Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Making A Scene

I am currently working on the middle section (or Act Two, if you use the three-act structure) of my novel-in-progress, Cocke & Bull. This section essentially does one thing: it leads up to a climactic emotional moment between two of the main characters to resolve a conflict that began at the end of Act One, the resolution of which conflict will lead to the climax in Act Three which deals with the conflict that started off the story. If that makes no sense, imagine the story as a conflict/climax within another conflict/climax. Conflict 1 is the story's outer problem, and Conflict 2 is the story's inner problem:

Act 1:
CONFLICT 1 begins
CONFLICT 2 begins
Act 2:
CONFLICT 2 climaxes
Act 3:
CONFLICT 1 climaxes

I'm very happy with this overall structure and I may just use it for every novel I write from here on out. Unless I don't. I'm capricious that way. Anyway.

The emotional climax at the end of Act 2 is a big moment in the story, making the climax in Act 3 inevitable. So I need to have this emotional climax really stand out and I have to lead into it well. I'm going to use an idea that I got from reading "The Art of Subtext" by Charles Baxter. In this book, Baxter talks about how in real life, most people avoid "making a scene." Most people bite back their strongest emotions and try hard not to bare their souls. There are things we would love to do, but we do not do them because such things are not done or because the price we'd pay for these acts would be too high.

For example, imagine two men. Let's call them Andy and Tom and let's say they work together in a large office. Tom's the sort of guy who objectifies women and is obsessed with the size of their breasts. In fact, one of his habits is to whisper his estimate of women's breast sizes to Andy whenever they're together. "Check it out," Tom will say. "38D!" He also gives nicknames to the women who work in the office with him and Andy. These nicknames all have to do with the women's breasts and are, of course, private and only used by Tom when speaking to Andy.

Andy is uncomfortable with this, but when he was first getting to know Tom, he said nothing about this behavior and subsequently it's only gotten worse as time goes on and now what Andy wants is for Tom to just leave him alone. But it's awkward. They work together on some of the same projects, and frankly Andy isn't sure how to bring the subject and his objections up. It's outside of his comfort zone. He doesn't want to make a scene at the office.

If this were the basis of a story, the climax of it would be Andy, finally unable to hold his tongue, busting out with a highly-emotional demand that Tom shut up about their coworkers' physiques and, you know, we're just not going to be friends anymore so just leave me alone. Andy will let out all this bottled-up frustration and embarrassment, unleashing it on Tom in a compressed moment, preferably in a too-small physical space like an elevator or a supply room or something, because small spaces increase emotional force. What happens after the climax will depend on if Andy or Tom is the protagonist, and that's not really the point here.

Leading up to the moment when Andy makes a scene, we'll need scenes that increase the tension between him and Tom, with Andy biting back words and being increasingly embarrassed by the whole thing. We'll have to make it clear that the one thing Andy would love to do is tell Tom to shut up (hey, maybe Tom is Andy's superior or team leader or something?), and make it clear that Andy would never do this, and then have Andy do it anyway. That's drama, folks. The conflict and tension increase over time and then are paid off in the climax.

So in my own book, I've got a character who knows that the real solution to the inner conflict of the story (Conflict 2 in my chart above) is an act that he will no way never commit. So what I'm doing now is having him fight against his urge to commit that act, putting in scenes where it will look as if that act won't be necessary and then...oh, gosh I guess it will be after all. He's faced with the decision to solve his problem and pay a very high price, or not solve his problem and live with a misery more-or-less of his own making (because the drama is better when the crisis has been brought about by the character himself).

Anyway, I just wanted to talk about this idea of "making a scene" and how the common-enough situation of demonstrating admirable restraint when we'd rather not can be the model for larger emotional movements in novels. It's a new way of seeing the dramatic arc for me, so I'm sharing. Also, this is my way of recommending Baxter's book: The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot.


  1. That's one of the fun things about fiction: we can make our characters do things we never would in real life. Manipulating the circumstances until they're forced to do it is part of the delicious sadism of being a writer, no?

    How do people who don't write process all that inner tension? I'll never know...

  2. I'm having the hardest time, especially after reading your post here, of making my character in Monarch do something that would make my readers absolutely hate him. So many people have told me to NOT have him do this, but I think I just might because, well, it would be better drama. But that can't be the whole reason. Oh, I don't know. I'm so frustrated. Ugh.

    This is a great post, Scott. Thank you! Should you really be thinking this much around the holidays? Go relax. :)

  3. Michelle: I think that as long as the actions are true to the story, readers will stay reading even if your protagonist pisses them off. Also, you know, conflict is good. My advice is as usual to think about the endpoint of the story and what gets you there and to do whatever is necessary along the way.

    I promise not to think for the rest of the year!

  4. The actor Christopher Walken once said that when he is rehearsing his dialogue, he will have a character do the opposite of what he would do. If he would cry, the character laughs. If he would get angry and loud, the character gets quiet.

    This may not always work, but it's a good way to consider alternatives and add a fresh perspective on a scene.

    As I was reading the scene Scott painted, my twisted mind came up with an alternative: Andy would realize that he cares more about the rest of his co-workers, and would let them in on Tom's little game without telling Tom. Then one day Tom would walk through the office and the ladies would whisper a [low] number of inches to him...

  5. I struggle with this in my writing. Not from actually having the character do something out of character to further the story, but to show the logical progression of them getting to that point.

    The build-up is my problem. Sometimes I've found my character does something out of place and my readers have commented that the action came out of nowhere. So that's what I'm working on now ... making the "out of nowhere" action seem believable.

    Oh, and I second Michelle's statement that there shouldn't be this much thinking done around the holidays. :)

  6. Matt: This is a case where I really think that working backwards is the best way to go. Write the part where your character makes a scene, and then go backwards and add in scenes where he could act this way but doesn't. Yet. You could also foreshadow his actions by showing something similar happening earlier in the story. I think foreshadowing is one of our most powerful tools for preparing a reader for a major event. Look at your very first scene and see if you can't build into it some kind of parallel with your climax scene. Et cetera. Need coffee now.

  7. The only thing a fictional character can do that really makes me mad is do something out of character as an obvious plot device. If there are clues anywhere in the text that the character is capable of such an action, then it won't make me angry, even if the action is surprising and/or something I would not choose to do myself or something I find reprehensible.

    This is why I can't watch soap operas. If the characters don't seem real to me, they've lost my sympathy and interest completely. If they do seem real to me (psychologically), then anything they do will interest me.

    In other words, if the character does something that would make me angry at him in real life, that's OK. If my outrage is pointed at the character (and I can only be mad at a character who seems real), I want to keep reading and find out what happens next. If the character does something that I can't believe he/she would do, then I'm angry at the author, not the character, and I put down the book.

  8. Rick: You could do it that way if Tom was the protagonist and you wanted to teach him a lesson. To me, while that's a funnier ending, it's less dramatic storytelling and it lets the Andy character off too easily. I'm not the sort of writer who lets his characters off easily. I'd want Andy to get his hands dirty, so to speak, and confront Tom directly.

    Genie: I agree with everything you say here. It's fine to get angry at a fictional character (not only does the author have the rest of the story to deal with our anger, but the fictional character is...fictional, so there's no real harm done no matter how many fictional puppies he eats) for in-character bad acts. And we should be angry at writers for writing out-of-character actions. And then we should pillory them.

  9. I think you're over-thinking the conflict idea, Scott. I followed it, but now my head hurts.

    Then again, maybe thats why I never did too well in creative writing classes: they want you to analyze every piece and describe how many verbs, anjectives and such were used, and what the motivation of each character is.

    And of course, whats the central conflict. I guess I sort of figure that out as the story unfolds. I think thats harder to do in literary fiction than other genres - say, mistery or fantasy.

    That was a really excellent breakdown. If my instructors were that creative I might learn something! I loved your imagery too.

    And Simon: people who don't write process through alcohol, or some other bad habit. You should see what some of my co-workers do to download at the end of a long week!

    Interesting post Scott. Food for thought - after the holidays, of course.


  10. Nice post, Scott. I wrestles a lot with the idea of people not wanting to make a scene. I think I'm surrounded by people like that, and when I would write stories, my people would always avoid making a scene. They would keep their emotions bottled up. The whole time. Now, I think I'm better at creating characters who aren't so stubborn. So that some of the emotions erupts every once in awhile. It makes for much more exciting stories!

    You seem so excited about this book. I am excited about it too.

  11. Donna: I'm not over-thinking; I'm doing the absolutely perfect amount of thinking! Yes, I am, too. Though, as I promised Michelle, I'm not going to do any more thinking this year. My next two posts will be nothing but filler, just you wait and see!

    Davin: Certainly there are some books (Remains of the Day leaps to mind) where repression of emotions is exactly the point, but I don't think most of us are trying to write those sorts of books, and we actually do want our characters to act out their true emotions. The trick is to make them want to do it but not let them for as long as possible, to keep them trying all the solutions that even they know won't work. Like steam building up in a pressure cooker. Of course, this probably only works for stories where the central conflict is an internal one, or where you have (as Cocke & Bull has) an internal conflict as well as an external conflict.

    But yes, I'm very excited about this book. I can't wait to finish the first draft.


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