Editor Roundtable: Bite Size Edition – How to Analyze a Scene

Welcome to the Bite Size Edition of the Editor Roundtable Podcast. Here on the Roundtable we’re dedicated to helping you become a better writer, following the Story Grid method developed by Shawn Coyne. In these episodes we bring you some shorter solo articles and interviews on topics that interest us as writers. 

In this episode, Valerie Francis and Leslie Watts discuss how to analyze a scene.

Why do we analyze scenes?

In the episode we did about Story Grid Live 2019, we said we’d take you through an exercise that we did at the event, and one that we do in our certification training. We analyzed five scenes at Story Grid Live, but in our editor training we analyzed about 30 scenes to understand how they work.

In another bite size episode, Leslie and I talk about why it’s important to study masterworks. Well, one of the reasons is to see how other authors craft their scenes. Today we’ll be looking at the opening scene from The Accidental Tourist, the 1985 novel by Anne Tyler (you can read the scene in the free sample on Amazon). The Accidental Tourist is usually considered to be a literary novel, but it also has huge commercial appeal.

And of course, I’m analyzing scenes from my masterworks as I continue working on Immortal. I want to see how master storytellers like Anne Rice practice their craft.

Scene Summary: Macon and Sarah are driving home from vacation, and it’s raining. She wants to stop and he wants to get home. They argue, and eventually, she tells him she wants a divorce. 

When Shawn taught us to analyze scenes, he gave us a particular process to follow. That’s what Leslie and I are going to walk you through today. 

He started by saying that A STORY EVENT is an active change of life value for one or more characters as a result of conflict (one character’s desires clash with another’s).

Valerie: Ok, I want to pause here (one sentence into the scene analysis!) and talk a bit about the point of conflict in a scene. This is something writers either ignore, or are simply unaware of. I hadn’t thought about it before I did Aaron Sorkin’s Masterclass. He said that one of the first things he does is figure out what the point of conflict is in a scene. Where’s the tension in the scene?

Each character in a scene wants something, and those wants are in opposition to one another. That’s what causes the conflict because they can’t both get what they want. Let me repeat that. They can’t both get what they want. If they do, the tension and conflict evaporate from the story and when that happens, your reader loses interest. Ok, let’s continue…

A WORKING SCENE contains at least one Story Event. To determine a Scene’s Story Event, answer these four questions:

Story Event

1. Literal Action: What is literally happening in the scene? This is what’s happening on the surface, on a very simple level.

Leslie: Here, a couple is driving in a car. The first time I filled this out, my answers were different: A couple leaving vacation early, driving home in the rain, having a conversation, but really it’s as simple as a couple driving in a car.

The literal action is important because from this we get the scene and beat types that Anne Hawley and Shawn Coyne used in the Masterwork Experiment on the flagship podcast in the summer of 2019. (You can find the first episode in that series here.)

Valerie: When I first learned what literal action is, I kept second-guessing myself. I thought “it can’t be this obvious.” And then I wondered why I’d need to know what the literal action of the scene is. Well, it took me a while, but I finally discovered that it has to do with the scene type. As Anne so brilliantly demonstrated in our episode on The Girl on the Train, when a scene type is repeated too much, the story can become monotonous. The drama can wane, and when that happens, reader interest wanes with it. So our goal is to vary what the characters are literally doing in a scene. 
Of course we want to balance it. We don’t want to spend too much time focusing on “stage business.” Ian Rankin does an excellent job of balancing the literal and essential action in his scenes, so I recommend you pick one of his Rebus novels and study it.

2. Essential Action: What is the essential action of what the characters are doing in the scene (POV character’s scene goal)? This is the subtext, what’s happening beneath the surface. 

Leslie: First I want to consider what does the essential action gives you. First, it helps you make sure your characters are acting consistently with their global objects of desire. It’s particularly useful to do this when your characters seem to be all over the place or when their actions don’t make sense. Characters may change the tactics they use in pursuit of their global objects of desire, but the goal shouldn’t change until the global Crisis (lots more on that in the Essential Action article Anne Halwey and I wrote). Usually, you want to focus on the protagonist or POV character, but sometimes, it’s useful to look at what’s going on for other characters as well.

Simple, active verb that can express what the character wants from another character or the situation. Examples: to get someone on my team, to lay down the law, to get my due or retrieve what is rightfully mine, or my favorite to get to the bottom of something. Generally speaking, we might say that the couple wants to arrive home. More specifically …

Macon: Get someone off my back or respect the way I do things

Sarah: Get a loved one to take care of me or meet my need for comfort

Valerie: When I think of essential action, I ask myself “what’s really going on here?” A great way to study essential action is to observe the people around you and study their behaviour. For example, one night my daughter did the dishes without being asked. That was her literal action. But what was really going on? She was trying to butter me up so that I’d let her go to a party. That was her essential action.

I see this scene as a power struggle, and really, when you get right down to it, most scenes are power struggles. Each person in the scene is trying to get what they want. That’s what creates the point of conflict.

I heard a quote from Robert McKee (I don’t’ think he originated it, but he’s the one who told me). He said, if your scene is really about what it appears to be about on the surface, you’re in deep shit. 

3. What life value has changed for one or more characters in the scene? 

Leslie: Why is this important? Stories are about change, not just on the global level, but in micro units of story. If nothing changes in a scene, or if what changes doesn’t move the global story value, you should ask yourself, why is this in here?

To find the life value change in the scene, you can look to the Turning Point Progressive Complication to see what’s at stake there. You can also look at how things are or the state or condition of the POV character’s situation at the beginning and end of the scene. Be sure to cast a wide net here because the next question will help you focus. 

For this scene, you might say, Together to Apart or Denial to Awareness.

Valerie: Scenes that are really well-crafted, can be analyzed from each characters’ POV. Typically, you’d analyze from the protagonist’s POV, but if you don’t know who that is, it’s a great exercise to try each of the characters. For example, we could say:

Macon – sure to unsure (the rug has been pulled out from under him)
Sarah – powerless to powerful (she finally asked for the divorce she’s been wanting)

If you want more help understanding value shifts, you can check out my Value Shift 101 blog post and podcast episode

4. Which life value should I highlight in the Story Grid spreadsheet?

Leslie: The one that goes in the spreadsheet is the life value change that has the biggest impact on the global life value and/or the secondary genre’s life value. When practicing, you may not know or have a deep understanding of the global genre, but take your best guess. An event like this could give rise to a global Marriage Love Story or Worldview-Education story … so you would pick the change that affects the Love/Hate spectrum or the Meaning/Meaningless spectrum. And realize that your answer might change as you study further.  

Five Commandments of Storytelling

For more information about the Five Commandments of Storytelling, check out our Story Grid 101 episode in which we discuss the 5Cs using Coco as an example.

We’re looking at the Five Commandments from Macon’s point of view.

Inciting Incident:

Leslie: This is an event that gets things moving in the scene. Sometimes it’s an unexpected event, sometimes not. Here, the couple has decided to return from their vacation early, so they are headed home. The scene-specific goal, or Essential Action, usually arises from the inciting incident.

Progressive Complications:

Leslie: Progressive Complications are events that arise as they pursue their goal, they can be obstacles that hinder or tools that help. In this scene, it starts raining, and the rain intensifies. In the same way, Sarah begins with specific complaints about the way Macon drives (she hints then suggests then requests that he pull over) and questions his judgment. She then complains about how he conducts life, his systems, and how he’s not a comfort to her. 

Turning Point Progressive Complication (Phere): This is a Progressive Complication that means the POV character won’t get what they want, or at least not in the way they anticipated. Here, Sarah says that she wants a divorce (Action).

Valerie: This is a pretty big ball of chaos because (1) Macon obviously wasn’t expecting it and (2) it throws his life out of balance. It incites the entire story. This scene is the Beginning Hook Global Inciting Incident. Pretty effective here in chapter one. 

Crisis: The Crisis is a dilemma—a best bad choice or choice between irreconcilable goods—that arises from the Turning Point. The dilemma usually represents some form of fight versus flight. How is Macon going to react to this news? He could lash out and scream, he could say no, he could do a lot of things. 

Climax: The Climax is the decision the character makes and the action they take to pursue the decision. 

What Macon does is pull over—and this is part of the brilliance of Anne Tyler. Macon finally does the thing Sarah wanted him to do in the first place. In an earlier beat, she reminded him how nervous she gets while driving in bad weather. That request was a beat level turning point. He ignored it and the scene began to progressively complicate to the scene-level turning point. Notice that if Macon had done what she’d asked in the first place, all the drama would have drained from the scene. Sarah wouldn’t have been pushed, and she wouldn’t have asked for the divorce! If he’d done what she’d asked, there would have been no conflict. And there would have been no global inciting incident.

Resolution: The Resolution includes the consequences that flow from the Climax. Macon didn’t get what he wanted (which was an uninterrupted drive home). Instead, his whole life has been turned upside down. 

Key Takeaways

Valerie: Picking a value to track: When you’re analyzing scenes out of context, it can be tricky to know which value to track on a spreadsheet. You may not have read the entire novel, you may not know the global genre and you might not even know who the protagonist is. That’s OK. For the purposes of the exercise, analyze the scene from each of the character’s POV—it’s great practice!

If this kind of scene analysis is helpful to you, then you might want to check out the Story Grid Guild because, in addition to the other great stuff going on there, every month, the Story Grid Certified Editors analyze a scene with members. To find out more, visit: storygrid.com/guild.

Leslie: This is a basic scene analysis, but there are lots of other elements you can analyze in a scene. As Story Grid Certified editors, we do this for fun. For your purposes, you’ll want to pursue deeper levels of analysis only if your scenes aren’t working. Shawn’s “PhD-level” spreadsheet or Anne’s Giant Novel Spreadsheet both include lots of other points of analysis. Each tool helps you discover more layers of story, but pace yourself. Start with the four questions of the story event and the Five Commandments of Storytelling.

One other point: Repetition is key. You have to analyze a lot of scenes to figure out how they work. In the Story Grid Certified Editor training, we reviewed loads of scenes, and the process of repeating with different types of scenes in different genres gave rise to a greater understanding of the way stories and the building blocks of stories work.  

That wraps it up for this week. For more information about the topics we’ve discussed here, check out Valerie’s article “How to Analyze a Scene” and my article “Points of Connection” about how the micro and macro analysis work together.

Also remember to sign up to Valerie’s inner circle, at valeriefrancis.ca/innercircle to get exclusive content. And sign up to receive updates from me through the Captain’s Blog at Writership.com.

To support the show, leave us a rating and review, and tell your writer friends about us.

Join us next week for another bite size episode in which Anne finally learns to write!

About the Author

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched www.Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.
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Author Leslie Watts

4 Comments

Tanya Lovetti says:

This was a great episode. I really needed to hear this today. Thank you, Ladies!

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