In a young adult adventure story, there is a conflict scene early along the journey where the hero is literally put to the test– and she doesn’t do too well.
The hero must complete some sort of assignment for a teacher or evaluator, and her temper flares as a result.
The pop quiz in Harry Potter and Twilight occurs in the classroom setting, whereas in The Hunger Games it occurs at the training center when Katniss is ranked by the Gamemakers.
Because the parameters of the exam are already set (we know it’s relatively safe), this is a good scene to build emotional conflict before all the action.
Here are 10 steps to writing the pop quiz scene in your novel.
1. Call the hero’s name.
The time for the evaluation or test is signaled by the teacher or another student calling the hero’s name. It’s easy for readers to connect with the anxiety of being singled out in class.
- In Harry Potter, Professor Snape does a role call at the start of class: “Harry Potter. Our new — celebrity.” (HP Ch.8).
- In Twilight, Bella is surprised her lab partner Edward knows her name. “Oh, I think everyone knows your name. The whole town’s been waiting for you to arrive.”(TW Ch.2).
- In The Hunger Games, Katniss is called when it is her turn to go in front of the Gamemakers: “After about fifteen minutes, they call my name.” (HG Ch.7).
2. Describe the spectators.
While in the classroom or evaluation area, the hero notes the noise and the attention-span of the people who are present. This small details reinforces that the hero’s risk of embarrassment is high.
- Harry Potter notices that the class is quiet, explaining that even though Professor Snape spoke quietly, he “had the gift of keeping a class silent without effort.” (HP Ch.8).
- Bella Swan notices that the other students are a little noisy: “Class didn’t start for a few minutes, and the room buzzed with conversation.” (TW Ch.2).
- Katniss Everdeen notices the current state of the Gamemakers who will evaluate her: “They’ve been here too long, the Gamemakers. Sat through twenty-three other demonstrations. Had too much wine, most of them.” (HG Ch.7).
3. Divide the class into groups to tackle an assignment.
By splitting the class into partners or groups, the reader doesn’t get bored just listening to a lecture. The characters have a chance to talk amongst themselves as they work.
- In Harry Potter, the Potions class is given an assignment: “Snape put them all into pairs and set them to mixing up a simple potion to cure boils.” (HP Ch.8).
- In Twilight, Bella is forced to interact with her lab partner Edward: “Working as lab partners, we had to separate the slides of onion root tip cells into the phases of mitosis they represented and label them accordingly.” (TW Ch.2).
- In The Hunger Games, the tributes are separated from the group and are evaluated individually: “…they start to call us out of lunch for our private sessions with the Gamemakers. District by district, first the boy, then the girl tribute.” (HG Ch.7).
4. Put pressure on the hero to answer correctly.
Now it’s time for put the hero to the test. The teacher or evaluator throws a real challenge at the hero.
- Snape picks on Harry with a series of difficult questions: “What would I get if I added powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood?” (HP Ch.8).
- In Twilight, the biology teacher tells the groups to begin: “’Get started,’ he commanded. ‘Ladies first, partner?’ Edward asked.” (TW Ch.2).
- Katniss must show her archery skills to get a good ranking: “I walk to the center of the gymnasium and pick my first target.” (HG Ch.7).
5. Let the hero feel embarrassed.
When the hero doesn’t immediately perform well, he is humiliated in front of the spectators.
- Harry Potter has no idea what the answer is: “I don’t know, sir.” “Thought you wouldn’t open a book before coming, eh, Potter?” (HP Ch.8).
- When Bella does not immediately start doing the lab assignment, she is embarrassed in front of Edward: “…he was obviously wondering if I was mentally competent. ‘No,’ I said, flushing. ‘I’ll go ahead.’” (TW Ch.2).
- Katniss does not do as well with the high-tech bow and arrows: “I miss the dummy by a couple of inches and lose what little attention I had been commanding. For a moment, I’m humiliated, then I head back to the bull’s-eye.” (HG Ch.7).
6. Send the hero some support from a friend.
Not everyone is laughing at the hero. Luckily, he has a friend to watch his back.
- Ron Weasley urges Harry not to push Snape too far. “This was so unfair that Harry opened his mouth to argue, but Ron kicked him behind their cauldron.” (HP Ch.8).
- Edward makes sure that their teacher knows that Bella did the work on the lab. “’So, Edward, didn’t you think Isabella should get a chance with the microscope?’ Mr. Banner asked. . . . ‘Actually, she identified three of the five.’” (TW Ch.2).
- Before Katniss’s name is called, Peeta wishes her good luck: “You . . . shoot straight.” (HG Ch.7).
7. Evaluate the performance.
While the hero is struggling under the pressure to not look dumb, the teacher is always watching him so there is no chance to relax.
- In Harry Potter, Snape monitors the potion-making: “He swept around in his long black cloak, watching them weigh dried nettles and crush snake fangs, criticizing almost everyone except Malfoy…” (HP Ch.8).
- In Twilight, the teacher hovers over the students: “Mr. Banner was walking around the room, distributing one microscope and box of slides to each table….In twenty minutes, he would be coming around to see who had it right.” (TW Ch.2).
- In The Hunger Games, the Gamemakers should be watching but Katniss can’t hold their attention: “A few are nodding approval, but the majority of them are fixated on a roast pig that has just arrived at their banquet table.” (HG Ch.7).
8. Challenge the hero’s final results.
After the hero has completed the assignment, the teacher is somewhat confused by the results. The teacher’s reaction makes the hero want to lash out.
- Professor Snape blames Harry for Neville’s botched potion. “You — Potter — why didn’t you tell him not to add the quills? Thought he’d make you look good if he got it wrong, did you?” (HP Ch.8).
- Bella’s teacher assumes that Edward did all the work. “He looked over our shoulders to glance at the completed lab, and then stared more intently to check the answers. . . . Mr. Banner looked at me now; his expression was skeptical.” (TW Ch.2).
- The Gamemakers were surprised by Katniss’s performance when she shoots an arrow in their direction: “Suddenly I am furious, that with my life on the line, they don’t even have the decency to pay attention to me. . . . Everyone stares at me in disbelief.” (HG Ch.7).
9. Make a smart-mouthed remark.
The hero can’t be picked on for too long. At some point, his will breaks down and he gets sassy with another character.
- Harry talks back to Professor Snape. “’I don’t know,’ said Harry quietly. ‘I think Hermione does, though, why don’t you try her?’ A few people laughed; ….Snape, however, was not pleased.” (HP Ch.8).
- Bella gets irritated with Edward when he asks her personal questions while they work on the lab: “’Why does it matter to you?’ I asked, irritated. I kept my eyes away, watching the teacher make his rounds.” (TW Ch.2).
- After Katniss pulls her daring stunt of shooting in the direction of the Gamemakers, she doesn’t apologize: “’Thank you for your consideration,’ I say. Then I give a slight bow and walk straight toward the exit without being dismissed.” (HG Ch.7).
10. Send the hero some regret.
After the incident, the hero can’t stop thinking about it for the rest of the day. Depending on how rashly he acted, he may feel even more embarrassed now.
- After Harry leaves potions class, he tells Hagrid about what happened. “Hagrid, like Ron, told Harry not to worry about it, that Snape liked hardly any of the students. ‘But he seemed to really hate me.’” (HP Ch.8).
- Bella is embarrassed that she shared so much personal information with Edward during the lab: “I was in disbelief that I’d just explained my dreary life to this bizarre, beautiful boy who may or may not despise me.” (TW Ch.2).
- Katniss immediately regrets her decision when she heads back to her room. “What was I thinking, shooting at the Gamemakers? . . . I should have stayed and apologized.” (HG Ch.8).
Why it Works
Your story can benefit from a pop quiz because the scene is great for rising action– first, it takes place in a controlled, classroom-like setting, where actual life-and-death stakes are low. That means that it works as a stepping stone, building up to the more serious obstacles.
Second, even though the hero’s life isn’t threatened yet, his fragile emotions are at risk. Since this comes pretty early on the journey, the hero has not grown enough to be in control of his volatile emotions yet.
Finally, up until this point, most things have been going the hero’s way– he accepted his invitation to adventure, met his mentor, entered the magical land, and found his sidekick. This brush with failure will keep things from appearing too easy.
Recently we counted the number of obstacles along the hero’s journey, and we categorized them as win, lose, or draw. This scene card will take the “draw” slot we assigned to obstacle #3. So, let’s put this “pop quiz” index card in Chapter 7 of the master outline.
Now get out there and put your hero to the test!