There are scenes in stories and novels that are critical in that they are climatic and essential to the resolution of the plot and subplots. Too often, a writer will neglect to set it up so that when it does occur, the moment is filled with tension and credibility. The author must ask some critical questions. Have I placed doubt in the reader that the character can actually accomplish the task? Is there some moral or ethical principle at stake? Have I given enough attention to the subplot scenes too? Is the reader unsure of the outcome? Does he/she feel the tension of possibilities? Answering these questions may not guarantee that a scene will work, but it will definitely help.
Characters are human, not super human. They have doubts, faults, fears, reservations, and all sorts of foibles. A writer can use these to create tension. In Searching for Lilith for example, Annie, one of my main characters, finds herself in a situation where she must shoot one of the characters out to kill her. The scene acts as the climactic moment in the novel. I wanted to place doubt in the reader whether she could pull the trigger or not. To that end, I created a scene early in the book where she questions the use of force by John LeGrand, the main character. Later, when she finds out that she might have to shoot someone, she questions whether she can do it. Because of her actions and thoughts earlier in the novel, when the moment comes, the reader is unsure whether she will shoot, or whether the "bad guy" will kill her.
When I started the novel, I had a very basic idea of the plot. A woman disappears with her infant daughter. Twenty years later, the father, who fears he is going to die of cancer, hires LeGrand to find her. I wanted it to be a journey—from Ellisonville to Ellisonville. When the detective finds Annie Wates, who may or may not be the daughter, he leads the people out to kill her back to his home turf where the scene I outlined above takes place. He can see no other way to save her. The plot leads the reader straight to the confrontation.
In Lighted Windows, my collection of short stories, the father in the story "La Boucherie" tries to explain the difference between killing out of necessity and killing for survival. "Killing is serious," he tells the boy. "It should never come easy. Only a fool kills something without good reason." In Searching for Lilith, killing a human being goes against everything Annie believes. The idea is morally troubling for her. If she decides to kill a man, the action must be necessary, and even then, she knows that whether right or wrong, there will be repercussions. The reader must deliberate whether she is capable of doing something, she considers morally wrong.
Subplots need the same attention as the main one. Is Annie Zack's daughter? The scene when she meets him must have the same emotion and tension as the climactic scene. In another subplot, LeGrand is not only looking for Zack's Lilith. He is also looking for his own Lilith in Lisa Ching, a love interest, but because of a rather painful divorce, he is unsure of himself. That scene too must resonate with the reader. Will he find his Lilith or fail?
And what about the people responsible for all the disorder and turmoil? Their scenes must add tension and doubt too. Throughout the book, I tried to add little uncertainties about whether the characters were capable of causing such violence to others. For example, drug czar, Carlos Garza orders Anthony Watts to kill his wife. He's comfortable with her, maybe even loves her. When the time comes, can he do it?
Whether I was successful or not is up to the readers to decide. All I can hope for is that all the juggling, copying, and pasting I did pays off. I am sure of one thing, however. I learned much about scene construction and placement, and my next book is going to be better for it.