In Part I of the trick to writing a great chapter or scene, we discussed that the trick itself was material difference. This entails that the characters cannot go back to the situation they were in at the start of the chapter or scene (Point A) because something irreversible happened by the end of it (Point B).
The examples we assessed last week that can come under the umbrella of ‘material consequence’ included: death, the return of a friend or foe, realisation, and being given an offer or a choice, among others.
In this blog post, we continue with the trick to writing a great chapter or scene by looking at many other events on the (non-exhaustive) list that constitute ‘material consequence.’
In the overwhelming majority of stories, a character (call him/her Character A) meets another character (Character B). This is nothing novel about this meeting and often, when Character A meets Character B, it is of no great significance to the plot.
However, sometimes Character B can force Character A into having to make a life-changing decision (which does have implication to the plot).
Example – Lucy Meets John in The Seven Year Itch
The Seven Year Itch, whose delightful and charming author I had the privilege of interviewing earlier this year.
In Lyndsey Gallagher’s wonderful debut romance novel, The Seven Year Itch, Lucy, the protagonist, is in a dull marriage to a man she doesn’t love. At a hen party for Heidi, her future sister-in-law, Lucy comes across John and her life spins on its head.
Because of this chance meeting with John, Lucy must now decide what she wants to do: Does she want to stay in her marriage? Or does she want to divorce Rob and be with John?
Example 2 – Kate Meets Tom in Last Christmas
The recently released Last Christmas movie may have tanked at the box office, but it gives us another example of how a secondary character can help to inspire change in the main character.
Kate (Emilia Clarke) works at a Christmas shop and makes bad decision after bad decision, always blaming other people for her mistakes. Then, Tom (Henry Golding) suddenly appears in her life and, because of him, she starts making better life choices.
Get An Injury
By injury, I do not mean a scratch or even the breaking of a limb as both will heal. An injury, for the sake of the trick to writing a great chapter must have material consequence. Therefore, it must be a life-changing injury. This equates to the severing of a limb or any other kind of permanent damage done to a character’s body.
Example 1 – Jaime Lannister Gets His Hand Cut Off
In the third Jaime chapter in A Storm of Swords, Ser Jaime Lannister is captured along with Brienne of Tarth by bandits, led by Vargo Hoat. Jaime tries to buy Hoat off with promises of gold from Casterly Rock. But Hoat is having none of it. To punish Jaime (and to send his powerful father a message), he cuts off Jaime’s sword-hand, as can be seen in the header.
The chapter ends there, but the consequences of Hoat’s cruel act change Jaime. He has lost the part of him that made him who he was. Thus, Jaime must redefine himself. Throughout the rest of the book, he transforms from a smug, arrogant villain into an empathetic anti-hero, who comes to the rescue of both Brienne and his brother in very different ways.
Example 2 – V from V For Vendetta (2006)
We first meet V (Hugo Weaving) when he saves Evey (Natalie Portman) from the secret police in a nightmarish, Orwellian Britain in 2032. V covers himself completely, including his face with the Guy Fawkes mask. (The mask is important as V is an anarchist.)
We never see V’s face. But we do get a glimpse of a burn-like wound on his hand. Subsequently, we learn that he was part of a governmental experiment that went horribly wrong, and it is hinted that he was scarred to the point of disfiguration.
While this goes some way to explaining why V is keen to bring down the government; why he lives under ground; and why he does not show his face to anyone, we only meet V after his life-changing injuries. We don’t know what he was like before his injury or how the injury changed him as a person. This is problematical example-wise, even if V’s injury still highlights how a character may act after being disfigured.
In V For Vendetta, V never reveals his face and only ever appears wearing the Guy Fawkes mask.
Disillusionment occurs when a character’s expectations are not met. Therefore, the character is (extremely) disappointed by events outside of his/her control, and invariably this disappointment is aimed at allies who he/she expected more from.
The net effect of a character becoming disillusioned in a story must be that it leads the disillusioned character away from his/her friends and into the arms of those he/she was previously against.
Example – Anakin Skywalker
In Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, there is a scene where Anakin stands before the Jedi Council. He is to be nominated for a seat on the Jedi Council. The council grants Anakin a seat, but not as a Jedi Master like everyone else on the council.
Anakin is disappointed by the council’s decision. He cannot understand why (or how) the councilors have made this decision. If he’s good enough to be on the council, then surely he should be an equal to the other Jedi Masters? Why should he have a second-rate seat?
Anakin’s (extreme) disappointment with the Jedi Council makes him lose faith in the Jedi. In turn, he finds solace with Chancellor Palpatine, the villain of the saga. Indeed, Anakin’s reaction to the Jedi Council’s decision sets him on the path to becoming Palpatine’s deputy – Darth Vader.
(PS: in a future blog piece on how to turn a good character bad, we shall return to this example again and assess it in more detail.)
Have A Nervous or Psychotic Breakdown
When characters have a nervous or psychotic breakdown, it is because they have pushed themselves past breaking point. The corollary of this can go one of two ways:
The characters can stop what they are doing and accept that they have broken down; or
The characters can go into denial, carry on with what they are doing and suffer worse later on.
Example for A – Andrew from Whiplash
Whiplash (2015) is one of my favourite films. It revolves around Andrew Neiman (Myles Teller), who wants to become a great drummer. His conductor Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons) pushes Andrew harder and harder. A little over half-way through the film, after pushing Andrew beyond his limits, Terence tells Andrew that he’s “done.” Andrew flips out at him and has a breakdown.
The scene is a painful one; especially, as Andrew accepts that he has to stop playing the drums and look after himself. (Ironically, it is a chance meeting with Terence Fletcher that convinces Andrew to pick up the sticks again.)
Andrew (Myles Teller, right) being pushed past his limits by his conductor, Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons, left).
Example for B – Nina from Black Swan
Nina (Natalie Portman) is a ballerina who pushes herself obsessively to achieve perfection in order to be both the White Swan and the Black Swan in the ballet, Swan Lake. Two-thirds of the way through, though, Nina has a complete psychotic breakdown.
It is a horrific scene (if absurd at the same time). Yet, unlike Andew, Nina refuses to accept that she has had breakdown. Consequently, she carries on as if she’s fine. This leads her to accidentally commit suicide at the end of the movie.
In real life, hope is what gives people reason to live; to believe that life will get better. It is a sense of optimism that brings about the potential for positive change. While there are elements of truth to this definition of hope for the purpose of a story, to make hope work (and part of the trick to writing a great chapter or scene) it must be sudden and noticeable so as to have impact.
Therefore, when a chapter contains hope, the characters must start off the chapter being close to defeat. Then, hope is injected into them by another person, group or army. (Additionally, the sudden injection of hope on the reader should be powerful enough to produce an adrenaline-surging, fist-clenching moment.)
Example – The Knights of The Vale Ride To The Rescue
Season 6 Episode 9 of Game of Thrones is the thrilling ‘Battle of the B*******.’ Towards the end of the pitched battle, Jon Snow and his men are surrounded by Bolton forces. In short, the Boltons have them encircled and are crushing them (both literally and figuratively).
Jon Snow senses that all is lost. But then he hears a horn blast from around a hill. The Knights of the Vale have come! Suddenly, the Stark forces and their allies have a burst of energy and fight even harder, as now they realise that victory will be theirs. This is the power of hope.
The Knights of the Vale, riding to the rescue during the Battle of the Bastards, giving the Starks the hope they needed to reclaim Winterfell and the North.
This we shall cover next time around in Part III of the trick to writing a great chapter or scene. I hope you have enjoyed this post and that you have found it interesting and useful.
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