IN a recent lecture on storytelling I was asked about the general design mechanics of scenes. What sorts of functions must occur in a scene to make it effective – especially a pivotal scene such as one containing a turning point? And how are these functions grouped together?
I find it helpful to organise functions into separate layers. The first two are straight forward. On one level scenes must showcase actions such as the hero’s response to some challenge laid down before him. Actions comprise the so-called outer journey – the plot.
But on an underlying level scenes must also support the plot by showing that the hero’s actions are consistent with his inner journey. In other words, that his motivation arises naturally from his values, beliefs, background.
Additionally, the hero must show personal growth. He must exhibit an ability to learn from the mistakes he makes in pursuing his goal, if he is finally to achieve it.
Involving Readers and Audiences in Your Scenes
These two levels in a scene are indispensable to each other. They really make up a single dramatic unit – action and its motivational core. But there is another layer we can add to a pivotal scene to make it even more effective. We can offer the reader or audience more information than is available to the hero.
If we, as an audience, are aware of something that the hero is not, such as that his wife is cheating on him with his best friend, or that there is a bomb in his car, or that his boss is planning to fire him, then we generate tension which is dissipated only when the hero learns this himself.
Hitchcock is a master of this technique. His films are studies of how to generate suspense by revealing to audiences things that the protagonist has yet to realise.
In my science fiction thriller, The Level, the protagonist, a man suffering from amnesia who is trying to escape from a derelict asylum, is unaware that he is being stalked by someone brandishing a meat clever, a man who bares him a grudge for some past offense. But the reader is, and this generates additional suspense for the protagonist with whom the reader identifies.
Not all scenes and genres are susceptible to this sort of treatment. Sprinkled here and there, however, the technique significantly ramps up tension that keeps our readers and audiences engrossed.
Reveal more information to your readers and audiences than is known to your protagonist in specific scenes in your story to help spike up the tension.