Signpost Scenes — A Kick in the Shins

by Abigail K. Perry
published in Writing

If you read my last article on the Point of No Return Decision (Signpost Scene #5 in James Scott Bell’s Superstructure) you know that every Lead makes a HUGE decision that launches them into Act II. But what happens after that massive moment? For some weaker first drafts of a WIP, sometimes nothing.

This is a problem because if we’ve hooked the reader, the last thing we want to do is lose their attention.

And we will—if we don’t give them a scene that reminds them about the unstoppable dangers waiting in Act II.

Signpost Scene #6: A Kick in the Shins

A Kick in the Shins is a signpost scene (or maybe succession of scenes) that occurs immediately after the Lead enters Act II. It creates an obstacle for the Lead—an obstacle that is the first real test of death stakes (remember that death stakes are how we create tension in a story, and whiffs of death are professional, psychological, or physical).

It is paramount that the Lead face something that threatens death soon after the point of no return, or else suffer the fate of a dragged pace and loss of concern for the Lead’s life.

A couple points concerning this signpost:

  • Don’t wait too long before it happens. If you delay, the reader will start to wonder if things were as bad as suggested in Act I.
  • The new trouble should relate to the big conflict of the story. Coincidental danger might annoy your reader.
  • Studying examples of successful books is the best way to understand and imagine your own Kick in the Shins moment.

Let’s look at some examples.

The Hate U Give

There are thousands of reasons why every writer should read Angie Thomas’s masterpiece The Hate U Give, but one of them is because of its sound, structured plot.

The major complicating factor for Starr’s desire to feel safe and at peace (or to fit in without needing to be two different people) is Khalil’s death. When we met Kahlil in Act I, he is established as her best childhood friend, right before he is shot and murdered by a policeman for no liable reason.

A lot happens after that. Starr goes through her “fish out of water” life at Williamson High, sorting out boyfriend-troubles, her brother’s trouble with his mama, dealing with bad nightmares, speaking to the police (with questions that try to pin Khalil as responsible for his own death), and King (a gang leader in Garden Heights and one of the book’s antagonists) placing a bandana on Khalil’s coffin—a sign that Khalil was part of the gang he vowed never to join as a child.

Now Starr, a high school teen trying to figure out her place in her worlds, is forced to look at the “messed up” forces preventing her from living a peaceful life, and why things are the way they are. And how she can do something about them.

In this sad state, Starr is approached—at the end of Khalil’s funeral—by none other than a gathering of protesters demanding justice. At the same time, April Ofrah from Just Us for Justice approaches Starr; an attorney, she offers to represent her.

Whether Starr decides to work with April or not is irrelevant for the conclusion of this Doorway #1 moment. But one thing is for certain: Starr’s “normal” life can never go back to what it was (maybe she doesn’t want it to go back to what it was? Is it time to speak up about her experiences?). Oh, and the Harris family (the family of the policeman who shot Khalil) already found representation. Big problems are on the horizon.

The Kick in the Shins in The Hate U Give

Danger burgeones the further we go into The Hate U Give, particularly when Maverick (Starr’s father) scolds Starr and her younger brother Seven for playing basketball without asking for permission. Their neighborhood, Garden Heights, is a dangerous place to live, but trouble is worse than ever now that Khalil is dead and the King Lords are raising havoc. On page 148, we see a kick in the shins moment that gives us a taste of the challenges Starr faces, communicated through the watchful eye of her father.

The King Lords across the street burst out laughing. DeVante coughs into his fist like he wants to laugh too. Seven and I look at everything but Daddy.

“Oh, y’all wanna act like y’all don’t hear me? Answer me when I’m talking to you!”

The King Lords howl with laughter.

“Pops, we just came to play ball,” Seven says.

“I don’t care. All this shit going on, and y’all leave? Get in the truck!”

“Goddamn,” I say under my breath. “Always gotta act a fool.”

Shortly after this scene, tension continues to bubble with a momentous ferocity, unraveling in a fleet of riots so bad Maverick tells Lisa (Starr’s mom) to take the kids to Uncle Carlos’s house—a town away from Garden Heights.

We can see how all this chaos is quietly tearing Starr apart, with anxiety and underserved guilt twisting in an internal storm that she tries her best to keep locked inside herself.

As they drive past crowds of protests demanding “Justice for Khalil,” Lisa turns to her daughter, clearly distressed.

“You know none of this is your fault, right?” Momma asks.

How in the world did she know that? “I know.”

“But sometimes right’s not good enough, huh?”

Searching for a way to comfort her daughter, Lisa tells her the story about how, when she was pregnant with Starr, she quit all her unhealthy habits, but when Starr was born she wasn’t breathing. Lisa reflects on how she did everything right, but complications still threatened Starr’s life when she was born.

Momma grabs my hand again–looked me in the eye, and said, ‘Sometimes you can do everything right and things will still go wrong. The key is to never stop doing right.’”

She holds my hand the rest of the drive.

Phew! Well, if that’s not a tear-jerking, authentic, and heartfelt line-of-wisdom told in the heat of a kick in the shins moment, I don’t know what is.

Thank you, Angie Thomas, for giving us the words to talk about lives impacted by implicit bias and racial injustice.

And thank you for giving me a remarkable book that perfectly models Signpost Scene #6: A Kick in the Shins.

Exercises to Help You Write A Kick in the Shins Moment

It’s important to understand that a kick in the shins is not just another passing moment in Act II, but a real kick in the Lead’s reality that death (whatever whiff of death threatening your Lead is) is unavoidably and horrifically real.

James Scott Bell refers to A Kick in the Shins as an “emotional jolt, a deepening of the interior stakes.” An exercise that might help you brainstorm your kick in the shins moment from other tense scenes in your novel is by making a list.

Try this.

OPTION 1 (for Plotters):

  • Make a list of obstacles and opposition characters that can be thrown in your Lead’s way—ones that affect the big picture conflict. Don’t judge your ideas. Write for ten solid minutes and try to get a list of at least 15-20 options.
  • Choose the best ones and list them from bad to worse to worst. Hint: the “bad” one is your Kick in the Shins. Your worst is likely that moment that happens at the end of Act II, in a different signpost scene (post coming soon!).

OPTION 2 (for Pantsers):

  • Identify the main whiff of death threatening your Lead: physical, psychological, or professional.
  • Now, find a song that echoes this type of death. Listen to it with your eyes closed and imagine a terrible challenge threatening your Lead with this death. Don’t judge your ideas, just let your imagination roll; these may unravel big physical threats or more internal focuses—doesn’t matter as long as they threaten the Lead’s WOD.
    • For instance, Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird is threatened with psychological death (being turned into a woman with the Old-South way of thinking). Her Kick in the Shins moment is when Mrs. Dubose shouts that she is going to end up a waitress, and that she is just as bad as those N-words that her father is defending. Death is eminent!
  • Open your eyes. Start writing this scene without stopping to edit. Or, if you like to talk out your scenes, tuck yourself in a quiet room and recite your scene to an audio recorder. When you’re done, try writing it out.

Now it’s your turn! How’s your WIP coming? Do you feel like the tension is falling off a scene or two after you’ve entered Act II? If it does, likely you’re missing this crucial KICK IN THE SHINS moment. Without it, Act II will lose momentum, which will lose the audience.

But don’t worry. I’ve provided you exercises to guide you out of your Act II hole. Enjoy! Take advantage! Forge forward!

And when you’re done, share your scene if you’d like. I’d love to chat about your work more.


Abigail K. Perry is an editorial intern for P. S. Literary Agency as well as a women’s and speculative fiction writer (she dreams of becoming a literary agent and published author).

During her day job, Abigail teaches creative writing and film production to grades 9-12. She received her B.S. in TV, Radio, and Film from Syracuse University and her Master’s in Education from Endicott College; she has interned as a creative production intern for Overbrook Entertainment and as a marketing and sales (special projects) intern for Charlesbridge Publishing.

In other experiences, Abigail is a member of the DIY MFA street team and a loyal follower of Writer’s Digest, where she has participated in a number of conferences, retreats, workshops, and webinars. She holds a deep passion for helping other writers tell their stories and shares a multitude of #WritingTip #AmWriting #WritingPrompt resources on twitter @abigailkperry, Instagram @abigailkperry, and website www.akperry.com.

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