TURNING UP THE HEAT


As an editor and writing instructor, I like to give myself the challenge of taking what’s basically a deep, emotional experience—reading—and finding a way to quantify it, to make what strikes the reader on a gut level concrete, somehow, so that writers can learn how to tap into that rich, intense spot in the reader’s psyche.

Often when editors, agents, or other industry folks respond to a novel—or its discrete components, scenes—we talk about the issue of temperature. The idea that a novel might play out “too low” a temperature, or that too many of its scenes unfold at “the same temperature” is a way of saying, I think, that the emotional drive is lacking. The reader isn’t grabbed by the collar and held, breathless, as the scene unfolds. Or the reader is kept captive at one emotional pitch for so long that the effect is somehow numbing.

So, as a way of thinking about scene “temperature,” about what makes for high-temperature, dramatically rich scenes, I offer the following observations.

HIGH TEMPERATURE SCENES INCLUDE:

  • CONFLICT between two or more characters--physical, emotional, psychological.
  • OBSERVABLE, INTERESTING behavior on the part of characters/protagonist--characters ACTING so that we can see/experience it in our minds/guts/heart.
  • TENSION in the form of unanswered questions.
  • POWER taken away from protagonist.
  • POWER absent from protagonist.
  • ELEMENTS acting against characters.
  • SURPRISING revelations, reversals of fortune, the unanticipated moment or response.
  • EMOTIONAL challenge of the protagonist--heightened feeling, loss of control, self-revelation, reckoning with things previously kept hidden in the emotional realm.

LOW TEMPERATURE SCENES INCLUDE:

  • AGREEMENT between two or more characters.
  • Characters in ISOLATION, REFLECTING on their actions, their lives, the decisions they now face.
  • IMPARTING of information, answering of questions.
  • EXPOSITION--summarizing of events, “telling” instead of showing.
  • POWER given to protagonist.
  • Protagonist entering the scene in the POWER position.
  • ELEMENTS acting in the protagonist’s favor. (Coincidences, luck, etc.)
  • Events unfolding just as EXPECTED--by both reader and characters.
  • Protagonist feeling CALM/COLLECTED/UNFLAPPABLE.

My advice: take a look at your scenes and see how “hot” they are. While not every scene in a novel has to—or should—take place at a high-temperature, such scenes should represent the majority of the work.

Ask yourself too if the heat keeps rising as the story progresses. Are you introducing more tension, a stronger pique of emotion? Are you pushing your protagonist and other characters outside of his or her sphere of comfort, forcing him or her to make tough choices, to sacrifice the very things he/she has been driving toward all along?  Do you keep him/her engaged and in action throughout most scenes, rather than inert and in contemplation? Is he or she summarizing for the reader or living and breathing on the page?

Turn up the heat on your novel—a bit at a time—to keep your reader invested and interested from the first to the last bite!  -- Lorin