The Pivotal Scene

Faith HunterFaith Hunter
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(Note: MC = Main Character or protagonist. BBU = Big Bad Ugly or antagonist.)

I’ve written (and spoken at Cons) about pivotal scenes and the need to give them the time and effort they deserve. And I’ve seen writers’ (almost always writers who are not commercially published) eyes glaze over in shock when I say that I’ve spent 4 or 6 hours on what turned out to be less than 200 words, or two paragraphs. Or an entire day’s writing on one tiny transitional, but pivotal scene.

A pivotal scene may be described in many ways (google it!) but my version is “the scene or scenes which are turning points or climaxes for the MC and the plot.”

But I’ve never talked about a pivotal scene and how to recognize one. The penultimate plot scene—where the MC faces the BBU—is clearly a pivotal (perhaps the pivotal) scene in a novel.  But there are others in a well plotted novel that deserve as much attention as the most important one.

Briefly, a few: The inciting event—the event that sets the novel in motion is always pivotal. The scene where the MC discovers / accepts her ultimate goal. The scene where the MC learns / discovers information important to the progression of the plot. The scene where the MC is forced to turn away and take another route to her ultimate goal. A betrayal scene. A transitional scene from emotional high or low to the opposite emotional state. A transitional scene from place to place.

Spending time on such a scene is vital and will show a professional reader (agent or editor) that you have the stuff  (talent and literary tools) to be a published writer. Below is a pivotal, inciting scene in its rough form, by two other writers, and used with permission of one of them. Below that, is the scene as after I gave it some time and effort, using it as a teaching moment, though admittedly I’d go over it again before I sent it to a professional reader.

Original Scene

Robert lurched backwards as a deafening sound exploded against his ears. His sword lifted in shock as he turned to his right to get a glimpse of the source of the noise, but found none. As he turned back he saw red sprayed across the king’s banner crest. He gasped, but shock willed him back to the fight. He repositioned his shield and took a firmer grip on his sword. He stepped forward, and now he could see blood and pieces of flesh and bone covering the formerly pristine war banner. He rushed forward, toward the mass of humanity that was now covering the High King. His closest knights were spread-eagle over the body. Other knights brandished their swords. The Most Reverend Tilldon was once again kneeling over his martyred prince, just as he had with the king’s father, High King William, murdered by foul magic. As now was his son.

It isn’t bad as an inciting event, but here’s mine:

Robert lurched backward as a deafening sound exploded against his right ear. He dragged his sword back up and parried a wild strike from a soldier in Chancel green. His ear rang with the explosion, leaving it deaf. Magic, his mind whispered.

Stumbling, he caught his balance, and looked for his king. The mighty destrier was no longer at the head of the column. Red was sprayed across the once pristine war banner—blood and flesh and bone. The king was . . . not there.  

Slinging his sword against the bodies in green, Robert rushed forward, frantic, toward the mass of shields and armor on the ground, covering the High King; his closest knights were spread-eagled over him. Over his body. There was no doubt that High King Shalen was dead. Other knights brandished their swords and pushed back at the Chancel knights, screaming with rage and fear and the certainty of loss, no matter the outcome of the battle.

The Most Reverend Tilldon was once again kneeling over his martyred prince, just as he had with the king’s father, High King William, murdered by magic foul.

 

My version gives more details, gives an originating direction for the magical explosion, talks about the enemy, and the loss of a nation, and the fear of magic, hinting at a world not yet revealed.

Okay – your turn.  If you are in the mood and have the time, take the original para (or my version)and rewrite it. There is no *right* way to do the scene. Just have fun!

Faith
www.faithhunter.net

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30 comments to The Pivotal Scene

  • Okay, wow. Not sure I feel up to taking that on. But I love your rewrite of the scene. It’s powerful, coherent, and elegant in the way it builds. I think it may be time for you to write an epic fantasy, Faith . . . .

  • (LOL) David, I woudl certainly be willing. Hmmm. Now I have to wonder if a certain agent might be interested in seeing a proposal….

  • Besides the changes in details, the big difference that’s easy to see, even before reading the two passages, is the paragraphing.

    Control of white space (primarily through paragraph length), I’ve learned (though not mastered) has a huge impact on pacing.

  • Meh, I gave it a shot, for fun while taking a break from Lovecraftian horror.

    Robert sprawled onto his back, his armor taking the brunt of it, as a sound like boulders crashing together buffeted his body and set his ears to ringing like a bell. He lifted his sword as if to ward off another such attack in a hand heavy from battle, and followed the motion of rushing allied tabards toward the source, but found nothing at first. It was then that his wandering eye caught the unintentional splash of crimson upon the king’s battle crest of silver falcons on blue field.

    The hysterical portion of his mind registered faintly that he must look like a turtle on its back as he rolled with difficulty to a sitting position, and clawed his way to his knees, using his sword in the dirt for leverage.

    He halted, chest tightening.

    The rushing soldiers were gathered around the crest, around a form upon the ground. Robert swallowed hard, fighting the lump in his throat as realization dawned as to the smear of red on that exalted banner.

    He shook his head and made his feet, running on shaking legs, though he knew it to be too late. The closest knights were pressed in over the body, using their own lives as shields from further assault, but he knew it would be no use. That had been Magic. The same thing that had taken High King William.
    His knights, confused and haunted eyes staring from helms, brandished swords until recognition dawned and he pushed past them with growled orders he only half comprehended himself, falling to his knees once more. The Most Revered Tilldon was there, kneeling over the body that Robert had to force his eyes to fall upon even as he trembled in rage and anguish.

    He placed a gauntleted hand upon the ruined chest of the High King, the martyred prince, son of William the Bold, and wept.

  • Not perfect, but what ever is. :)

  • Stephen, yes indeedy. Para beaks add demension and immediacy to an unfolding scene. Rule of thumb: The more action a scene has, the shorter the sentences and paras.

    Daniel, I like! Especially the description of the king’s banner. Details like that are such a great part of worldbuilding.

  • Hah! Already seeing a dozen places I need to fix. ;)

  • I’m too busy fighting off a cold to be able to rewrite this today, but I love your new version, and Daniel’s. This is a great lesson in revision as well as how to make a pivotal scene come alive.

  • Daniel — me too in mine. LOL

    Thanks, SiSi!

  • Vyton

    Robert lurched backwards to a defensive crouch as a deafening explosion assaulted his ears and resonated beneath his blood-smeared breast plate. With unconscious reflex, he raised his bastard sword to parry the charge of another warrior wearing the purple crest. Before the enemy could lift his weapon, Robert penetrated his throat and severed the spine in one thrust.

    He turned to his right to look for the source of the explosion. What he saw was King Hammond’s banner: the gold sigel on the pure white field now sprayed with crimson. What was the explosion? No smoke. No flame. A spell from the purple wizard.

    He grimaced, but battle instinct processed the tactical situation in front of him while he pondered the blood-spattered emblem of his king. He repositioned his shield to ward off the blow from a pike staff on his left and hefted the two-handed sword ready to charge toward the banner. As he maneuvered and dispatched the crushing onrush of purple, he realized that it was more than blood: bone and brains marked that flag. The King’s bone and brains. He carved his way through the beserkers and dismounted enemy knights between him and the King. As he worked his way closer, he saw that the knights of the king’s personal guard were spread-eagle over a body. The glint of gold through the motionless limbs of the guard told him they covered the body of King Hammond.

    Knights bearing the sun-burnished shields like his own worked their swords, parting the limbs and heads from purple-clad warriors. Adjusting his focus, he pivoted to his right to compensate for his loss of hearing on that side. Working with total presence in the warrior spirit, the motions of the enemy moved in ultra-slow motion. He walked a path strewn with the dead and reddened with gore. As he approached the now-holy spot marked by the king’s death, he saw that The Most Reverend Tilldon was kneeling over his martyred prince, just as he had for the king’s father, High King William, murdered by the magic of that foul wizard Pilenure. And now William’s son, Robert’s king, had been snatched from life by the same spell.

    The King was in the hands of the clergy, Robert could do no more for him, but he turned to the task at hand: ensuring the enemy would rue this day for generations to come.

  • sagablessed

    Faith: I hope you will still be critiquing tomorrow as I have to go to work now. I would love your feedback. These exercises are, in my mind, some of the best posts you contributors have. They give we readers a chance to flex our creative muscles.

  • TwilightHero

    Robert staggered at an explosion from his right. The din of battle vanished, replaced by a hollow ringing in his ears. Swaying, he stabbed at the ground with his longsword for balance, feeling wetness seeping from a fresh cut on his cheek. He was lucky whatever made it only grazed him. Things thrown from a mage-blast could cut you in two. With a sinking heart, he turned towards the source of the blast. Towards the King.

    The royal war banner, a golden hawk on green, was stained red, splattered with blood and flesh and shards of bone. A hole had been torn in the ranks. Through the chaos of men running and fighting and dying, eerily silent but for the ringing, Robert caught glimpses of what he’d feared. The muddy streak in the trampled grass, a long furrow ending in crumpled bodies. The gilded armor of the Kingsguard among them. The King’s destrier, riderless, sprawled in death.

    Movement in his periphery, and Robert ducked as an axe swung over his head, wrenching his sword free to slash the man across the face. Seemingly distant shouts as his hearing returned. He brought up his shield against a numbing blow from a warhammer and swung it like a bludgeon, knocking the heavy thing aside. Robert stabbed the man before he could recover. He ran, weaving a path through the conflict, cutting at an occasional rebel. Another explosion boomed in the distance. Breathing hard, Robert stumbled to a halt before the bodies.

    Others had dragged King Shalem free. His liege lay supine, the bearded face composed in death. The Most Reverend Tildon knelt in prayer over Shalem, as he had with the King’s father, King William, both father and son murdered by magic. Robert felt tears streaming down his cheeks. The cut stung. He turned back to the battle, determined to kill every rebel in sight.

    It was an empty resolve. The King was dead. Whether or not they won the day, the rebellion was victorious.

    I love these writing exercises. A timely post too, since I’m on the climactic final battle in my WIP, MCs vs BBUs once and for all, and want to make sure it’s sufficiently dramatic.

    And your version rocks, Faith :)

  • Thank you for the lesson, Faith. I’m going to take a whack at this exercise tomorrow during my writing time, but meanwhile I’m really glad to hear that pivotal scenes taking 4 hours is normal. It seems like those are the ones I rework again and again and again so it’s comforting to know that’s not just because I get them wrong.

  • Vyton, I liked the new details — especially about the sword and the type of thrust used to kill his enemy. A couple of places might be tightened on the rewrite (said the girl who sees about 5 such places in her own). Anyway, since an inciting event might be teh very first words a reader would ever see, that first para is vital, and (I hope you don’t mind) I’ll play with it a bit to give another kind of lesson.

    Robert lurched backwards to a defensive crouch as an explosion deafened him (this tightens ita lot) and resonated beneath his blood-smeared breast plate (love this description). With unconscious reflex, (tells us a lot about the soldier. good) he raised his bastard sword to parry the charge of a (shorter, cleaner) warrior wearing the purple crest. Before the enemy could lift his weapon, Robert penetrated his throat and severed the spine in one thrust.

    This just tightenes it and clear-i-fies it. :) ALso, if I may suggest, take a look at the scene and removl all *slow* words. For instance, the word pondered in para 3. Pondering takes time, and he is in the midst of battle.

    Daniel, you might notice some *slow* words and phrases in your version too, and I bet that was the first thing you wanted to change. :)

  • Saga and Sarah, and anyone else, Yes. I’d like to take the whole next two weeks on this single lesson. I am leaving out of town today, and so I’ll take a look again next Wednesday and the one after. Change and rewrite and redo. Repost. I’ll work for 14 days here. :)

  • Twilight, I love what you did with the use of *fast* words. The words *din of battle* here: >>Robert staggered at an explosion from his right. The din of battle vanished, replaced by a hollow ringing in his ears.<>Movement in his periphery, and Robert ducked as an axe swung over his head, wrenching his sword free to slash the man across the face. Seemingly distant shouts as his hearing returned. He brought up his shield against a numbing blow from a warhammer and swung it like a bludgeon, knocking the heavy thing aside. Robert stabbed the man before he could recover. He ran, weaving a path through the conflict, cutting at an occasional rebel. Another explosion boomed in the distance. Breathing hard, Robert stumbled to a halt before the bodies. <<

    Look for other passive phrases and change them to active. I'd love to see it again. And the last para was glorius. :)

  • Vyton

    Thank you for this post, Faith. And for the feedback — especially the generous offer of further feedback.

  • TwilightHero

    Thanks, Faith. Good to know I’m doing something right :)

  • sagablessed

    Robert lurched backwards as a deafening sound exploded against his ears. His sword lifted in shock as he turned to his right to get a glimpse of the source of the noise, but found none. As he turned back he saw red sprayed across the king’s banner crest. He gasped, but shock willed him back to the fight. He repositioned his shield and took a firmer grip on his sword. He stepped forward, and now he could see blood and pieces of flesh and bone covering the formerly pristine war banner. He rushed forward, toward the mass of humanity that was now covering the High King. His closest knights were spread-eagle over the body. Other knights brandished their swords. The Most Reverend Tilldon was once again kneeling over his martyred prince, just as he had with the king’s father, High King William, murdered by foul magic. As now was his son.

    “To the Prince!”

    Robert raised his sword for a parry against the younger man’s strike. The younger man was quick, but un-seasoned. Robert led the dance, moving until the setting sun was in his opponent’s eyes. Two more blows and Robert caught the tip of the other blade in his quillon. One twist and the mongrel’s sword went flying.

    Thunder slammed against his body. Waves of sound slapped them both to the side. Ears ringing, Robert scrambled to his knees. Training kept his sword in his hand. Not so the dog flailing to find his own.

    “Magic. For killing.” Only mages of the false Prophet would so desecrate the Gifts of Brem. Such blasphemy had only one sentence. Defiance and not fear poured from the un-shaven brat’s eyes. A flick of his arm and a crimson rainbow followed his enemy’s head to the ground.

    Robert’s eyes flew across the field in the direction of the blast, searching in vain. Gold and white cloth flapped in a sudden gust of air. Surrounded by the Knights Azure, the royal crest was defiled. Blood dripped from the embroidered dragon’s chest.

    Silence was sudden when vague blotches of purple and yellow sped upward as the Holy Orders reclaimed control of the skies. A cheer rose from His Majesty’s army. New hope sounded in the clash of steel against shield and flesh.

    Only one orange robe did not have his hands joined with the others. Most Revered Tilldon was kneeling at the foot of the banner.

    The dozen yards there were the longest in Robert’s memory. A sea of blue cloaks parted for him. The stench of burnt flesh and hair surpassed the metal tang of blood in the air. Over the clamor of swords and screams, Robert heard the First Priest weeping.

    What remained of the Crown Prince’s head was cradled in the cleric’s lap. The rest of the body was un-moving on the upturned earth. Robert lay one hand on a shaking, silk-covered shoulder. Tilldon simply wept more.

    “I have failed you, my prince. Just as I did your father. These blasphemers -” Robert felt tears burn trails through gore on his cheeks. “I swear by Brem and Ka ‘nal we will kill them all.” He rose slowly, bitter grief filling the hollows in his soul.

    The Defender of the Realm left nothing but bodies in his wake until the sun rose again.

    That day was remebered in song as Robert’s Rage.

  • sagablessed

    I know there are some technical issues, like it should be that ‘night’ was Robert’s rage, but I am rushed as I am doing a double at work. Please forgive.

  • Robert lurched backwards when the explosion boomed, raising his sword arm to protect himself from the blast debris. None came.

    Before his dazed mind could make sense of the phantom noise, another enemy soldier attacked, and Robert lunged forward to parry his thrust. Two quick strikes, and the soldier lay dead.

    Ears still ringing, Robert turned to the source of the sound. His closest knights lay on the floor, surrounded by blood and pieces of bone and flesh. All dead, he thought in despair. This magic killed them all.

    He staggered in their direction, barely able to walk or see or think. When one moved, he gasped and held tighter to his sword. Would they now return from the dead, cursed by whatever magic had killed them?

    Then he saw the King’s banner crest, scorched and frayed. The Most Reverend Tilldon knelt beside it, lips and fingers moving in useless prayer. The knights rose, one after the other, uncovering the shattered body of their fallen prince.

    Robert, sworn protector of the future king, had failed.

  • quillet

    So kind of you to extend this, Faith! I’ve had a busy week (though I suspect not as busy as yours), but I finally got to sink my teeth into this. The result is too long, I think, because I was having too much fun! Anyway, here goes:

    Robert heard a resounding boom to his right and the ground lurched under his feet — then silence dropped. All the din of battle vanished. He heard nothing but a dull throb in his ears, like distant surf pounding on rocks.

    He staggered back, glancing right to find the source of the explosion, then caught a blur of motion to his left. Sheer reflex raised his shield only just in time.

    A blow shivered down the length of his left arm, but Robert planted his right foot behind him and held his ground. His eyes met those of an enemy soldier. An instant they stood locked. Robert bared his teeth and shoved his shield forward, all his weight behind it. He hurled the soldier to the ground, reared back, and thrust his sword straight down at the man’s throat.

    If he screamed, Robert didn’t hear it. He heard nothing but that dull throb. Hot blood sprayed him. He was already turning to look for the King.

    He saw the war banner flapping damply on its pole, saw its red-and-gold now spattered with clots of darker red, with splinters of pink and white. Below it, he saw royal knights lying in a bloodied tangle, legs and arms unmoving. He saw four or five knights still on their feet nearby, swords raised but faces shocked within their helmets. He did not see the High King.

    Into that silent scene, a black-robed man skidded to his knees beside the fallen knights. The Most Reverend Tilldon heaved aside an arm, a shoulder, and then he stopped to stare.

    The Reverend sagged, bowing his head.

    The scene was too familiar. Not again! thought Robert. First High King William, murdered by foul magic — and now his son.

  • quillet

    Oooh, now I’ve read everyone else’s. Very cool. Also I’m laughing at myself for thinking I was being original. “The din of battle vanished.” Twilight Hero beat me to it! With the exact same words!!! :D

  • Hi guys. I am back at it.
    Saga: This one below is much cleaner and fast and intense! I think he’s got it. :) I no suggestsions to this but for one and it is for clarity. I’ve put in ( ) in para one.

    Thunder slammed against his body. Waves of sound slapped them both to the side. Ears ringing, Robert scrambled to his knees. Training kept his sword in his hand. Not so the dog (Saga, as this is the first para of novel, the inciting event, I’d use another word, or an additional word, for dog. This will simply clarify to keep the reader from seeing a real dog on the gound, maybe a war dog or something, and so that the use of the word mongrel down is clearer.) flailing to find his own.

    “Magic. For killing.” Only mages of the false Prophet would so desecrate the Gifts of Brem. Such blasphemy had only one sentence. Defiance and not fear poured from the un-shaven brat’s eyes. A flick of his arm and a crimson rainbow followed his enemy’s head to the ground.

    Robert’s eyes flew across the field in the direction of the blast, searching in vain. Gold and white cloth flapped in a sudden gust of air. Surrounded by the Knights Azure, the royal crest was defiled. Blood dripped from the embroidered dragon’s chest.

    Silence was sudden when vague blotches of purple and yellow sped upward as the Holy Orders reclaimed control of the skies. A cheer rose from His Majesty’s army. New hope sounded in the clash of steel against shield and flesh.

    Only one orange robe did not have his hands joined with the others. Most Revered Tilldon was kneeling at the foot of the banner.

    The dozen yards there were the longest in Robert’s memory. A sea of blue cloaks parted for him. The stench of burnt flesh and hair surpassed the metal tang of blood in the air. Over the clamor of swords and screams, Robert heard the First Priest weeping.

    What remained of the Crown Prince’s head was cradled in the cleric’s lap. The rest of the body was un-moving on the upturned earth. Robert lay one hand on a shaking, silk-covered shoulder. Tilldon simply wept more.

    “I have failed you, my prince. Just as I did your father. These blasphemers -” Robert felt tears burn trails through gore on his cheeks. “I swear by Brem and Ka ‘nal we will kill them all.” He rose slowly, bitter grief filling the hollows in his soul.

    The Defender of the Realm left nothing but bodies in his wake until the sun rose again.

    That day was remebered in song as Robert’s Rage

  • SiSi: I like very much. :) The first para is very clear and intense and sets up the entire book to follow. I especially liked the *phantom noise* term in the 2nd para. Excellent

    My biggest suggestion / question is about one line. “His closest knights lay on the floor, surrounded by blood and pieces of bone and flesh.”

    My thought through the piece was that this was outside, and when I saw *floor* in this line, I wanted to know where? While we writers want things minimalist in battle scenes, I think a *very* short descriptive line about the building would be fantastic. Like *floor of the desecrated church* or *floor of the ancient castle* or something. And I think *pieces of* can be removed to be tightened or replaces with more descriptive words (though I can’t think of any right now.)

    That’s it.

  • Hi Quillet! I don’t think it is too long at all. I adore the rhythm you gave it. There is a step, pause, step to it that didn’t acheive in my own version. I have to say — this is stellar. I’d like the others to give it some thought and see how they would rip it to shreds and change it, but maybe that is beyond cruel. LOL But then again, what do you think? Shall I post it for critique?

  • mudepoz

    I can’t do it. Sad. I like what everyone’s done, but I can’t get into the mindset. It always amazes me that people can DO this.

    I’d just change it into a dog fight.

  • Mud, I’d LOVE to see a dog fight interpretation. PLEASE do one!

  • quillet

    Wow! *blushes all over* Thanks for the kind words, Faith. (Sorry I didn’t answer sooner, I’ve been away from my computer a couple of days.) Do what you like with my version, let everyone rip it all to shreds, and hopefully have lots of fun doing so. :)

    I have to say, if I did well on this exercise, that you and David have to share some credit. You for showing me the value of shorter paragraphs, and David for telling us to write to our strengths. One of mine is character (says me). Normally I find action scenes really hard, but I thought, okay, who is this guy? Get into his head and write what he experiences. It was a little more effortful than that, of course, but it was David’s advice that gave me the confidence to try!

    PS: I’ve been going through my WiP and breaking up some of my longer paragraphs, also using Kalayna’s recent advice about back-loading sentences when deciding where to break. I’m finding it can add emphasis to details that might otherwise be lost, and dramatic weight to moments that might ditto. Also, it increases the pace! Seems a bit counterintuitive, because you’d expect a block of words to read like a breathless rush — but in fact those shorter paragraphs read faster.

    I learn the coolest things here at MW! I can’t tell you how grateful I am to ALL of you. :)

  • Vyton

    This re-write may be too late. And, other than the opening paragraph, I may have added a whole new list of mistakes.

    Robert lurched backwards to a defensive crouch as an explosion deafened him and resonated beneath his blood-smeared breastplate. With unconscious reflex, he raised his bastard sword to parry the charge of a warrior wearing the purple crest. Before the enemy could lift his weapon, Robert penetrated his throat and severed the spine in one thrust.

    He pivoted right toward the source of the explosion. What he saw was King Hammond’s banner: the gold sigel on the pure white field now sprayed with crimson. He grimaced at the blood-spattered emblem. What was the explosion? No smoke. No flame. A spell from the purple wizard.

    With effort, Robert shoved grief and pain down and back, and shifted into the now-silent, black and white world of his warrior spirit. Black and white save for two colors: purple – and crimson. Shifting the shield over his left shoulder, he hefted his sword high with both hands and danced death with grace and cold fury. Clearing a path to the high ground, he saw the knights of the king’s personal guard spread-eagled over a body. The glint of gold through the motionless limbs told him where the King lay.

    A line of knights, bearing sunburst shields, worked their swords, cleaving limbs and heads from purple-clad warriors. Crimson fountains blossomed at necks and shoulders of the enemy. At the now-holy spot marked by the king’s death, he saw The Most Reverend Tilldon kneeling over his martyred prince, just as he had for the king’s father, High King William. Father and son murdered by the magic of the wizard Pilenure, that foul serpent from hell.

    The King was in the hands of the clergy. Robert could do no more for him, but he could turn to the task at hand: ensuring the enemy would rue this day for generations to come.