Honing the Pivotal Scene

I don’t talk about process as much as I think about process, mostly because I’m fairly certain everyone would respond with, “Well, duh, Blair.  We all know that.  Where have you been?”  But now and again, I find writing about process helps me better understand it.  And once it’s written, it seems silly to leave it sitting about with nothing to do.

So.  Here it be.

I’m working on a pivotal chapter near the end of the arc’s Act I.  It’s a point of decision that’s been set up by previous events, the turning point on which the rest of the novel depends, where secrets are revealed, lines drawn, and action chosen.

As is usual with these scenes of mine, it needs a great deal of work.

My pivotal chapters tend to get chatty.  Very chatty.  The characters discuss options and ideas and reasons in detail, debating the sticking points and questioning their predictions.  It took me awhile to realize the characters spent so much time talking things through because I, the writer, was still trying to figure out motives and consequences.  It took me awhile longer to properly edit out (most of) the extraneous conversations because I do love me my dialog.

I’ve also realized my pivotal chapter problems–which I try to solve with dialog–stem from a weak foundation, and that weakness is a byproduct of pantser style coupled with my penchant for writing to That Scene at all costs.  (That Scene being the seed the novel originally grew from.)  Now, in Sand of Bone, I have a better grasp of the story, and new worldbuilding pieces are properly in place.  The pivotal scene no longer needs all the words it currently holds.  What was once required to make the characters’ decisions understandable and acceptable can be set aside, with proper preparation.

Every few paragraphs or so, I find myself flipping back to previous chapters for a spot of editing.  Usually it’s a single line or a quick dialog exchange, defining a small piece of the world or establishing a minor character before I put either one to use in the pivotal chapter.  The purpose of those little tweaks and tightenings is to remove the need to explain reasons and motives during the pivotal scene.  In other words, if I know I’m going to need the rifles to set Act II in motion, I’d best make sure everyone knows where the mantles are and why the rifles are hanging there before we’re praising God and passing out ammunition.

A decision-process is an exchange of information—explanation, consideration, comparison, justification.  It’s tempting to include that in pivotal scenes because the decision is so important, right?  After all, I want the reader to accept the decision.  Not like it or agree with it, but see it as a realistic choice based on available information and character goals.  And no writer wants the reader to toss the book across the room because the character makes consistently inexplicable choices.

But you know what’s worse?  The reader who quietly sets the book aside and forgets about it because the pivotal scene was so filled with stray facts and character asides and tidbits of backstory that it bored them completely.

My revelation is this: the pivotal scene isn’t about the decision.  That’s the job of everything that comes before.  The pivotal scene is the emotion of having decided, the fear of the consequences ahead, the terror of being wrong, the desperation to have others agree.  When we make a big decision in real life, we certainly agonize over it.  But the moment of sharing and acting upon that decision is just as terrifying.  Sometimes, it’s more terrifying.  It’s what happens in those moments, hours, or days that makes or breaks the decision.

That’s the pivotal scene.

So my reminder to myself today is this: new information should rarely—and I do mean rarely—be given to the reader during a pivotal scene.  Characters in the scene can get some new information, but then the exchange is about the impact of the fact not its explanation.

This is not to be confused with climactic revelations of the I-am-your-father type.  But even then, if the temptation arises to explain–right after the revelation–just how that connection could possibly be so, some quite critical pieces of backstory and foreshadowing have been neglected.

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