Figuring Out Why Your Scene Doesn't Work: Scene Values

Figuring Out Why Your Scene Doesn't Work: Scene Values by Leslie Watts

If you’ve ever re-read a scene you wrote, and knew it could be stronger, this post is for you. If you’ve sat and struggled, knowing something is wrong with your scene, but you haven’t been able to put your finger on it, this process could help.

Often, the answer comes when we focus on how a scene changes from the beginning to end. That’s what we did in last week’s podcast episode and, since this is a challenge many of us face, I want to review the steps we took to work through it here on the blog.

Your story’s main genre will telegraph plenty of information to your reader. One of the most important items is the type of change that will occur over the course of the story. 

In a cozy murder mystery, for example, we expect to go from ignorance about who the killer is to knowing. That’s one change. But also, because someone who has broken the law will face trial (even if that happens offstage), it can be said that the situation moves from injustice to justice. 

In episode 119 of the podcast, we had the opportunity to talk about how the small changes within scenes relate to the larger change within the global or main story. We critiqued the beginning of “What Lives Beneath,” a short story by A.V. Herzberg. The author kindly shared a summary of the entire story, which provided evidence for our inquiry. 

The story includes a love triangle, a spirit not of this world, and mysterious deaths. It’s a great setup for different types of stories. A writer can use the same characters and circumstances then, without changing the actual events, write vastly different tales depending on what she chooses to emphasize. Jay and I focused on Obsession Love Story and Horror (more on these below), but the events in the submission, based on Slavic myth, could easily be turned to a crime story, thriller, or coming of age story.

If we were working with the writer as a client, we would talk about her intention for the story to eliminate some of this guesswork. We would find out which aspect of the story she finds most fascinating, and what inspired her to write it. In the context of the podcast, we aimed for what seemed most likely.


Why Must the Writer Choose?

If you’ve been following me for a while, you might have noticed that I’m not big on writing rules. I prefer to look at the underlying principles of story and use the tools of writing to satisfy those fundamentals. Writing a story that works and that provides an enjoyable reader experience is the ultimate goal. There are many ways to reach that goal, and your particular path is an expression of who you are and the unique message you want to share with the world. Rules can’t take all of this into account.

Given my editorial philosophy, and knowing that the same facts give rise to so many different types of stories, why do I say the writer must choose one main genre? Can’t she write a more interesting story by including aspects of all of them? 

Adding complexity with elements from different genres can make for a more intriguing tale, but it’s important to choose one genre to rule them all (so to speak). There are many reasons for this, but the one relevant to this discussion is that genre is a tool that determine the type of change the reader expects to see.


What are story values?

We call these specific changes story values, and if we look at the big picture, we could say they are what’s at stake in the story. Story values relate to human needs, and you can align them with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (get a free download on this here). They describe a change from one state to another as a result of an event or experience

Here's a simple example: Before it rains (event), the grass outside is dry (state). After it rains, the grass is wet. That's a change in the state of the environment that flows from a natural event. The same event could potentially affect a life value for a character and might represent success or hope if, for example, the property in question is a farm in a region suffering a prolonged drought. 

Change can directly affect the character's state as well. Before eating (event), a person is hungry (state), and after eating, she is full. That's a change in her physiological state. If she had been deprived of food for a short time, it might result in her moving from distress to relief. If she had gone without food for two weeks, this event could cause her state to shift from possible death to life. 

The change in the overall story value doesn’t usually happen suddenly, but rather unfolds incrementally within sequences and individual scenes. Here's an example of a value shift in the context of a story scene. Before a man meets a potential love interest (event and experience), he might feel alone (state). After the two connect, they are together (at least temporarily), and he might feel companionship. The same scene might be characterized as a change from ignorance (if the two don't know of each other) to attraction (if they come to like each other). Over the course of an entire courtship love story (like Pride and Prejudice), a couple might move from ignorance all the way to commitment. But the circumstances are quite different with an obsession love story.


Obsession Love Story and Horror Values

When Jay and I looked at the synopsis, we concluded that the author could easily choose Horror or Obsession Love Story as the global or main genre for the story. In an Obsession Love Story, desire is the psychological driver, and it rarely ends well. This particular story included a love triangle and, as an Obsession Love Story, each character in that triangle would start somewhere on the full range of value, which includes love and hate, and end somewhere else on the range. From negative to positive, the entire range is hate masquerading as love, indifference, hate, repulsion, ignorance, attraction, desire, commitment, and intimacy. Obsession love stories don't reach commitment. The Great Gatsby and Basic Instinct are examples of Obsession Love Stories. 

If the author chose to focus on the Horror story, she would be in the sub-genre dealing with the Supernatural because the force of antagonism comes from the spirit realm. The full range of value in a Horror story is life to unconsciousness to death to a fate worse than death. The protagonist in the story would start out with life, but might move to death or a fate worse than death by the end of the story.


Checking your work

Regardless of your genre, once you know it and the value at stake in the story, you can ask four simple questions to see if each scene aligns with the overall life or story value. 


1. What are the characters literally doing in the scene?

Answer this question just the way it sounds. You want to get at what’s happening on the surface. In the example from podcast episode 119 (which you can listen to or read here), the protagonist, Mir, is chopping wood, and his friend Lubov comes by, but there is considerable tension between them.


2. What is the essential action of what the characters are doing in the scene? 

Answer this question by looking at the subtext and go for a pithy explanation or shorthand for what’s going on beneath the surface? This takes into account what the characters want to accomplish in the scene. In the episode example, Mir was “giving Lubov the cold shoulder.” 


3. What are the life values that change in the scene? 

Here you can include any value that changes from the beginning of the scene to the end. You’ll get more specific in the next question. A quick review of the submission produced three changes.

  • Mir is tense without realizing it then becomes aware of it. 
  • Lubov goes from being a source of irritation to leaving. 
  • If Mir isn't aware of the death of their mutual friend in the beginning, he is by the end of the conversation, in which case, the value shifts from ignorance to knowledge.


4. Does one of the life value changes affect the global story?

I use a process of elimination to rule out values that clearly don’t affect the global story and close in on the one(s) that could. In our example, we weren’t sure if ignorance to knowing would affect one of the potential global genres, but it’s possible.

The scene value shift doesn’t have to be on the nose. For example, if the full value range is life to unconsciousness to death to a fate worse than death, no one has to die or be knocked unconscious to have the value relate to the global genre, but as I mentioned, the scene should represent a change that makes it more likely (or not) that the protagonist will die or face a fate worse than death. It wasn't clear to us, but if when Lubov tells Mir of the death of their mutual friend, the awareness makes it more likely that he will be at risk of death, then it relates to the global genre. 


Editorial Mission

You can use the same tools I use to analyze your scenes. Once you know your global genre and are ready to review your scenes, answer the four questions above for one of your scenes to determine if the scene changes and whether that change clearly impacts your overall story. If there is no change in the scene, consider whether you need to include it, or if it's what we call shoe leather (discussed in episode 117). If the connection to the global genre is missing or weak and the scene is necessary, add the scene to a list of those you need to revise with a brief explanation of why. Often, it’s not a big change, but an adjustment that’s required. 

When you get ready to tackle the list and revise the manuscript, make a long list (twenty to thirty options) of events or experiences that could create a change aligned with the story value. I suggest a long list because you want to cast a wide net. If you’re seeking the answer, it’s as if you’re looking for a needle in a haystack, and your conscious mind with its judgments may get in the way. If you seek any answer, you’ll dip into your subconscious mind and have a better chance of reaching beyond cliché and repetition. Choose from among the options, and revise your scene.

Once you’ve considered these four questions, you should be able to see how your scene can be improved. Many times, strengthening the relationship between the change in the scene and the global story is the key to turning a struggling scene into a powerful story moment.

If you need help with this scene analysis, or if it doesn’t make sense to you, leave a comment below or write to me. Identifying what’s wrong with your scene can take some time, but you’ll feel so good when you finally have a scene that works.


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Deepen Your Setting Part 3

Deepen Your Setting Part 3 by Leslie Watts

Whether your characters live and work in a world that looks like ours, or they enter a portal to someplace virtually unrecognizable to us, finding new ways to enter your story universe will help you craft a setting that better supports the story you want to tell. In the final installment in this series, I’ve created six more exercises to see your setting with fresh eyes. 

1. Location as Character

Sometimes the setting of your story can be a character in its own right, creating conflict and complications for the protagonist. A great example of this is Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” where the frigid environment of the Klondike serves as both sentient character and conflict. Consider how place shapes the people who live there or even determines who could live there. A given location has its own distinct personality that affects the people and events within it.

Consider these questions to get to know your setting as a character.

  • What are the emotions evoked by the place? For example, if you compare New York City and Savannah, Georgia, the terms that surface might be frenetic versus languid.
  • What is the character of the people who live there? What about the founders? How has it changed over time?
  • If your setting were a character from a story you’ve read or watched, who would it be and why?
  • How do the cultural characteristics of the people and place reflect the terrain, climate, animal and plant life of the setting?

2. The Golden Rule

The Golden Rule is part of an ethical tradition, a general guideline about how people should treat others. A quick survey of history reveals that it is more easily said than done. Still, it says something about a place and people that they aspire to treat others equally. Perhaps empathy is something the people value, or at least think they should, even if they fall short of the mark. Consider how the warrior culture of the Spartans differed from that of the people of Athens. Spend ten or fifteen minutes exploring the way people treat others in your world.

  • What are the rules about how people should treat other people, that is, what do people say?
  • What is the origin of the rules? Religious, cultural? Is it legislated?
  • How do most people actually treat others who are similar to them? And those who are vastly different?
  • How do people treat others when no one else is watching?
  • Are people required to render aid, like good Samaritan laws do in some places?
  • How do strong people treat those who are weaker or have less power in your world? For example, are children treated with kindness or exploited for labor by adults?
  • What are the manners like in your world? Is there an unwritten code that dictates how people should behave? What happens if someone violates the code?

3. The Golden Age

Times of plenty are marked by economic growth, innovation in industries, progressive governmental policies (sometimes), and increased interest in the arts. But as our history reveals, good fortune ebbs and flows. Explore what would happen in your fictional world as society peaks just before a downward trend.

Imagine that you are a political pundit, social commentator, or cultural critic in your setting. You see the writing on the wall and make dire predictions about how life will change in the near future. Draft an editorial in which you explain how the good times got started (what combination of factors led to society’s good fortune) and why they are coming to an end. Provide advice for those who are willing to listen that explains how to weather the lawless times ahead.


4. The Lawless Times

Societies move in and out of order and chaos, though some have more than their fair share of the latter with greater periods of lawlessness, injustice, and corruption. (Western stories tend to explore these themes as well as the individual vs. society.)

Imagine that you are a journalist or historian writing about a time in the recent or distant past when a community, region, or nation within your setting experienced a period of unrest.

  • What was the catalyst that started society’s descent? Did anyone try to stop it?
  • What was this period of lawlessness like?
  • How was business conducted?
  • Were certain portions of the population relatively safe? Who was most vulnerable? Who rose to the top of the food chain?
  • What normal functions of society broke down?
  • How did people adapt to the conditions?
  • How long did this period last?
  • Who helped restore order? How did they go about it?
  • What changes did they make?
  • Did other factors contribute to the recovery?
  • How long did it take?
  • What was the new normal like?

5. The First Spell

The first time your character casts a spell is a great opportunity for you to showcase the magic system of your world. It is as much an element of the setting as the weather and topography, an energy system that the character taps into and can direct to a greater or lesser degree. The character will carry beliefs and expectations, some of which come from other people, and chances are he will be changed in some way by the experience (otherwise, there is no point in the display). The magic can be quite practical or have a spiritual component. (A great example of a first spell can be found in chapter 1 of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Wizard of Earth Sea.)

Take ten to fifteen minutes to sketch a scene in which your character casts his first spell.

After you’ve completed it, review what you’ve written in light of these questions:

  • Why is he doing it? For good or evil? Is he curious and experimenting? Is it an urgent need?
  • Has he seen someone perform this particular act of magic before? Has he had training?
  • How does he feel (reluctant, excited, scared)?
  • How does he wield the magic?
  • Is he confident in his abilities? How certain is he of his result?
  • Is he successful? Does he achieve his main objective?
  • What is he risking? How could this go wrong?
  • What does he learn in the process? What mistakes does he make?
  • What is the source of the magic? What are the consequences?
  • What surprises him about the experience? What does he learn?

6. Ignoring Physics

In a science fiction novel, you are free to play with the laws of nature and physics to create a unique world. The alterations you make should be intentional, but you can ignore certain physical principles to suit the purposes of your story.

  • Write a scene that reveals how your world differs from our own.
  • After you’ve completed it, review what you’ve written in light of these questions:
    • Consider what your purpose is in altering reality. How does the change support the telling of your story?
    • Is this a logical extension of something happening in our world? Or is there a reason within the story for the circumstances to be different?
    • What is the effect on the world? In what ways is it different from our own?
    • Who benefits? Who suffers or bears the cost of the change?
    • Does this change make sense in light of the rest of your world and story? Do you need to alter other physical rules as well?
    • How can you set the expectation for this difference at the beginning of the book?
    • What do you love about this change? What about it inspires you?

After you’ve had a chance to try an exercise or two, come back here and share what you discovered. What surprised you the most? What is your favorite takeaway? Anything you’ll add to your regular tool kit?


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If you enjoyed this post and want more from Writership, join our crew. You'll receive our newsletter and a free copy of Cast Your Net with Writership, a collection of 25 exercises to inspire your fiction.

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Cast Your Net with Writership: 25 Exercises to Inspire Your Fiction by Leslie Watts.

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