Friday, October 30, 2009

The Big Scene

How do you get through the middle of your novel? By strategically positioning your novel's plot points to carry readers from start to finish. Every good novel uses obstacles and various small crises to build conflict and suspense. But plot points are bigger than these lesser crises; they are the scenes after which the plot pivots and moves in a different and more suspenseful direction. While any novel will have some form or lesser crisis in nearly every scene, it may have only three to six big scenes that lead up to the biggest scene of all--the climax.

After you've mapped out the essential story, use the five steps described here to make sure your novel moves, from minor crisis to big scene, connecting beginning to end. Together these steps allow you to continually foreshadow ever greater conflict, playing one big scene to the next, stepping up the suspense until you release your readers at the climax, satisfied and eager to read your next book.

Name the Big Scene.

Whether your big scene is as sweeping as the destruction of a village by a tsunami or as sweet as a first kiss, readers will look forward to it with dread and anticipation only if you alert them to the event's impending arrival. Let your narrative, character conversations, or internal thought speak of the coming big scene--and even name it.

Provide a preview scene.

In novels, we can be more subtle in creating previews that mirror big scenes or reflect their essence, signaling readers of what lies ahead. A preview scene also offers the author a chance to develop the explanations, details, or technicalities that would bog down the heightened drama and pace of a big scene.

Create a Contrasting Scene.

You might consider this step in negative/positive or positive/negative terms. If your big scene adds negativity to your characters' lives, then make the scene that precedes it positive, or vice versa. Usually this contrasting scene is short because the author begins to pick up the pace for the plot point that lurks just around the corner.

In contrasting scenes, readers feel the pressure building because something is going to happen. The contrasting scene is the calm before the storm, or the storm before the calm. You may think that your readers might lose interest by knowing exactly what's coming, but attentive readers know the big scene is just a page turn away. Reading the present, contrasting scene builds suspense and is nearly intolerable--it's the moment in the old-time monster movies when an audience member yells, "Don't open that door!"

The Big Scene.

When the much-anticipated scene arrives, you must execute your promise in full detail, which means you let your readers share thoughts and feelings of the point-of-view character, and everything that character smells, tastes, hears, touches, and sees. Make your reader feel what your character feels, whether that event involves saving a child, consummating love, grieving a death, or suffering an attack. In the life of your characters, each crisis is of monumental importance. Remember, no matter what kind of big scene you create, you must not deprive readers of its significance by glossing over it.

Disaster and Revelation.

All minor and major crises in a novel should end with a disaster and a revelation. Whether the disaster is implied or explicit, it does need to be clear so readers don't flounder along with your protagonist, not knowing which direction the plot is headed.

The revelation that follows each plot point won't change your overall story goal. That must remain the same from the inciting incident to the climax. What changes is the strategy pursued by the protagonist, which is what creates the plot pivot I mentioned in the opening. You can distinguish these bigger scenes from a smaller moment of crisis by checking to see if there's a revelation that changes the direction of the novel.

And if you leave out the revelation that delivers the meaning of the event to the protagonist, then you've left out characterization and you're asking readers to continue reading based on plot alone.

Linking It All Together.

By taking time to craft all the five steps in each of your book's big scenes and positioning your big scenes throughout the plot line, you ensure your reader suspense throughout your novel. Of course, you'll still have calm scenes, tender scenes, scenes of minor crisis and partial resolution. But beneath even these should be the drumbeat of tension and conflict, because readers will know that coming soon is the confrontation with Dad or the taking of the driving test or the breaking of the engagement or whatever scene you've casually named. They'll savor lessor crises and wonder how these foreshadowed the bigger ones.

Play with your plotting, looking for ways to keep your readers constantly caught in the web of suspense. Get as much work out of each step in a big scene as possible. But never skip a step. A story's sagging middle often comes from omitting the preview, the contrasting scene, or even the big scene itself! The first three steps work in concert to build a crescendo aimed at getting readers to the crisis with maximum dramatic impact. Omit any of them and your story will weaken.


Meg Leder, Jack Heffron, and the Editors of Writer's Digest, The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing;