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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Making the Payoff Scene Count

One of our goals as writers is to create stories that keep the reader flipping pages, desperate to see what happens next. And if we’re really good, the reader will be flipping pages well beyond her bedtime. Several different elements (e.g. pacing) are used to create the necessary forward momentum. Along with these elements is The Big Scene.

The ‘big scene’ (or payoff scene) is defined as any scene that contains high drama. The intensity within the scene and the level of importance of the scene are greater than for the majority of your other ones. They are most often the turning points scenes (e.g. the inciting incident, the end of the first act, the climax). While the scene will contain heightened conflict, compared to your other ones, car chases and explosions are not required. For example, in YA, a big scene can be the first kiss, but only if the scene has been properly set up and the first kiss is importance (which is usually the case in YA). Think about some of the big payoff scenes from your favorite books. That will give you ideas of what readers in your genre expect.

When you write your payoff scenes, you need to go big. And I mean BIG. Wimpy stakes need not apply.  The same is true for your internal and external conflict. Paint layers of sensory description, theme, symbolism, subtext, emotion (without crossing into melodrama). Each will add impact to the scene and help it stand out from the crowd. Also, the characters’ actions need to be powerful. The big scene is comparable to the Fourth of July fireworks. It is the difference between a few fire crackers and the spectacular display in New York City. One is memorable; the other isn’t.

In addition to the above, you need to create the appropriate set up. When done correctly, this will guide your reader so they have an idea where the story is headed. If you have a ‘big scene’ without the appropriate set up, the emotional impact wouldn’t even be a blip on the Richter scale. You want more than a blip. You want to aim for at least a ten. You also want to use several techniques to help the payoff scene feel even bigger. One technique is the reversal. The reversal is when an event is headed in one direction and then suddenly takes an abrupt turn. A common example in romances is when the hero and heroine are in a heated discussion one moment, and kissing passionately the next.

Another technique is foreshadowing. An example of this is when the protagonist comments early in the book, when she sees a character, that she wouldn’t be surprised if one day that character’s ass is kicked in a fight. If the information is casually added into the narrative as a simple line, the reader won’t remember it by the time she gets to the ‘big scene,’ but subconsciously she will be waiting for it. The trick to foreshadowing is subtlety. If the reader sees that line and thinks, “Oh, there’s going to be a big fight at some point and the guy is going to get his ass whipped,” then you’ve failed. The reader is going to be waiting for the fight and the element of surprise will be lost. Another thing you want to avoid is heavily foreshadowing something that has no relevance to the story. If your protagonist goes on and on about her love of horses in the beginning of the book, horses had better show up later in the book and be important to the plot, or else your reader will feel cheated. And a reader who feels cheated is not a happy reader, and will be less likely to read your next story.

Juxtaposition is yet another way to add power to your big scene. Juxtaposition simply refers to elements in opposition (e.g. love/hate, happy/sad, large/small). For example, you could have a big scene occur during Valentine’s Day, when the protagonist is anticipating her first kiss with the guy she’s been crushing on since elementary school. Her emotions are high. And then she witnesses his death. The contrast between the two emotions adds impact to the big scene.

The YA contemporary novel Pushing the Limits by Katie McGarry has one of the most powerful payoff scenes that I’ve read. The story is told from two points of view, but the one that leaves most people in tears is Noah’s. (Spoiler Alert) During the story, we learn that eighteen-year-old Noah has been bounced around the foster care system after his parents’ death and has been physically abused. He now lives in the mildew-filled basement of his current foster parents’ house. Before his parents’ death, he had great grades and played varsity basketball. After their death, he was forced to quit basketball, couldn’t be bothered with his grades, and developed a reputation for being a stoner who slept around, a lot.

Noah’s two younger brothers mean the world to him, but because he was wrongly labeled as emotionally unstable, Noah can only see them on supervised visits, which are far and few in between. As a result of his experiences with the system, Noah is positive his brothers are being mistreated. The emotional punch to the gut comes when Noah, after being banned from seeing his brothers, winds up being invited to lunch with the family who wants to adopt his siblings. Katie McGarry brilliantly uses juxtaposition in the scene to heighten the emotions. Unlike the foster families Noah has lived with, the brothers’ foster parents are financially stable and give his brothers the things Noah has been deprived of. The boys get to go to basketball camps and attend a fancy private school. Their foster parents love them. The boys also have something else Noah doesn’t have: a photo of their dead parents. When Noah sees that picture, few readers can make it through the scene without crying (I’m tearing up just thinking about it). The build up to that moment is worth it—no matter how many times you read the book. Without the build up, the scene wouldn’t have had the same impact. (End of Spoiler Alert)

What books have you read that have moved you because of the powerful payoff scenes? Your homework is to analyze the book and see how the author made those scenes count, and apply what you’ve learned to your own story.

(note: This article was originally posted last year on the Adventures in YA Publishing blog. It has been edited for this post). 

Stina Lindenblatt @StinaLL writes New Adult novels. In her spare time, she’s a photographer and can be found at her blog/website.  She is represented by Marisa Corvisiero, and finds it weird talking about herself in third person. Her debut New Adult contemporary romance TELL ME WHEN and LET ME KNOW (Carina Press, HQN) are now available.

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