Throughout a story there will be moments where the central character will do things that are interesting, exciting, scary or whatever. These kinds of scenes where key events occur are what you build towards, and their aftermath will provide the momentum/motivation to keep the reader turning pages to get to the next one, and the one after that.
But even though the chase, the rescue, the attack on the enemy base, will be an entertaining set-piece, there is another, equally important, part of this moment: the decision to do it.
Every big scene will be preceded by the character having to choose to engage with whatever scenario they’re faced with. This choice is incredibly important, both to the character and to the reader.
You can, of course, skim over this moment. In some stories the main character is of a type where his actions don’t require much explanation. If the girl’s been taken, he will find her and punish those responsible. If the killer has put out a challenge for the cop to meet him alone and unarmed, he’s out the door straight away.
Or you could show the decision made in a very intellectual manner. The character thinks it through or talks it over with someone and comes to the rational and logical choice.
Or they simply go to bed unsure of what to do, and wake up with a determined glint in their eye.
All of these approaches are perfectly plausible, but they miss a great opportunity to connect your reader to your characters at a much deeper level.
Let’s say our main character wants to be a pilot. He studies hard and trains to be good enough. He faces difficulties, people stand in his way, but he knows what he wants and overcomes all obstacles and finally he gets his wings.
The problem with this story is that while it is a very relatable, true to life sort of tale, it lacks drama or conflict. Even if the obstacles he faces are tough and his responses very clever, or his journey is full of interesting and entertaining moments, as a character he is missing something very important. He never changes his mind. He doesn’t experience doubt. He never considers failure. He basically lacks depth.
Now consider a pilot who is asked to go on a vital mission. He is the best man for the job and the future of the world is at stake. He refuses. Everyone tries to convince him but he just won’t do it. But then something happens and he realise he has to go on the mission.
Why did he refuse? What got him to change his mind? How will he fare when he’s so obviously doesn’t want to be there. These are questions that make a straightforward situation into a dynamic one.
Before our hero has even started his exciting adventure the audience is already invested in the journey about to take place. And anytime a character heads into a dramatic event, showing how they get there will send the reader in at a run instead of a saunter. Any turning point in a character’s narrative pulls the reader into the character’s world and mind-set.
And the thing that cements this connection is the emotion of the moment. Whenever a character is sure they want to do X but end up having to do Y there’s going to be an emotional wrench. It can be any number of emotions—angry they have no other choice, delighted they get to be the one, scared they won’t make it out alive— but whatever it is, it’s important we see it happen and that it’s conveyed in the most visceral manner possible.
One way to do this is to use setting and activity to magnify the emotion.
Take our reticent pilot, for example. Let’s say he was responsible for a terrible accident that left his crew dead. He doesn’t want to lead more men and women to their deaths so he refuses the job to fly a space shuttle to a new planet that holds the future of mankind (or something).
Then he learns his son has signed on for this mission after his father specifically forbade him, and the guy in charge is somebody our hero knows isn’t up to the job. He has to take the assignment if he wants to make sure his son survives.
So, fairly standard stuff. But when our man finds out this stuff, where is he? What is he doing? Because those things will be integral to how the reader connects with the scene.
Once you work out the emotion the character is going through, then it will have far greater impact for the reader if you use the physical world of the scene to reflect that emotion.
So let’s say he is with his son and grandson at a local fair. He doesn’t want to blow his top in front of his grandchild. They’re at a coconut shy and the kid wants a teddy bear. Can you transfer the emotion he’s feeling into how he throws balls at coconuts? How he throws them, his aim, his competitiveness with his son, all these things can be used to reflect how he’s feeling about the other situation.
And while this sort of scene works as a way to show us the kind of person he is, the kind of relationship he has with his son (and grandson) and all sorts of character stuff, the big payoff will be when he turns up in the cockpit. No matter what his approach—polite, restrained, professional—we will have the inside story of what’s going on with him and it will add a whole extra level of reader engagement with the story.
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