The Turn of the Scene

Last time I spoke about one of the most essential elements of writing in terms of character – agency. This time I’m going to talk a little about one of the most essential aspects in scene construction – the turn.

When we look at a scene, there are many aspects we can examine to make sure it’s doing a dramatic job. Drama – that’s what this is all about. It turns a story into an engaging experience. Drama is what brings us right into a story. It’s what makes us want to keep turning the pages. If there’s no drama in your story people are just going to put it down.

The one with the biggest impact on your story is what’s called: the turn of the scene.

While I was doing my MA, I was lucky enough to have Fay Weldon as my manuscript supervisor who introduced me to this concept. She did a lot of television writing while she was starting out. When the producers looked at her work they would sometimes tear out complete scenes from the teleplay because there was no turn.

So what is the turn?

The turn of the scene is a palpable reversal in emotion and/or events (read as internal and external arc) which takes place between the start and the end of the scene.

So if Fred found the magic coin at the end of the last scene, in this scene he must suffer some kind of setback.

Likewise, if he lost his gun over the edge of a cliff last scene, then in the next something positive must occur.

Those are the external arc factors we’re all aware of – but what about the internal ones?

It can be as simple as a transition from happy to sad, uncertain to confident and visa versa, but also shifts involving the psychological state of the character with where they are in their internal arc.

So if in the first scene, Fred, who’s a solitary animal with trust issues, refuses to accept help with his entry into the cake competition and loses, in the next scene he’s going to have to face up to it and reprocess (usually at the hands of an ally who is there to challenge him on his flaws).

Likewise, if he makes some progress and does go out to the pub with his mates, in the next scene one of them will have to do something to make him question it again.

So back to Fay Weldon, why did the producer rip out those scenes? Because scenes without a turn are flat. They do nothing to move the story forward. The producer felt they weren’t worth spending the money on filming.

Well, that’s a little primer on the turn. It has to happen in every scene or expect some serious rippage from your editor.

For now, go write!

Damian

Enough Agency for the Agency?

Today’s tip is just a short rundown to help you understand the concept of character agency a little more.

It’s one of those essential things to be aware of in writing that is often confused and misrepresented. This should set the record straight.

The problem comes because agency happens in at least two distinct and important levels.

The first one is within the plot arc. To make your plot work and fulfill the story contract (the promise of a satisfying story that you make to the reader), the protagonist (the central hero of your story) must be the one whose actions bring the story to its resolution: Harry Potter must defeat Voldemort; Andy Dufresne must be the one to bring down the corrupt Warden Norton; Ripley must be the one to blow the alien out of the airlock and into space.

And this is where the confusion comes in because the other distinct level at which agency has to happen is in every scene of the novel. Well, it doesn’t have to, but without it, your readers will soon lose interest in your character and their story.

But here’s the thing: at the scene level, agency is not about the actions of the hero, it’s about their decisions.

Let me give you a scenario.

Our hero has been trapped in a room with his wife and eight-year-old son. Water is flooding in, and the only way he’s able to save them is by closing a rusty valve. He struggles and heaves and just before the water reaches his son’s face he manages to turn it off.

Okay, that’s not a terrible scene, in its form, it’s one that we’ve probably seen in books and films before quite a lot. But it’s not great, it’s not really that dramatic – why?

What about this scene?

Our hero is in a hallway next to two rooms filling with water. In one of them is his son and in the other is his wife. He only has time to turn off one of the valves.

See, much more dramatic, The reason for this is it forces the hero to make a decision. And that’s what agency at the scene level means. It’s not the actions which count at all – it’s the choices the character makes.

Let’s put it to the test: can a scene be dramatic where the hero makes a choice but actually does nothing? Let’s see…

It’s the dead of night. Our hero is a thirteen year old boy. At his dad’s command he’s hiding in the backseat of a car, while his father is outside arguing with an armed gangster, who’s waving a gun at his dad.

The gangster steadies the gun. He’s going to fire. The boy sees his father’s pistol on the seat next to him. He could pick it up and save his father, but fear takes hold of him and he chooses to do nothing. He hears the gunshot from outside the car.

And this shows us the most essential point: even if a character has the choice to act but actually ends up doing nothing, they still have agency. With the rarest of exceptions, a character always has agency. You just need to make sure that their reasons are clear to the reader and that the choices they make have emotional integrity.

Till next time, go write!

Damian

February 1st – Article Four: Section One

“I’ll be alright.” My dad stood up straight. “I have a warm coat.”

My tears fell on his shoulder as he tried to console me.

There were three loud knocks on the door. “Open up now!”

I tried to hold onto him as they dragged him away. “Goodbye. Goodbye, Pop.”

Opportunities

Picking fruit was a terrible holiday job.

The elegant lady in the white dress had passed by before. Today, Sanchez saw her cry.

He filled his mug from the cold stream, cut a lemon quarter and dropped it in.

She took it and drank, then offered him a better position.

 

Photo by Oladimeji Odunsi on Unsplash