Hello, Campers, last month we explored BEATS: action and reaction segments within scenes. This month, we’re going to explore SCENE POLARITY, which is an extension, of sorts, of the action/reaction topic. James Hudnall explains scene polarity this way:
“Every action has a polarity in story terms. Positive or negative. Non action is neutral. But as we discussed before, neutral action does nothing, so it must be used sparingly.”
In each scene, characters enter with expectations. If things go as expected, there’s no story. If you leave your house for work, drive there via the normal route, have normal traffic, and get there in the normal amount of time, there’s no story. If, however, you leave the house, go via your normal route without running into traffic, and you get there in time to stop by the coffee shop for a caramel latte, there’s more to the scene. If, on your normal route, you come across an accident and have to drive right by the lump of twisted metal that was, in it’s former life, a Chevy or a Ford, your day just got more interesting. If you actually see that accident happen, better (especially for the EMT’s in the group, but I digress). If the accident happens to you, even better (not for you, but for the story.)
Each scene that you write will start with either a positive or negative “charge.” Things are either going well or badly at the beginning of a scene.
By the end of each scene, the polarity should have changed. Most commonly, the scene will go from a positive to a negative polarity or vice versa. Occasionally, it will go from a negative to a double negative as things that couldn’t get worse do, indeed, get worse. And when conflict is first introduced, a scene may go from neutral to positive or negative. Neutral charges can be effectively used as breathing points between highly charged scenes and can also be used to show irony. The ironic twists, though, when there is no real polarity change, are, in reality, a frustration factor for your characters and, as such, they add an overall negative charge to the situation.
Not only does the polarity of the charge change from scene to scene, so does the strength of the charge. In the beginning of a story, the charges are mild. By mid-story, the charges should be building in intensity. By the big “OH NO!” moment, the charges should be set on stun.
There is a natural ebb and flow to a good story. If all your scenes are positive to negative, your reader will lose interest. If all your scenes are neutral, nothing really is happening, except for the snoooooozing sound coming from your reader. As the coach in the Might Ducks movie says, “CHANGE IT UP!”
Polarity shifts occur when the mood of the scene changes. Generally, it is conflict that brings about the change. A character can go from frustration to anger. Or frustration to forgiveness. His dealings can go from unpleasant to brutal or from unpleasant to accepting; negative to positive or positive to negative. The intensity of the charge itself is shown in the degree: an unpleasant response, a dirty look, a curt reply, a physical response such as a shove or a painful grip, all the way up to an ultimate unpleasantness such as pulling and firing a gun. As you can see, if the intensity builds to the highest level by the middle of the story, the author has nowhere to go. Occasionally, this device is used to change the direction of the story altogether, but it should only be used on purpose, not because you have backed yourself into a corner.
If you use polarity wisely, consistently building the charge along the way, you will find that the response that would have seemed absurd in the beginning of the story seems logical in the end. A character can do something completely against his nature if you’ve pushed him throughout the story to do it. This is done by taking the expectation he brings into each scene and reversing the outcome.
For more information on polarity of scenes, I recommend Story, by Robert McKee, and Story Sense, by Paul Lucey.
Your assignment this month is to go back over the scenes you’ve written or critiqued lately. Mark the polarity at the beginning of the scene with a plus or minus sign. Mark it again at the end of the scene. If you find scenes that have not changed in polarity, you will likely find that the activity of the scene was a non-event. The scene is flat.
The beauty of writing is that you can fix it. You can throw conflict into the scene or, if necessary, you can cut the scene entirely.
Well, Campers, this is the final Screenwriting Tips column. I would like to thank you for all the great comments you’ve made to me along the way. I know I’ve learned a lot, and I hope you have as well. We will start something new and exciting next month.
Until next time, BIC-HOK (Butt in Chair - Hands on Keyboard).
(This series first ran in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers newsletter in 2005.)
About the Author: Jax Hunter is a published romance writer and freelance copywriter. She wears many hats including EMT, CPR instructor, and Grammy. She is currently working on a contemporary romance series set in ranching country Colorado and a historical romance set in 1775 Massachusetts. She lives in Colorado Springs, belongs to PPW, RMFW and is a member of the Professional Writer's Alliance.