Today’s guest post is by writer, coach and editor Lisa Cooper Ellison (@lisaellisonspen).
In your final manuscript, every scene should contain a conflict that’s essential to your narrative arc, something that simultaneously captivates the reader and catapults your story forward.
Last week, J.D. Lasica wrote a post on how AI has identified seven universal story shapes. Like stories, scenes also have a shape. Some work well, while others fall flat. But before we examine these shapes, let’s talk about a few important concepts.
- When you spend a lot of time on something in your story, you’re saying, “Hey reader, this is super important, so pay close attention to these details.” In other words, you’re giving this part of your story some weight or importance.
- In an effective scene, your main character has a conflict that peaks in one dramatic moment. That moment is the beating heart of your scene or your emotional beat.
- Beats have three jobs: resolve the scene’s conflict, reveal your main character’s decision, and propel your story forward. Because beats carry such a heavy load, most of your scene should focus on this moment.
Now, let’s talk shapes.
We’ll start with the exemplar.
A pear-shaped scene contains a lean entrance followed by some interconnected actions that build to an emotional beat. Once there, the storytelling slows down while the tension rises until we reach a pivotal moment when the main character makes a choice. Sometimes it’s an internal choice only known to the narrator. Other times, it’s an external choice that’s revealed through action or dialogue. When we reach that final riveting moment that resolves the scene’s conflict and sets up future problems, the scene ends.
Books filled with pear-shaped scenes tend to be page-turners that have cinematic appeal, such as Catching Fire from Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, and Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s The Fact of a Body. Wild and Catching Fire have been made into movies. HBO is currently adapting The Fact of a Body for television.
Now, let’s talk about some scene shapes that require revision.
The problem: In funnel-shaped scenes, the weight is in the setup. The beginning is filled with rich setting- or character-developing details that evoke a certain mood. There might be a panoramic exploration of the landscape. We might learn a lot about what your character looks like and how he or she behaves before anything happens. Sometimes these scenes lack a clear conflict, or the conflict is outshined by the lengthy opening. When we get to the beat those details that were painstakingly developed are barely mentioned.
The fix: Before you write, identify your scene’s key conflict and the moment when it comes to a head. Consider what choice your main character will make—and it doesn’t have to be grandiose. For example, they could simply fail to respond to some dialogue, because lack of response is a response in storytelling. Then, choose a few select details that will establish your setting. Make sure one of them can do some work in your emotional beat.
As you write, craft a slimmer beginning that quickly gets to the action, then slow down when you reach your emotional beat. Make use of those careful setting details. Once the conflict has been resolved, exit stage left.
The Wind Tunnel and The Watermelon
The problem: Wind Tunnels happen in both high- and low-intensity scenes when we breeze through the action without landing on an emotional beat. We know we’re in a wind tunnel when we have a lot of action that follows an “and then, and then” format.
Watermelons are the Wind Tunnel’s large, heavy cousins. Watermelons are high-drama scenes where readers are blasted with actions and events that upset and jar them. There’s no time to rest and nowhere to focus our attention.
Watermelon-shaped scenes are common in memoir drafts when the narrator has gone through something truly awful. Often, they are start-to-finish renderings of a traumatic event where the narrator is powerless and victimized. Because things happen to the narrator, there’s no focal point and no decisions are made. We know we’ve encountered a watermelon when we’re upset and maybe even outraged by what we’ve read, but we don’t know what to do with the scene’s information.
The fix: Identify your pivotal moment and slowly render it. Remember, the pivotal moment is the point where the main character makes a decision. So, even if a lot is happening to your main character, give them some agency.
If you’re wondering how to manage a beat in a high-intensity scene, watch some battle or chase sequences from your favorite movie. You’ll notice there are times when we’re in the fray but, eventually, the action slows down so we can focus on two or three main characters. During these beats, the larger battle fades into the background as we zero in on a pivotal showdown.
The problem: You’ve entered late, kept the beginning slim, and rocked your emotional beat. But, when the moment is over, you keep going. Maybe you process the experience through your main character’s internal dialogue or you go on to some new, less important moments. In memoir, you might reflect on what’s just happened. Often, the writer’s goal is to make sure the reader understands the point they’re trying to make. But, like the tail on a kite, the information just hangs there, lowering your dramatic tension.
The Fix: Find your beat, land on that moment, and like the director boss that you are, yell, “Cut!” Scrap anything after the beat that doesn’t propel your story forward. Trust the reader to intuit your intended meaning. If you’re not sure whether your point has been made, send the piece off for feedback sans the extra material. Ask your critique partner to summarize the point of your scene. Compare their summary to your answer. If it generally matches up, yay! If it doesn’t, tell your critique partner what you’re trying to accomplish and see if they can help you brainstorm ways to make the point clearer through action or dialogue.
Choose a scene that doesn’t seem to be working. If you’ve recently worked on the scene, move on to the next part of the activity. Otherwise, read it quickly without making any changes.
Identify the part of your scene that has the most weight or importance. Remember, the weight in your scene is where you spend the most time. Then draw your scene’s shape.
Now, ask yourself the following questions:
- Is your beginning skinny and quick or do you spend a lot of time describing your surroundings?
- Is your middle fat with high drama, or do you move from one interconnected event to the next in a slim, trim fashion?
- Do you land on an important moment and then slow down?
- Does your resolution plant the seeds for future problems?
- Once the drama has been resolved, do you get the hell out of there or do you hang around?
Once you have your answers, go back and rewrite the scenes that will captivate your readers.
Lisa Cooper Ellison is an editor, speaker, and coach with an Ed.S in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and a background in mindfulness. She has spent the last two decades helping clients and students turn difficult experiences into art and currently teaches courses in memoir, creative nonfiction, and mindful writing practices. Winner of the 2022 HippoCamp edition of the Lancaster Story Slam, Lisa’s essays and stories have been published in HuffPost, Hippocampus Literary Magazine, Kenyon Review Online, and the Keepthings, among others. Visit her website for a free copy of Write More, Fret Less: Five Brain Hacks that Will Supercharge Your Productivity, Creativity, and Confidence.