How can we write scenes that keep the pages turning? By creating the conditions that will enable readers to relate to our characters. Our brains are wired to react to stories. Think about it: have you ever been so engrossed in a book or even a movie and forgotten where you were? Have you ever been so absorbed in a novel you lost all track of time?
Yep, me too.
This happens because stories have the ability to evoke strong emotions within us. And because of that, we find ourselves transported into another world—the world of the character we’re reading about. But not all stories are created equal. There are certain elements of story structure and design that should be met in order for the story to be compelling enough to hold our attention. And it all comes down to science. Let me explain.
Paul J. Zak, PhD developed the following equation for building an emotional connection with your reader:
Attention + Empathy = Emotional Connection
What that tells us is that we need to capture the reader’s attention and then evoke a strong emotion or empathy. Once those two elements are accomplished effectively, we have created the conditions that allow for an emotional connection with the reader. It’s the emotional connection your reader feels that will keep him/her turning page after page to find out what happens.
So how do we effectively grab the reader’s attention and evoke empathy?
By first understanding what’s happening in the brain as we read a story. Tension and emotional events in a scene will result in the release cortisol in the brain. This release of cortisol results in increased attention and, if done effectively, will create an attentional spotlight (this is the state in which a person’s attention is focused solely on whatever it was that captured their attention, limiting their ability to adequately focus on things outside of the spotlight, i.e., losing track of time or place). By capturing the attention of your reader, you have now created the conditions which will enable them to resonate with your character—feeling what they feel, experiencing what they experience.
One way to achieve this is through scene structure. Scene structure provides a framework to guide this emotional roller coaster (or the ups and downs of tension and emotional events that will keep the cycle going—and the pages turning).
Let’s consider the structure of a scene: goal/conflict/outcome (AKA disaster).
The goal is what your character wants or needs. This is what drives the scene and moves it forward.
Conflict is what prevents your character from obtaining or achieving what it is he wants or needs. Conflict takes place in the middle section of your scene and is usually the bulk of the scene.
The outcome is the resolution of the conflict. Did your character achieve the end result he was going after or did it end in disaster (or at the very least did it end with the protagonist not achieving his end result)? Usually the outcome is not in the protagonist’s favor, hence the secondary label of disaster. But remember, the outcome doesn’t have to be a major disastrous event. It could be something minor, just enough to let the reader know that the protagonist didn’t achieve his goal and maybe, in some cases, that he did achieve it.
Let’s walk through the process. The following example is taken from Choices, Book 1 of The Catalyst Series.
(This scene is written in Ethel’s POV. Dot, who is unable to speak, is also one of the main characters of the book.)
First ask yourself—what is your character’s goal? What is it that he/she hopes or needs to accomplish? In the following example, Ethel and Dot are preparing Thanksgiving dinner. While Ethel preps the turkey to be stuffed, Dot is preparing the stuffing to go into a casserole dish. Ethel’s goal is to stuff the turkey with the stuffing that Dot has prepared.
I rinsed the turkey one last time, sprinkled salt and pepper over the white, pimply flesh, and set it into the roasting pan. I saw Dot trying to pull the doughy stuffing from between her fingers and scrape it back into the bowl. She had set a baking pan on the counter beside the stuffing bowl as if she were getting ready to bake a cake. It was fine with me if she made a cake, but right now she needed to keep her attention on getting the stuffing into that turkey. I was so focused on getting dinner in the oven, I didn’t notice that I had broken a Dot rule…
From there you’ll want to increase the tension by providing conflict. What will get in the way of your character reaching his/her goal? As you can see in the example, Dot had a different opinion about how the stuffing should be cooked and presented quite the conflict, thus building tension!
…UP UNTIL TODAY I hadn’t seen that stubbornness that Jimmy told me about. Dot had been so open and cooperative, so unlike her sister, that I had forgotten all about our conversation the night he wrote the letter.
As I walked away with the bowl of stuffing I heard a bang so loud that it made me jump. I turned to see Dot standing there, staring me down. She grabbed for the bowl again and when I wouldn’t give it to her, she jammed her hands into the flesh on her hips and made a low growling noise in her throat.
I tried to explain we didn’t have time to mess about while putting the bowl down beside the seasoned turkey. Just as I started to put the stuffing into the bird, she reached over and snatched the bowl. I threw my arm out to block her way, and was shocked when she skirted past me, narrowly missing the sharp point of the counter top. She was surprisingly agile for such a big girl, and I found myself wishing I was about ten years younger.
“Dot! You come back here with that stuffing right now!” I was yelling at her like an old fish wife as I trailed behind her, fingers grasping for the bowl. She thundered over to the baking pan, the bowl at half tilt, trying to pour the gooey substance into the pan before I could stop her. I slid my upper body across the countertop, arms outstretched in an effort to catch the falling bread. Dot slammed the bowl down hard onto the pan and trapped the stuffing against the bottom like she was trapping a bug under a canning jar. Half of the stuffing had fallen out, leaving the other half stuck to the bottom of the bowl. I used my hands to right myself, while attempting to get my body to the same side of the counter. During the chase one of my slippers had come off and I was aware that I was making a shuffle-thunk noise as I tried to close the distance between the two of us.
Dot’s apron was twisted sideways around her body, and as she turned away from me, I grabbed it by the knot. She was trying to pull away, and grunting with the effort. We inched across the kitchen floor together, shuffle, thunk, grunt, shuffle, thunk, grunt…I was being dragged along, body bent in half like a water skier on the end of a towrope. Dot was holding the bowl like a football and leaning forward as if she was walking into a stiff wind. All at once she stopped and turned hard in my direction. I was caught off guard and lost my footing.
I hit the floor like a sack of potatoes, smacking my bottom on the cold tile.
Dot took advantage of my position and ran back to the baking pan. She slammed the bowl on the pan again dislodging the rest of the stuffing. I grabbed the back of a kitchen chair, pulled myself to my feet, and rubbed my bottom, trying to take the sting out. Dot was hammering her hands down onto the stuffing, flattening it, like a demented child playing patty cake. Before I had a chance to move from my position beside the table, she grabbed up the pan, opened the oven door and threw the flat stuffing to the back. She slammed the door shut and turned to face me, prepared for another round…
Finally, you’ll need to determine the outcome. In the following example, the outcome is quite clear—Dot won the fight. Ethel didn’t get to cook the stuffing the way she wanted to. Is this a disastrous outcome? No, probably not, but outcomes don’t always need to be disastrous. Instead, we learned something vital about both characters that is important to the story overall; therefore, the scene did its job by engaging the reader, evoking empathy, and furthering the reader’s connection to the characters.
Her ample rear was pressed against the door, blocking my access, arms folded stubbornly across her chest. I was still holding my balance on the back of the chair. I was older and smaller than Dot and this was my first experience with cooking as a contact sport. I wanted to give her what for, but didn’t have enough breath left to do it properly. She must have judged by the look on my face that the fight was over, she had won. A victorious grin spread across her face as she twisted her apron back into position and smoothed the front of her dress. She scurried over in front of the sink and picked up the slipper that had been lost in the scuffle. She looked only slightly apologetic as she leaned over to place it back on my foot. She stood and patted my shoulder, as if she were consoling a fussy child, then picked up the dishcloth and began wiping the counters as if nothing had happened.
I was trying to tidy myself up when Jimmy and Ayla came through the door. Ayla was perched on his right hip, her cheeks bright pink from the cold. Her nose was runny and I watched as Dot grabbed the bottom of her apron and gave her nose an absent swipe. She picked up the dirty pan she had used to heat the celery and onions and put it in the sink.
“Well, how are you ladies coming along with dinner?” Jimmy asked with a smile. He looked at me, then around the kitchen and his smile faded. “What on earth has been going on in here?” he asked. “It looks like a tornado came through. Ethel, what happened to your hair? It looks like you two have been throwing food instead of cooking it.”
I patted at the top of my head knowing that it wouldn’t do much to improve my appearance. Dot was washing dishes at the sink with her back to us. She pretended not to hear the question. “Dot and I were just discussing the best way to prepare stuffing,” I said. “We decided to do it her way.”
Jimmy looked at me quizzically. “You had a discussion?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Well, I’m glad you all were able to reach an agreement,” he said, setting Ayla down and pulling off his coat. I thought I heard a snicker come from over by the sink.
“Dot is a hard person to argue with,” I said as I headed upstairs.
“Where you going?” Jimmy asked.
“Going to put my shoes on just in case Dot and I need to discuss anything else.”
If you plan your scenes in advance, it’s good to keep in mind scene structure. But if you are a pantser (or even someone in between like I am) and tend to write scenes as they come to you, consider looking at scene structure when something isn’t working, deconstructing your scene to figure out what elements may be missing.