by Barbara Kyle

Electricity. Magnetism. Every writer has a visceral understanding of those words applied to drama. We call a dynamic scene "electric"; a compelling character "magnetic."

But that's the response of a consumer of art. As writers we need to be producers of artistic effects. We do it by bringing human relationships to life with our craft as scrupulously as a scientist creates a chemical reaction. We do it scene by scene. And there's a foolproof method for building a powerful scene. It's blindingly simple, but not well understood. It's particle physics.

More on that in a moment. First, some definitions. What, exactly, is a scene? A scene is an event that brings change, large or small, into the life of the characters. (If nothing changes, then nothing has happened. That's a failed scene.) All of these changes, large or small, occur in the form of reversals. Major reversals are called turning points. These events turn the story, sending it into a new direction.

Be aware that reversals entail change that is unexpected. A character, in pursuing his or her goal, takes an action expecting a result, but then gets a very different result. Scenes always turn on a reversal. Big scenes turn on big reversals. The biggest scene, the story climax, contains the biggest reversal of all.

When planning a scene, first ask: Who drives the scene, makes it happen? Then ask: What does he or she want? Desire is always the key. In other words, What's their objective in this scene? (When actors discuss a scene they literally refer to "playing an objective.") Phrase this desire or objective of your character as "to do such-and-such" or "to get such-and-such."

Now, here's where it gets interesting. We turn a scene on the value that's at stake for the character who drives the scene. By "value" I mean the emotional stakes: What's at stake emotionally for the driving character? Some of the values that great stories have always turned on are: trust, hope, fear, desire, loneliness, love, freedom, jealousy, survival. 

This is where we get to physics. Electricity. Specifically, positive and negative charges. Once you've identified the value that's at stake in the scene, decide whether the scene starts on a positive charge or a negative charge. That is, at the beginning of the scene is the driving character's situation charged positively or negatively in relation to the value?

So, here's the blindingly simple method for building a powerful scene. Write the scene so that the value turns from one state of charge to its opposite. Is the driving character seething with suspicion? Then turn the scene by making her trust. Is the character glad to be free? Then turn the scene by having him lose his freedom.

Two well-known examples. In THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS by Thomas Harris FBI agent Clarice Starling visits serial killer Hannibal Lector in prison believing her training has given her all the tools she needs to be in complete control. But Hannibal turns the tables, profiling Clarice and summarizing her life with such chilling accuracy it leaves her emotionally shaken. The value is self-control and the scene reverses from a positive charge to a negative one.

In Jane Austen's EMMA Emma Wodehouse greets Mr. Knightly in despair, believing he is engaged to marry Jane Fairfax, but when he tells her he is not, and that he loves Emma, her spirits soar. The value is love and the scene reverses from a negative charge to a positive one.

The more extreme the change, the more powerful the scene. It's simple. Elemental. Charge your scenes with a value, then reverse the value.

Your readers will feel the electricity.


Barbara Kyle is the bestselling author of the "Thornleigh" series of historical thrillers set in Tudor England - The Queen's Gamble, The Queen's Captive, The King's Daughter, and The Queen's Lady, all published internationally - and of the contemporary thrillers Entrapped and The Experiment. Visit her at and follow her on Twitter @BKyleAuthor.