How hope pulls a scene

turtle hunting a girl

Working with my critique partner recently, I learned how hope can make a scene irresistible. (This is not a writing advice post.)

I don’t do writing advice posts. Nope, nope, nope!

But occasionally I discover something about writing I want to share, and do so in a post. This is one such post.

Recently I’ve been working intensively with my new critique partner, both giving comments and suggested edits, and receiving and implementing them.

I’ve also been on a bit of a writing craft bender. I haven’t been counting, but I’ve probably read a good five craft books in the last few weeks. Not new ones, just some of my old favourites from the bookshelf.

All this means I’ve done a lot of cogitating about what makes a scene work, what’s different about the scenes that excite me or suck me in, and how I can implement this magic in more of my writing.

(I’ve also discovered I’m addicted to the words “something” and “filled” and the phrase “going to die”. You decide what that says about my WIP.)

I’ve concluded an important part of the magic that excites me in a scene is hope.

Let me try to explain.

Sometimes hope = tension = conflict, but not always

We all know the importance of conflict and tension in scenes, but I only recently made the connection with hope. Maybe I’m slow. You don’t have to be mean about it.

Sometimes hope is self-evident in a tense situation.

Suppose the sympathetic protagonist is fighting a dragon. (An evil dragon that scares bunnies, not a nice dragon that drinks tea and solves crimes.) The reader hopes the protagonist will win and reads on to find out if she does.

Tension comes from the fact she might not win.

The conflict is the fight.

In this case, it doesn’t feel useful to distinguish hope from tension or conflict. At least, not to me.

But sometimes hope feels different.

Sometimes it has wings.

I am hope - see dove fly

Inner conflict is one way to stir hope in the reader.

Suppose we have a repressed character who struggles to say what she thinks and a snob is being really nasty to her.

The reader hopes she will overcome her inhibitions and tell the snob exactly what she can do with that diamond-encrusted candle holder.

She probably won’t. The possibility may not even have occurred to her.

But the reader hopes.

You can call it tension or inner conflict, and it might be. But I think the reason it works is because it makes the reader hope.

The reader’s emotions are not the character’s emotions

This could be obvious to you; it wasn’t obvious to me until I read the excellent book The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass (one of those five favourites I recently re-read).

Sometimes the writer wants the reader to feel what the POV character feels. If the character is running for her life from giant spiders with laser beams on their heads, the writer probably wants the reader to be scared too.

If the character has finally fallen into the arms of her beloved after a long and arduous spell apart, the writer wants the reader to feel the same surge of love and relief (or disappointment?) the character feels.

But even in such situations the reader won’t automatically feel what the character feels. The writer may fail to evoke this emotion in the reader through lack of craft or because the reader is a heartless lawnmower.

And sometimes the writer wants the reader to feel a different emotion to the character.

Suppose the character blithely strolls into a walk-in closet where the reader knows a psycho killer is hidden. The character might be calm as anything, but the reader will (hopefully) be gripping her cup of tea hard enough to break it.

All this means the reader’s emotional journey through the book is not the same as the character’s.

And I would argue the reader’s emotional journey is more important.

Hold that thought in mind.

Happiness is an emotion. So is dirt.

Who should want something?

If you read writing advice or, you know, talk to people, you’ll probably have heard the advice (from a famous writer, but I don’t recall who) that your character should always want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.

But!

Like the character’s emotions are not (necessarily) the reader’s emotions, the character wanting something isn’t the same as the reader wanting something.

I think a scene is compelling if the reader wants something.

And I don’t mean a glass of water. (Don’t be lazy. Get up and get yourself some water.)

I read a gripping scene recently in which the reader knew something the POV character didn’t, and I desperately wanted the character to figure it out.

The character was bumbling along, mildly curious about something that seemed a little off, and here’s me jumping up and down in my seat yelling “LOOK UNDER THE COUCH!”

The scene was very well written, but what gave it that extra something was hope–my hope that the character would figure this thing out, and thus change the whole direction of the plot.

To my utter dismay (but in a good way), she did not.

DON’T LOOK UNDER THE RUG!

Perhaps there are other ways to make a scene gripping, but get me desperately hoping for something and you’ll hook me every time.

What do you think? Am I way off base? Is this too obvious to be worth saying? Have you come across any good examples of a scene made irresistible by the reader’s hope?

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Author: A.S. Akkalon

By day, A.S. Akkalon works in an office where the computers outnumber the suits of armour more than two-to-one. By night, she puts dreams of medieval castles, swords, and dragons onto paper.

6 thoughts on “How hope pulls a scene”

  1. I like the way you describe it as “hope”.

    And, yes, the reader and the character may not have the same journey. A part of me wonders how much this varies by genre. Clearly, in suspense, this is definitely the case.

    Does give me something to thing about 🙂

  2. This is a definite “aha!” post — the aspect of hope as a driving force in a scene seems obvious now that you point it out, but I certainly hadn’t landed on it myself. And yes indeedy, what the reader wants and feels is always more important than anything else. Taking your non-advice to heart!

    1. Always a thrill when I can give someone else the “aha!” moment I had myself. 🙂 I’m trying to take my non-advice to heart too… though it’s not coming together quite as straightforwardly as the initial spark of inspiration.

  3. Isn’t this craft interesting? Great post and yes, it seems tension, conflict, and hope are all connected to me. And I like your contrast of the character’s emotional experience and the reader’s. It’s another way of looking at our scenes. 🙂

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