The rest of the story doesn’t just happen… usually. Yes, there are times when, after you have your pivotal scene set (or written à la John Irving), you may have all the other scenes pop into your head. Or, after some tuning, some of the main scenes you need to insert may come to you. But you’ll probably need to take more direct action to develop a good sense of what comes before the pivotal scene, no matter how perfect it is.
I had to do this for two stories in the last week, so let me suggest some ideas to explore. (These are not the only ideas that might be useful — go ahead and make your own list — but they were of value for me, so I’m sharing them.)
A key question: What does the pivotal scene tell me about the theme of the story (or scene or sequence or act)? In one story, it seemed to me the theme was appreciated the different talents/gifts of others, and that guided revision of the rest of the work. In the other case, the importance of following through on obligations to others actually led to new scenes and especially revised dialogue earlier in the story.
Paddy Chayefsky cites the value of exploring characters in pivotal scenes. In particular, when the flaws and motivations of the protagonist are revealed in the pivotal scene, these need to be set up with authenticity. What is learned suggests decision points, opposition, and misunderstandings that shape the pivotal scene.
Chayefsky also uses the pivotal scene to tell him who needs to be in the story. Along the way, protagonists get pushed around a lot by others characters, but you can’t populate a work with a character for each shove. Who is necessary? Can characters be combined?
I like to look at what could happen, as suggested by the pivotal scene, and what must happen. The former creates a lot of options, and I may make a long list. The latter helps me to choose what must be included from that list. Before you do this, it’s a good idea to think about whether your pivotal scene is in someway ironic. This can have a big impact on options and choices.
It can be invaluable, if you have an antagonist in the story, to look at the ending from his or her perspective, too. Imagining possible scenes or actions from the antagonist’s point of view, and selecting those that must be included can enrich the story and add needed twists and turns.
Clarity is important. What are the things a reader/audience must know? Sometimes this is clues that set up a revelation. Sometimes it’s facts that add up. Paddy Chayefsky warns not to get too cute about this. A character might just need to say, “I love you.” As a writer, you may hate that, but it has to be done now and then.
Of course, being clear means being clear to you, too. Too often, writers fail to think through what they don’t know. Sometimes, this opens the door to surprises during composition. But too often it represents a lack of sufficient attention to the story and what needs to be investigated and answered. Before you complete a manuscript, ask, “What don’t I know?”
For a long time, I’ve worked with the rule of thumb of including 3-5 beats (or turns) in a scene.These always move a scene in a different direction and often provide surprises. As I worked on my two stories, it came to me that, in each case, a beat was associated with a shift in power. This could be putting as subservient position into a dominant position, with characters switching places. Or it could be putting a powerful character into an even more dominant position, knocking the other character off balance. (I tend to just let a scene play out, then analyze for these dynamics, rather than plan all the beats ahead of time.)
Of course, story logic can reveal needed (and unneeded) scenes as well as I mentions backward writing guru Kitchen in an earlier post, but you might want to go right to the source.
Interestingly, Paddy Chayefsky, a big advocate of working from a powerful scene backward, said he never did it for smaller parts of a story. He said any scene he wanted to write was there in its entirety for him. Instead, he used working backward as a way to create an overall structure for the story, something he struggled with. I’ve struggled on individual scenes and even beats within scenes, so I think the answer is, as always, do what works for you.