Kudos to you, Dear Writer. If you’re reading this it means you now have a far better understanding of how dramatic fiction works at the scene level. And you digested over 7,000 words and thirty illustrations in Part 01 to earn it. Your hard work (which so many struggling writers aren’t willing to put in) will now pay off.
Here in Part 02, we’re going to apply the Of M.I.C.E. & Pen Model to visualize common problems found in dramatic scenes and to picture what a better scene might look like.
Application #1: Spot unnatural POV Response sequences.
Sometimes you’ll re-read a draft of a scene and parts of it feel disjointed. Nothing seems to be missing, it just seems awkward somehow. Oftentimes, this awkwardness is the result of an out-of-sequence POV Response.
While it’s fine to omit segments from the POV Response, present them out of their logical order at your own peril.
In the illustration below, there are two equivalent POV Responses. Each Response features a motivating Conflict (conveyed in the Orientation segment of the POV Response) an Emotion, a Thought, a Decision, and Action / Dialogue. Notice, however, how much more smoothly the top passage reads compared to the bottom passage:
Application #2: See where Emotional Intensity has flatlined.
When a reader or an editor complains that a scene falls “flat,” they can’t always articulate why. Nine times out of ten, if pressed, they’ll say something about not “feeling” anything by the end of the scene. Simple fix, right? Just emphasize the emotions of the POV…
Remember, as with every other element in dramatic fiction, it’s the change we care about. The oscillating journey from high to low, and low to high.
Conflict that doesn’t change a POV’s Emotional State of Being (SOB) from positive to negative, or from negative to positive, isn’t that dramatic.
There is one caveat to this rule of thumb, however. It isn’t strictly necessary to transition your POV from a negative State of Being to a positive SOB (or vice versa) in every single scene. But if their SOB starts positive and ends positive, or starts negative and ends negative, then you must ensure the intensity of this SOB is substantially altered.
Does your POV start the scene having a bad day? Then they shouldn’t exit the scene feeling merely annoyed. The scene needs to end with them broke, bleeding out in the gutter, being spit on by pedestrians, and about to get run over by a dump truck. If your POV enters the scene with a grin on their face, don’t let them exit with a satisfied smirk and a comment about the welcome breeze. Instead, leave them belly laughing and covered in baby oil, as a Saudi oil sheik’s harem tickles them with peacock feathers and feeds them dates.
[Note: the above examples are exaggerated to drive home the point.]
Whatever you do, don’t let your scene look like the one in the following illustration:
Application #3: Notice when a POV’s State of Being (SOB) doesn’t “flip.”
Failing to “flip” a POV’s SOB during a scene is similar to an emotional flatline, but a tad harder to spot. That’s because a scene that doesn’t flip will often feature substantial and significant shifts in Emotional Intensity experienced by the POV, and still fail to satisfy. How can that be?
To answer this question, it helps to first know what a “perfectly dramatic” scene might look like:
Now compare this thrill ride to a scene in which our POV ends up exactly where they started:
Bottom line, if your POV character exits the scene at the same SOB as when she entered, then what was the point of the scene?
Application #4: Avoid the dreaded anti-climax.
Imagine writing a hot and steamy sex scene like you might find near the end of a romance novel. Would it make sense to start with the first nervous kiss, jump right to the throes of physical ecstasy, and then end with post-coital cuddling? No. You’d be better off moving the cuddling to the start of the next scene, and ending on a sigh note.
Or picture writing a not-so-happy scene where a battle-weary knight must survive fantastical beasties on his way to rescue a princess. Would you show the knight getting kicked in the groin by a Minotaur, then being roasted to within an inch of his life by the fire of a dragon, before concluding the scene with his frustration over a swarm of mosquitoes? Of course not. You would never write a scene that looks like the one below:
Application #5: Highlight unwanted melodrama.
When it comes to oscillating Emotional Intensity, you can have too much of a good thing. The Emotional Intensity experienced by your POV in a scene needs to ramp-up gradually. Otherwise it becomes monotonous.
The above illustration demonstrates how a book or film can be jam-packed with action and intensity and still put you to sleep. In psychology this effect is explained by a process called “attenuation.” Any stimulus, no matter how intense, eventually gets filtered out if it doesn’t change. It’s what allows people to live next to an airport. After a few weeks, they barely register the roar of a 747 speeding down the runway.
Application #6: Identify “cardboard” characters & “flat” scenes.
When a scene is nothing but forward motion and action, adding a smidgen of Intellectual Stimulation can improve it.
Remember from Part 01 that Intellectual Stimulation occurs when the realtime of the scene is not advancing at the same pace as the second hand on a clock. For instance, your POV pauses to describe the way light reflects off the fur of a sea otter napping in the surf, which then leads them to a digression on dwindling sea otter populations in the area caused by an oil spill ten years earlier, etcetera. Maybe a half-page of material ends up being devoted to the otter, and it turns out the otter is symbolic of the POV’s life in some way, and this connection demands another paragraph of explanation. Yet, no more than five seconds of time has actually transpired in the scene.
This is just one example of adding depth to a flat scene by giving your readers something to ponder. I’m sure you can think of many more ways to accomplish this using Intellectual Stimulation appropriate to your story.
Application #7: Clarify the Dilemma and highlight what’s at Stake to finish strong.
Never assume the reader knows what your POV is thinking at the moment of truth. Never assume the reader fully appreciates what’s at stake for your protagonist.
Make them experience it. Slow it down. Make them sweat bullets by giving them the moment-by-moment emotional turmoil, conflicting thought processes, self doubt, and indecisiveness the POV is grappling with.
Even if your POV has to diffuse a bomb before the digital timer counts down to zero, and it’s obvious that everyone will die if they fail, be sure to spell out (from the perspective of your POV) exactly what that failure will entail, exactly what they’ll lose—physically, emotionally, interpersonally, organizationally, societally, spiritually, and philosophically if possible.
And make it a real Dilemma. Think Sophie’s Choice level of dilemma. If the POV’s Decision is obvious, then it’s not a Dilemma, and the scene doesn’t matter (I’m speaking, of course, of climactic scenes; not every scene needs to be a nail-biter, obviously).
You also need to ensure that the Dilemma faced by your POV in climactic scenes is relevant to the Theme of your story. (If you’re a writer who doesn’t like to think about Theme beforehand, that’s okay too. Just be sure that you’re comfortable with the Theme implied by your POV’s choice and the result of their actions.)
The way to make sure the Dilemma is thematically relevant is to show the POV wrestling between an action that reflects their Ruling Passion, and a different response which reflects the Lack they’ve been confronted with leading up to this point in the story.
With an understanding of the Of M.I.C.E. & Pen 3D Model of Dramatic Storytelling you now have a concise, instructive tool with which to diagnose problem scenes, and to visualize how a mere handful of elements interact to produce a compelling story.
There are so many other applications I’ve yet to cover, so if you’re interested in learning more about this powerful model, and how it can help you write more dramatic scenes, or make your characters more distinct and realistic with unique personalities, shoot me an email, and let me know.