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PACINGBy Carlos J. Cortes
I suppose there are talented scribes for whom tweaking tension as they go along is second nature. The rest of us muddle along until our reviewers or beta readers yawn or fall asleep after page fifteen.
The traditional-structure school proposes that a scene must have an opening, middle, and end. The opening poses a question or introduces a goal. The middle is where the tension grows as the writer works conflict in. The end should build to a conclusion. This is fine but limited. What if the scene ends on a cliffhanger? Do we start the next scene with another goal?
Fear not. There are three possible choices of scene models:
The resolved scene has a three-part pattern: goal, conflict, and achievement.
The unresolved scene has a three-part pattern: goal, conflict, and failure.
The reactive scene has a three-part pattern: reaction, impasse, and decision.
Before we analyze the diverse patterns, it's important to note that resolved scenes must be used with caution and often sparingly. Yes, manuscripts do sag if there are too many resolved scenes. The reason is psychological. When things keep turning out according to the POV's expectations, tension slacks. This is not bad--when planned.
Goal: These are the POV's expectations and the drive behind the scene.
The POV enters an elevator, intending to ride the car to the thirtieth floor, where Don Julio awaits to pay him for a successful killing.
This is the goal, which must be explicit and unambiguous. Unless the reader knows the goal, it's impossible to ratchet the tension.
Conflict: These are the obstacles thrown in the POV's way to derail his purpose. Without conflict, there's no scene and the reader's interest will flag.
The POV enters an elevator, pushes a button, and rides uneventfully up to the thirtieth floor.
These actions prompt the question: what's the use of this scene? Perhaps the writer has a fixation with elevators, but that's no reason for the scene and it should be nixed. No conflict, no scene. Let's rewrite:
Half way up, the elevator shudders before stopping. The lights go off.
This is conflict. Of course, we can push the conflict as high as we want by adding other passengers riding the elevator; say, a Buddhist monk, two guys built like linebackers, and a little old lady on crutches.
Achievement: The resolved pattern demands that the POV character achieves his aim. In this instance, the lights return, the car moves once again, and our hero makes it to the thirtieth floor.
I mentioned earlier that resolved scenes should be handled with care. If the hero succeeds at the end of a scene, the reader feels no compunction to turn the page and find out what happens next. Although readers are not writers, they have an uncanny subliminal sense for plot. After the scene in the elevator ends in victory for the hero, the reader will suspect something happened inside the car while the lights were off. Why? Because otherwise the scene doesn't make any sense and it shouldn't be there.
This is one of the most difficult issues for a new writer to understand: every word, phrase, sentence, paragraph, and scene must have a reason. If the reader (or agent or editor) can't find any, they will get upset (make that "mad"). Readers will not invest in books riddled with bits the writer liked or penned for the hell of it.
A resolved scene is an end in itself; the POV has won. Unless handled with finesse, these scenes can be boring and, after a while, predictable. The result? A flat or boring manuscript.
Goal: The POV's expectations and the drive behind the scene don't change.
The POV enters an elevator, intending to ride the car to the thirtieth floor where Don Julio awaits, to pay him for a successful hit.
Conflict: To thwart his purpose we've stopped the elevator and added passengers.
The POV enters a crowded elevator. A Buddhist monk, two guys built like linebackers, and a little old lady on crutches shuffle to make room. He presses the button to the thirtieth floor. Halfway up, the elevator shudders before stopping. The lights go off.
The passengers are not "color" or "background." If the writer intended transparency, he would have written "other passengers shifted to make room." Any reader will zero on the description of the passengers and mull (however subliminally) that there must be a reason why the writer chose these characters and not transparent others. We can imagine the reader sliding toward the edge of his seat.
A feeble emergency light illuminates the car. The hulks reach for their pieces. The hero ducks and freezes when the little old lady beats them to the draw. When she's finished, both men are dead. Then her gun seeks him. With a deafening shriek and a flap of saffron robes, the Buddhist monk leaps high into the air and kicks the little old lady's head. A sickening crunch and she collapses in a flurry of crutches. The monk bows and cradles his hands into a stirrup for the hero to reach the service hatch.
Though this plot is a farce, it doesn't take much imagination to assume the reader won't leave the scene at this point. What, with the Buddhist monk peering at the hero's climbing figure from a car strewn with corpses and hardware? No way.
The unresolved pattern demands that the POV character fails to achieve his goal.
The hero climbs the elevator cables, his gaze on a service opening with a door ten feet over his head. When he draws level, he leaps, and his foot misses its mark. With lightning reflexes his fingers catch the lower edge of the opening. A whine, lights, and the elevator starts moving again in the wrong direction: up.
Our hero's plans are in disarray. Not only did he not make it to the thirtieth floor and Don Julio, but he's hanging on for his life while an elevator barrels in his direction.
An unresolved scene implies a sequel, a continuation, a reactive scene to have another shot at the goal.
The reactive scene doesn't need to be at the turn of the page. The writer may have cunningly structured his plot to keep the reader on edge and shift to another scene, perhaps in the monk's or Don Julio's POV. Of course, these unresolved scenes must also be handled with care. Distance is important lest the reader forgets our hero's predicament. If not immediately, the reactive scene must follow at a reasonable distance.
The purpose of a reactive scene is to follow and tidy up an unresolved one. If the hero sought a goal and encountered a setback, he shouldn't try anything new until the problem at hand has been solved, or replaced with a new problem.
What if the reactive scene doesn't resolve its goal? Can there be a reactive-positive and reactive-negative scenes? One could envisage a scene where the hero fails repeatedly to achieve his goal. No?
No. A reactive scene's goal is to react to a failure. A novel may consist of many scenes trying to reach the goal outlined on page one, but each will have its own goal (or mini-goal in the large scheme of things) or react to an unachieved goal.
The reactive scene has three parts: reaction, impasse, and resolution, and each is critical for its overall success.
Reaction: A reaction is the emotional follow-through to a failure. If disaster strikes--following the initial rush of adrenaline--the character struggles, off-balance, until he gathers his wits. POV characters must react viscerally to failure and adjust to change, submit to a new ball game. This is a boon for any writer, the opportunity to add deep characterization because character surfaces in extreme moments. Eventually, the POV needs to take stock and look for options and their alternatives.
The car races upward, threatening to crush him. The hero flexes his muscles and pulls himself up, squeezing into the narrow ledge as the elevator trundles past.
Of course, the best scenes are those where the POV has no escape, no options left. These tax the writer because there must be an option, however hidden, and it must be a clever or imaginative one the hero might have overlooked--or a reckless one born of despair.
Impasse: After a good old failure, there aren't any good choices. If there are, it wasn't much of a disaster. The POV must be in a bind with no good obvious alternatives. In our silly plot, the hero is as we would colloquially describe: shafted.
Fighting for balance on a ten-inch ledge, his fingers explore the door. It's unlocked. As the hero steps through the door, he halts. The opening is an access communicating two elevator shafts. As he compares the two voids, elevators dash past in both directions at breakneck speed. One must still carry the corpses.
Now what? The reader will wonder what can happen next because the hero's choices are one shaft or the next. Not good. The reader will turn the page.
Decision: To decide is to make a choice. Here, the POV must work through his choices, however illusory or wild these may be. As he sifts through the options, he will take the one that offers the greatest chance of success. Even if it means choosing a harrowing one, the choice must be reasoned. Otherwise, the reader will get the impression the POV has been lucky, and that's a sign of careless writing. Intelligent readers believe in probabilities, not luck. The reader must respect the POV's decision and perhaps nod in agreement. "Yup, I would have done the same." Or cringe in awe at the POV's choice, an avenue so crazy--despite a slim chance of success--that the reader had not considered it.
The elevator he escaped now stops. The corpses must have been discovered. (How the monk got away is another matter.) When the elevator in the newly discovered shaft halts on the floor below, the hero makes a split-second decision and jumps. He crashes through its roof, and lands next to another little old lady. This time, the hero doesn't take any chances. He picks himself from the floor, socks the lady, presses all the buttons and, as soon as the car stops on the next floor, he bolts toward the fire escape.
In this scene, the character has not resolved any goal. Rather, he has simple reacted to his failed attempt in the previous scene.
What happens now? Who knows? The hero may reach the fire escape. There, the writer will concoct another scene with a new goal, perhaps to get away from the building in one piece. The reader will follow to find out the next goal of the POV.
The important mechanism to understand is the interrelation of scenes and their inner structure with reference to the story. A novel is a sequence with a few resolved and many unresolved scenes. These are followed by reactive scenes which, in turn, open the door to another scene.
The magic of sustaining tension is this action-reaction continuum; one unresolved scene leads to another until the cycle breaks at THE END.