Editor Roundtable: Bite Size Edition – Marriage Story Scene

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It’s 30 minutes of deep insight as Valerie Francis and Leslie Watts bring you a bite-size episode on analyzing a scene, with an example from Marriage Story.


The Story 

  • Beginning Hook – Nicole and Charlie Barber, who live in New York City, are in the process of separating and have decided to split amicably without the help of lawyers. But, when Nicole gets a job in L.A. she moves there with their son, Henry. One of the producers on Nicole’s new show gives her the name of a divorce attorney and recommends she contact her. Nicole has to decide whether to use an attorney or not. (Using an attorney would help her protect her assets and custody of Henry, but would make her continued relationship with Charlie, as Henry’s father, even more difficult. She decides to hire the lawyer.
  • Middle Build – Nicole serves Charlie with divorce papers, which forces Charlie to hire his own lawyer. The divorce proceedings get ugly and when the court says it will send a social worker to observe both parents with Henry, they decide to try and work things out between them. Their attempt at a rational discussion quickly dissolves into a heartbreaking argument and in the end, their relationship—and their situation—is worse than it was before. The social worker observes Charlie with Henry and seems unimpressed, the “knife trick” goes horribly wrong, the social worker departs in horror and Charlie ends up on the kitchen floor bleeding profusely. It truly is an all is lost moment.
  • Ending Payoff – Charlie gives Nicole what she wants in the divorce and returns to NYC a broken man. Meanwhile, Nicole discovers that her lawyer changed the balance of custody from 50/50 to 55/45, which isn’t what she wanted. When Charlie reads what Nicole had written about him prior to their divorce (the opening voice over) he realizes that Nicole did, and does, love him. When Nicole learns that Charlie has taken a job at UCLA to be closer to Henry, she becomes more flexible with the custody arrangement.

Genre: Love Story > Marriage (but with strong society undertones); Worldview > Disillusionment (Charlie), Status > Sentimental (Nicole) 


Analyzing the Scene

Time stamp: 1:30:30 – 1:40:00: (it’s a 10 minute scene!)

Access the screenplay here (begins end of p.112-124)

Scene Type

  • What kind of scene is this? It’s still early in our study of scene types, so we haven’t yet defined broad categories. Our approach is to examine as many scenes as we can and then observe if and how they sort themselves into groupings. For now, we’re calling this: a two-person conversation. A possible sub-category is: married couple fight.
  • What does this scene type accomplish within the context of the novel as a whole? This scene (1) shows that the marriage is over (no chance of reconciliation) and (2) creates a situation that allows their shadow sides to emerge.
  • how many people in the scene: 2
  • location of the scene: Charlie’s apartment
  • primary activity: talking
  • power dynamic: Nicole is in power at the beginning and the end. Charlie attempts to gain power and does have a few “wins” at the beat level. 
  • point of conflict: They agree on wanting to protect Henry, however they disagree on what they had (or hadn’t) decided on with respect to their living arrangements. Had they discussed moving to LA or not? 
  • Where does this occur in the story? Obligatory Event, Middle Build(2) Turning Point 


Story Event Questions

These questions help us to craft a one-sentence distillation of what happens in the scene and what changes. 

1. What are the characters literally doing—that is, what are their micro on-the-ground actions?

Two-person conversation in private that escalates into a negotiation then an argument.

2. What is the essential tactic of the characters—that is, what macro behaviours are they employing that are linked to a universal human value?

To get someone to see things my way.

3. What universal human values have changed for one or  more characters in the scene? Which one of those value changes is most important and should be included in the Story Grid Spreadsheet?

Loathing Masquerading as Civility to Hate to Intimacy 

4. What is the Story Event that sums up the scene’s on-the-ground actions, essential tactics, and value change? We will enter that event in the Story Grid Spreadsheet.

Nicole approaches Charlie to discuss working out the divorce on their own, and they argue, but through Charlie’s vulnerability they find intimacy.


Five Commandments of Storytelling

Inciting Incident: Nicole introduces the subject of the divorce and how much it’s costing everyone, financially and the risk of upsetting Henry.

Progressive Complications (and how they escalate the stakes):

  • Building a case: Nicolce argues that financial cost and evaluator’s involvement mean they have more to lose than gain by continuing proceedings
  • Differentiating: different circumstances now than when Charlie made the suggestion
  • Appealing to reason: Do you understand why I want to live in LA?
  • Criticizing: “not a useful way to start”
  • Bringing the evidence: do you remember when …?
  •  Accusing

Turning Point Progressive Complication: Nicole: “I was wondering when you were going to get around to Henry and what he wants.” This is when it gets personal – personal attacks.

Crisis: Charlie can try to remain calm and turn the conversation back to what’s best for Henry, or he can take the bait.

Climax: Charlie takes the bait and allows his shadow side to emerge. The climax of the scene is the most heated part of the argument from approximately 1:36:30 (when they begin to attack each other personally and Charlie tells Nicole to fuck off) to 1:40:00 (when Charlie says he wishes Nicole would die).

Resolution: Their shadow sides destroy them and their marriage, and in the end, Henry remains vulnerable. They can’t come to a peaceful solution, so Henry will have to be put through the evaluator’s questions.



Scene Type: Small Talk–Avoiding the Elephant in the Room, taking the temp in the room, getting into position

1.Nicole arrives without Henry: trial balloon, testing the water

  • inciting incident: doorbell rings, Nicole arrives
  • turning point: Henry isn’t with Nicole, he’s playing laser tag
  • crisis: Charlie can challenge her on this (she’s supposed to be dropping Henry off) and start a fight, or he can remain calm and keep things civil
  • climax: he chooses to remain calm, and is even hospitable by offering her a drink
  • resolution: there’s a calm tension between them
  1. Nicole comments on Charlie’s blank walls: throwing him a bone
  • inciting incident: Nicole mentions the blank walls
  • turning point: Nicole offers the Staten Island photo of Henry
  • crisis: Does Charlie accept or reject her offer?
  • climax: he rejects the offer in a way that takes a jab at Nicole
  • resolution: the tension increases (one point to Nicole, one point to Charlie)
  1. Charlie’s request for a schedule change: takes the measure of him, sizing up / evaluating the opponent, will she go in for the kill or not
  • inciting incident: Charlie asks if he can have Henry a day early
  • turning point: Nicole says no. Henry has another event with his cousins
  • crisis: Will Charlie confront Nicole for refusing to be flexible, or not?
  • climax: He starts to challenge her, but backs down (“not only this one night, but fine”)
  • resolution: tension increases again, Charlie is getting angry. (the score is now Nicole 2, Charlie 1)
  1. Henry’s academic performance: false sense of security (Charlie believes there’s a chance they can be civil.)
  • inciting incident: Nicole asks Charlie to connect with Henry’s teacher
  • turning point: She expresses concern about Henry’s reading ability.
  • crisis: Charlie can argue with her, or work with her
  • climax: He works with her because he too is concerned about Henry’s reading ability
  • resolution: the tension eases, they even share a laugh about Henry’s monopoly strategy
  1. Nicole and Charlie start addressing the issue (scene level inciting incident)
  • inciting incident: Nicole suggests they should talk
  • progressive complications: Nicole says things have gone too far, they’re both going broke, they can’t keep Henry removed anymore and need to protect him, they’ll be observed as parents 
  • turning point: Nicole suggests they figure something out between them
  • crisis: Does Charlie try to work with her or not?
  • climax: He agrees to work with her for Henry’s sake, but not before reminding her that he anticipated this situation from the outset
  • resolution: Charlie doesn’t know what to say
  1. LA or NY
  • inciting incident: Nicole asks if Charlie understands why she wants to live in LA.
  • progressive complications: Charlie doesn’t understand why she wants to live in LA, he doesn’t think they talked about a move in any serious way
  • turning point: Nicole points out that he turned down a job in LA
  • crisis: Will Charlie admit to having made a mistake, or stand his ground?
  • climax: He stands his ground saying that he’d never considered anything other than a life in Brooklyn
  • resolution: the tension is rising again, voices are raising.
  1. Personal attacks begin: Nicole says Charlie should have considered her happiness too. Tension is rising. An interesting point here: Nicole seems to be trying to keep things calm (literal action), however her body language (essential action) suggests otherwise. She stands up and looks down (physically) at Charlie. This is a power position.
  2. They’re an LA family, whether Charlie likes it or not. Nicole thought they would live in LA a while, Charlie “was not privy to that thought process”
  3. You wish you hadn’t married me: What started as a discussion, became a disagreement and then an argument. In this beat, the fight begins. The gloves are still on, but they can still de-escalate if they want to. (They’re both on their feet now)
  4. Nicole attempts a de-escalation, but does so by mentioning Nora. Nora is a thorn in Charlie’s side and so the tension rises. (Notice the body language in the upcoming beats conveying subtext – this has been happening all along, but is especially clear now: Charlie keeps walking away from Nicole. He confronts her for a minute but then moves away. By contrast, Nicole is mostly standing her ground. 
  5. Nicole accuses Charlie of putting Henry through hell so he can get what he wants (to be in NYC).
  6. You’re like your father/You’re like your mother: Now, the gloves are off. Nicole has hit a nerve and it seems that Charlie is restraining himself physically. He looks as though he could choke her. The open insults begin.
  7. They question the reason they got married: Charlie says Nicole used him to escape LA. Nicole says it was a child’s marriage. 

The scene continues past beat 13. As an exercise, find the Five Commandments of Storytelling for beats 7-13, and then identify the remaining beats in the scene.

Your Roundtable Story Grid Editors are Valerie Francis and Leslie Watts.

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Leslie Watts

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 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.