How to Analyze a Scene

Tim’s analysis of the first 12 scenes of The Threshing

[00:00:00] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host, Tim Grahl, and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne. He is the creator of Story Grid, the author of the book Story Grid, and an editor with over 25 years’ experience.

In this episode, we continue the conversation from last week about writing a contender guide. I was able to get some scenes done and send them over to Shawn, and then he sent back his thoughts on them. As with so many things around storytelling and Story Grid, everything seems a little bit easier in theory than when you actually put it into practice. So Shawn walks me through how to evaluate the scenes in the way that we’re looking for, and hopefully you’ll learn something about evaluating your own scenes along the way. Let’s jump in and get started.


[00:00:56] TG: Shawn, I’ve been working through the contender guide for The Threshing and I’d sent you the first dozen or so chapters, evaluation that I’ve done. I feel like this exercise is like so many things where, in theory, it seemed really kind of straightforward. I’m like, “Oh, okay! Yeah, this should be easy.” But then once I get into it, it’s really hard to find the middle ground between driving myself insane and trying to come up with the right answers, and then just kind of quickly moving through it and not really evaluating it.

You sent me back a bunch of notes. We’ll include these in the show notes just so everybody can see what we’re talking about. But could you just walk me through a little bit how you’re evaluating this? I just have been surprised at how hard it’s been to come up with it, and then reading your notes on it kind of made me think. I don’t know. I’m just struggling with it. So could you talk through little bit what you’re looking for when you’re looking through analyzing these scenes?

Also, I guess I should say like what these are. We have one out. It’s the Story Grid

Guide to Pride and Prejudice. Basically, each scene, we ask for different questions. What are the characters literally doing? What is the essential action of what the characters are doing in this scene? That seems to be the one I had the biggest trouble with. What life value has changed for one or more of the characters in the scene? Then which life value should I highlight on my Story Grid spreadsheet?

Then from there, we have to check to see if the scene abides by the five commandments of storytelling. We identified the inciting incident, progressive complication, crisis, climax, and resolution. Word count is relatively low, but it takes some thinking to figure them out.

[00:02:47] SC: Yeah. Let me first just sort of overview what the purpose of these contender and masterwork guides are. The purpose is to be able to clearly describe what’s going on at the scene level and globally but primarily the scene level for the guides themselves. How the writer actually executed the scene in a way that moved the story forward.

The way I came up with this sort of method of coming to analyze a scene is I basically used a method that I learned when I was in acting school years and years ago. The actor’s problem is really, really helpful when you are an editor or when you’re a writer, because the actor’s problem is they have to figure out what to do, how to act in such a way as to deliver the intentions of the writer. The problem is that the writer is usually divorced from the process of directing a scene or a story on a stage or in a film, but the very good actor will analyze each scene that they are in to find out what the intention of the writer and the global story is for their specific character. It’s basically trying to figure out what to do in order to make the scene live, to make it appear as if it’s happening in the moment and is real.

This methodology, these four questions come from a method called practical aesthetics, and practical aesthetics was an acting method that was developed by David Mamet and William H. Macy. It’s a very effective method for practical actors. If you don’t have the time to who to go through the deep method acting of sense memory and all that stuff, and in fact, the practical aesthetics sort of rejects that model, then you can use these very practical steps to actually do something on stage that is within the realm of what the intention of the writer and what the story is.

The question, what are the characters literally doing? This is a question that an actor will ask of a scene. So if I’m playing a character from a Tennessee Williams play and I’ve got my one scene, I don’t focus on anything else but that scene and I say to myself, “What are the characters literally doing in this scene?” That’s really important, because we want to know what’s on the surface very clearly. That’s the first question you ask of any scene that you’re analyzing using the Story Grid methodology. What are they literally doing?

In the first scene in your novel, what the characters are literally doing, Jesse is breaking into an elite’s apartment, and she’s robbing it. That’s her intention. She intends to break into an apartment and rob it and leave and hope to leave the scene undetected. It’s a heist scene. She’s literally trying to rob someone. That’s a pretty easy question to answer.

The next question gives a lot of people a lot of agita, okay?

[00:06:12] TG: Well, I don’t know what that word means.

[00:06:14] SC: Agita means nervous. It makes them nervous. It twists up their stomach. It’s in Italian word. It’s like stomach indigestion. The next question is, what is the essential action of what the characters are doing in the scene. The essential action. That means what is the character or the characters that are represented depending upon which character you’re looking at. What is their essential action?

For example, in a traditional Tennessee Williams climactic scene, one of the characters is trying to get to the truth, and another one of the characters is trying to withhold information. I’m just saying this generically. If you’re looking at the scene from the character, one of the characters, you would say, withholding information and the other one is to get to the truth. That’s the essential action. So it’s the goal. What’s the essence of what they’re trying to do in the scene?

What you do when you’re robbing is your essential action is to do everything in your power to avoid discovery. Now, if you’re trying to get a first date with someone, your essential action is to convince someone to do something. You’re making arguments. You have all kind of tools that you can do to convince someone of doing something, but the essential action is your goal. You want them to do something that aligns with your purpose. When you’re trying to rob someone, your essential action is to make sure that no one discovers you, because if you can get out of the area robbing someone and you’re undiscovered, you win. You win.

All characters are always thinking about the goal. The essential action can drive Story Grid people a little crazy, because it really is what actors use. For example, if you’re acting the scene of being in a heist, you’re going to quietly open the door. You’re not going to bang around, right?

[00:08:28] TG: Right.

[00:08:29] SC: This is like the operating system that an actor will use as they are playing the scene. They’ll speak quietly and they’ll really do their best not to be detected. When they walk on the carpet, maybe they’ve got on those shoes that movers wear not to soil the furniture, right? All kinds of things. That’s the actor’s life is figuring out, “What is my essential action in this scene and how can I really bring a lot of different variety to this essential action?” One of the things would be wearing the shoe things and being very quiet and tiptoeing and not touching anything or doing your best to not disturb any evidence.

That’s the essential action, and every character has an essential action, even the people who are sleeping who are logged into the matrix in your story, who are the elites. Even those people have an essential action. Their essential action is to rest or to mine, right? They’re actually working on a goal with an essential action.

The reason why I think it’s important to sort of move from what people’s literally doing to what their goal is, what their essential action is, is it starts to make the analyzer start to view the framework of the scene from a different perspective. You want to start at the surface and then you want to go down a layer to see what the essence of the actions of the character or characters are.

Then the next thing you want to say, the next question you want to answer is what life value has changed for one or more of the characters in the scene. When you’re essentially trying to be undiscovered, you have – You’re walking on sort of an edge of value. You’re either successful of being undiscovered and you’re getting or you’re not successful or your global goal is successful or not.

Let’s see what you wrote here. Jesse and the group’s tension escalates as she makes her way to the apartment and goes through the various roadblocks until she is finally able to log in and steal all the credits. Her life value moves from – I wouldn’t necessarily call it failure, even though that’s what’s down here. This is why it’s probably driving you a little crazy, because as you meticulously think through each one of these questions, they become more high resolution. It’s not like failure as a value. She’s not living in failure as she is trying to rob them.

[00:11:13] TG: Okay. Would it be like threat to success or something like that or – Oh, my God!

[00:11:20] SC: Well, it could be like unsatisfied, right? She has not been able to have what she wants until a certain point when she does get what she wants and then she is satisfied. It could be something you like unsatisfied to satisfied, which a little generic. It might be unfulfilled to fulfilled. It might be – Failure to success is kind of right.

[00:11:48] TG: I feel like the success is right but not the failure.

[00:11:52] SC: Right. Challenged to successful, that could work. Challenged is on the spectrum of value between failure and success I would say. It’s in-between failure and success. You haven’t succeeded yet but you haven’t failed either, so it’s sort of in-between. Let’s go with – What do you think we should go with?

[00:12:14] TG: like challenged to successful.

[00:12:17] SC: Okay. Let’s do that. All right. Now, the next question is which life value should I highlight on my Story Grid spreadsheet? You would put challenged to successful. Now, you could put the other things that we talked about like unsatisfied to satisfied, unfulfilled to fulfilled, and they work. It’s not a wrong answer, right?

[00:12:39] TG: Well, is this where as much as possible we’re putting down the thing that’s closest to the genre, right? So the genre’s action. It’s life to death. In a scene, if maybe there is an internal change and an external change for an action, we would lean towards the external change. If there’s more than one value shift, the one that goes on the spreadsheet is the one that’s genre-specific.

[00:13:08] SC: Yeah. I think that’s a really good explanation. I think it’s the way to settle on something that could be like – Because anyone who would be reading a contender guide would be looking for the moving parts of the story as they relate to the global genre. While it would be interesting to talk about someone’s internal state, it isn’t really the major driving force of narrative in an action story, which is all about life and death stakes. I absolutely agree with you. I think that’s a really good way of putting it.

The way to choose what value – First of all, you better be able to identify some value shift, right?

[00:13:52] TG: Right. Because if not, the scene doesn’t work.

[00:13:54] SC: That’s right. The fact that we’re having this conversation about the intricacies or the nuances of the value is a good conversation to have, because it’s clear that a value has shifted. We’re taking the time to try and give a high resolution answer to this value shift as a means to help and to serve as a model for someone in the future who would be interested in understanding what you, the writer, and me, the editor, were intending in the scene. Our evaluation of the value shift is important, and trying to be as specific as possible between the two of us is important, because then if someone else reads the scene and they go, “Well, that didn’t work at all. What they said on their spreadsheet is challenge to success, and I don’t even see a value shift here,” these guys are smoking crack, right?

That’s an important thing because the person who’s reading the contender guide will be able to learn from that mismatch as much as something that coheres to that, if that kind of makes sense.

[00:15:10] TG: Yeah.

[00:15:10] SC: Okay. Those four questions are the things that sort of prime the pump of your Story Grid analytical mind. After you walk through those four questions, then it becomes relatively straightforward, I think, to then be able to identify the five commandments of storytelling that are present in the actual scene.

I think you mentioned earlier that you didn’t find the five commandment answers as difficult as the four questions. Was that true?

[00:15:45] TG: Yeah. I feel like – I mean, for a couple reasons. One is I’ve just had so much practice doing that, looking for the five commandments. That’s what we’ve been doing for years now. The other is like we’ve gone through the books so many times, making sure that each scene works that I’m not coming across scenes that don’t have the five commandments like I was the first time we did the spreadsheet where I found a half-dozen scenes where I’m like, “What is this? What was I writing? I wasn’t going anywhere.”

That part has been a lot more straightforward, but you identified the part I’ve been struggling with the most, which is identifying the –

[00:16:29] SC: The essential action.

[00:16:28] TG: Differentiating between what they’re literally doing and the essential action. Yeah.

[00:16:32] SC: Right. I think that Anne Holly on the website has written a bunch of really great posts about essential action and I know that she’s working on some project that delineates this and blows out in a much more specific way. I would direct people who are listening to search for Anne Holly’s work at storygrid.com. She’s really, really amazing at the stuff. There’s a little pointer.

The inciting incident of this initial scene as you pointed out was Jesse climbs the ladder into the apartment building. That’s interesting, and I like that as the inciting incident because while the scene does not exactly start there, that’s the moment when her actions become inciting, right? Until she opens that door, she hasn’t robbed anything yet. But now, she’s available to be detected, right?

[00:17:29] TG: Yeah. That one took me a second, because I was like, “Okay. Well, it’s – The scene picks up with her already doing something.” That either means the inciting incident is coming or it’s already happened. So I was like, “Well, yeah. She could just turn around and leave, and the entire scene was never started.” That’s where I thought like, “Okay. The moment that she actually pops the hood and gets into the building is when she’s doing something she’s not supposed to do.”

I think too on the – I forgot how you talk about it. When the characters do something, it’s how hard is it to go back on what they’ve done.

[00:18:03] SC: Right? Is it irreversible?

[00:18:05] TG: Yeah. Now, like everything she done up till then was easily reversible, where once she actually climbed the ladder into the apartment building, it was still reversible, so it wasn’t completely irreversible, which now she’s done something that she could get in trouble for. That’s why I picked that as the inciting incident.

[00:18:25] SC: Yeah. I think it’s a good choice. Then for the progressive complication, and let’s be specific here, I think you’ve pinpointed the turning point progressive complication here, which I think is really important to figure out. The turning point progressive complication is the moment when the value shifts or the value at stake is threatened to shift. What you’ve put here is Jesse can’t find the panel to log into the grid, so she can’t find basically the safe. She can’t find the thing that she has to break into and steal from. That threatens her challenge has reached the critical stage. If she cannot find the panel, she will fail. We’re right on the edge, and it’s about to turn to failure, which insights, which brings about the crisis of the scene.

The crisis of the scene is pretty clear. In her mind, she has to make a decision. Should she bail on the job and fail and lose the opportunity to get the credits? Or she can press on, hoping that through some luck and some help she will be able to succeed. That’s the best bad choice. If she aborts, she gets nothing. If she presses forward, she could be detected. The climax is that she chooses to move forward, and she makes that choice active by contacting a colleague for advice about where to find the panel, which is risky because you don’t want to communicate over sensitive airwaves for the authorities to find you. It’s a real risk that she’s taking when she does make that contact.

That’s the climax of the scene, which is very clear, and you’ve clearly stated it. Then the resolution is she is rewarded. She gets more credits than she ever has before. We make a movement from challenged to successful in terms of the value and we have clearly delineated the five commandments of storytelling, and the scene works. It moves from a place at the beginning where she has not won any additional credits to the end where she has. It moves from a negative state to a positive state in terms of the protagonist. Does that make sense?

[00:21:01] SC: Yeah. Can we go back to the progressive complication?

[00:21:04] SC: Sure. In this, I am looking for the turning point, because there are other progressive complications, right? There were the stairs. There was the keypad to get in the apartment. There was things that were blocking her way that she easily moved past. But when I’m going through this, I’m looking for the progressive complication that’s the turning point, correct?

[00:21:26] SC: Yes. In fact, we should put that in all of the books. It should say turning point progressive complication as opposed to just progressive complication.

[00:21:36] TG: Okay. I can make that change in mind because that’s what I wanted. We’ve talked about that in other realms, but that’s what I wanted to point out because that’s what I’m looking for in each one, right? Each scene should have a series of progressive complications, and then the turning point progressive complication is the one that pushes us into the crisis.

[00:21:59] SC: Right.

[00:21:59] TG: Okay.

[00:22:00] SC: Another way to look at turning point progressive complications is that they’re unexpected events. When Jesse was moving through the apartment building, chances are that she knew that she was going to have to climb the stairs. Yeah, it’s a progressive complication but it fit within her projected pathway.

Now, when she went to find the panel, she assumed that the panel would be were the panels have been before, but the panel wasn’t. That’s an unexpected event, and it didn’t mean that she didn’t try to find the panel. She checked all the usual places but she didn’t have much time, so that raised the crisis. How was she going to metabolize this unexpected turning point progressive complication? Well, she puts her mind to it. She understands, “Well, I’ve got a best bad choice here. I can either bail and get out of here or press forward. Now, what would I do if I had to press forward? Let me think. I could call my colleague who might know where it is.” That’s the choice that she makes, which shifts the value, because he knows where it is, which changes the value from challenge to successful.

The whole schema works in a way that analytically it makes complete sense. But for the reader, it’s well constructed to the point where they go, “Oh, that’s kind of cool. Let me see what happens next.” Right?

[00:23:34] TG: Right.

[00:23:35] SC: That’s the trick is to constantly really understand how each scene is working, because if you get a dull scene that isn’t so clear or interesting, it’s a strike number one. If you string two of those, three of those together, the reader quits. That’s why you want to do this.

[00:23:54] TG: Especially if it’s the first scene.

[00:23:57] SC: Oh, yeah. Exactly.

[00:24:01] TG: Yeah. I hadn’t thought about that because when you said that, I thought about like scenes where there’s like a negotiation scene, right? The progressive complications are when the other person throws back arguments that they are prepared for, right? I’m just thinking through the progressive complications of like, “They were ready for that. They are ready for that. Oh! There was something that they weren’t prepared for, and now they have to make a decision.”

[00:24:24] SC: That’s right.

[00:24:26] TG: Then going through the work that I did, was there any other kind of thing that you’re like, “Okay. He needs to make sure he’s doing this different. He needs to make sure he’s doing this different when I’m doing this contender guide.”?

[00:24:39] SC: No. I think it’s really about taking the time necessary to make a step-by-step evaluation and really think through is that really what’s literally going on. If that’s literally what’s going on, I mean, you’re a little bit at an advantage here, because the majority of your book is from the point of view of Jesse, like 99% of it. You just need to look at Jesse like, “Where is Jesse now? How was she acting? What is it that confronts her?”

The other thing to keep in mind when you’re talking about the essential action is if someone wins the scene, like if there’s a two-person scene and Jesse’s part, but she kind of gets bulldozed by the other person, then the bulldozing is probably the essential action that you want to focus on.

[00:25:31] TG: What do you mean?

[00:25:31] SC: For example, in the second scene, that’s the scene where the Mayor Charles, he confronts Jesse because he’s in the other room the whole time she’s stealing the credits. That bang, we got a super-duper progressive complication. Jesse thinks all is cool. She’s unloaded all the credits. Then in the next scene, she hears a voice from the other room who’s obviously been monitoring everything she’s been doing since she got there. What the characters are literally doing in that is that Mayor Charles captures and confronts Jesse, making her an offer he thinks she won’t refuse.

The essential action of what the characters are doing in this scene, I believe it would be a good idea to consider this from the point of view of the controlling figure of the scene, which is Mayor Charles. So what I wrote down was Mayor Charles blackmails Jesse. The reason why did that is because he is actively generating the energy of conflict, whereas Jesse is in the victim role. The essential action that he would play is how do I blackmail this girl in the way that’s going to get me what I want, whereas she is sort of – She’s fell into a little bit of a ball of chaos because she’s not sure what the hell to do at this point.

She’s obviously – She’s like a mouse caught in the cage. What you do at that point is just sort of have the fight, flight, or fear response. She’s really not able to have an essential action other than the freeze, fight, or flight response. I know I’m getting way, way too deep in this.

[00:27:15] TG: Well, no. This is good, because I struggled. Now that you say that, like I was struggling with like, again, this is where if you say, “Hey! Would you be able to read your scenes and just tell me what the characters are literally doing,” I’m like, “Oh, yeah! Easy.” Then once I’m doing it, I’m like, “Well.” Because I don’t want to be like, “Well, I don’t want to rewrite the scene.” Jesse literally walks out and sits down into the chair once you –We’re trying to put this all in a couple sentences.

Looking at it as who’s driving the action is helpful, because I’m already thinking ahead to when she meets president. Jesus!

[00:27:49] SC: Marcus, right?

[00:27:50] TG: Marcus. I’m glad that you can remember it. When she meets Marcus, he drives that entire scene. So saying it from his point of view is helpful. That helps me figure out, because the changes you made work that, like switching it over instead. It’s almost like switching it from passive to active voice.

[00:28:09] SC: Right.

[00:28:10] TG: Yeah. That’s super helpful. Is this something that you think people should be doing to their own books as a way to just evaluate them like another tool in their tool chest?

[00:28:19] SC: Yeah. I mean, there’s a time and a place for everything. I think doing this process would be probably you would do it multiple times like we did over our three-year, four-year period of writing this book. There are moments when we had to get down to the nitty-gritty to see, well, is this thing tracking from scene to scene. We were able to convince ourselves that these global thematic movements using the heroic journey were working. Yeah, that was great. Yeah, we can find the shape shifter here. We can do that with the mentor. Yeah, there’s a clear distinction between the ordinary world to the extraordinary world to the blah, blah, blah.

But then all of that’s really well and good. But unless you go down to the scene level and really crack open these scenes and make sure that they’re working from scene to scene, all of that macro stuff isn’t really going to play all that well, because you’re going to lose the reader in the actual linear reading experience because the scenes are weak. This is sort of like what you would do after probably you’ve tracked the global movement of the story in your first draft.

Then after you sort of done the big picture stuff to identify the archetypical figures that are usually in this kind of heroic journey, then you would say, “Okay. Let’s crack open these scenes.” Then you would go scene by scene using this analytical process so that you can identify all the clunkers. You don’t fix the clunkers as you move forward. You just identify them. You just highlight them. Then after you go through the entire manuscript, then you look at it globally again. You go, “Well, I’m going to fix these clunkers, but is this tracking the way I wanted to?”

You sort of keep toggling back and forth between a bunch of tools at the upper macro level of the Story Grid toolbox, which would mean genre conventions, obligatory scenes, checking those, checking the heroic journey if it’s applicable. I think it always is. Checking your beginning hook, middle build, ending payoff, are you doing those core things that are important. Checking the 15 core scenes, are those clicking? Are they turning on the global genre? Yeah. Then you go down to the scene level and you work through these and you fix them such that things start to cohere, so that the macro and the micro get closer and closer together, so that your story emerges in a way that’s unique and compelling.

It takes quite a bit of effort, and you have to understand that. The fact that we’ve just spent 35 minutes going through two scenes of the novel that we’ve gone through probably 15 times at least, is just – That’s part of the deal, right? We’re not complaining about it. It’s just part of the deal. Hey! Let’s take a look at this again with fresh eyes. We haven’t looked at this in a long time. Is it still –

[00:31:28] TG: Well, I complain about it sometimes. Okay, that’s helpful. Okay. I’m going to keep cracking on this and get you a draft here shortly, which I need to, because we’re supposed to publish this in February.

[00:31:43] SC: That’s right.

[00:31:45] TG: I’m going to keep doing this and then I’ll work on the introduction and I’m sure I’ll have because I read through the introduction for the Story Grid Pride and Prejudice and I got so overwhelmed at the thought of writing my own. I was like, “I’ll just come back to that.” Once I have that, I’m sure I’ll have questions around that too.

[00:32:03] SC: Okay.

[00:32:04] TG: All right. Thanks, Shawn.

[00:32:05] SC: Thanks, Tim.


[00:32:06] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast. For everything Story Grid related, check out storygrid.com. Make sure you pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter, so you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid universe.

Also, we still have some spots available for our Big Idea Nonfiction seminar that is happening in February in Nashville, Tennessee. It’s going to be a really great three days together. If you’re writing nonfiction in any way, it doesn’t have to be this huge Malcolm Gladwell’s book. Another example of Big Idea is my own Running Down a Dream, right? If you’re looking to write nonfiction and you want to figure out how to write a book that will stand the test of time, how to do it using the Story Grid methodology, I highly recommend you join us in Nashville in February. Again, you can go see more about that at storygrid.com/nonfiction.

If you like to check out the show notes for this episode or any past episodes, all of that can be found at storygrid.com/podcast. If you would like to reach out to us, you can find us on Twitter @StoryGrid. Lastly, if you would like to support the show, you can do that by telling another author about the show and by visiting us on Apple podcasts and leaving a rating and review. Thanks for subscribing and being a part of our work here at Story Grid. We will see you next week.



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