the key element that every good scene needs (or: how to change the game in your novel)
A good scene requires a turning point. A turning point happens on two different levels, and like a figure skater planning two quad jumps in his Olympic performance, it’s important to nail each one.
(Okay, that figure skater reference probably a bit gratuitous. I just wanted an excuse to use that photo of Kurt Browning. When I was growing up, I totally hearted Kurt Browning. But I digress.)
A scene is the basic building block of your novel. A scene is like a novel in miniature. It has its own tiny plot. It starts out in one place, builds tension, reaches climax, and then ends up in a different place.
Imagine your novel as a gameboard. Your character is advancing along, encountering obstacles and having revelations. But if he goes in the same direction for too long, things get monotonous.
The turning point is the moment that spins him off in a new direction.
The turning point is the game-changing moment.
So the goal, as Donald Maass puts it, is to “capture a sharply defined turning point and reveal its inner meaning.”
In other words, it has to impact the character’s inner life as well as her outer life.
“We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are. “ (Anais Nin)
Things have resonance when they get under your skin and alter the way you see the world. The outer turning point is the external force that presses down on the character; the inner turning point is the internal force that rises up to meet it. The character has an insight, a revelation, an epiphany, a moment of truth; his inner landscape gets a little deeper, maybe, or shifts around to accommodate something new.
Every character is on a psychological journey that maps to whatever physical quest he happens to be on. And generally it’s what he overcomes, resolves, or acquires in his psychological life that enables him to finally overcome the central challenge of the story, in a way he was not equipped to do when the story first began. It’s this character’s inner life that gives you the chance to breathe soul and originality into your work. The plots of our American lives may be the same – we’re born, we somehow manage to survive high school, we work, we buy some stuff, we fall in and out of love, our knees give out, we die – but the way each individual works the process of that plot is different, and unique to that individual. Hence the staggering diversity of human lives. (Because no two snowflakes…yadda yadda.)
I’m writing a scene in my novel THE DECADENTS that involves my character Gabe’s growing obsession with a young troubled dancer who might be the reincarnation of his high school love (a Hollywood It girl who disappeared under mysterious circumstances). He discovers that his married friend Mason has a connection to her. Gabe’s objective is simple enough: he wants her number. The turning point is when he begins to realize that Mason, his best friend since high school, has his own agenda and is essentially a stranger to him. And maybe even a threat. This is first draft stuff, but you can see the shape and flow of the scene, and how Gabe is starting to acknowledge Mason’s true nature:
…They were in box seats watching the Lakers play the Celtics, the game happening in a bright rectangle of light down and across the dark rows of bleachers that dropped away beneath them. The dessert tray had just rolled past, and Mason was digging into a layered cheesecake concoction, careful not to get crumbs on his pants….
“You want her number.” Mason’s eyes were on the game, his tongue flicking whipped cream from the corner of his mouth. He did not seem surprised. “But does she want you to have it?”
“Absolutely. She just doesn’t know it yet.”
Mason glanced at him sidelong. “Aren’t you going to thank me?”
“You haven’t done anything.”
“I kind of delivered her right to you. I’d say that’s something.”
Gabe took this in. Behind him, he could hear Lee whispering something to the environmentalist dude, his burst of laughter. The air smelled like popcorn. Nick was at the far end of the aisle, hunched over a yellow page of script, shaking his head in woeful resignation. Nick’s date, a small blonde actress who moved like a ballerina, dropped into the seat beside him and leaned in close, as if trying to read over his shoulder. Nick shifted his body away from her.
Gabe said, “You knew I was looking for her.”
“Evan mentioned it. He saw you at the club that night, you had that sketch of her, were asking the bartenders about her. Chances are she was performing right in front of you and you didn’t even notice. You can be oblivious, Gabe.”
“So they lied to me.”
“Of course they did.”
A sudden roar from the crowd, the Lakers charging up the court. On the other side of Mason, his wife leaned forward in her seat, twisting a straw through her fingers and muttering, “Go…go…”
Gabe said, “It’s not like I showed up with roses dipped in blood.”
“That’s what I told Evan. You’re not a stalker, just eccentric. I told him it was probably related to some art thing you were doing.”
“See? I know you better than anyone.”
This was probably true. Gabe realized he couldn’t say the same about Mason. The man was brilliant, self-made, a workaholic and, at chosen times, a hedonist: these were the obvious things. Beyond that surface, however, Mason kept to himself. Gabe had often felt – without trying to put real words to it – that the man was evasive in some way. He would show up for you when you called, and he would be what you needed him to be, but there was often the sense that he wasn’t fully present. Those times when his face went blank, his eyes glassy and faraway, and Gabe had the feeling that touching him would be like coming up on the edge of a void. He remembered the girl asking the other night, Can I trust him? Gabe had been about to say, Yes, you can trust him, but for some reason had not. The question got away from him. He could feel it slipping away from him even now. He could sense Mason pulling strings, but he didn’t know why or for what purpose. It was what Mason liked to do. It had never bothered Gabe before: he was too absorbed in his work, his life; and he was, as Mason said, sometimes oblivious. But it was bothering him now.
Think about a turning point in your own life. What happened to you that had real meaning and resonance for you? How did it change you? How did it alter the direction of your life? Maybe it’s as profound as the death of someone close to you, or as banal as a book that you found on a friend’s kitchen table.
Think about your protagonist. How does he see the world? How does that vision have to change, in order for him to get what he wants? How can your scene help him do that?