Every good scene needs a tipping point. An emotional high spot (or low). The scene action builds to it, then tapers away. It should both surprise, and seem inevitable.
In Chapter Nineteen of my novel, Better You Go Home, my protagonist, Chico Lenoch hits a wall. It would be overly simplistic and reductive to call this depression. Everything he is questing toward has been stopped. He finds his sister in the Czech Republic, but she does not believe that she is his sister, preferring instead a story that lends to her childhood a modicum of dignity. And, she is arrested. And her cat, the closest thing she has to a child of her own, will now inevitably starve to death. And he still desperately needs a kidney. Home in Seattle, confronted with the emptiness of the room he has prepared for her, confronted as well with his Czech father’s continuing silence, he sees no purpose awaiting him. No future. The opposition has won.
What does a child look like who’s starving to death? What will poor little
golden lady bug look like? Will her mouth wrench open? Will she curl up
quietly and wait for her mother? The refrigerator hums now and then. Wind
claps the stove flue. Buses growl out on Fremont Avenue. The whoop whoop
of a helicopter? Another suicide jumper on the bridge? She’s curled up in
some recess in the loft. Rats will find her. I am the cause of it. I’ve failed. Failed
at everything. Failed everyone. Kasia. Milada. Anezka. Failed my father. I am
not a cause worth fighting for. Dialysis will be wasted on me.
A boat blasts its klaxon. The sound is muffled, far away. What if the bridge
went up and wouldn’t go back down? What if there were no alternate route?
What if you just waited? At what point would it be acceptable to say, okay, it’s
time to curl up?
I’m curled up. I have no reason to exist. I am necessary to no one.
What does he do? Curled up on the bed in the room he has prepared for the woman he still believes is his sister, he contemplates torture.
Zamečnik told Milada about the “nose-to-wall” technique. It’s not a torture
I’ve read about. He told her that this was certainly done to her father. After
her insulting conversation with Halbrstat, hearing about this was enough to
push her into his cause. According to Zamečnik, the guards forced Milada’s
father to stand with his toes and the tip of his nose against the cold wall in the interrogation room. His hands were wrenched up behind his back and bound
in such a way that his shoulders were nearly pulled out of their sockets. After
an hour or so of enduring this, according to Zamečnik, and especially after
two days of being kept cold and awake, followed by maniacal exercising, you
would scream for mercy. “Your eyes would feel like they were bulging out
of their caves. You felt like heavy rocks were squeezing you from all sides.”
Your ankles and feet in that hour would swell to double their normal size.
Most prisoners were crying or praying out loud well before the hour was up.
But there was no visible damage, and that’s what Jungmann and the courts
counted on. Apparently a few hard cases sometimes did hold out. If they didn’t
give in and sign confessions and point the finger at others, the nose-to-wall
procedure was repeated three times over a twenty-four hour period. During
this time, the prisoner was given no water to drink. The pressure and the
lack of fluid caused their kidneys to fail. These were the disposable prisoners.
There was no dialysis in their future.
Why? Why torture? Chico explains it to himself by claiming that he wants to feel what Anezka must be feeling. When writing this scene, I understood this as the moment, the first moment, when my protagonist becomes his sister. It’s more than empathy. What he is experiencing emotionally and psychologically is parallel to what she must have experienced.
This is my scene’s tipping point. Every scene that includes a stretch of dramatization needs to have a mini-story arc. That arc includes an emotional tipping point, usually near the high point of the scene’s drama. It is the character’s point of maximum exposure. It is the point at which the character is most vulnerable and therefore most susceptible to change. I needed to have Chico emotionally pulverized so that he’d agree to cooperate with his father in order for the quest to resume. I know this in retrospect. While writing that chapter, I merely took my character where he seemed to need to go. He wanted to curl up. I let him curl up. I was myself taken by surprise, but I also remember thinking when I stood up from my computer that this surprise, grim as it was, felt right (so, I told myself, no matter how dark it feels, don’t change it if it is what has to be).