Each scene or chapter in your story should have some kind of tipping point where a decision is made. How can you use these to make give your characters more agency and drive the story?
Hello, folks. I’m now about halfway through the first draft of the third Witches of Woodville book, and I’m still in that muddy middle, that middle act where it’s so important that we writers try not to get too bogged down by wondering what happens next. In previous videos I’ve talked about using theme as story fuel and writing with urgency so as not to bore the reader. And today I want to talk about the tipping points of scenes. And I was recently reading about this in John Badham’s book “On Directing”.
Badham is the director of such classic films as Saturday Night Fever, WarGames, Stakeout, The Hard Way. A really great director. And this book is a cracking read. I’ve no ambitions to direct film. I’ve directed short films many years ago, and have some idea of just how all consuming directing a feature film is. But as a writer, I like to get different perspectives on the creative process and this one’s been a really refreshing read. And in here, Badham talks about how he and the actors will often look for the tipping point of a scene.
He defines it as the most important dramatic moment in a scene. It’s the moment where, like a seesaw, the situation can tip in favour of one character or another. However, unlike a seesaw where the tipping point is usually in the middle, the tipping point of a scene comes very close to the end as the dramatic argument comes to a peak. And these dramatic arguments don’t have to be major turning points every time in the story. It can be something as simple as deciding where to go for coffee.
What is important is that the characters — and most often your protagonist — is the one making those decisions and driving the story. From the perspective of a director like Badham and the actors that he works with, they’ll spend time looking for the tipping point in the scene in order to underpin that moment. Now, for a film director, that means close ups, or making it clear to the viewer that an important decision is being made. It’s also important for them to identify the tipping point because after that decision has been made by the character… the scene is done. Decision made. Onto the next scene.
That’s not to say the tipping point should be rushed. Badham quotes the writer-director Elia Kazan, who says, “One thing I always do, and I think that’s important in film, is to stretch climaxes.” So don’t feel you have to rush these things. I mean, one extreme is… How many comedies you’ve seen where a character will argue over something, say, “I’m not going on a date with him. I’m definitely not going on a date with him. You can’t make me go on a date with him.”
There’s a beat. You can feel the tipping point as a decision is about… to… be… maaaaaaade. And then you cut to that same person on a date with “him”. And that’s how close to the end a tipping point can be. Coming back to Kazan’s remark about stretching climaxes. Think of all those spaghetti westerns where the gunslingers face off… Staring at one another, slowly reaching for their guns, waiting for someone to make a move. That’s really great tension, really gripping.
And you can have great fun drawing that out for as long as you can. So how does this help you as a writer? Well, first of all, it can really help you with your editing. If you’ve got a scene that’s running too long, then look for a potential tipping point to get out early. Or your scene might be missing a tipping point. Which case does it need one? Can you add one? Or does the fact that it doesn’t have a tipping point make the scene redundant?
Also, try and think of your entire story as a dramatic argument with a tipping point. The central dramatic argument — that’s the theme of your story — shouldn’t be resolved until the very end. Once it is, the story’s over. Roll credits. Turn the page. The end. I hope you found that useful. And until next time, happy writing.