Scenes are the basic building blocks of story, so knowing how to write them is vital. The only way to master this skill is through study and application; study scenes that others have written then apply what you’ve learned to your own work. Scene analysis is not a sexy concept, I’ll grant you that. However, if you take the time and make the effort to really learn how to do it, the improvement in your writing will blow your mind.
A deep understanding of scenes—and how and why they function—represents a quantum leap in a writer’s ability to tell an amazing story; not one that merely works, but one that gets people talking. For that reason alone, it’s worth the effort.
The Basics: Identify the 5Cs
The first step in analyzing a scene is accurately identifying the five commandments (5Cs) of storytelling within that scene. This will tell you whether, at a fundamental level, your scene is working or not. If the commandments are there, the scene works. If they’re missing, you’ve written exposition or shoe leather. There’s already a ton of information about the five commandments in Shawn’s book, on this blog (here and here) and in both Story Grid podcasts (here and here), so I’m moving forward with the assumption that you’ve got a handle on them.
Let’s look at two examples, one from Dracula and the other from How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, to see the effect the 5Cs have on scenes:
Excerpt from Dracula, written by Bram Stoker
My dearest Lucy,
Such a sad blow has befallen us. Mr. Hawkins has died very suddenly. Some may not think it so sad for us, but we had both come to so love him that it really seems as though we had lost a father. I never knew either father or mother, so that the dear old man’s death is a real blow to me. Jonathan is greatly distressed. It is not only that he feels sorrow, deep sorrow, for the dear, good man who has befriended him all his life, and now at the end has treated him like his own son and left him a fortune which to people of our modest bringing up is wealth beyond the dream of avarice, but Jonathan feels it on another account. He says the amount of responsibility which it puts upon him makes him nervous. He begins to doubt himself. I try to cheer him up, and my belief in him helps him to have a belief in himself. But it is here that the grave shock that he experienced tells upon him the most. Oh, it is too hard that a sweet, simple, noble, strong nature such as his—a nature which enabled him by our dear, good friend’s aid to rise from clerk to master in a few years—should be so injured that the very essence of its strength is gone. Forgive me, dear, if I worry you with my troubles in the midst of your own happiness; but, Lucy dear, I must tell some one, for the strain of keeping up a brave and cheerful appearance to Jonathan tries me, and I have no one here that I can confide in. I dread coming up to London, as we must do the day after tomorrow; for poor Mr. Hawkins left in his will that he was to be buried in the grave with his father. As there are no relations at all, Jonathan will have to be chief mourner. I shall try to run over to see you, dearest, if only for a few minutes. Forgive me for troubling you. With all blessings,
Here we have an expository passage in which Mina reports that Mr. Hawkins has died and she and Jonathan have inherited a fortune. She tells us that she is grieved and Jonathan is distressed, but those feelings don’t translate off the page to the reader. Even though we have likely experienced a loss in our own personal lives, we don’t connect with the Harkers’ loss. We don’t feel grieved or distressed. Likewise, we don’t feel joy for their windfall, or apprehension for Jonathan’s increased responsibilities.
We could argue that there is an inciting incident; Mr. Hawkins has died. But, what are the complications? There are things that happen as a result of the death (the Harkers are rich, Jonathan is nervous and they’ll be going to London) but those aren’t complications. There is no crisis here either. Jonathan isn’t debating whether he’ll accept the inheritance or the added responsibility at work. Without a crisis there can be no climax or resolution. There is nothing here for us to latch on to emotionally. The reader is kept at arm’s length. Without the five commandments this passage, like poor Mr. Hawkins, is dead.
How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, screenplay by Burr Steers, Kristen Buckley and Brian Regan
This lovers reunite scene may not have depth of meaning, but it does work. It’s a core scene and it does turn on the global value of love/hate. The five commandments, and their type, are as follows:
- Inciting Incident: Andie gets out of the taxi to confront Ben. (causal)
- Turning Point Progressive Complication: Ben calls bullshit on Andie’s reason for leaving New York. (active)
- Crisis: Does Andie choose Ben or her career? (irreconcilable goods)
- Climax: Andie chooses Ben.
- Resolution: The lovers reunite.
At this point in the movie, the audience wants Ben and Andie to get back together. We’re emotionally invested in their relationship because we’re living vicariously through them. Even though this film is like cotton candy, I’d put money on the fact that the vast majority of scenes work on the commandment level (the overall story structure is also rock solid). It’s marketed as a romantic comedy and it delivers.
Once you understand scenes at the commandment level, and have them working in your own novel, it’s time to add another layer of meaning to your scene. It’s time to identify the story event.
What is a Story Event?
In the Story Grid editing tools, the story event shows up in the third column on the spreadsheet.
It looks innocent enough but to be honest, until I started to study with Shawn directly, I was never quite sure what to do with it. Sometimes I listed a chapter summary, other times I listed where the action took place or referenced the scene architecture; basically, I included anything that might jog my memory as to what the scene was about.
It turns out that scenes that work have at least one story event which is listed in as concise a manner possible, and articulates how that scene moves the story forward.
In Pride and Prejudice: The Story Grid Edition, Shawn states 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)”. That’s a mouthful, but really what he’s talking about are the five commandments, but rather than listing them, he’s telling us what they do.
Scenes require conflict and that conflict ratchets up until the protagonist no longer knows how to handle the situation. In other words, scenes have progressive complications that culminate at a turning point which gives rise to a crisis. The active change in life value happens through the turning point, crisis and climax of the scene. At the end of the scene (the resolution) the protagonist is in a different place than he was at the beginning (the inciting incident).
Therefore, knowing how to accurately identify the 5Cs in a scene goes a long way to identifying the story event, but there’s more to it than that. In addition to the five commandments, we also have to understand both the literal and essential action of the scene, and the value shift.
Literal and Essential Action
Story Grid Editors Anne Hawley and Leslie Watts wrote a phenomenal Fundamental Fridays article all about literal and essential action and I urge you to study it. They go into it in much more detail than I have room to do here.
In a nutshell, the difference is this: literal action refers to what the characters are literally doing in the scene. Are they having coffee? Are they working? What’s happening on the physical or tangible level?
Essential action refers to what’s happening on the emotional or non-tangible level. Although it isn’t quite the same as subtext, it does refer to what’s happening beneath the surface. With subtext there’s a deeper layer of meaning to what’s being said. For example, in a scene where there is a lot of sexual tension, the characters would be talking about something mundane (literal action) but the words they’re saying are understood by both to be flirtatious (subtext). One of them is trying to seduce the other (essential action).
To really understand essential action, you’ve got to study human behaviour. There’s no shortcuts on this one. Pay close attention to the interactions you have with the people in your life. There’s always more than meets the eye. As part of the article I mentioned above, Anne and Leslie created a downloadable Essential Action Cheat Sheet. Go get it and post it near your workspace. It’s filled with all kinds of essential actions that will help trigger your imagination as you write. For example, your character might be trying to gain someone’s trust, or close a deal or accept change.
Sometimes in stories, the essential action is fairly obvious. In fact, in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, it’s the whole plot. While the characters are literally dating, what they’re really doing is trying to win their bets. Every scene has a deeper layer and a lot of the essential action, at least until the middle build climax, boils down to manipulation. Yes, even scenes in a straight forward story like this have both the literal and essential action.
A story event is an active change in life value, in other words there has to be a value shift. In my recent Fundamental Fridays article, Value Shift 101, I examined what value shifts are and how they work with other Story Grid tools. I used Guardians of the Galaxy to illustrate how to fill in the story event, value shift, polarity shift and turning point columns of the Story Grid Spreadsheet.
In that post, I focused on the global values at stake in a story. The 15 core scenes (i.e., those that we list on the foolscap) must turn on the value at stake for the global story. However, a story is made up of 60+ scenes, so how do we identify the value shift in the others? Some of them will relate to the global story and so will turn on the global value at stake. How many will depend on your individual story. Others will develop your secondary genre and any sub-plots you have, so those scenes will turn on the value spectra for those genres.
All roads lead back to genre.
You’ve got to know which genres are operating in your story, and how, so that you know which values you’re dealing with. Since every scene must move your story forward, they will all turn on the values at stake for either your global genre, secondary genre or sub-plot. If you don’t have a secondary genre or sub-plot, then all the scenes will turn on the global value at stake.
How do you find the Story Event?
To find the story event in a scene, ask yourself the following four questions:
- What are the characters literally doing?
- What is the essential action of what the characters are doing in the scene?
- What life value has changed for one or more of the characters in the scene?
- Which life value should I highlight on my Story Grid Spreadsheet?
Let’s look at a scene from Pride and Prejudice to see how to answer these four questions:
This scene is more or less the first chapter of Jane Austen’s book. Shawn has analyzed every scene in the novel so I recommend you get The Story Grid Edition and study what he’s done.
What are the characters literally doing? The Bennet family is preparing for church and then walking home from church. Mrs. Bennet is telling her husband about their new neighbour. Mr. Bennet is teasing his wife.
What is the essential action of what the characters are doing in the scene? In sharing the news about Mr. Bingley, Mrs. Bennet is trying to get her husband to visit him. Watch the scene again and pay attention to Mr. Bennet. You can see that he knows exactly why his wife is telling him that Netherfield Park has been rented, but he refuses to let on. He doesn’t want to go (his essential action) and so teases his wife, ultimately making her confess her true reason (her essential action) for talking about Mr. Bingley in the first place.
What life value has changed for one or more of the characters in the scene? Mrs. Bennet starts her conversation with hope; with Mr. Bingely’s arrival there’s a chance that one of her daughters will marry well. She ends in dispair; if her husband won’t visit the new neighbour, her daughters will never meet him and so hope for a wedding is dashed. Mr. Bennet begins with playful teasing which is enjoyable for him. However, his wife’s nagging him to do something he doesn’t want to do, annoys him.
Which life value should I highlight on my Story Grid Spreadsheet? This happens to be the global inciting incident for a love story and as such it has to clearly establish the global genre and the stakes at play. Therefore, we’ll track the life value/value shift for the character that is advancing the love story plot. Mrs. Bennet is fussing over an opportunity for one of her daughters to get married (i.e., the commitment value on the love story global value line).
Mr. Bennet just wants to get away from his wife and back to his library. So, on the Story Grid Spreadsheet, we’ll track Mrs. Bennet’s life value: hope to despair.
What then, is the story event? Ah, this is the $64,000 question. Since this is the inciting incident for the global story, and every scene must move the story forward, the story event is how this scene advances the love story: Mr. Bennet refuses to visit a rich, eligible bachelor.
So it’s Mrs. Bennet’s life value, but Mr. Bennet’s essential action that is tracked on the spreadsheet. This seems confusing until you step back and realize that, in this scene, these are the two things moving the love story between Elizabeth and Darcy forward.
The Story Grid Spreadsheet for this scene would look like this:
Ideally, the story event is listed in as few words as possible and although it’s sometimes tough to do that, it forces you to focus in on what the scene is about and what function it serves in the story.
To fully analyze a scene you need to look at the five commandments of storytelling as well as the literal and essential action, and the life value. If you’re in the early stages of your writing career, it’s perfectly fine to concentrate on the commandments only. Even if you’ve already got a few novels under your belt, your scenes may not operate beyond the commandment level for the first couple of drafts. That’s normal. This is the kind of stuff you’d tackle only after you know that the macro story structure is solid.
Once the fundamentals are in place, you’ll be ready for this kind of deep dive analysis. Adding more layers to your scenes will result in a richer story that emotionally connects with readers.