Every scene needs conflict. And every scene must “turn.” Here’s some insight about the turning point, a crucial ingredient of every scene.
What’s a Scene?
A scene is a discrete story segment in which your characters engage in conflict and take significant actions that you portray memorably as if the events were happening in real time. Robert McKee in his seminal STORY recommends that every scene be a story event. And every scene must “turn.”
What’s at Stake for Your Character?
A scene is like a story in miniature: it has a beginning, middle, and end. “No matter locations or length,” says McKee, “a scene is unified around desire, action, conflict, and change.”
A scene begins with a problem or goal that’s based on some value at stake in your character’s life at the moment. What’s at stake? Love? Truth? Safety? Honor? Justice? Meaningfulness? Action genres turn on values such as freedom/slavery or justice/injustice. Educational stories turn on interior values such as self-awareness/self-deception or life as meaningful/meaningless.
In chapter 1 of THE SIXTH SEED, my protagonist Tom Furst’s freedom is at stake, both personal and financial.
Examine each of your scenes and identify what’s at stake for your character.
What’s Your Character’s Objective?
Tom’s goal is based on a desire to change the current state of his freedom.
In each scene your character pursues an immediate, short-term desire. This scene goal must be sub-goal of his or her greater story objective. In a scene, your character goes after this scene goal by enduring conflict or opposition to make a decision or take a specific action.
The scene portrays this push and pull. The process is built on beats, individual units of action and reaction. Your character says, “Stop doing that.” The opposition says, “I won’t.” Beat by beat, this dance of behaviors escalates progressively. The last beat must end with a turning point.
Deliver the Unexpected
In this process of mounting action/reaction between your characters, their conflict produces a big reaction that your character failed to anticipate. McKee explains that:
The effect is to crack open the gap between expectation and result, turning his outer fortunes, inner life, or both from the positive to the negative or the negative to the positive in terms of values the audience understands are at risk.
Your character asks, “Why won’t you stop doing that? It’s hurting me.” The scene antagonist replies, “Because your best friend likes what I’m doing. And I’m in love with him.” BAM!
In this way, a scene creates change in a minor yet significant way. So how do you set this up?
Polarity Must Change
Once you’ve highlighted the core issue, state the charge of that value at the start of the scene: positive or negative.
For example, with Tom Furst in THE SIXTH SEED, the value of freedom at the start of chapter 1 is negative. He’s between a rock and a hard place and needs to increase his freedom to gain some financial breathing room. His goal is to undergo a vasectomy (a procedure so intense you have to read it for yourself!), a small step in gaining that freedom back—or so he thinks.
Your characters begin the scene with two things: the current charge (+/-) of their core value at stake, and their immediate goal. Then, they:
- Encounter the opposition (who also has a goal and value of their own)
- Engage in conflict (exchange escalating behavior beats)
- Finally experience an outcome
This outcome is the turning point of the scene—the moment where your character’s value changes polarity.
The effects of turning points, according to McKee, include: surprise, increased curiosity, insight, and new direction. The turning point provides new information and a goal for the next scene.
At the end of the scene, what is the state of your POV character’s value? Is it positive, negative, or both? Compare the charge at the beginning and the end. If the value doesn’t change polarity, then why is the scene is in your narrative? McKee points out:
If the value-charged condition of the character’s life stays unchanged from one end of a scene to the other, nothing meaningful has happened; it is a nonevent. If a scene is not a true event, cut it. If the scene is only there for exposition, it needs more justification. Every scene must turn.
How to Make Your Scenes Turn
Craft your scenes using the following process:
- Begin with a value at stake in your character’s life. Base a scene goal on that value. (You could also start with the goal and discover the value at stake.)
- Determine the motivation and goal of your scene’s opposition. (Your antagonistic force cannot exist merely to give your character an ass-pain.)
- Over the course of the scene, challenge and threaten the state of that value through conflict between your character and the opposition. Beats should escalate logically and progressively (not leap a chasm from rationality to absurdity or from laxity to high tension).
- Determine the final beat that is the turning point, the reaction that bears the fruit of surprise, increased curiosity, insight, or new direction.
- Evaluate whether the beat process and turning point have changed the polarity of your character’s value. If not, keep working.
- What is the outcome of the turning point—the surprise, curiosity, insight, or new direction? This is the starting point for your next scene in this plot line.
Note: If you’re a pre-plotter or outliner, you might find it useful to map the value/goal/turning point/outcome for each scene to ensure that your scenes are linked logically in a greater chain of cause-and-effect over the course of the narrative. Just as beats escalate to a turning point in each scene, so do scenes escalate to major turning points or reversals in the broader narrative.
Test this process by analyzing scenes from well-written books. Apply the process to your own scenes. If you find it helpful, I’d love to hear from you. Please like this post and subscribe. And spread the word!
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Readers, have you ever wondered how a novel is developed and written? If you’re a writer, you might be curious about how other writers make their books. Here’s some insight into the process I follow (as of 2013).
Why my early attempts at novel-writing led nowhere
When I was a fledgling writer, I would get a wild idea for a story or novel and rush to the keyboard. Excited and inspired, I would sit down and bang it out. Maybe I went on to the next scene, but soon enough, my inspiration fizzled or I didn’t know what was coming next and, unable to see my way, I got confused and quit writing. Then I wondered what was wrong with me as a writer.
There was nothing wrong with me. It was my process—or, rather, lack of one—that was running my efforts aground.
It’s only with my last two novels that I’ve used a new process to ensure that my initial idea becomes a workable story that doesn’t collapse when I go to draft it.
Pre-writing reveals characters and story
I talk about the idea development process, plotting, and drafting of my forthcoming psychological thriller in Progress Report on The Bedwetter. I did a lot of pre-writing for that book, meaning, beyond preliminary 12-point plot questionnaires and character sketches, I jotted down inspired snippets as they came to me—descriptions, events, scraps of dialogue—mostly written in the voice of my first-person protagonist Russell Pisarek. About 45 pages. I was just writing about the writing.
When I reviewed that information, a story started to emerge. I rearranged those lines and paragraphs of information into a beginning, a middle, and an end. Then I filled in events and information I felt were missing.
I used a similar process with novel #6 (working title: Dead Cemetery [The Covenant Sacrifice as of 2021]), doing the first 29 days of exercises in Alan Watt’s The 90-Day Novel.
For each daily writing session, Watt poses six questions of the protagonist and antagonist. Questions such as, “My first love was…,” “The person I hate the most is…,” and “The greatest loss of my life was….” I answered each question in a five-minute segment of free-writing. A month of this grew tedious, but by the time I finished the exercises, I knew my characters, and a story was emerging. I had character backstory; I had motivation.
All in all, I came out with 250 pages of pre-writing for Dead Cemetery. (It’s going be one of my bigger books….) Not 100% of those pre-writing exercises will end up in the book, but they contain many priceless nuggets that form the core of the story.
During this stage, I also do any necessary research and include my findings in my pre-writing (in a Scrivener project file) so that it doesn’t interrupt me unduly during drafting. (Of course, I will still need to check facts when I’m writing.)
Plotting prevents stalling during drafting
Once I had my narrative outlined into three acts, I then used John Truby’s Blockbuster 6 (BB6) software to create taglines for each scene in the book. For example in The Bedwetter, “Russell asks Uma to lunch, but a rabbit ruins his plans.” Just the basic event or revelation.
For Dead Cemetery, I used an Excel worksheet to track information and events for five characters through the beginning, middle, and end. Here’s a labeled printout of the 24-page spreadsheet, blurred to prevent spoilers. (Yeah, it’s gonna be a big book.)
Plotting includes detailed scene planning
For The Bedwetter, I planned a scene for each one of the tagline events, answering such questions as:
- My challenge in writing this scene
- My strategy for writing this scene
- The scene goal (POV character’s immediate desire)
- The character’s plan to achieve the goal
- The opponent in the scene
- The scene’s conflict
- Any twist revealed
- The scene’s moral argument (value A vs. value B)
I copied the pertinent snippets of information from my pre-writing document into each scene’s plan (a document in BB6). What resulted for Bedwetter was 60 one- to three-page scene plans. It took me from Christmas last year to Feb. 15 to do all my pre-writing and scene planning for Bedwetter—seven weeks.
For Dead Cemetery, I’ll review and rearrange the spreadsheet cells into proper story order. (Each cell contains a reference ID to a numbered paragraph in my pre-writing document.) When I get all the storylines as told through the POV characters in proper order, I’ll turn each cell into a tagline for Blockbuster 6, which will yield a list of scenes from the beginning of the novel to the end. (Note: You don’t need BB6 to do this. You could do it in a spreadsheet, word processor, or Scrivener.)
Truly, I don’t understand how pantsers do it—sit down and write by the seat of their pants. That approach has almost always led me to stalling during the course of writing. Planning narratives in detail beforehand reveals most story and logic problems before I invest time and effort writing myself into a corner. If the elements work during the scene plan, I’m confident I can write the draft.
Once I have my scene plans written, I don’t have to worry about whether my scene is revealing the right information or whether it has enough conflict. I’ve already determined those things during the planning process.
Drafting like gangbusters
Now, with my stack of scene plans, I sit down to write the first draft of the book. During a writing session, I’m not concerned with what happens next—I know what comes next because this work is already done. All I need to do is focus on the material in the plan and write one scene. Just one scene. Two, if I’m on a roll. Three if I’m on a baguette.
I write a scene by copying the tagline from Blockbuster to a file card in Scrivener. Then I open the file and write the scene, making sure I include everything from my scene plan, which contains the pertinent pre-writing snippets. Some of this info I’ll cut and paste.
After all my scenes are written, I print it. As I review, I note any rearrangements that need to be made and indicate where chapter breaks could occur. I do the actual restructuring in Scrivener, and then I’m on my way to a second draft.
My novel-writing results and goals
Following this method, I wrote a 51,000-word draft of The Bedwetter: Journal of a Budding Psychopath between February 15 and April 4, 2013. It has only one POV character and is not a big book. (But it packs a severe wallop, I’m told by beta readers.)
Because Dead Cemetery is a bigger book, it’s taking me quite a while longer to do the pre-writing and plotting. I hope to start scene planning September 1 and finish by the end of the year so that I can begin drafting in January. With my stack of scene plans, I’ll write like gangbusters from beginning to end. I’ll probably go on a motel writing binge or three.
My novel-writing process sets me free
Some writers may say that all this pre-writing, plotting, and scene planning kill the spontaneity and fun of writing. I’ve found that it sets me free.
I expect to be inspired during pre-writing, and I am. I expect to be inspired when I’m arranging those snippets into a storyline, and I am. I expect to be inspired when I’m doing the hard work of scene planning, ensuring that my character has a goal and there’s conflict over something worthwhile at stake, and I am.
And when I finally sit down to write, all my channels are open, and I’m free to receive my best inspiration to tell the story from my heart to the reader’s. And that’s what I do.
Following this process, I’m able to develop and test my ideas, get to know my characters, discover what’s happening, arrange everything in the right order, plan powerful scenes, and then write without stalling. My first draft of The Bedwetter was surprisingly clean. I’m hoping the same for Dead Cemetery.
Will you still find holes in your story? Probably. But they won’t be big enough to drive a Buick through. And you won’t get snagged by “I don’t know what comes next.” This approach, I’ve found, makes the revision process much easier.
If this article was helpful to you, please let me know in a comment. And feel free to share what process works for you!
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