A phrase you’ve undoubtedly heard in a review of an entertaining book—repeatedly, to the point of cliche:
…an emotional rollercoaster ride!
As with many cliches, however, its familiarity conceals an important truth:
A work of fiction satisfies to the degree it moves the audience emotionally.
From joy to sadness, hope to fear, and hubris to humility, powerful drama happens when readers experience a succession of emotional highs and lows. No wonder the image of a rollercoaster fits so well when describing this journey of feeling. But so, too, does surfing, sex, and the passing of the seasons, because all of these metaphors share a fundamental wiring.
The Beauty of Waves
An oscillation. A build-up and release.
From earthquakes, to music, to orgasms…energy which imbues an event with significance is always transmitted in the form of a wave.
When a wave is experienced by a human being—i.e. channeled through the senses—emotion is the inevitable result.
Wouldn’t it be nice to harness the emotion-inducing power of a wave using the basic building blocks of dramatic fiction?
Of course it would. So how?
How do we guide readers through the peaks and valleys of human experience using familiar elements of storytelling? And how do we leverage a wave-like structure to write scenes that are—not only entertaining, but—infused with meaning, while simultaneously avoiding the pitfalls of flatness and melodrama?
The Of M.I.C.E. & Pen 3-Dimensional Dramatic Storytelling Model attempts to answer these questions (among others).
While by no means exhaustive, at the very least, this model will show you what valid answers look like, visually, using elements of dramatic fiction you’re already familiar with.
Here in Part 01 we’ll build up this dramatic storytelling model from scratch, with emphasis on the Scene, the smallest coherent fractal of dramatic storytelling. Specifically, you’ll learn:
- The three most descriptive and impactful measures of reader engagement in a scene / story.
- The storytelling equivalent of a wave’s “trough” and “crest.” (Pretty much the secret to narrative drive.)
- The psychologically-accurate and consistent phases of a believable, comprehensive response to the Conflict faced by your protagonist.
- The difference between your protagonist’s Ruling Passion and Lack, and how these two driving values compete to realize your story’s Theme.
- How reader’s vicariously experience your protagonist’s Fears and Expectations, and how this glues them to the page.
- How the hero of your story learns through success and failure while pursuing their goals in the story, and how this process unfolds throughout your novel to produce a convincing Character-Arc.
- How to recognize where one Beat of Conflict ends, and the next begins, to avoid boring your reader.
- The importance of showing what’s at Stake, and how high stakes help the reader suspend disbelief.
- The addictive power of immersing your reader in the protagonist’s Dilemma, and how portraying dilemma leads to a resonant theme.
- How to imbue your scenes with meaning.
Then, in Part 02, we’ll apply the Of M.I.C.E. & Pen Model to identify and solve common problems found in scenes.[Real quick: If all this talk of 3D models and storytelling “elements” has you worried, please assuage your fears by reading this caveat, before you proceed.]
Plotting The Plot
Because it’s easier to remember complex concepts visually, the components of this model will be presented within a 3D coordinate system. In other words, this model will provide a way for you to visualize exactly “where” your protagonist is at every point in a scene in terms of:
- their State of Being (especially as expressed in terms of Emotional Intensity),
- the Intellectual Stimulation provided to the reader, and
- the amount of Time that’s passed since the start of the scene (among other attributes).
Every sentence you write in a dramatic scene will express or modify at least one of these components. This allows us to position the POV character uniquely within the coordinate system at a particular moment in time. Since the reader experiences the drama in your story vicariously through your POV character, this model also describes the “emotional rollercoaster ride” experienced by the reader in a given scene and in your story as a whole. Best of all, once you, the author, have a way to visualize this journey, creating dramatic and meaningful scenes becomes far less mysterious.
The Axes of Drama
If our 3-D dramatic storytelling model were to describe solid objects, we’d have axes for Width, Height, and Depth. Instead, since we’re talking about stories, we’ll replace width with Time*, height with Emotional Intensity / State of Being (SOB for short), and depth with Intellectual Stimulation, as shown in the coordinate system below:
You’ll notice that the ‘E’ in [E]motional Intensity, and the ‘I’ in [I]ntellectual Stimulation is [bracketed]. That’s simply to highlight that they form part of the name I’ve given to this 3-D model (M.I.C.E.); we’ll get to the ‘M’ and ‘C’ shortly.
Since these terms can mean something different in the context of this model than what you might be used to, I’ll provide a definition for each component of the model immediately after it’s first introduced in a diagram. Once defined, I’ll move on to a discussion of its use in a scene. Let’s get started:
Time*: Imagine the second-hand on an analog clock, gradually rotating around the clock-face once per minute. If the second-hand has moved on the imaginary clock after the reader finishes a sentence in your story, then Time* has passed in the realtime of your story. This is the kind of time our X-Axis is referring to. Hence, the asterisk—to emphasize that we are talking about linear, forward-moving time—not flashbacks, long descriptions, or those instances of POV reflection when time seems to stand still.
With this notion of Time, we already have a way to introduce a wave-like experience into our scenes. For example, pages of description might be devoted to a crucial five-minute span of torture endured by the POV, followed by a mere sentence or two of narration summarizing an uneventful six months of recovery.
Most successful fiction manipulates the passage of time in this way. And this is one reason the standard writerly advice of “show, don’t tell,” ought to come with a caveat. Because if you do nothing but show, time creeps along moment-by-moment, and you risk wearing the reader out. Furthermore, there are usually long stretches of time in your story where nothing of significance is happening. To describe those periods at length would bore the reader, while leaving them out entirely might harm continuity. Hence, the very real need for compression and summary; i.e. “telling”.
One key to manipulating the passage of Time in a scene, then, is varying the number of words devoted to a particular span. There’s also an art in choosing which spans of time to compress, and which to drag out. A useful rule of thumb is to slow down the perceived passage of time (i.e. devote more words) whenever:
- the POV is responding to conflict (especially emotionally),
- the environment they find themselves in changes in some significant way, or
- you need to add significance to a person, place, or thing (perhaps for foreshadowing) which the reader might not otherwise pick up on.
Perceived Time ≠ Real-Time
Before we move on, there’s a finer point concerning the passage of time in a scene you need to be aware of. A question, really, and it involves the concept of Intellectual Stimulation, which we’ll cover below:
When an author slows down the passage of time to describe something in detail, the “real-time” of the story doesn’t necessarily advance too much—but arguably, it could advance—so what’s the right amount? How far in the future does the author pick up with the real-time of the scene after devoting paragraphs or even pages to description / reflection / mental problem-solving?
Like so many challenges in fiction, there is no “right” answer to this question. It’s a question of pacing and style. Just be aware of the issue (and pay special attention to the POV Response cycle discussed later in this article).
Emotional Intensity / State of Being (SOB for short): Any human emotion the POV is currently experiencing in your story can be assigned a rating of intensity, positive or negative. This intensity rating is expressed in terms of the distance from the POV character’s overall story goal (for positive emotions), or from a state of abject failure in achieving this goal (for negative emotions). We call this combination of human emotion and its current intensity, Emotional Intensity and/or State of Being (SOB).
A POV’s Emotional Intensity / SOB provides another opportunity to oscillate between opposite extremes—the most important of all wave-shaped energy in dramatic fiction. I stated this at the beginning of this article, but it bears repeating (again and again):
Fiction works when the reader is moved emotionally.
And because the reader (almost always) identifies with the protagonist (most often the POV in a scene), and because the reader experiences the story vicariously through the POV, showing the POV’s journey from one emotion to another—as well as the intensity of the emotions they’re experiencing—is paramount.
If there is no change, in either the emotion the POV is feeling, or its intensity (and ideally both), then there is no drama.
A scene in which the POV enters happy and leaves happy isn’t a scene. It’s an incident.
Plot—what happens—is irrelevant if it doesn’t impact the POV’s emotions. We’ll come back to this over and over. It’s that important.
Intellectual Stimulation: Any prose which does not advance the realtime of your story. Describing a character or the setting, expressing a fond memory of the POV in between dialogue, and relaying needed factual information to the reader are all examples of what I call Intellectual Stimulation. It is what adds “depth” to a story. That’s why stories with nothing but action—no matter how thrilling—are called “flat” if they skimp on stimulating our intellect.
As with Time and Emotional Intensity / SOB, providing Intellectual Stimulation is yet another chance to introduce wave-like motion into your story (admittedly, the effect will be more subtle). After a fast-paced action sequence for example, you might slow things down by describing, in minute detail, the mechanics of a vehicle or a weapon which will play a role in a future plot twist. Conversely, after devoting paragraphs to explaining an arcane bit of medieval history relevant to the plot, you might then choose to hold back when describing the appearance of a minor character encountered right after the historical digression.
The genre you write in will also impact the amount of Intellectual Stimulation you include. Literary novels are often almost nothing but Intellectual Stimulation, because very little happens outside the mind of the POV. Nicholson Baker’s A BOX OF MATCHES comes to mind, an extreme you’d be wise to avoid. But you can get stuck in the opposite ditch, too, like the stereotypical Men’s Adventure where guns, buns, and bullion rule the day at the expense of the reader’s IQ.
Balance is what you’re after.
Take Dan Brown, for instance. Despite his alleged faults as a storyteller, the author of THE DA VINCI CODE succeeds in part because he is very adept at propelling the narrative forward with fascinating tidbits of Intellectual Stimulation relevant to the plot.
The Thrill of Victory…and the Agony of Defeat
Goal: The overarching objective the protagonist of your story is trying to accomplish. Note that this should be a conscious and tangible outcome, such as: “save the girl,” or, “avenge the murder of a spouse,” or, “prove their innocence and find the real perpetrator.”
Without a Goal, there can be no Conflict, and without Conflict, there is no story.
In different scenes the POV might be pursuing different goals. Regardless, these goals should be sub-goals related to the overarching Story Goal. Even within a scene, when different goals are pursued by the POV / protagonist, these goals should almost always be related, somehow, to moving the protagonist close to their objective in the larger story. If you find your protagonist pursuing goals that have nothing to do with the overarching story Goal, then those pursuits are probably not relevant, and can be cut.
As with Intellectual Stimulation, a POV’s Goal is strongly influenced by the genre you write in. And if you want your readers to identify with the protagonist (which you typically do), it’s important they have a Goal the reader admires / shares / aspires to.
Real quick, allow me to clarify what we mean by “intensity” in Emotional Intensity (defined and discussed above). Positive Intensity is linearly correlated with how close the POV is to achieving their Goal, while the Intensity of negative emotions is a measure of how close the POV is to complete and utter defeat, otherwise known as…
Disaster: A state of abject failure from which your protagonist cannot recover.
I would emphasize that a Disaster is not merely a setback. It’s a state so bad the POV / protagonist can’t recover from it. It’s not “losing the girl.” It’s having the girl cheat on you with a psychopathic mixed martial arts champion, who then proceeds to beat you to within an inch of your life while the girl watches and laughs at your inability to defend yourself.
Unless your book ends in tragedy, you wouldn’t have your POV actually experience a state of Disaster. That said, some of the best dramas do lead readers to believe the protagonist is utterly and completely screwed at the end of climactic scenes…only to have them recover in the next scene by way of pure will, ingenuity, or some other positive attribute.
There’s nothing new to share in the above diagram. Simply notice that the Intellectual Stimulation axis has been removed for purposes of legibility.
Context is Everything
POV: Point of View is represented by the black circle labeled “POV” in these diagrams. It is the character through whom the reader experiences the story. Usually, but not always, the protagonist. For simplicity, we’ll assume the POV is the protagonist going forward.
Note that at the beginning of a scene (picture above), the POV is already experiencing a particular SOB with a known intensity (somewhat negative in this case, by virtue of being closer to Disaster than their Goal).
For example, the POV could be experiencing sadness at the beginning of this scene, a result of failing an important exam in the previous scene. Not devastating (hence, a long way off from Disaster), but definitely moving them farther from their overarching story Goal (getting into Harvard).
Portraying the POV’s initial State of Being for the reader is an important authorial objective at the start of every scene.
Along with linking the scene to what came before in the story, showing the reader the POV’s emotional state provides critical context for the reader.
Continuing the example above, the POV might be feeling frustration and self-loathing in response to their failing grade. Motivated by this malaise, their scene goal becomes: “convince the instructor to let them retake the exam.” What’s critical, is that you, the author, communicate the POV’s SOB and initial Goal to the reader (and ideally, how they relate). If you don’t, the reader will not become emotionally invested in the outcome of the scene, because they won’t know what the desired outcome even is.
More abstractly, a reader can’t fully enjoy the experience of a peak, if they don’t know what the experience of a valley feels like. It’s the change in emotion that’s satisfying. The change in circumstance and fortune and knowledge of the world. That’s why the beginning of a scene must be just as expertly rendered as its conclusion.
It’s All About The Response
POV Response: The segmented blue line represents a POV’s Response. It’s what happens as the POV reacts to their current State of Being (more on this reaction below).
Commit this to memory: in entertaining dramatic fiction, it’s the POV’s Response that deserves the most attention.
In the definition of POV Response, above, I indicated that their current State of Being is what motivates this Response. While ultimately true, it’s not the whole picture. In fact, many writing instructors would argue that a POV’s Response is motivated by Conflict.
And I get what they’re saying.
Because a previously encountered obstacle (i.e. conflict) is in large part what determines the subsequent SOB experienced by a POV.
For instance, if a large man slaps your POV across the head, it’s reasonable to assume they’re going to respond with either violent retaliation, or a flight response.
But maybe not…
Because what if the large man was actually killing a deadly scorpion before it could sting your POV? Then your POV’s SOB would be (on balance) positive, and thus their Response to the slap would be different. What determines the nature of their Response, therefore—what motivates it—isn’t the conflict encountered, but their experience and interpretation of the conflict. And this is why [C]onflict isn’t overly emphasized on any of the diagrams in this model (except, you know, by providing the ‘C’ in M.I.C.E.).
Is Conflict important? Crucially.
But too many times we’ve had the mantra of “conflict, conflict, conflict!” drilled into our heads as being the key to dramatic storytelling. It’s not. Skillfully portraying the POV’s Response to conflict is. I’ll say it again: a reader experiences the highs and lows of your story vicariously through the POV. Conflict comes (primarily) from the environment and from the antagonists in your story.
Bottom line, the most intense conflict ever committed to the page will simply not move your readers unless you focus on the POV’s response to it. So that’s what we’ll do. In fact, conflict can be conveyed to the reader as a special type of…
Orientation: The world external to the POV, including the setting, situation, and present conflict faced. Orientation also provides the reader with the necessary context for what’s happening in the scene (not only at the beginning, but throughout).
No POV, of course, exists in a vacuum. A scene takes place, somewhere. Flesh and blood people get in the way of what your POV wants. The weather benefits or thwarts your POV in their journey. Critically, as discussed above, your POV must process the changes in their surroundings and SOB as a result of conflict previously encountered.
The Orientation phase of the POV Response is where you convey this information to the reader…
But not necessarily in every POV Response.
As with most of the other elements discussed in this model, oftentimes a sub-component of the POV Response will be skipped. Which begs the question:
When do we include descriptions of setting, character, and the conflict motivating a POV Response? Answer: When something relevant to the POV’s Goal, changes.
Imagine a scene which opens with a detailed description of a sunny day on the beach, and the POV taking it all in from their blanket on the sand. All of this description would be considered Orientation, providing the reader with necessary context. Also note that, even though this material appears at the start of this scene, it’s still a POV Response, because it’s how the POV is choosing to react to what happened at the end of the previous scene (maybe they got into an argument with a co-worker, and their boss ordered them to take some paid leave).
So, now that we’ve established the setting (a sunny day on the beach), when would it make sense to start describing the setting again?
Answer: when it’s no longer sunny / warm / relaxing for our POV. When a sudden lightning storm starts blasting beachgoers with fatal bolts of electricity, or when a giant tsunami appears on the horizon. It wouldn’t make sense, for instance, to talk about the glow of the sun on the lifeguard tower, or the beauty of the soaring seagulls, after this peaceful beach scene has already been established.
Stories are about change. Stories are about change. Stories are about…(you get the idea).
Something else to consider about the Orientation phase of a POV Response: How the POV describes the setting and the people they’re interacting with in the scene is an important aspect of characterization. It’s also a great way to express their State of Being while simultaneously orienting the POV and the reader within the scene. Here’s an illustration of this from my THE NEPHILIM CHRONICLES:
The jungle mazes of the world-famous zoo streak past below the right wingtip. The post-modern skyline of downtown is at eye-level on the left, like some future Atlantis, standing sentry over an ocean biding its time. San Diego’s beauty makes me feel even more alone. Incongruous. A yellow bow of sandy coastal splendor dressing up my gift-wrapped misery. I will spill blood in America’s Finest City and the sunshine will bleach out the stains.
Feelings… Nothing More Than Feelings.
Emotion: The visceral, biological, and psychological component of a realistically rendered POV reaction. Examples include sadness, longing, arousal, and happiness. Rather than simply telling the reader something like, “The POV is feeling sad,” however, the Emotion comprising a POV Response should ideally be shown to the reader whenever possible. Like this: “She wiped the tear from her cheek and tried not to think of her broken heart.”
By now, there’s no need to re-emphasize the importance of Emotion in dramatic storytelling. Instead, I want to focus on the psychologically-accurate sequence of a realistic POV Response (which begins with Emotion). Because the sequencing of POV Response is easy to get wrong.
Physiologically and psychologically, people respond to a significant stimulus (“conflict,” in story parlance) in the same sequence of behaviors. And this sequence starts with a visceral emotional response.
Thought: Problem solving, triggered memories, opinions, conjectures, and anything else that takes place in the POV’s head (and couldn’t otherwise be “filmed” in real-time). Note: thoughts do consume time in the scene, just not necessarily the amount of time one might expect from the number of words used to convey them.
The human animal is cerebral. When we feel something, we try and make sense of it. When we observe something new, we try to compare it to similar images in our mental film reel of memories.
Thought is probably the most diverse and flexible of the POV Response cycle. Think of all the types of thoughts a character can have. About the past. About the future. About what’s happening right now in the story.
Thought (or what some writers call “internal monologue”) is also one of the great advantages novelists have over movie makers. It’s tough to film Thought, but on the page, you can stay in the head of your POV for as long as it makes sense to.
The relative weight you give Thought in your POV responses can also help characterize them. Brainy, introspective people tend to think more before acting. Emotional or instinctive personality types will spend less time in their head (I’ll post an article later about leveraging this technique and this model to portray distinct personalities among your cast of characters.)
We Have A Verdict
Decision: How the POV arrives at a course of action during their Response to the motivating Conflict, and a suggestion of what this action will be. The Decision is often omitted and simply implied by the action / dialogue that follows. However, it’s still useful to think of the Decision as a distinct component of the POV’s response. (Be sure to pay close attention to “Dilemma,” a special type of Decision, later in this tutorial.)
After the POV’s visceral, emotional reaction to conflict, and after they try and make sense of it through problem-solving and rumination, they Decide. They make a Decision as to what course of action they will take (or what they will say).
While it’s not necessary to explicitly tell the reader what a POV’s Decision is for each and every Response, it’s a good idea to do so more often than you might think. That’s because the POV will often make a Decision based on either their Ruling Passion or Lack, the two competing values which act together to determine Theme. More on this interaction a little later. First…
Expectation: What the POV expects will happen when acting on their Decision. (Not labeled in the above diagram, but represented by the dotted perimeter around the POV icon.)
While Expectation naturally blends with the Decision phase of the POV Response, I emphasize it as a separate component because it’s a crucial part of how a POV learns and grows in a story.
Action / Dialogue: The final component of a POV reaction (and not uncommonly, the only component actually rendered on the page); what the POV actually says or does (or both) to express the decision they have made to deal with previously encountered conflict (and/or to deal with the States of Being they’re experiencing).
Action and Dialogue are fairly self-explanatory. It’s the “what happens” of plot, rendered on the page.
The course of action the POV takes (or what they say in dialogue) doesn’t always work out like they expect it to (in dramatic storytelling, things should rarely go as expected). As shown in the next illustration, the POV expects their Action and Dialogue to move them closer to their Goal; instead, they end up worse off.
The take-home point is that, when the POV takes an Action or says something in Dialogue which reflects their Decision, there will be consequences experienced, resulting in a brand new State of Being, because the POV will be either closer to, or farther from, their Goal.
I’ve simplified things a bit in the previous diagrams, especially when it comes to the Decision portion of the POV Response. Now let’s take a closer look, and learn how Decision and Expectation lend themselves to expressing Theme.
The Dynamics of Decision
A large portion of your POV’s Decisions will involve the consideration of two (or more) possible courses of action (represented by the black arcs with arrows above). And, the likely consequences of each action.
The courses of action considered by the POV will depend, not only on their expectations and fears, but also on their strengths, weaknesses, and beliefs.
Ruling Passion: A character’s defining value which tends to drive behavior and decision making, especially in times of stress and uncertainty. In many stories, a Ruling Passion is a double-edged sword. It’s what the character relied on to achieve their current status in life, but it can also be what holds them back from obtaining what they really want.
Lack: A character’s undeveloped, unconsidered, or taken for granted value. The Lack offers the largest opportunity for growth, and is often the key to achieving the story Goal. In a dramatic story, the POV is faced with dilemmas that force them to choose between a course of action that reflects either their Ruling Passion, or their Lack. The consequences of these choices, good or bad, are what teach the POV what they need to learn in order to progress in their journey.
In real life, you might make a decision based on a wide array of inputs: Experiences, education, religious beliefs, peer influence, insecurities, etcetera. In a dramatic story, however, it can help to have your POV decide solely between a manifestation of their Ruling Passion and their Lack.
On the downside, such a binary approach can seem simplistic. On the upside, it’s a powerful way to demonstrate your story’s Theme, and to ensure there’s a satisfying character arc for your protagonist.
Teaching on the Sly
First and foremost, a dramatic story should entertain. But stories are also the best way to transmit important lessons.
When a POV faces a threat to their goal, forcing them to decide on a new course of action, they’ll mull over two sets of values. First, they’ll consider values they’ve relied on in the past to solve this kind of a problem (their Ruling Passion). Second, they’ll consider values they’re less certain of, but have been grappling with in the current story (their Lack).
The POV will then make reasonable guesses as to which value they should rely on to get them through their ordeal most effectively. They’ll be explicitly aware of the consequences of failure (fear), and of what they hope will happen (expectation).
Having weighed all of that, they’ll take action. The action they take will either symbolize their Ruling Passion, or symbolize their Lack.
After the action is taken, there will be consequence, either “good” or “bad.” Thus, the POV will learn a valuable lesson. This learning can happen in four different ways:
- POV relies on Ruling Passion, expecting good thing to happen, and fearing bad thing if they fail –> POV takes an action indicative of their Ruling Passion –> Good thing happens –> The POV’s Ruling Passion is reinforced.
- POV relies on Ruling Passion, expecting good thing to happen, and fearing bad thing if they fail –> POV takes an action indicative of their Ruling Passion –> But bad thing happens –> The POV’s Ruling Passion is called into question.
- POV relies on Lack, expecting good thing to happen, and fearing bad thing if they fail –> POV takes an action indicative of their Lack –> Good thing happens –> The POV’s Lack is reinforced.
- POV relies on Lack, expecting good thing to happen, and fearing bad thing if they fail –> POV takes an action indicative of their Lack –> But bad thing happens –> Maybe the POV’s Lack isn’t so important after all.
Note, this Decision-making process doesn’t need to happen in every POV Response. But in the climactic beat of your scene—especially if it’s a payoff scene, and definitely if it’s the climax of your entire novel—the Decision needs to be as explicit as possible.
As the author, you get to choose how the POV ponders their predicament. Different lessons are learned based on the various combinations of Ruling Passion / Lack –> Expectation / Fear –> Action Taken –> New State of Being.
Turn The Beat Around
Beat of Conflict: At least one POV response cycle in which the POV ends up closer to, or father away from, their Goal, thus changing their State of Being for better or worse.
So far in this model, I’ve only shown a single POV response cycle. A scene, of course, is made up of multiple POV Responses (at least as many as there are sources of conflict). Screenwriters refer to a Motivating Conflict + POV Response as a Beat.
Please note that, even though I tend to draw it that way in the illustrations I’ve shared here, not all POV Responses constitute a new Beat.
So how do you tell when a new POV Response is actually a new Beat of Conflict?
Answer: When the POV’s SOB changes for better or worse, causing them to A) undertake a fundamentally new course of action, and/or B) encounter a new type of conflict.
Their scene-specific sub-goals will change as well.
As the diagram above shows, sometimes the POV’s course of action will work out for them and they’ll move closer to their Goal.
But whether or not the POV’s Action / Dialogue leads to their expectation of success (shown above), or instead, a negative SOB representative of their fear of failure, it’s the change in their SOB that tells us that this is a new beat of Conflict.
The 2nd Beat shown above started when the POV’s SOB changed from bad to worse.
The 3rd Beat started when the fairly negative SOB experienced by the POV improved to somewhat positive.
The 4th Beat, below (not labeled), shows yet another reversal, bringing the POV to the brink of Disaster.
What’s important to note, is that the POV’s State of Being is altered, for better or worse, in ever greater amplitudes as the scene progresses.
First a tremor, then falling bookshelves, and then the building collapses. Foreplay, build-up, climax. (Otherwise, you’re stuck in a Michael Bay film; we’ll talk about avoiding Melodrama in Part 2).
Speaking of climax, the climactic Beat of a scene usually devotes a lot of space to the POV’s Decision. We call such a decision (touched on earlier), a Dilemma.
Dilemma: A forced choice the POV must make during the concluding beat of a scene (this choice will replace the Decision phase of their Response in this beat). The choice will take the following form: A) choosing among two irreconcilable goods, B) choosing the lesser of two evils, or C) deciding what inevitable mix of good and evil the POV can live with given a no-win situation. Critically, this choice should also be emblematic of the POV’s Ruling Passion, or their Lack—one or the other, but not both. Finally, the most powerful dilemmas make what’s at stake explicit to the reader.
The more angst-producing the Dilemma, and the less clear-cut the Decision the POV must make, the better. And to drive home your story’s theme, make sure that the POV’s dilemma is expressed as a choice between their Ruling Passion and their Lack (more on this a little later).
Stakes: What the POV stands to lose when deciding upon a course of action in response to conflict. The larger the stakes, the more the POV will learn.
When it comes to Stakes, ensure that the consequences of failure are dire, and/or the fortune to be gained is substantial.
Meaning: The ultimate lesson learned by the POV (and imparted to the reader), as a result of the outcome experienced in the climactic beat of the scene.
The meaning of a scene is synonymous with what the scene teaches the POV. More than just what’s at Stake, Meaning also takes into account what the POV had hoped to gain at their moment of truth. It’s the distance between their best possible outcome, and the depth to which they actually fall.
Now you might be wondering: “If the POV achieves their Expectation instead of suffering their Fear, does that mean they don’t learn as much, and the scene is less meaningful?”
Not necessarily. A scene with a more positive ending can still be very meaningful—provided that the author invests time in showing the POV’s intense consideration of their fear.
The converse is also true. Even if you, the author, know the POV will end up worse off after taking action, a failure to show what the POV was hoping would happen robs the reader of the full impact of the negative outcome.
Meaning = Stakes in hindsight.
Let’s take a closer look. Using the next three illustrations as a guide, we’ll walk through the Decision portion of the POV’s Response cycle for the climactic beat of a scene. Pay special attention to the following points:
- How the POV’s Decision will take the form of a Dilemma.
- Ruling Passion vs. Lack.
- The POV’s consideration of what’s at Stake (i.e. what they’ll lose if they choose wrong).
- The POV’s Expectations and Fears as they envision what might go down as a result of each option taken.
- What the POV learns after they take action, and thus, what the scene ultimately means in terms of Theme.
Please note: The following example lacks depth, subtlety, subtext, originality, and a dozen other qualities of great drama. I’m exaggerating certain elements and omitting others for the sake of simplicity. Also, don’t fall into the trap of thinking you should use this model to create a scene, like you might an outline. This model is a tool for understanding and visualizing the interplay of elements which comprise dramatic fiction. If you’re overly analytic and logical, sure, you might use this model in the same way you would a detailed scene outline. But if you’re like most writers (who tend to score highly on “intuition”), you’d be better off writing a draft “from the heart,” first, and then using the M.I.C.E. model to strengthen and clarify your first pass in future drafts, if you don’t nail it the first time around.
Here’s the setup:
- The POV / Protagonist in this example is an ex-Special Operative. He’s a highly skilled, highly paid assassin.
- His Ruling Passion is “Ruthless Honor,” manifested up to this point in his life in that he will always kill the target he’s been contracted to kill, no matter who it is, and no matter what the situation.
- The value he Lacks (which he’s become more aware of leading up to this example climactic scene), is “Compassionate Humility.” In other words, putting aside his ego and letting certain people live if they don’t deserve to die, despite the blow to his reputation that would occur, and the compromise to his Honor.
- The overarching story Goal is to complete one last assassination for an old, despised client, in return for a substantial sum of money which would allow our POV to retire. The scene Goal is to go through with the kill. Complicating matters is the fact that, the POV still doesn’t know the exact identity of the target, only where they’ll be at a certain time.
- Disaster is the POV failing to make the kill, because (and here are the Stakes) the client who hired him A) will not pay for failure (and the POV really needs the money), B) will ruin his reputation (the client is a well-known criminal boss), and C) has taken the POV’s daughter hostage, assuring the POV she will be tortured and killed if he doesn’t complete the hit.
Note that there’s no Dilemma as of yet. Given the setup so far, our POV would obviously make the Decision which reflects his Ruling Passion (Ruthless Honor); i.e. he would complete the hit as soon as the opportunity presented itself. After all, his daughter, his reputation, and his livelihood are all at stake, and killing the target like he’s done hundreds of times before will, not only save his daughter, but move him closer to retirement as well.
Such an easy Decision for the POV is not good drama.
So let’s make it harder on him…
- Dilemma: as the POV views the face of his target for the first time through his rifle scope, he realizes the person he’s been hired to kill is actually his ex-wife—and the mother of his daughter, whom she has sole custody of. Worse still, even though he loves his thirteen-year-old daughter with all of his heart, she doesn’t think too much of him, because of the mostly untrue stories mom told her to get back at him for cheating.
Suddenly, the POV finds himself considering the possibility of sparing the target, however briefly. After all, the bad guys will torture and kill his daughter if he fails, and that trumps other fears, like: How will his daughter respond when she learns he killed her mother? or how will he be able to raise a teenage girl when he’s known nothing but killing and violence? We show the POV grappling with these concerns for the benefit of the reader and to set up the eventual Theme. Plus, we’re actually manipulating the reader (and you, Dear Writer) in preparation for a last-second twist (hint: we’ve made no mention of what this scene ultimately means just yet)…
Looking at the diagram above, there’s a bit of a spoiler—and a head-scratcher at that. It turns out that our POV ignored his Lack (Compassionate Humility), and relied on his Ruling Passion (Ruthless Honor), thus shooting his ex-wife. That’s not the confusing bit. The confusing bit is, why did this course of action lead him to the brink of Disaster?
Because it turns out that the bad guys hadn’t really captured his daughter. Just as the POV pulls the trigger from his perch over a mile away—as the bullet’s still traveling to its target—he sees his daughter walk into the corner office where his ex-wife was meeting with her hedge fund manager. A half-second later, the bullet travels through mom’s head—and then through his daughter’s chest, killing them both instantly.
As the POV reflects on what just happened, he learns that he should have finally embraced his Lack and showed compassion, sparing his ex-wife’s life, and as it turns out, his daughter’s life as well. Remember, Meaning is Stakes in hindsight.
Which brings us to Theme…
I haven’t labeled Theme on any of these diagrams because Theme is an emergent phenomenon that only shows itself after the climactic scene. That said, most dramatic stories with a resonant Theme will set up its unveiling with many different “payoff” scenes throughout the novel. A payoff scene in this context would be one where the POV faces a real Dilemma involving their Ruling Passion and Lack. The outcome of these payoff scenes, however, may contradict the eventual Theme. The Inciting Incident might lead us to believe the POV needs to keep relying on their Ruling Passion, while a “Cave of Despair” scene near the midpoint of the novel might suggest that the POV needs to embrace their Lack in order to grow and save the day. It’s the climactic scene’s Meaning which decides what the ultimate Theme will be.
Theme: A story-based endorsement of a particular Value over a competing Value, which comes in the form: “Value A is more important than Value B because (outcome of the climactic scene).”
Let’s clarify this definition with an example based off our tragic POV above. This story’s Theme could be stated as:
Compassion trumps ruthlessness because the enemy will always be more ruthless than you.
If your compassion doesn’t extend to everyone, then your ruthlessness will eventually extend to you.
Different readers will formulate different takeaways, and in fact, the best Themes are often somewhat ambiguous (less “pat,” in other words).
Wrapping up, the above illustration shows a complete scene, consisting of (a bare-minimum) 3 beats of Conflict (beats should always be odd in number). Of note:
- The POV’s initial SOB isn’t too negative in terms of intensity. It improves once during the course of the scene, before taking a dramatic dive after the climactic beat. Change. Oscillation.
- A Dilemma is faced during the climactic beat, ideally involving the POV’s Ruling Passion and Lack (not labeled).
- Something significant is at Stake.
- Reflecting back on what was at Stake from the POV’s new, dramatically altered SOB teaches them a new lesson for how to behave next time (i.e. which Value to choose next time), and provides the reader with the ultimate Meaning of the scene.
Just don’t forget about Intellectual Stimulation, omitted from many of the diagrams for legibility.
That’s (Almost) All Folks!
Stay tuned for Part 02, wherein we apply the Of M.I.C.E. & Pen 3-D Dramatic Storytelling Model to help us diagnose and fix common problems encountered in scenes.