Signpost Scenes — Trouble Brewing

by Abigail K. Perry
published in Writing

Welcome back, readers! I hope that my last article on The Argument Against Transformation helped clear up any questions you had on theme and your Lead’s need for transformation.

Now, as we move forward with act one, we approach a crucial signpost scene that, though quick, makes a big difference escalating tension and exciting readers, even though it’s not the major conflict.

What am I talking about? James Scott Bell’s fourth signpost scene in, Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing the Power of Story: Trouble Brewing.

Is Trouble Brewing the Main Conflict in the Story?

Although Trouble Brewing does create an unsettled feeling in readers (and characters), it’s not the major conflict in the story. Not yet. Creating a sense of trouble while holding off on the main conflict is a smart tactic, because it hints at something bigger coming in the next chapter or two.

In Mary Poppins, the real conflict of the story (explored in act two) can’t occur until Mary Poppins herself appears on the Banks’s front doorstep. This doesn’t mean that everything before Mary Poppins is pointless or dull, and the scenes leading up to this major plot point most certainly are not. Why is this? Because there is a disturbance, a call to adventure, an argument against transformation, and (finally) trouble brewing.

“Trouble” that Bert draws our attention to in his song about the “winds in the east.” Right before the storm unleashes, Bert comments how something that’s “happened has happened before” — and with a smirk on his face!

The people surrounding Bert (and the reader) might not know what that “something” is, but you better believe that by suggesting something is coming, Bert’s audience (readers included) fall deeper into the story. We have to find out what Bert means!

Trouble Brewing in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan

Let’s look at another example. This one from J. M. Barrie’s beloved masterpiece, Peter Pan. Now, for those of you who have read the original tale of Peter Pan, you’ll remember that Mrs. Darling actually spots Peter in the nursery before he sweeps her children off to Neverland.

Peter’s first appearance is not the Trouble Brewing scene, but it does signal the potential trouble that Mr. and Mrs. Darling worry about before leaving the house.

Look at this passage following Mrs. Darling’s encounter with Peter. Here, Mr. and Mrs. Darling plan to leave for the evening while Nana, the Darling’s “nanny” (who happens to be a dog), is tied up outside. Usually, Nana resides inside the nursery and tends to the children, but not tonight. And why not tonight?

Because Nana’s relocation outside provides Barrie the opportunity to brew trouble in his scene, and hint at the big event that is about to come. A hint that grabs our attention with Nana’s bark:

“That is not Nana’s unhappy bark,” she said, little guessing what was about to happen; “that is her bark when she smells danger.”

Danger!

“Are you sure, Wendy?”

“Oh yes.”

Mrs. Darling quivered and went to the window. It was securely fastened. She looked out, and the night was prepared with stars. They were crowding round the house. As if curious to see what was to take place there, but she did not notice this, nor that one or two of the smaller ones winked at her.

Based on this passage alone, it’s safe to say Barrie is a brilliant storyteller. With such subtle dialogue and commentary, he accomplishes a few things:

  • Directs the readers (and characters) attention to something unusual
  • Shows us why we can anticipate trouble through sound and action (Nana’s bark, the stars winking at Mrs. Darling)
  • Makes us uneasy by locking us into Mrs. Darling’s emotions, since she was the character who saw Peter the previous night and now the one who “quivered and went to the window.”

Why This Works

Act one dedicates time to introducing the Lead and the Lead’s everyday world following the Disturbance (signpost one).  Like chess pieces set before a match, authors orchestrate act one as a space that sets players and important tools (that will play an important role in the plot later) in motion. These decisions establish the tone of the book, promising readers the type of tension they can expect for the rest of the story.

Trouble Brewing establishes the least of the worst that is about to come, which will either grab the reader or encourage them to close that book. But if there is a Lead readers care about, and trouble on her horizon, they’ll keep reading. They’ll hunger for more.

Try Some Exercises

Now that you understand what Trouble Brewing is, try this exercise to help you write your own Trouble Brewing scene.

  1. Identify the main conflict in your story (the conflict your character will explore more in act two).
  2. Make a list of ten things that could disturb your Lead in act one.
  3. Review your first three signpost scenes. Does the disturbance lead to a call to adventure? Does your call to adventure lead to your argument against transformation? Does each signpost scene create as much (maybe more) tension than the one before?
  4. Now, make a list of five possible events (try to make one for each of the five senses — i.e. smell, sight, etc.) that could be considered “trouble” for your Lead. Make sure these could build to your main conflict. Some of these might include:
    • Someone says something that upsets your Lead, or makes her nervous (in Gone With the Wind, the men talk about war)
    • Something strange is happening with the weather (Mary Poppins)
    • Something a Lead takes extra good care of is misplaced
    • Something smells different than usual
    • Someone has a bad feeling in the pit of their stomach
  5. Pick one of these events and write a scene where your Lead notices this “trouble brewing” right before the real trouble (or main conflict) actually does
  6. Share this post and your scene with your fellow writers!

What kind of trouble is brewing in your story? Can you think of scenes from other stories that suggest the main conflict by brewing trouble in an earlier scene? Share your comments below using #letstalkbooks!


Abigail K. Perry is a speculative fiction writer living in Massachusetts where she teaches creative writing and film production. She received her B.S. in TV, Radio, and Film from Syracuse University and her Master’s in Education from Endicott College. She worked as a creative production intern in for Overbrook Entertainment and as a marketing and sales intern for Charlesbridge Books, and currently works as an editorial intern for P.S. Literary.

Abigail is a member of the DIY MFA street team and a loyal follower of Writer’s Digest, where she has attended various conferences, retreats, workshops, and webinars. You can read more about her work on her website www.akperry.com or follow her on Twitter @A_K_Perry

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