Tag Archives: scene endings

The Allure of Disappointment

When you’re constructing scenes, do you allow your protagonist to succeed or do you thwart her plan?

Common reasoning may convince you that your protagonist should succeed. After all, how else can she continue toward victory in the story climax?

However, if she prevails against every obstacle and challenge thrown her way, she will be mighty indeed but she will not experience an arc of change; she will not hold reader attention for long; and she will know only a hollow, phony type of victory at the end.

It seems counter-intuitive to thwart your protagonist at the ending of scenes, doesn’t it? Isn’t it wrong  somehow that she should fail them? After all, how can she convince readers that she’s clever, resourceful, and admirable if she’s not getting anywhere? Won’t she come across as a loser?

That depends.

She won’t be perceived as a doofus if her opposition is stronger and trickier than expected and if she doesn’t whine about it. A loss makes her more of an underdog, and consequently she gains reader sympathy. As the antagonist stops her, outmaneuvers her, cheats her, betrays her, and corners her, reader sympathy for her should increase. Even better, dramatically speaking, the climax will loom ahead as a bigger threat or obstacle as the story outcome in her favor grows less likely.

However, if she fails in scenes because she makes too many mistakes, or she doesn’t plan well, or she does dumb things like chasing the villain down a dark alley while forgetting to carry her gun, then yes she will come across as unsympathetic, less than bright, and a loser.

Are you frowning over this? Are you thinking, but how will she ever win if she always loses her scenes?

The true purpose of scene-ending setbacks is to force her to take a bigger risk in her next attempt. After all, when things are going smoothly for us, why change our methods? When everything is fine, we don’t learn. We don’t dig deeper. We don’t challenge ourselves. We don’t grow.

And pushing your protagonist through an arc of change in behavior, beliefs, attitude, or personal growth is really what stories are all about. Not how many vampires she can destroy in an hour.

Therefore, if you’ve been writing scenes where your protagonist always succeeds, pause and re-evaluate your plotting. Consider what would happen if your protagonist lost the encounter.

“But, but, but,” you might sputter, “if that happens, Roxie will be fanged by a vampire!”

My response is simply, “So? What then?”

“But she can’t become a vampire. She’s trying to hunt them. She hates them. They killed her mother, and she wants to destroy them all.”

Understood. But consider how much better your story will become if Roxie is bitten, or grazed. She might then escape the predator’s clutches, and perhaps she even destroys her opponent, but now her situation is uncertain, potentially dire. She will experience the terror of believing she’s been turned. Could there be anything worse in Roxie’s world than becoming the very type of monster she’s sworn to obliterate? Consider the angst she’ll go through. And maybe she won’t know for certain right away, which means you can spin out the suspense and anticipation even more.

From a writer’s standpoint, that’s delicious. See how Roxie has become more interesting?

Never be afraid to disappoint your protagonist. Never fear to make her situation worse. Never lose an opportunity to test her to her limits and beyond to see what she’s made of.

I want to know how Roxie will handle this development. Don’t you?

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Fishy, Fishy–More Hooks

The first hook you write in your plot may be its most important one–not so much in terms of story advancement but in catching a reader.

After that, how many hooks do you need and how often should you place them?

For grins, I’ll divide hooks into divisions and title them as

                        Minnows

                                       Marlin

                                                Sharks

                                                        Whales

Let’s deal with them in reverse order, or from least used to most used.

Major hooks (whales) should be set at key turning points in the plot’s progression. They’re huge plot twists. They should really surprise readers, maybe even galvanize them out of their chairs, saying “Whoa!”

You need a whale of a hook (groans, please) in the center of your book. For example, [**spoiler alert **] in the middle of the Dick Francis novel, HOT MONEY, the house is blown up.

A book will probably have two such enormous hooks, possibly three, depending on its genre and the intensity of the stakes. The advantage of these hooks should be evident. The disadvantage of using them is that each successive whale should be larger. You must keep topping yourself through the course of the story. Agatha Christie’s mystery, THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD, ends with a massive plot twist so effective that I’m not going to reveal it to you here.

Use the whale too soon, and your story dries up to a disappointing finale. Use a whale too often, and you’ll either become absurd and/or campy.

So, use a killer whale in the middle of the story and a humpback in the story climax.

Moving on … the hooks I consider to be sharks can be plot twists or turning points. They should be startling and intense. I often think of them as “stingers.” In thrillers, a shark is the first revelation of the villain to readers. Each time viewpoint shifts back to the villain, another shark is placed.

Sharks may also appear at the end of chapters, because you never want a chapter to close without grabbing the reader in some way.

Sidney Sheldon’s book, IF TOMORROW COMES, opens with a shark-level hook: “She undressed slowly, dreamily, and when she was naked she put on a red negligee so the blood wouldn’t show.”

The marlins are strong and agile. Like their real counterparts–the actual sporting fish–marlin-type hooks exist to keep the reader entertained and the pace moving along.

Marlin hooks fall at the end of scenes. All scenes should end with hooks. Some will be quite small. Some will be intense. But ordinary scenes advance the story via strong setbacks (your marlins). I also recommend that, whenever possible, you open your story with a marlin as well.

Think of it leaping from the water, flashing bright in the sun, catching the reader’s eye and heart.

Okay, now for the minnows. I know they skew my metaphor because they aren’t salt water fish like the others. But minnows are small, insignificant creatures. We don’t even eat them. We only use them for bait.

Bait … a key word. Don’t you set a hook with bait?

Yep. Minnows are small questions raised in readers’ minds. We use one, or three, or five at a time. We fill a page with them, or a chapter. Minnows seem insignicant when they appear, but they’re niggling at the back of the reader’s thoughts. Slip in enough minnows, and you create a worry for the reader, a concern about a character’s safety or situation. You use minnows to build anticipation for a coming event. You let minnows entice readers into turning another page, and another, and another unti–pow!–was that a shark that just hit?

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