or the audience emotionally. Bertolt Brecht argued for at theater of ideas, focused by an intentional rejection of emotion. To the point where a narrator might undercut feelings developed by the plot. Arthur Miller championed this idea. Maybe.
Popular films today are often overwhelmed by spectacle. Strong emotions are created in the moment, but these tend to be on the surface. With little in the way of ideas (or fully developed characters).
As a writer, you get to decide which extreme works best for you. My opinion is that the work most likely to touch audiences and readers and to be remembered and to bring new meaning with each encounter is that work that has ideas and characters in stories that are emotionally involving.
So say something that matters to you. Make it true to your characters. Provide a big gap between the characters’ expectations and the price they must pay —and make the currency of the transaction deep emotions. Love. Hate. Loss. Wonder. Find the tragedy or the comedy and go there.
Next time, with pivotal scenes tuned for power and the price gap made explicit, I’ll look at how this preparation can be used to work backward to unify sequences, scenes, acts, chapters, and stories.