June 4, 2020
Scene Structure: Understanding Turning Points
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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