Whether you are writing a screenplay, a short story, or a novel, you are writing something that you hope will resonate with the reader and move them. A lesson that screenwriters learn early on is that each scene must be viewed as a mini-story; a complete story within the larger story. They learn this early because they don’t have the luxury of space that we who write novels have. The entire story of a screenplay must be told within a finite framework of time, so the writer must wring the most emotional impact out of the least amount of words.
I’m still working on this, myself. But I’m getting there.
So, where do we start? We begin with the most fundamental reason people purchase books or go to plays and movies—drama. The inferential layer of the Word-Pond we call Story is all about the drama, and I’m not talking over-the-top hysterics here. We combine emotional highs and lows with action and reaction in each passage to create dramatic scenes that leave a mark on the reader.
Of course, we understand large, emotionally charged, outwardly noisy dramatic scenes. They impact us and leave us reeling. But the only way those events have power is if they have context. They must be balanced by quieter, more introspective moments.
Drama can happen in the mildest of scenes, places where it looks as if nothing important is happening. The follow-up/regrouping scenes are places where you have the opportunity to waylay the reader with something unexpected. This is where you show the reader what is happening beneath the surface, the inner demons and fears the characters now face.
Consider The Two Towers by J.R.R.Tolkien. Let’s look at the emotional impact of the scene that takes place in Shelob’s Lair. Frodo and Sam have survived incredible hardships and have made it to Cirith Ungol. The passage is an excellent example of the dramatic story within a story that advances the overall plot.
Drama is the hope we feel in the moment when Frodo faces Shelob with the Phial of Light. Drama is the moment Frodo fails, the moment he is stung.
It is the shock, the horror, the moment where Sam reluctantly takes up Frodo’s sword, Sting.
It is triumph when Shelob impales herself on Sting, a weapon made of Mithril and a sword in the hands of a hobbit. But really, Sting is only a long-knife, and despite its mythic properties, it is not long enough to kill the giant arachnid, Shelob.
Still, she is wounded and scuttles away.
Drama is in the despair, the quiet moment afterward, where Samwise realizes that everything they have just endured was for nothing.
Drama is the moment of sharp introspection, the internal conversation when Sam fears his own weakness; the moment when his faith is not just shaken—it is lost. It is that moment of profound despondency in Shelob’s Lair, the dark night of the soul where Sam believes the spider has killed Frodo.
What about love? Few emotions have as much dramatic potential as that of love. It has many shades, from friendship to affection, to desire, to passion, to obsession, to jealousy, to hate.
Let’s look at the Pulitzer Prize winning short story, Brokeback Mountain, by Annie Proulx (synopsis via Wikipedia):
In 1963, two young men, Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist, are hired for the summer to look after sheep at a seasonal grazing range on the fictional Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming. Unexpectedly, they form an intense emotional and sexual attachment, but have to part ways at the end of the summer. Over the next twenty years, as their separate lives play out with marriages, children, and jobs, they continue reuniting for brief liaisons on camping trips in remote settings.
Ennis and Jack are tied to each other, but they love their wives and children. They are products of their society, and their personal reactions to the intensity of their relationship are both hurtful and understandable in the context of their time and situation. People have love affairs in books all the time, and we often find them forgettable. It is the complexity of external societal pressure and deep, confusing emotion that makes Ennis and Jack’s attachment memorable.
Then there is the novel, Possession, by A.S. Byatt, winner of the 1990 Booker prize. This is a complex relationship that begins in a rather boring manner – it opens in a library when Roland Michell, a scholar and professional man of high morals commits a crime: he steals the original drafts of letters he has come across in his research. This act has the potential of becoming his professional suicide. The synopsis via Wikipedia:
(Roland Mitchell) begins to investigate. The trail leads him to Christabel LaMotte, a minor poet and contemporary of Ash, and to Dr. Maud Bailey, an established modern LaMotte scholar and distant relative of LaMotte. Protective of LaMotte, Bailey is drawn into helping Michell with the unfolding mystery. The two scholars find more letters and evidence of a love affair between the poets (with evidence of a holiday together during which – they suspect – the relationship may have been consummated); they become obsessed with discovering the truth. At the same time, their own personal romantic lives – neither of which is satisfactory – develop, and they become entwined in an echo of Ash and LaMotte. The stories of the two couples are told in parallel, with Byatt providing letters and poetry by both of the fictional poets.
Love, whether unacknowledged or returned, physical or platonic, is complicated. The sections of movies, books, and short stories where the arc of the scene showcases true emotional complexity stick with me. I find myself contemplating them long after the story has ended.
In all three literary examples, The Lord of the Rings, Brokeback Mountain, and Possession, it is the interpersonal relationships entwined with the action that illuminates the drama. Action scenes require some sort of emotion to give them context, to shape them into an arc:
- Opening, the linking point where we introduce our characters and their situation.
- Rising Action, where we introduce complications and emotional responses.
- Climax, the high point of the action, the turning point of the scene.
- Falling Action, the “what the hell just happened” moment where we regroup.
- Closing, in which the problems encountered by the protagonist are resolved as best as can be expected, and we move on to the next scene.
The emotions surrounding the drama in our literature attracts us, captivates us, keeps us interested. In every story, drama is the moment you, the reader, realize you must take up the hero’s task; you must carry the evil One Ring to Mount Doom.
Drama done well can take the reader from joy to despair to resignation and back to hope within the arc of the scene. This is good pacing and urges the reader to keep turning the page to see what is coming next.
Credits and Attributions:
Wikipedia contributors, “Brokeback Mountain (short story),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Brokeback_Mountain_(short_story)&oldid=902058091 (accessed August 24, 2019).
Wikipedia contributors, “Possession (Byatt novel),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Possession_(Byatt_novel)&oldid=909067002 (accessed August 24, 2019).
The Two Towers, by J.R.R. Tolkien, first edition cover, Publisher George Allen & Unwin, © 11 November 1954, Fair Use.
Possession by A.S. Byatt, first edition cover, Publisher Chatto and Windus, © 1990, Fair Use.