There is a secret to writing good scenes. And since scenes are the heart of story itself, it’s ultimately one of the most important secrets to writing good stories, period.
You may be surprised to learn this secret is not scene structure (in the classic sense of goal / conflict / disaster / reaction / dilemma / decision), although it’s closely related. Like the integers of structure, this secret is all about creating a scene arc. But this particular arc isn’t the physical one of plot, which we find in the shift from positive scene goal to negative scene disaster. Rather, this an emotional arc.
This arc is the key both to fiction that resonates and fiction that’s interesting. You can write a scene that’s perfectly structured in the classic scene, but if it lacks this emotional scene arc, it will still fall flat.
So why have I never posted about it before?
Because, in all honesty, it isn’t something I generally give much thought to. Like most authors, I use it instinctively, more than consciously (and believe me, you are using it, even if you don’t yet know it).
However, not long ago, while writing the climactic scene in my historical-superhero work-in-progress Wayfarer, I found myself needing to balance several tricky factors (which I’ll tell you about in a minute). Suddenly, I became consciously aware of something I was already doing instinctively.
What is that something? How about the boundless power and possibility of the emotional scene arc?
Q. What Is a Scene Arc? A. Emotional Shift
I pondered quite a few titles for this post, trying to get down to the heart of the concept. Originally, I just wanted to call it the “principle of opposites.” After all, isn’t that what a shift is all about? It’s about moving from one thing (in this instance, an emotion) to another. If there is no movement–if there is no contrast–then there is no shift, and certainly no arc.
In his beloved screenwriting book Save the Cat!, the late Blake Snyder explains it like this:
Think of each scene as a mini-movie. It must have a beginning, middle, and an end. And it must also have something happen that causes the emotional tone to change drastically…. Believe it or not, an emotional change like this must occur in every scene. And if you don’t have it, you don’t know what the scene is about.
His recommendation for outlining a scene is to write down the emotion with which a scene begins–and the contrasting emotion with which it ends (“And if you can’t figure it out, throw the [scene] card away. Odds are it’s wrong.”)
When I first read that, I was all, Yeah, that’s genius! That’s totally going to revolutionize my outlining.
But it actually didn’t, for a couple of reasons.
One of those reasons is the very fact that the emotional arc is a largely instinctive process. It’s one thing to write contrasting emotions on an outline card and another to feel your way through the emotional progression of a scene. To fully understand how the emotional scene arc works, you must first understand the reasons for it, as well as the various things it’s able to accomplish within your story.
1. Use Your Scene Arcs to Avoid “On-the-Nose” Drama
This is one of my favorites. The clunkiness of “on-the-nose” writing can show up just about anywhere (most obviously in dialogue, as I talk about here). It’s one of the chief reasons scenes fall flat, and yet it can be a hard cause to identify.
“On the nose” is kind of the “WYSIWYG” (What You See Is What You Get) of the writing world. It’s writing that gives it to the readers absolutely straight.
You say the character is happy–and he is. You say the character is troubled about something–and he immediately tells his psychologist the whole spiel, in unbiased, accurate detail.
In short, it’s bad writing.
It’s also what happens when you fulfill a character’s every emotional expectation. Let’s say you start your scene with the character wanting to ask another character on a date. He’s excited about the prospect and has no doubt she’s going to say yes. So… she says yes. Yay! He’s still excited. No surprises in this scene. No emotional arc. It’s flat and it’s boring.
It’s also super-easy to fix. All you have to do is sow even the slightest bit of contrasting emotion in the beginning of the scene. This is what suspense author Dee Henderson did in a similar scene in Taken:
She turned to look at him, her expression too calm. He braced to hear her politely turn him down. She slipped off the cap, ran her hand through her hair. “Sure, why not? I don’t want to be here, and Chicago is just more drama.”
See the arc? The narrator doesn’t start out happy in his confidence she’ll agree to go with him. Rather, he starts out believing she’s going to turn him down–but she doesn’t. She surprises him, and, as a result, she surprises the readers as well.
Now, granted, this isn’t a scene arc, but it’s a great example of how you can (and should) pepper tiny emotional arcs into your scene, paragraph by paragraph.
Examine each emotional outcome in your story–both on a scene-by-scene basis and within the beats of the scene itself. Then go back and look at the beginning of those arcs. Do your characters act as if they already know the outcome even before it happens? If so, go back and flip those beginning emotions on their heads. Insta-arc!
2. Use Your Scene Arcs to Freshen Your Story Events
As you can already see, another thing emotional scene arcs allow you to do is keep readers on their toes. Naturally, the opposite of “what you see is what you get” is “what you see is not what you get.” In other words: it’s a surprise!
This is what I was working on in Wayfarer‘s closing scenes when I became consciously aware of this “technique of opposites” I was employing. Without spoilering anything, this final scene was proving tricky because it ends on a very high emotion–and I couldn’t help feeling it was coming across too on the nose. And yet there was no other way to set up the events leading to that moment.
So what did I do?
I started messing with the protagonist’s head, with his perception of and emotions about the coming moment. Instead of allowing him to enter that final moment with its prevailing emotion already predominant in his mind, I gave him other things to think about–things that made him feel exactly the opposite from how the scene would end.
And then, when the potentially on-the-nose moment actually occurred, I had the protag react as expected–and then turned that emotion on its head one more time by having him realize, in a very thematically pertinent way, that “it still didn’t matter.”
A good rule of thumb is to strive for your characters to do or say at least one surprising thing per scene. One of the most intuitive and integral ways to do this is by examining the emotional arc. Don’t let things progress as expected from start to finish. Once you start playing with your protag’s head, he’ll start doing all kinds of fascinatingly unexpected things.
3. Integrate the Emotional Arc Into Your Scene Structure
Finally, and undoubtedly, most importantly, you can use the emotional arc of your scene–from positive emotion to negative emotion, or vice versa–to strengthen the scene structure itself.
Same goes for the reaction half (the sequel), which begins with a reaction to the negative event of the disaster, ponders the dilemma, and then moves into another proactive, probably positive decision.
Right from the start, good structure gives you the foundation for the emotional arc. You just have to make sure you’re taking advantage of it. This is where Snyder’s “positive/negative” emotion contrast, on his outline cards, comes into play. The emotion with which your character begins the scene should be the opposite of that with which he ends the scene, and largely, this is going to be accomplished by foiling your protagonist’s expectations about what’s going to happen.
Consider the famous Third Plot Point in Jane Austen’s Emma, which chronicles the unfortunate Box Hill picnic, in which Emma insults her kindly spinster neighbor Miss Bates and is given a proper bawling out for it by Mr. Knightley, the man she unknowingly loves.
The chapter begins like this:
They had a very fine day for Box Hill; and all the other outward circumstances of arrangement, accommodation, and punctuality, were in favour of a pleasant party.
And it ends like this:
She had never felt so depressed…. Emma felt the tears running down her cheeks almost all the way home, without being at any trouble to check them, extraordinary as they were.
Examine each of your scenes and identify the prevailing emotion at the beginning. What do your characters expect to happen? If that emotion hasn’t changed by the end, and if everything has turned out exactly as your characters thought, then your scene is probably too on the nose for its own good. See if you can mix things up by either changing the outcome to something unexpected–or changing the characters’ preconceptions in the beginning of the scene.
Watch Out: Today’s Readers Expect Misdirection
You now know how to consciously create powerful scene arcs–and troubleshoot the problematic ones. But before we travel on, a word of caution:
Experienced readers know how scene arcs work (sometimes more consciously than writers do!). If they feel as scene is weighted too heavily in one direction at its beginning, they will intuit that the scene is going be headed in exactly the opposite direction by its end.
This isn’t necessarily a problem, but it is important for authors to realize that the effect of emotional “weighting” at the beginning of a scene is going to be perceived by readers as, essentially, foreshadowing. Be aware of their expectations and proceed wisely in deciding how and when to fulfill and misdirect them.
If you can create powerful scene arcs, one after the other, throughout your book, you can be 100% certain of giving readers a compelling reason to keep turning page after page. Try it out!
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion: Look at your scene arcs–what is the emotional shift in your most recent scene? Tell me in the comments!
Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).