SCENE IT! Is there a bit of tension in here?
Sorry it’s been a week since I’ve posted in this series—I was down for a few days with an upper respiratory infection and thinking about anything serious wasn’t going to happen. But now I’m mostly recovered, so it’s time to get back to work.
Last week, we looked at strong scene openings. Openings are something that we always get a lot of information about, but what about what comes after the opening?
Tension and Pacing in the Middle of a Scene
Scene middles are the bulk of your story, so use and craft them wisely.
You must complicate your characters’ lives, and you must do it where the reader can see it: in scenes. Doing this is known as upping the ante.
Once you know what your character’s goal for the scene is, you must determine what Jack Bickham (Scene and Structure) calls the “disaster” that will happen at the end of the scene to keep them from reaching that goal. It’s not a disaster in the literal sense, but an obstacle that puts your character further into the hole of narrative debt; it’s a a setback, a redirection. (We’ll get more into that idea when we discuss scene endings.)
In other words, you’re starting the scene out with a question: Can the character do/attain this? The middle of the scene is all about setbacks and building narrative debt in the quest to answer this question.
What is narrative debt?
With simple narrative debt, the debt is paid off by the end of the scene; in other words, the question is answered, the conflict managed/solved before the next scene/chapter starts. The lost dog is found, the contract on the house comes through, the long-anticipated event goes well.
But the underlying foundation of story plots is compound narrative debt—some conflicts or questions linger and the interest compiles and compiles until you have to pay it off or risk losing your reader. This is like maxing out a credit card and then only paying the minimum payment each month. Yes, you’re keeping your account alive and in “good standing” but you’re not paying it off.
Take, for instance, the suspense genre. Not only are there going to be breathtaking, spine-chilling scenes where our heroes or heroines are in peril, but then—whew!—are safe again, there is an undertone—an increasing narrative debt—of unease or fear that pervades the entire narrative. Even when things seem to be going well, the reader can sense something isn’t quite right. This can be done through tone—through the words the writer chooses to use in the narrative. It’s like the duh-dut, duh-dut of the theme song for the movie Jaws (that the orchestra starts playing to get the unimportant people off the stage—no, wait, that’s the Oscars). When first watching the movie, you may not even notice the score. But then subconsciously, every time that music starts, you know something bad is going to happen.
Even though we want to avoid both of them in real life, in writing we want both types of debt—the simple debt to keep the reader satisfied with little payoffs that keep the story moving forward, along with the compound debt that keeps the reader turning pages because they have to find out how the ultimate debt of the story will be paid off.
As we solve conflicts or answer questions in our narrative, we should always keep in mind how these solutions/answers feed into the compounding narrative debt. The best way to do this is to create new conflicts or questions from the resolution of the one that came before. If the heroine gets out of one scrape, the escape may create two new ones down the road.
Remember Murphy’s Law: whatever can go wrong will go wrong—and this is what happens in the middle of a scene.
Raising the Stakes
Donald Maass in the Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook explains “the essence” of raising the stakes as “making things worse, showing us that there is more to lose, promising even bigger disasters that will happen if the hero doesn’t make matters come out okay.” This can be on a global scale (think of all of the villains bent on world destruction that James Bond defeated) or it can be on an individual scale (will Maria stay at the abbey or will she return and declare her love for Captain von Trapp?).
In Stein on Writing, Sol Stein writes that “the essence of plotting [is] putting the protagonist’s desire and the antagonist’s desire into sharp conflict. . . . One way to plan is to think of what would most thwart your protagonist’s want then give the power to thwart that want to the antagonist.”
What is the main conflict for each of your main characters? How can you make the problem worse?
For a great example of this, follow Frodo’s journey from the Shire to Mount Doom. Every time something happens to him, we think that nothing else worse could happen, but it always does.
Is there another character (whether good or bad) in your story that has the ability to keep your main character from achieving his or her goal?
If the character must be somewhere at a certain time to stave off worldwide disaster, how many things can you think of to stop the character from getting there on time?
In other words, what are some roadblocks you can throw in your characters’ way to thwart their goals and to raise the tension in the middle of your scenes (and your story)?
Bickham, Jack M. Scene and Structure. Cincinnati, OH: Writerʼs Digest, 1993.
Maass, Donald. Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook: Hands-on Help for Making Your Novel Stand out and Succeed. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest, 2004.
Stein, Sol. Stein on Writing. New York: St. Martins, 1995.