Signpost Scene #12, the Q Factor, in James Scott Bell’s Super Structure is not one to forget. Though simple in concept, understanding it will determine the difference between a convenient ending and one readers will talk about for years.
This is how it’s done.
The Q Factor
Tagged the “Q Factor” in James Scott Bell’s breakdown of story structure, signpost scene #12 reveals satisfying payoffs to devices, characters, and scenes the author sets up in the beginning of the story. In other words, a writer plants important story structure elements early in the novel to highlight devices, details, and emotions that the hero will need in their darkest hours.
Bell tagged this Signpost Scene “The Q Scene” because the character Q’s role in the James Bond movies. Q provides and explains essential tools in the beginning of the story, and these are always later used to save Bond’s life in his Lights Out moment.
Sometimes Q Factors are built up throughout a story, other times we see them once or twice and then marvelously executed at the moment a hero needs it/them the most. Whatever you choose, be careful to avoid excessive attention on something set-up in the beginning of a story. You don’t want something important to come off forced and/or preachy. You do want it to take on a new satisfying meaning.
(The only exception for calling too much attention to a plot point is when it’s used for comedic effect. This can work, but it’s tough and rare. Best to swap subtly for the obvious.)
The trick to making the Q factor have meaning is by giving it back to the protagonist right after their Lights Out—i.e. at the moment where they need to “dig deep” and remember something essential told, felt, or given to them early in the first act.
Because this information, feeling, or tangible device was provided early on—and because that “thing” or “moment” illuminated significant meaning, the readers/audience eagerly wait for it to return before the story ends. They are thrilled when it does rise up again in the Q Factor Scene, living up to the potential put on it in previous scenes.
And while James Bond performs the Q Factor Signpost scene in an artful yet more obvious way, I’d encourage writers reading stories as a way to study their craft to explore more advanced structural examples.
This leads me to the Queen of all plotting.
You know her as J.K. Rowling, and I invite you all now to examine two brilliant Q Factor devices perfectly set-up and paid off in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
The Q Factor in Chamber of Secrets
J.K. Rowling is queen of subtle set-ups that deliver big pay-offs. I could create an entire blog, literally, to analyzing how she does this, but for brevity’s sake, let’s take a look at two main Q Factors in The Chamber of Secrets: The Sorting Hat and Parseltongue.
[A moment of clarification:
Set-ups are promises a writer establishes in the opening book that they must fulfill before the end of the story. Set-ups show readers something important to the plot and/or character that will benefit a character greatly in a major conflict or revelation.
Pay-offs are repayments to these set-ups. In other words, the writer fulfills their promise by making something they hinted would be important actually important in a character’s growth and/or action performed at the end of a story. Pay-offs are where the Q Factors come to life.]
Spoiler Alert: I’m going to give away the ending.
The Q Factor Scene means nothing if not set-up in the beginning of the novel. Rowling sets-up Parseltongue and The Sorting Hat in both The Sorcerer’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets, but they’re given more attention in book two than one. The reason? Both of these set-ups are paid-off with extreme purpose in the Chamber. They are Q Factors that aid Harry’s otherwise impossible success.
Q Factor 1) Parseltongue
For much of the novel, Harry despises this unwanted characteristic. While Harry first found it normal (for a wizard, probably he thinks), being a Parselmouth is major secret Harry hides in book two. The reason for this is that Parseltongue—or the ability to speak to snakes—was something that Slytherin founding father Salazar Slytherin could do, and it’s a gift that very few wizards have. Harry also learns that many wizards are frightened of this skill because of the dark tendencies that usually come with it, especially concerning the unleashing of the “monster” raised somewhere in the castle by Salazar Slytherin himself.
At the wizarding duel, we learn that Harry can talk to snakes, that this is rare, and that Salazar Slytherin could do the same thing. Students become frightened around Harry, some even assume that he is the one unleashing the hidden monster and attacking students (targeting specifically Muggle-borns). Rowling sets this characteristic up and pushes its importance in a way that unravels new information each time it’s brought to our attention again—avoiding what could otherwise become redundant.
Harry hates the idea that he could be related to Salazar Slytherin, but he also is immensely grateful for this skill come a time of need—a Lights Out moment: Harry and Ron figure out where the Chamber’s entrance is, but they can’t get in unless they can open the gates. And guess what opens the sink in the girl’s bathroom? You guessed it. Harry hissing “Open” in Paseltongue.
Q Factor 2) The Sorting Hat
The Sorting Hat is another tool that holds great importance in the wizarding world, particularly for students being sorted into their houses at Hogwarts. The Sorting Hat takes on new meaning, however, in the second book. Harry and Ron miss out on the Sorting Hat ceremony due to the flying car fiasco, but Rowling makes it a point to have Harry and Ron, much to their disappointment watch part of the ceremony from outside a window. After Snape, McGonagall, and Dumbledore catch and scold Harry and Ron for their foolish travel arrangements to Hogwarts, and they are told they will not join the welcome banquet, Ron even whines that he wanted to see the house his sister, Ginny, got.
More attention is put on the Sorting Hat later in Dumbledore’s office, a scene where Dumbledore seems to read Harry’s thoughts, which are in that moment worrying about if the Sorting Hat sorted him correctly or not. Dumbledore reassures Harry that the Sorting Hat always sorts correctly, and later still, that help will always come to those at Hogwarts who ask for it.
And ask for help Harry does when he is deep inside the Chamber of Secrets, unprepared and unarmed (sort-of) against the Basilisk. Yet, even as the snake emerges from its lair, Harry remains loyal to Hogwarts and Dumbledore. Such courage and loyalty is instantly rewarded by Fawkes, who flies down into the chambers carrying the exact tool Harry needs in an escalated Lights Out moment—The Sorting Hat.
Why the hat?
Because out of the hat comes the sword of Godric Gryffindor, of course!
Another perfectly set-up Q-Factor that is paid-off with chivalrous sword fights and magic in an epic scene that doesn’t disappoint.
Give it a Try!
The Q-Factor is a memorable moment that reinforces the hero immediately after they’ve hit rock bottom—Lights Out and other darkest hours. To make this scene memorable in the ending payoff, however, you’ll want to set it up early in your novel (preferably act one), and later draw subtle attention again somewhere in the middle—though don’t push attention on this device, person, feeling, or message. Let it breathe in it’s own spectacular inhale that will prove the most powerful exhale at the Q-Factor moment.
For now, brainstorm a list of 10 people, messages, feelings, devices, tools, etc. that could create Q-Factor scenes in your novel’s ending. When you’re done, think of how you can set these Q-Factor choices up early on in your novel, and how you can build them into your structure to escalate the final payoff in the Q-Factor scene.
Once you’re ready, give writing them a go!
Abigail K. Perry is an Outline and Developmental Editor with over a decade of experience in publishing and film. Some of her qualifications include: Certified Story Grid Editor, Fiction/Fantasy Writer, Agency Relations Assistant for P.S. Literary Agency, Outliner/Editor for Relay Publishing, and Monthly Columnist for DIY MFA.
Abigail earned her B.S. in TV, Radio, and Film from Syracuse University (S.I. Newhouse School of Publications) and a Master’s in Secondary Education from Endicott College. She created and taught three creative writing and film courses at the high school level for several years; she continues to teach writers at her local bookstore and through her Slush Pile Survivor email list. She has an awesome podcast coming out soon!
Abigail specializes in mentoring writers on how to outline a story that is worthwhile. (*Psst: especially ones that celebrate women, diversity, and fantastic adventures!*). For developmental editing, she focuses on character-driven stories that explore status and worldview value shifts with external performance, love, and action stakes thickening the plot. Abigail has spent over a decade learning from top writers, agents, editors, producers, and educators to master this craft, including the team at Overbrook Entertainment and Senior Literary Agent Carly Watters of P.S. Literary Agency.
Believing stories are a powerful way to connect people and the world around us, she writes, edits, and studies stories that help us learn and grow from that process. Abigail is currently under contract to write the Story Grid masterwork guides for Hamilton and some of the Harry Potter series (woot woot!).
To learn more from Abigail, sign up for her Outline Worth the While email list on her website www.abigailkperry.com and follow her on Twitter @abigailkperry.