In my last post, I said that writing and reviewing scenes is a fundamental skill that will help you write become a better storyteller. Now I want to show you what goes into a scene that works and suggest a process for practicing planning, drafting, and reviewing scenes. But first, I need to explain what makes a scene a scene.
What is a Scene?
If you’re not sure of the ingredients that make a scene, you’re not alone. As I mentioned in the last post, even writers who’ve achieved critical and commercial success have a hard time putting their finger on a useful definition. (And like many terms in writing, scene is sometimes used to mean something other than the basic building block of a story.)
Let’s start with some basics. A scene is a complete unit of story or mini-story. Robert McKee says it is “an action through conflict in a unity or continuity of time and space that turns the value-charged condition of the character’s life.” If we add some flesh to those bones, we might say a scene includes
- a character with a desire that arises from an immediate problem,
- who faces increasingly troublesome obstacles in trying to achieve that desire until something shifts, either through action or a fact revealed,
- that forces her to make a difficult choice, and
- when she decides,
- consequences unfold.
You can connect these steps to the Five Commandments of Storytelling described in The Story Grid:
- Inciting Incident
- Progressive Complications that lead to a Turning Point
- Crisis Question
In the context of the global story, you’ll want to tick some other boxes, including whether the change that occurs within the scene affects the protagonist’s chances of getting what she wants and needs. But for this practice, the goal is to focus on the unit of story in front of you.
Planning: Useful Constraints
I know some people cringe when I suggest planning scenes before writing them. Every writer is different, but I’ve encountered so many reformed pantsers that I urge you to try planning in the context of this practice, even if it feels awkward. As Larry Smith noted of the six-word autobiography, “As an autobiographical challenge, the six-word limitation forces us to pinpoint who we are and what matters most—at least in the moment. The constraint fuels rather than limits our creativity.”
But even if you don’t buy that, please understand that if you simply record what you need to accomplish before you write, you will save time and frustration. Planning will help you avoid writing scenes that go nowhere. Exploratory, seat-of-the-pants writing is useful, and it has its place in this process, but a simple plan will be your friend and guide in this scene practice.
Everyone has a different tolerance for planning. The best strategy is to find where the sweet spot is for you. At a minimum, get clear on these four elements:
- What is the character’s goal in the scene?
- What stands in her way?
- How does it work out?
- By the end of the scene, what will have changed for the character?
If you were doing this in the context of a longer work, you’d want to note how the change within the scene impacts the overall story. The next step would be to expand the four elements into the Five Commandments of Storytelling. Some would go further, but if you identify this much of your scene before you start writing, you’ll be in great shape.
Drafting: Record What the Muse Tells You
When you sit down to draft your scene, begin with the intention of fulfilling your plan. But this is where exploratory writing comes in. Follow the Muse, and allow something better to come along. Remain as open and curious as you can. Some people accomplish this by planning, drafting, and reviewing in different locations. The physical environment becomes a cue to their mind that sets them up for the relevant task.
I recommend that you draft without editing. Set a timer for ten, twenty, or thirty minutes, and keep typing or writing longhand no matter what comes up. Imagine that your mind or the Muse is dictating the story to you and you are the humble scribe. Try not to judge what’s coming out; there is no way to be objective while you’re in the middle of drafting, so it’s a waste of your time and energy to attempt the review.
You may need more than one session to complete your scene. Don’t worry about that. You’ll get faster at the mechanics and the creative aspects as you practice. After you’ve drafted a complete scene, put it away. Allow yourself to celebrate in a small but meaningful way.
Review: Course Correcting to Stronger Scenes
When you sit down to review the scene, approach your work with fresh eyes. Easier said than done, I know. Try the location tactic, print a hardcopy, or even change the font and line spacing. On the first time through, read it without focusing on anything in particular. When you take a second pass, keep your planning document nearby and look for the Five Commandments of Storytelling. If Story Grid terminology doesn’t resonate with you, ask yourself these questions:
- Is there an event that throws the point of view character or her world out of balance?
- Is there a goal or desire that arises within the character from that event?
- Are there obstacles that stand in her way? And do these get worse as she tries to tackle them?
- Is there a moment when the character reaches a point of no return and must make a difficult choice?
- Does she actually decide?
- Are there consequences that flow from that decision?
- Is there a significant change in the character’s circumstances (internal and external) from the beginning of the scene to the end?
Make a list of what’s missing. Chances are, if you started with a plan, you won’t be missing much. Then read the scene again and think about which of the story elements that are present could be made stronger. You’re looking for clichés, circumstances and events that don’t quite fit or that only sort of meet the criteria. Add those to your list. Probably most of the elements can be made better. Don’t let that discourage you. The goal with an initial draft is to transform the ideas and plan into prose, not create a perfect scene.
Next, review the setting and point of view beyond first and third person choices. Is it clear where and when the events in the scene unfold and how much time passes? Think about who the storyteller is and why she’s telling the story. Where and when is she revealing what she knows in relation to the events that occur in the scene? What does she hope to gain? Do the answers to these questions present problems, suggest solutions? What’s your sense about how well your choices are working? Could the scene be enhanced with a different approach?
Do some exploratory writing to find solutions to the structural problems within the scene, then revise based on what you learn. Repeat the cycle until your structure is sound and your scene works. Be sure to keep the different versions of your scene so you can compare them with your final product. Gradually, you will improve the scene and your writing overall by course correcting from your
Once you have a working scene, there is more to do: reviewing the balance of dialogue, action, and exposition, the characters’ speech, narrative distance, sentence structure, and word choice. I’ll address these topics in the future, but your best strategy is to master the fundamental structure of the scene first.
Once you’re satisfied that you can do nothing more to improve the structure of the scene, start writing a new one. Remember that the best way to become a better storyteller quickly is to master the building blocks of story, and to do that, you must write and review lots of scenes.
There are a few additional tactics you can add to your practice that will make your time even more effective, and I’ll share more about that in the next post. In the meantime, if you have questions about how to plan, draft, or revise scenes, send them my way. You can leave a comment below or email me.
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