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How to Create Awesome Scene Arcs That Surprise Readers

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.

Save the Cat Blake SnyderIn 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.

2-14 Wayfarer Scene Card

Scene Card from Wayfarer.

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.

“On-the-nose” writing is simplistic writing that hammers readers over the head with the obvious and destroys the opportunity for rich and meaningful subtext or irony.

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.

Taken Dee HendersonIt’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.

Takeaway:

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.”

Takeaway:

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.

Consider classic scene structure. The action half (the scene) moves from goal through conflict to disaster. A goal is a positive, protactive thing. A disaster isn’t.

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.

Jane Austen EmmaConsider 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.

Emma Box Hill Romula Garia Rupert Evans

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.

Badly Done Emma Johnny Lee Miller

Takeaway:

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!

How to Create Awesome Scene Arcs That Surprise Readers

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I’ll have to check back on the scene I wrote yesterday for the arc, but this reminds me of a scene somewhere in the middle of my novel. The protagonist starts out really happy- it’s her daughter’s wedding day- and then becomes incredibly depressed after trying to intervene when her sons get into a fight after the wedding. The scene wraps up when her daughter comes and tries to comfort her, reviving a shadow of the happiness from the beginning of the scene. Most of my scenes don’t have such obvious, dramatic arcs, however.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds like a great scene–and a perfect example of the arc. But, you’re right, *most* scenes will not be this dramatic, and that’s fine. If your character is flipflopping through major emotions in every scene, he probably needs to see a shrink. :p The emotional arc can be very tiny–which is why we often don’t consciously realize we’re even enacting the changes in a scene.

      • By the way, I’m a bit confused by the “scene structure” you mentioned. If in every scene there is a disaster and the character’s goal fails, how do they accomplish anything? For example, if for purposes of the story they need to win a war, but the need for a “disaster” means that every battle, etc. goes wrong, how do you pull it off? And doesn’t having a disaster mean that every scene arc will be “positive emotion to negative emotion”? Also, in your example of the guy being nervous that the girl will turn him down, but her accepting, what is the “disaster?” Sorry to ask so many questions. I probably missed something obvious, but I would like to hear more about this.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Long answer: Go read this series on scene structure. 🙂

          Short answer: “Disasters” are wide and varied. The point isn’t so much that the character is stymied in his goal as it is that he’s pushed *sideways.* If he always gains his scene goal straight up, he will be on a fast track toward fulfilling his overall story goal–and the story ends. Scene “disasters” make his progress toward that overall goal less than straight and smooth.

          • Thanks. That makes a lot of sense. I will check out the scene structure posts soon. And come to think of it, this reminds me of your “even good events should have consequences” post, which I love.
            Just to make sure I’m understanding this, would an example of a disaster be the girl agreeing to go on the date, but then once they are on it something goes terribly wrong? The guy technically would accomplish his scene goal of taking the girl on a date, but the scene would still contain a “disaster” by hindering his larger goal of building a relationship with her.

            Thanks again. Your blog is the best.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Right. Good example! Or it could be that there are other layers going in the asking-for-the-date scene, in which, although the character is victorious with the girl, other related things get endangered as a result.

  2. First, I have to say that I love getting your posts! I’m always looking forward to them whenever I check my inbox. And when I get a new post, I’m like a kid in the candy store. In junior high I ate a ton of candy. Mambas, runts, sprees, nerds, you name it. Now my “candy” is comes in a different form. Sweet! No pun intended.

    I love this topic of emotional arcs and scene structure. That’s an awesome way of putting it. LOVE the scene breakdown; tweeking them for surprises, misdirection and emotional outcomes. It couldn’t be phrased any better. Can’t say that I fully understand every jot and tittle, but I’m processing every word. Writers are definitely engineers at heart. The design, problem solving, construction and implementation is engineering in my mind. Superb. Or, sweperb. A combination of sweet + superb= Sweperb! I coined it myself. Somebody call up Merriam-Webster.

    Write on!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hey, and they’re low-calorie too! 😉

      It is kind of like engineering. Once you stat looking past the actual rush of creativity, all of art is very structured, very logical, very much based on certain universal principles of life. I find it eternally exciting that I get to marry this logical engineering with the heady, “flow” of creativity.

  3. Again very helpful advice, especially for the thriller writers. Thanks KM.

    I have an off-topic Q: Where do you get your awesome images (the two-headed actor is brilliant!). Do you have someone who tailors then for you?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thanks, Viktor! I have a few image sources, but most of them, like this one, I buy from iStockphoto.com.

  4. Michael Ryan says:

    Hi Katie

    Thank you for another great article.

    Mike

  5. An interesting piece, and for that I’ll excuse you the use of that apallingly misused word ‘awesome’ in your title.

    I’d never give it a name before… scene arcs… but as you say, most of us create them without realising. I certainly hadn’t until I thought about it. As you say, it’s all in the mood created. Break that mood with the unexpected, then surprise with a revelation… or a hint at one… that changes the mood of the character himself and it’s done.

    Here’s my example. It’s a scene at the end of a book waiting its turn with the publisher; the end of the narrative itself, but followed by an epilogue that takes place a few months after, but provides another twist to the story.

    Lombardy.

    As they walked slowly away from the grave, together as etiquette expected, the old man excused himself to his daughter in law before turning back to go to speak to another mourner. The woman, in the short black dress that had earned her murmurs of both approval and disgust, carried on walking alone. It suited her fine that way. She hoped that the glare of the Lombardy sun had prevented the old man from noticing that her eyes were still remarkably dry.

    As the old man approached a younger man, the priest appeared alongside them. He put a hand on the old man’s arm and began to offer him his condolences, along with his promises to pray for Angelo Benelli’s soul. The old man thanked him, but there wasn’t any sincerity in his thanks. He’d long ago lost his faith. This whole fiasco had been purely for appearance’s sake. He knew that his son had felt the same way, but the older members of the family and some of those in the local community would expect it.

    Funeral arrangements were one of those things that were unavoidable. It didn’t matter to him though. He’d made his own special arrangements.
    As the priest left him, to console some other poor sad soul, the old man turned to his youngest son. As they stood talking, they both appeared to be scanning the trees on the slope above the large country cemetery. They were looking for the unmistakeable glint of sun on coated glass. They both looked a little concerned that they couldn’t see it.

    There was a gasp from an elderly lady mourner as, without a sound, the lone woman in the short black dress collapsed in a heap onto the pathway. Her skirt had ridden up in an undignified manner to display underwear that would be inappropriate for any funeral, let alone her own husband’s.

    The elderly lady and a black suited man ran forward, thinking that the widow had simply fainted from the stress of the occasion, but the spreading pool of blood that had begun to surround her motionless body told a very different story.

    In the hot afternoon sunshine, old Signor Giuseppe Benelli turned to his youngest son. The old man had a questioning look on his face. He said just one word,

    “Silenziatore?”

    The younger man simply nodded, “Sì, Papa… Silenziatore.”

    Old Giuseppe smiled thinly, “Riposa in pace, Angelo… Ciao!”

    * * *

    From: ‘SHARKNOSE’ – “Seeing that toyshop has just reminded me of something” by Chris Graham (© 2015)

  6. Ooh, how very interesting! Thank you so much. I’ve never heard of a scene arc before. But I love playing with my character’s emotions, so this is a great tool to have under my belt.

    Now I’ll have to go check the scenes out in my draft. Thanks again!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Really, that’s the heart of a good scene arc: playing with the character’s emotions, taking him from one emotional landscape to another, although the shift doesn’t have to be dramatic.

  7. Christian Imme says:

    Hm, I don’t quite see the point of an _emotional_ character arc. Shouldn’t it more precisely be the the _reader’s_ emotional arc?

    Given that today using 1st or 3rd person personal is the predominant POV, we most times witness the POV character’s emotions. When a scene starts with a goal, has a conflict and ends with a disaster, then naturally the emotions go from those associated with the goal to those associated with the disaster which have to be on opposite ends of the spectrum. Likewise for a sequel. In these cases, if the reader roots for the character, their emotional arcs are the same. If the reader dislikes the character their arcs are opposite. Because in nearly all cases the character’s emotions are projected onto the reader (negatively or positively), one might be tempted to say that the character’s emotional arc makes a good scene.

    But is this really the point?

    I believe that a character can enter a scene happy as a lark and get exactly the favor he wanted to get from someone. So he has not undergone any emotional arc at all. But if the reader is led to suspect that this favor will come at a very high price in the future, it still might be a good scene, because there is an increase in the reader’s anxiety (not exactly an arc, but still a dynamic development).

    Therefore I believe that the emotional arc should rather be the one of the reader. Actually I believe that the same is true for the scene structure elements as well. What good is a character’s conflict or dilemma, when the reader can’t take it seriously? Normally this is achieved by putting the reader in the character’s shoes but wouldn’t the more general principle demand that the reader must experience the conflict and dilemma, regardless of what the character does?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great point! I totally agree. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the character’s emotional arc isn’t the point–since nine times out of ten, it will be–but it’s important for authors to keep in mind the tools of irony, tonal foreshadowing, and out-of-POV knowledge (when readers are receiving info from multiple POVs). All of these will put readers at a remove, to one degree or another, from the POV character in any given scene and will cast a new light on the character’s emotional journey in contrast with the bigger picture.

      Thanks for bringing this up!

      • Christian Imme says:

        Yes, sorry, “not the point” was obviously the wrong choice of words here. Beg your pardon – as you might have guessed, I am not an English native speaker.

  8. Wow. This is a great article. And you’ve given me another reason to scrutinize my wip again.

  9. Redd Becker says:

    What wonderful insight. Not at all what I expected, but it makes so much sense. A wonderful tool new tool. Thanks.

  10. Great post and many thanks for all your posts and your books. This puts into a better context the idea of Robert McKee and ‘polarity’ in his Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting.

    Again thank you so much for all you have offered to us struggling writers.

  11. I can see how this is one of those things that I instinctively do. But now that I’m aware of it, I can fix it where it’s not happening. This actually made me aware of a lot of problems in my draft. Thanks so much!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is what I love about learning story theory. Even things we’re already doing instinctively become better and easy when we understand them consciously.

  12. This was a terrific post! Perhaps one of the most helpful yet, though most of your posts are. But the concept of the emotional arc of a scene and making sure it flips to its opposite is such simple, great advice! Will be applying it immediately!

  13. Casebola says:

    Yes! YES! All of this applies to what I have been struggling with. Thank you KM once again!

  14. And the arc wouldn’t even have to swing to the opposite (as a reader, I’ve caught on to that trick plenty of times) but sideways. A character could start angry, become scared, switch to indignant in the next scene, and end sad.
    And thanks for the tip about the dialogue! Now I know why the exciting scenes are when the characters aren’t saying what it seems like they’re saying. Now I know what to look for with all those other pieces of dialogue.

    • Then there’s the ‘jeopardy’ angle. The scene can be going fine from the characters’ points of view, but they could be in jeopardy from something the reader is aware of, but not the character(s) in question. – Either a physical danger, or the risk of other characters elsewhere gaining information that either puts them at risk, or renders their actions as useless.

      The tension would then be in the reader’s mind, even if not shown in the scene itself. These kinds of jeopardy based tensions can be carried on throughout a novel over a number of seemingly less dramatic scenes.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Yes, if you’re using multiple POVs, you can do all kinds of interesting things to “manipulate” reader emotions in ways the characters won’t yet experience.

  15. This post was AMAZING. And you are totally right, most writers do this instinctively. Most of my emotional scene arcs have to do with the internal goals and conflicts of the characters, which happen to be based on emotion. She wants to be loved and valued, and he doesn’t want to make the same mistakes his father made. So when they come together, there’s constant tension coming from within their own heads. Along with some other outside dangers because of her ex. I pick out these types of things all the time in my head but I love how you write all these storytelling tidbits out so simply and (mostly) easy to understand. Thanks for all your awesome posts.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes! This is where subtext comes to life. It’s the most powerful force in story.

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