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.
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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