Scenes: Cooking at the Right Temperature
Guest Post by Lorin Oberweger
Just as with any element of fiction, the SCENE can be understood in many ways. Foundationally, it’s the building block of the novel, the bricks where elements such as emotional sequels or transitions that move characters from one place to another can be viewed as mortar.
At its core, a scene is a negotiation of some kind, the struggle between one character with a critical desire in the moment and another character or force with an opposing agenda.
Another way to consider scenes, however, comes in the form of emotional TEMPERATURE, the strength with which they grab hold of readers, involve them on a visceral level, keep them anxious, aroused, or invested in some way. The lower the scene temperature, the lower the likely reader investment.
HIGH TEMPERATURE SCENES INCLUDE:
CONFLICT between two or more characters--physical, emotional, or psychological. The scene contains a potent source of tension and friction, which can only occur when agendas clash.
OBSERVABLE, INTERESTING behavior on the part of characters, rather than summary or exposition. In other words, something is being enacted fully for our mind’s eye (and ear and heart).
TENSION in the form of unanswered questions—information withheld from the reader and/or from the protagonist.
POWER absent from protagonist upon entering the scene. When a character enters a scene in the position of being humbled or unsure, the scene carries far greater tension than if the character enters the scene with perfect certitude or with obvious physical advantage.
POWER taken away from protagonist during the course of the scene.
SURPRISING revelations, reversals of fortune, the unanticipated moment or response.
EMOTIONAL challenge of the protagonist--heightened feeling, loss of control, self-revelation, reckoning with things previously kept hidden in the emotional realm.
LOW TEMPERATURE SCENES INCLUDE:
AGREEMENT between two or more characters—often found in scenes where characters are commiserating with one another or filling one another in, procedurally, on elements of the quest at hand.
Characters in ISOLATION, REFLECTING on their actions, their lives, the decisions they now face.
IMPARTING of information, answering of questions. When characters are simply offered every answer they seek, there’s very little to pique reader interest.
EXPOSITION--summarizing of events, “telling” instead of showing.
POWER being bestowed upon the viewpoint character within the course of the scene—especially if they have not really worked toward achieving this end.
Protagonist entering the scene in the POWER position.
ELEMENTS acting in the protagonist’s favor. (Coincidences, luck, etc.)
Events unfolding just as EXPECTED--by both reader and characters.
Protagonist feeling CALM/COLLECTED/UNFLAPPABLE--entering a scene with full confidence, full knowledge, and an unshakable faith in the scene’s outcome.
While not every scene in a novel can or should unfold at the highest temperature, it’s often the case that readers don’t challenge themselves as fully as they might in this arena. They give us long passages of static exposition or of characters alone in thought. They answer questions for the protagonist before he or she has really had an opportunity to test him/herself in the pursuit of answers. They create scene after scene with characters alone with only their thoughts for company and no source of tension—or “heat”—on the page. The result can be a bit dreary, keeping the reader at an emotional arm’s length.
So challenge yourself to look at the scenes in your novel—either the ones you’ve written or the ones you have planned. What questions do you prompt the reader to ask? What sources of conflict do you throw in the path of your protagonist? How fully do you immerse your characters in a well-realized and sensory world, one in which they are physically and emotionally tested, and then tested some more?
Turn up the heat in your novel to make your reader suffer, dream, and truly LIVE on the page along with your characters. In the end, they’ll love you for it and keep coming back for more.
About the Author
LORIN OBERWEGER is a highly sought-after independent book editor and ghostwriter with almost twenty-five years experience in publishing. Her company, Free Expressions, offers writing seminars nationwide with literary agent Donald Maass and others, as well as the acclaimed Novel Crafting Retreats--intensive story development weekends for writers in all genres of fiction. The Your Best Book Workshop she and the company put on last October was hands-down the best workshop I've ever attended! To find out more about workshops, retreats, or editorial services, visit the Free Expressions website.