Every now and then I pick up Robert McKee’s book, Story, and reread a random chapter just to remind myself of the craft principles that I so desire to continue to romance. The premise of one particular chapter on scenes reminded me of one of my all-time favorite movies from 1977, Turning Point, with Shirley MacClaine (my favorite actress) and Anne Bancroft, a story of missed chances, and wanting what the other had. I remember crying at the end, telling my husband, “I didn’t want it to end!”
That’s how we as authors would like our readers to feel as they near the final few pages of our novels. And experiencing turning points is one of the reasons why a reader, or moviegoer, would say that.
A novel that brings the reader something they didn’t anticipate, from positive to negative or negative to positive, that puts them at risk or causes a reversal, can keep ones attention in a way that a flat exposition cannot do. Every scene or chapter should be a turning point in some way, be it minor, moderate or major. It’s that jolt of surprise that makes us say, “Oh no he didn’t,” that keeps us turning the pages, even when it’s after three in the morning and we need to be at work by eight. Turning point: the point of continuing to turn the pages.
As storytellers we lead the reader into expectation, if they would only lend us their concentration. We lead them deeper and deeper into the natures of our imaginary “book-people,” taking the characters, and the readers, in different directions, be it subtle or hard-hitting.
Last year a New York Times author reminded me to not only surprise the reader, but also, to allow my characters to surprise me. This is one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received from another author.
We think we know our characters so well, that we’ll fight tooth and nail, saying, “Oh, she would never do that!” Well, in our own lives, do we really truly know if one of our siblings or best friends could ever be an undercover spy, rob a bank, be a bigamist, or a murderer, etc., - because the reality is . . . they just might. I won’t say let your characters surprise you, as much as allow yourself to be surprised. Don’t fight it. Stop being so controlling. If it’s true that it’s possible to slip something in on the reader that they didn’t anticipate, then why would it not be possible to slip something in on the writer himself/herself? Really listen when they talk to us (that thing they do that makes people we live with say we're crazy). Turning point: a point that turns, and surprises even us crazy writers.
What’s the best piece of advice an author has given you along the way? Or, what’s the last movie you watched that you just didn’t want to end?
Happy Scene Writing, and Happy 4th of July!