Writing Your Obligatory Scene

Whether you call it the climax of the story or the “obligatory scene” as Albert Zuckerman does in his book Writing the  Blockbuster Novel, it’s the biggest scene in your novel, usually takes more space than the scenes leading up to it, and has the potential to make or break your story. So it’s worth the time to make it as strong as possible. Here are a few things to consider as you write your obligatory scene.

The beginning conflict  must match the final resolution. It  must point toward this final confrontation.  If it doesn’t, you must revise one or the other.

Usually this scene includes the major characters. Your hero should be the one to act in this moment, which Christopher Vogler, in his book, The Writers Journey, calls “Resurrection”–the point at which the main character is  reborn, changed as a result of his tests and trials.  One form of this final scene is the showdown, common in Westerns. Think about the final scenes in High Noon or Stagecoach.  Can you devise a form of a showdown between your main characters?

If a duel to the death does not fit your story, then a difficult choice that tests the hero’s values or tests his faith might work.  In the movie Witness,  Harrison Ford portrays  John Book, a policeman who comes to an  Amish community to investigate a murder. In the obligatory scene, he must choose whether to shoot it out with the corrupt police official, or put down his weapon and stand with the peaceful Amish. In It happened One Night, Clark Gable’s character  must choose which woman to wed. In Sophie’s Choice, Sophie must choose which of her children will die at the hands of the Nazis.

Another possibility is to write a quiet climax in which your protagonist experiences a strong wave of emotion, a sense of peace, acceptance or understanding resulting from a reality check. Nowhere is this shown more effectively than in the obligatory scene that closes out  the movie, The Prince of Tides.  The hero, Tom, married and with three children, goes to New York to “become the memory” of his sister  Savannah who has attempted suicide. As he talks to the therapist about their shared childhood, he reveals the secret he has been carrying for all of his adult life. He and the therapist, who is also married, fall in love.  But phone calls from his young daughters and the glaring difference between his life in the South Carolina low country and the glittering life of his New York therapist convince him that his place is with  his family. In the final shot, he is driving home, across a wide bridge ( a symbol of crossing from his new life back to the old), and accepting peacefully the choice he has made, even as he whispers her name, “as praise, as  a prayer: Lowenstein, Lowenstein. ”  Great storytelling.

Your obligatory scene should be emotionally powerful. Often it includes a revelation, as described above, a new meaning for old events, or a twist that surprises the reader.Whatever you choose, this scene must tie up loose ends, resolve conflicts, and have meaning beyond the obvious.

Make a list of three or four of your favorite books or movies. What is the beginning conflict? The final resolution?  Does the author or film maker achieve the resolution through a showdown, a test of  faith or values, a quiet “reckoning” scene? Something else?  Is the main character actively engaged in the resolution? Is the scene emotionally powerful? What makes it memorable?  Finally, how can you apply these techniques to your own writing?


8 thoughts on “Writing Your Obligatory Scene

  1. Karen Campbell Prough

    Oops, I think I hit the wrong thing. I’m not sure my last comment was sent. In case it wasn’t, I will repeat it. Thank you for your post. I will go back and check the ending of the books in my series. 🙂

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