Remember riding a see-saw when you were a kid? Or maybe you called it a teeter-totter. You had to find the right balance in order to go up and down. When scenes in novels are well written, they’re like see-saws, shifting the weight back and forth between two characters or between a character and a situation. All that shifting helps to create the tension that keeps readers reading.
As novelists, our job is to put our main character in a situation that’s out of balance, so we often start a novel with what’s sometimes called “a destabilizing event.” We begin “on the day that was different,” the day the scale is tipped. The character is now out of balance, and the rest of the novel shows the character trying to get back into balance. Often the character discovers that it’s impossible to restore the old balance. The old balance no longer works, so the entire novel see-saws until the character finds some kind of balance.
But one character’s idea of balance is often the other character’s idea of imbalance. In other words, each character feels balanced when the scale is tipped in her favor. I just finished reading Sarah Dessen’s The Truth About Forever. The mother of main character Macy feels balanced when everything is predictable, while Macy’s new friends feel balanced when situations are unpredictable. Macy see-saws between the two, trying to find her own balance.
Each scene in a novel is a see-saw on a smaller scale, showing how characters attempt to balance. Depending on the intensity of the scene, the back and forth see-saw can turn into a tug of war. Or a real war. The scene is over when some kind of balance is reached or a new event happens that throws the character into greater imbalance. The main character may jump off one see-saw onto an even bigger one.
As in real life, a character may live with a balance that’s not in her favor because it feels familiar; it has become her comfort zone. She tries to avoid tipping the scale. She tries to keep an even keel. In real life, a person can live this way. But not in a novel. Writers must tip the scale. We have to send our characters scrambling. We watch how they find their footing, all the while intending to throw them off balance again and again. Devious, aren’t we? But that’s the way we see – and show – what our characters are made of. And that’s the way we tell a story.
© 2012 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved. Photo courtesy morguefile.com