We’re looking at scenes right now, and in my last post I talked about creating each scene so that it’s an encapsulated moment for your character that plays out in real time and reveals something significant.
It’s All about the Moment
Actress Rosalind Russell was asked: “What distinguishes a great movie?” She answered, “Moments.” And that’s so true for scenes. We remember great scenes because they contain a great moment in them. Often that moment is not something huge and explosive. On the contrary—the best moments are the very subtle ones in which the character learns or realizes something that may appear small to the outside world but is giant in scope to the character.
No doubt you can think of great movie moments, such as in Casablanca (too many in there to list!) when Ilsa tells Sam to “play it again.” Or when Scout meets Boo in To Kill a Mockingbird. Or in City Slickers when Billy Crystal’s character is holding up his finger to indicate the meaning of life. One of my favorite moments is in Babe, when Farmer Hoggett at the end of the sheep trials looks at Babe and says, “That’ll do, pig.” Of course, these moments have been set up so when they play out they’re powerful, but you want to think how in every scene you must have some moment. This is what you’re building to—either some revelation of plot or of character.
Just Why Is Your Character There?
So maybe you’ve put together this first scene. Just why is your character there? What’s her reason or need to be in that place, that moment? What do you plan to reveal in that scene that is significant and important? These questions are especially important to consider when constructing your first scene because, as you now understand, you have to set up the visible goal and the MDQ for the entire book. So you need to pick a moment that will do this the best way. Too often the first few scenes of a novel aren’t doing this. The protagonist is off doing something, talking to someone, and nothing is really happening—at least nothing significant. There are no high moments and no natural sense of conclusion to those scenes. Writers may feel this is the way to show the “everyman” character in his ordinary world, but as I discussed in early posts, that is just plain boring. In next week’s post I’ll go more into scene structure.
This week, spend some time thinking of a situation that can launch your protagonist headfirst into his story, and focus on the moment that you want to build to. If you already have a first scene written, examine it to see if it’s really working. If you’re not sure, think of three other possible settings and/or situations you can place your character in that might help intensify the moment you need to effectively detonate your novel. Make sure it’s a terrific one, because, as you’ve learned, many agents and editors won’t read past the first few paragraphs.