One-sentence theme: Working with narrative energy to improve story pacing
by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky
As most of you know, I’m in the second act doldrums of my current WIP (but not for long, because the break into the Act III is just around the corner – take that, writer insecurity!). Like most writers, this is a time of despair, and self-loathing, and doubt, and pretty much staring at the page and cursing its blankness. But also, for me, it is a time of introspection – I’m the sort of person, when faced with a problem, will keep attacking it until I solve it. I don’t cut knots off, I tease them out.
I’ve been stuck, this week, in a chapter where nothing really seems to happen. There’s a lot of things in motion, and there’s definitely forward momentum, but it’s all one foot in front of the other (some more hesitantly than others). When, if I were to follow my own advice of ‘every scene needs conflict’, it would be more a case of one step forward and then two steps back (preferably because something big and terrifying and intimidating had shoved it).
So here I am, in this problematic chapter (which comprises three scenes of 400, 600, and 300 words, respectively), and I’m trying to figure out what to do with it. I’m close to the my third act, where I know the action and conflict will come on in spades; I don’t want to manufacture conflict when all I need to do is really drive these characters to the trigger for Act III; I know that I need to keep things at a sufficient level of tension to not let this sucker drop below the lifeline threshold (and commit my poor WIP to the slow death of a saggy middle).
And anyway, I started thinking, what if every chapter needed conflict, but every scene just needed energy.
(Now I fully appreciate that this may just be me indulging in delusional wishful-thinking – so call me out in the comments if you need to. I’n kind of just spitballing this in a stream of consciousness, so we’ll see how it plays out…)
Two primary types of energy
When we talk about energy, we are talking about two primary types:
KINETIC and POTENTIAL
Kinetic energy is energy possessed by something in motion.
Potential energy is energy possessed by something because of its relative position to something else.
So far, so good – it’s easy to see how both concepts can be applied to fictional narratives: scenes with kinetic energy have direct, obvious, tangible conflict – bodies and things in motion; scenes with potential energy have the promise of conflict only because of where they sit in relation to other scenes.
If your scenes hold kinetic energy – you’re all good. You have pace, you have drama, you have in-your-face conflict. There’s no risk of saggy middle, go do a celebratory dance and leave the rest of us miserable writers alone.
But, if your novel has a run of potential energy scenes, you may be drifting into second act trouble. And if you have this run of potential energy scenes in the first or third act, well then, you’ve got bigger problems than I…
So, let’s check out these potential energy subtypes and see if we can apply them to fictional narratives. And then let’s evaluate whether that helps us ascertain whether we have a problem or not.
Four types of Potential Energy
So, obviously we can’t use the literal meaning of the Potential energy subtypes. But we’re talking about fictional narratives, so I am going to use a little creative licence.
Let’s say Chemical energy is romantic tension. No action, no sexy-time, no sneaking kisses behind the gym – but the almost-kiss, the lingering looks, the brief touches, the racing heart. There’s an energy in the scene, not because there is action, but because there is no action. Just the potential for action is enough (and maybe better) – the hint of the tension possibly being realised.
And let’s say Nuclear energy is a ticking time-bomb. The countdown to an inevitable disaster – the Titanic bobbing up and down before it goes under, the flashing numbers on a explosive device ticking down, the deterioration of a terminally-ill patient, the continued regression of Benjamin Button.
We could shape Gravitational energy in one of two ways: a) as the coming together of two objects, reluctantly and/or against their will – the tension of opposite things occupying the same space (but without direct/realised conflict, remember); think Ann Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis in Colossal just eyeing each other off; and/or b) as one thing going through a metamorphosis of a sort and transitioning (without resistance) between two states or environments (like falling from air to earth); think of scenes where a character is processing a revelation, like Elizabeth Bennet reading a letter in Pride and Prejudice. Not the aftermath, mind you; not the part when her world is turned upside down, just the part where there is the hint (or the promise) that it will.
And we could treat Elastic energy as the stretching of something away from its home, its destiny, its true North, just before it is inevitably snapped back. Like Scuffy the Tugboat (incidentally, I have (in my adult years) grown to hate that book, despite its beautiful prose, because of its depressing message of ‘don’t dream beyond your limits’), or like Jonah in the Bible.
That all seems to work, so what now?
Yes, it’s quite the neat little package, isn’t it? All these things have energy – and seem to be very reasonable alternatives to their kinetic counterparts. I mean, who doesn’t love simmering tension in a hate-to-love story or the thrill of a race against time?
Oh, and, great question.
So, as I was writing this, I came to the conclusion that potential energy in fictional narratives works the same as in reality: It’s stronger a) when it is closer to the object it has a relationship with, and b) when the object it has a relationship with is strong in and of itself.
In narrative terms, this means your potential energy scenes lose energy the more you distance them from kinetic (action) scenes. And that they have less energy if the nearby or related kinetic scenes are weak themselves. Moral of the story: Don’t run a lot of potential energy scenes together. And make sure that you boost your kinetic energy scenes to give your potential energy scenes more gravitas.
So, your problematic chapter is fixed, then?
Sadly, no 😦 While this was incredibly helpful in identifying ways to imbue ‘sequels’ or reaction scenes with energy, I’ve realised that none of these potential energy types are in my three bogged-down scenes (and that I’ve broken my own advice and linked them together in one, horrendous run). So it’s back to the drawing board for me, but I hope it’s been reassuring for you.
Let me know what you think in the comments! And don’t forget to share on social media.