Before we begin, I want to congratulate a client of mine, Angela Mcpherson, on not only receiving an offer of representation, but now securing a publishing deal with Untold Press for her YA novel, Hope’s Decree! I’ve been giddy on her behalf ever since she shared the news, and I can’t wait to see the cover art once it comes out. You’ll be seeing a book review for this novel in a few months, since it’s scheduled to come out later this year, but for now, congratulations Angela—the hard work’s paid off!
Manipulating Scenes to Increase Reader Excitement
Last week I talked about what a scene was. Now that you are familiar with what a scene is, I want to focus on how you can manipulate the structure of a scene to maximize your readers’ experience.
There are a few simple tricks that writers can employ to reel readers in: beginning the scene in the middle of things, starting the scene with a goal, and ending with a cliff hanger.
Beginning in the Middle of Things
In my last post I mentioned what's called in medias res, meaning to begin in the middle of things. This tip is a bit ironic, considering that you are beginning a scene in the middle, and this is why many writers don’t make use of this tactic—it’s hard to wrap our minds around advice that sounds like it came straight from Wonderland.
Why Begin in the Middle of the Action?
Well, when you boil it down, the middle is where the conflict begins. Readers don’t want to slog through chapters concerned with the drive over to the precinct, nor do they want to sit with your character through history class if the conflict she faces is in her next class. Heck, readers might not even want to know what happens at the beginning of her following class if the conflict doesn’t start until the middle of it—perhaps during a presentation or a test.
To give another example, think of movies that cut to a cheering crowd at a football game for instance—this is a perfect example of beginning in the middle of the action. This scene didn’t begin with the characters driving up to the football field, parking, looking for seats, and watching the first half of the game. Nope. The scene began in the middle of things so that the viewer doesn’t get bored. The movie might even follow the shot with one that cuts to the scoreboard, just so that whoever is watching the movie can know exactly where in the game the characters are.
The same tactics apply to writing. So, if your character’s next scene starts at the precinct, start the scene exactly where trouble begins. Maybe that’s the moment she walks in: perhaps the office falls silent and the officers give her troubled glances. Or maybe it’s the moment she sits down to interview a suspect.
Editing for This
Essentially the obstacle that writers have trouble with when it comes to in medias res is how to begin a scene. If you feel like you're taking too long getting into the scene, or “revving your engines” as Jack Bickham would say, try removing those pesky paragraphs and concisely inserting the relevant information further into the scene. Here’s an example:
Hannah walked into the precinct. The steady hum of voices died down as her colleagues shot wary glances her way. It was the last thing she needed after driving an hour to get here. Correction—driving an hour through a fucking freak storm.
She threw the file folder she’d been carrying down on Chief’s desk. “You knew.”
Here the beginning of the scene might be the process of driving through a freak storm—this might even be made into its own separate scene if the writer finds it important. However, the act of driving and parking—the boring filler that comes between scenes—can be minimized down to a sentence or a paragraph that is embedded somewhere further in the scene.
Starting the Scene with a Goal
Most, if not all scenes, should begin with a goal. Goals can be direct:
I was going to find out whether she did it or not, and I wasn’t leaving until I got some answers.
Or they can be indirect, like the example in the previous section—the indirect goal being a confrontation with Chief.
This tactic really isn’t as tricky as it might sound. A scene doesn’t have to be important to the story for there to be a goal. Your main character might be trying to fit in, trying to enjoy a weekend vacation, figuring out the layout of her new office, and so on.
It’s important to identify what the goal is because the conflict that arises will subvert your characters from this goal, or at least present an obstacle to attaining their goal. In addition, identifying the goal will clarify your characters’ motivations and it might even make an unlikely situation appear more realistic.
So if your main character is desperately trying to fit in at a new school and her new friends encourage her to drink, and then to drive them home even though she’s drunk, the reader will understand the goal and character motivation—fitting in—and the conflict—driving drunk. The reader may believe that the decision is stupendously stupid, but because of the scene’s structure the events will appear realistic.
Ending with a Cliff Hanger
This is my favorite way to manipulate a scene, and in my opinion it’s also the most successful way to increase reader excitement. Cliff hangers essentially end the scene before the scene officially ends. It’s ending the scene when the main character gets shot, or when a vital piece of information has been revealed. Notice that both of these examples would not necessarily be the end of the event though they are placed at the end of the scene—the danger isn’t necessarily gone just because your main character got shot, nor is a conversation necessarily over just because a vital piece of information was discovered.
What’s so important about cliff hangers is that the end of a scene is a convenient stopping point for a reader. However, when you end with a cliff hanger, the reader might decide to read until the end of the next scene. And then they come across another cliff hanger and have to continue on ... Inserting cliff hangers ensures your readers will be hooked to the action and excitement your book has to offer.
But That’s a Cheap Trick
Yes it is.
So? That cheap trick may by what helps your book rake in mucho dinero in sales. Not to mention that’s a cheap trick that storytellers have been using for thousands of years.
Try it. I bet you’ll be happily surprised with the result.
Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services