I was watching Psych. It was season six or seven. Shawn, our fake psychic protagonist, and Juliette, his police officer lover, were at a wedding enjoying a touching moment of alone time. The officer who got married was the happiest he had ever been. Shawn’s friend, Gus, received the long awaited phone call from his long distance girlfriend. Everyone was happy, a crime was just solved, we had five minutes left in the show, nothing bad could happen. There was nothing out there on the plate. We were happy. We were safe.
Then Shawn walked away after giving Jules his suit coat, and she had a look of consternation as she reached into a pocket. The camera panned panned away from her, to Shawn at the bar. Did she find the ring he was going to use to propose? It would be a tense moment, a moment of truth, but a happy moment. At that time, it was the only possible thing I could think of at the end of the episode.
For over a minute or so we were stuck at the bar, wondering what she found, wondering how this would change Shawn’s life. Meanwhile, Shawn sat at the bar, admiring how good life was. He was in a safe scene, where his world could not be rocked and he was going to get laid that evening.
When he returns to Jules with the drinks, she looks like an injured doe. There was a ticket stub from earlier in the show, where she realized he was not psychic, but immensely perceptive and a great guesser. My world was shattered. Things deteriorated, and soon he had wine thrown in his face. We were faced with one of the forms of death, the death of a relationship, and at a time we thought everything was gold.
For whatever reason this made me comprehend the tactic of interrupting the safe scene more than all the GRRM weddings in the world. A part of me died, and I was just thankful I had it on Netflix and could stay up until 2am watching through until some sort of resolution for the act occurred. I don’t know how you cable people live through those moments without weeping for the next week.
Having the safe scene finally clicked, I took to analyzing it.
There are three parts to the interrupted safe scene. You have a scene where the reader or viewer feels safe, alongside the characters who are likely destressing. After that is a tell. The audience, and perhaps protagonist, is tipped off that not all is right in the state of Denmark. Finally, the interruption, or hammer, which shatters the glass state of safety. Something horrible happens that we should have seen coming, there were hints, but we lost sight of what was in front of us.
First, a safe scene is a scene after something stressful, which had a happy resolution. Everyone is having a good time, everyone is happy, any wronged parties have been rectified. In the episode of Psych, they helped catch a mob boss to help a detective’s wedding go smoothly, Shawn had recently went through a lie detector and passed as a psychic, and he was considering proposing some time soon to his girlfriend. We were in the last two minutes of the show. Everyone was happy and there were no hints towards a hard crash.
In Game of Thrones, this is the Red Wedding. Waldor seems content, someone is marrying one of his daughters. He compliments Robb’s wife. Everyone is happy, all wrongs between the two parties are seemingly mended.
The next part is the tell. A sign something is wrong. I think Psych did the better job. In the Red Wedding, Catelyn sees the chain mail on Roose, and seconds later everyone dies. Shawn doesn’t even notice that Jules went into his pocket. He didn’t see the look of perplexity. We knew for a good minute that something was amiss, and our minds were allowed to wallow in the mists of uncertainty. But it was a safe moment, so it couldn’t be bad.
After the tell is the hammer. To create tension in a story you need the threat of death. Maybe I didn’t click as well with Game of Thrones because it was literal death. There are other kinds of deaths, whether relationships, jobs, research, or so on. In Psych, we suddenly have the death of a relationship thrust upon us. I was able to see death in a more abstract manner.
With the hammer, what you have to ensure, is it’s something that is always looming overhead, but we think it’s a nonissue. While there were signs, there were no signs immediately. Though you set it up perfectly, in that final moment, surprise us. “Remember how I put the ticket in the pocket? No? Well now it’s important, because it’s going to unravel everything.” And it only happened twenty minutes earlier.
So spend all your time planting the seeds. Create the tension, seemingly solve or push the tension aside, create happiness, and then slap the reader in the face. And there you have it, interrupting the safe scenes.