In the fourth episode of the Story Grid Masterwork Experiment podcast, Shawn introduced a new concept: Scene Types.
He tells us that scenes come in two flavors, which he termed the editor’s scene and the writer’s scene.
The first flavor is familiar to all of us who study the Story Grid method. It includes the 15 Core Scenes as well as the obligatory scenes and conventions of each genre. They’re the “grammar” of Story Grid: analytical tools that really come into their own during the editing process.
In this article, we dig into that second flavor. We define some terms and then identify a handful of common Writer’s Scene Types. Once we started to spot them, we couldn’t stop!
Our working theory is that once we have access to a whole toolbox full of Writer’s Scene Types, we’ll be able to write a better story faster.
In forthcoming articles we’ll go more deeply into the practical application of Writer’s Scene Types. For now, let’s get started on this whole new Story Grid topic by understanding what a Writer’s Scene Type is, then looking at a variety of examples.
For purposes of this and future articles on the subject, we’re calling them simply “Scene Types.”
Definition of Terms
Here in the Story Grid Universe, the word “scene” gets tossed around a lot. We had to begin our journey of discovery by defining this new use of the word “scene” in the phrase “Writer’s Scene Types.”
Scene Types: What They Aren’t
To be clear, when we talk about Scene Types, we are not talking about:
- Obligatory scenes of a genre. For example, the “Lovers Meet” obligatory scene of Love stories, or the “Hero at the Mercy of the Villain” scene in Action and Thriller stories.
- Genre conventions. For example, the “Love triangle” convention of the Love story, and “Hero, victim, villain” convention of the Action story.
- The 15 Core Scenes required of every story: that is, the Inciting Incident, Turning Point, Crisis, Climax and Resolution scenes of the beginning hook, middle build, and ending payoff.
On a recent episode of the Story Grid Podcast, Shawn called the above group of scenes “Editor’s Scenes,” because whether we’re plotters who build them in before we ever start writing, or pantsers who address them during revisions, they are at the heart of story structure, and building a solid story structure falls more to our left-brained editor side than to our right-brained creative writer side.
Scene Types: What They Are
On the other hand, Scene Types are the setups or scenarios that help spark our creativity as writers. They’re prompts we can use to innovate and solve problems with must-haves of a story. Broadly speaking, the Scene Type is a description of our global thinking, as storytellers, about what needs to happen in a given scene.
Those of us who learn best through metaphor and analogy can think of a Scene Type as a container. What we pour into the container might be an obligatory scene or convention of our genre, one of our 15 Core Scenes, or some transitional story material in between.
The Scene Types, like the jars in the image above, have different shapes and sizes—different characteristics and purposes. No Scene Type is likely to be an all-purpose container. Some might be better for setting up the protagonist’s ordinary life. Some seem like obvious containers for a revelatory turning point. Some are likely candidates for delivering a global inciting incident, and some are more clearly useful as resolutions.
The Scene Types we choose for shaping our stories can make or break the narrative drive, characterization, conflict, and overall reader engagement.
A Survey of Familiar Scene Types
We began our research by with some specific Scene Types that Shawn first introduced in our editor training course in 2017: Stranger Knocks on the Door, Friends Having Coffee, Conversation Over a Meal, Conversation in a Car.
It took a while to develop the knack of seeing these Scene Types in the midst of a wide variety of stories, but once we started looking, dozens of Scene Types began to appear under this new lens.
Shawn has said, “The environment the characters are in can either distract them from the conflict of the scene, or be used to enhance the conflict.” So as we studied the following Scene Type examples, we tried to discover the role of conflict avoidance and conflict enhancement in each one.
Stranger Knocks on the Door
The name of this Scene Type is usually literal, with variations for, say, ringing a doorbell or battering the door down. Its key element is an actual door separating the stranger from the protagonist, so that the only way to find out who’s there is to open the door. Sometimes a gatekeeper such as a servant intervenes.
Example 1: Rocky
It’s not really a stranger at the door in this case, but a Mentor figure who has become estranged.
Conflict enhancement and avoidance: The old Mentor figure aggressively tries to convince the protagonist that he needs him in order to have a chance at his goal, while the protagonist parries, avoids, and denies.
Example 2: Double Indemnity
Here, it’s the protagonist knocking at the door of a stranger, but similar dynamics apply.
Conflict enhancement and avoidance: While there’s little conflict between the two principal characters, the gatekeeper character creates a barrier by trying to refuse admittance. The protagonist avoids conflict by simply ignoring her.
Example 3: Breaking Bad
Here again, it’s not really a stranger, but a known entity—in fact, the protagonist—who’s been shut out. Interestingly, the door itself plays a part in the conflict.
Conflict enhancement and avoidance: The protagonist’s banging on the door creates the conflict. The gatekeeper character ignores it. The protagonist escalates the conflict by breaking in. The gatekeeper defies him and raises the stakes until he backs down.
Friends Having Coffee
The experience of sitting down over beverages with old, new, or soon-to-be friends is an almost universal human experience, so of course a popular and evergreen Scene Type in stories of all sorts is Friends Having Coffee.
Note that “coffee” is the more American take, but of course it can be tea, soft drinks, milkshakes—whatever. Alcohol is different, and we’ll get to that next.
This Scene Type isn’t really about the coffee or the coffee-shop, so it’s a mistake to insert it into a story simply because it’s time for our characters to have some caffeine.
This first example is fairly obvious, and it works so well that they built an entire television series around it. It’s an ensemble piece and is an excellent way to have a group of characters interacting with one another.
Example 1: Friends
The coffee shop where the six Friends meet is practically a character in the show. It provides a setting where the characters can deliver dialogue-as-exposition in an organic way, demonstrate their traits, and tell parts of the story that happened outside the setting.
Conflict enhancement and avoidance: One character actively expresses inner conflict while another actively denies it.
Example 2: Thor
Here the friends are not quite friends yet, and the presence of both food and coffee serves to highlight cultural, social, or class differences between the characters. The food adds a Meal element, which is a Scene Type of its own that we’ll look at in a moment.
Conflict Enhancement and Avoidance: One character actively creates conflict by unknowingly breaking social rules, while another actively tries to suppress that conflict by creating another—scolding the first character for his actions.
If your scene has only two characters, the dynamic changes. It would probably look more like this scene from Gilmore Girls.
Example 3: Gilmore Girls
In this example, the coffee itself actually does play a role, giving the characters fodder for what appears to be a flirtation. No third party is present to witness, interrupt, or judge the conversation, so this variation leans more strongly towards intimacy.
Conflict enhancement: it’s slight, but it works: a humorous argument over the meaning of “café au lait” gives the two characters grounds to get to know each other better.
Conversation Over Drinks
Now if we were to change the coffee to wine or spirits, Friends Having Coffee suddenly becomes a Conversation Over Drinks. Why would we make that switch?
A Conversation Over Drinks can be dramatically different from Friends Having Coffee—we might say “as different as night and day.” We associate coffee and tea with morning, and alcohol with evening. While coffee and tea tend to quicken speech and even sharpen anxiety, alcohol is an adults-only beverage that slows reactions and relaxes inhibitions, promoting greater intimacy, but also increasing certain dangers.
Example: Kramer vs Kramer
In this scene the alcohol doesn’t have time to take effect, but notice how the wife’s choice to meet over drinks creates a soft, intimate, date-like tone that misleads the husband and provides sharp contrast to his angry reaction.
Conflict Enhancement and Avoidance: The wife tiptoes delicately toward what she has to say, allowing the the husband’s misinterpretation to mount until she drops the bomb, provoking a violent reaction.
Note the unlikely similarity between this scene and the Thor scene above: each features the breaking of a glass, creating embarrassment and shock for the other character(s), one for dramatic effect, and one for comic effect. We’ll see a similar dynamic in the Meal Scene of Discomfort type below.
The Drunk Scene
If our characters in a Conversation Over Drinks scene become actually drunk, the Scene Type changes to a subtype we’re calling the Drunk Scene.
Often humorous, the Drunk Scene goes beyond the quiet intimacy of Conversation Over Drinks and removes characters’ inhibitions so that they say or do what they wouldn’t ordinarily say or do.
While alcohol is the usual source of disinhibition, of course other causes (say, alien rays or fantasy elixirs) can serve similar purposes.
Example 1: Good Omens
Conflict enhancement and avoidance: one character blurts out the truth about what’s to come while the other tries to deny it, though he knows it’s true.
Example 2: Tombstone
Though far more serious than the previous scene, this one also contains a comic element. Note, too, the power-play variant where only one character is probably pretending to be drunker than he is.
Conflict enhancement and avoidance: The unwell protagonist repeatedly raises then lowers the tension until his own life is at stake, before using his (supposed) drunkenness to comically defuse the situation.
The Conversation In Motion
Whether characters are walking, on horseback, driving a car, or riding in a vehicle, the uniting element of this Scene Type is motion while characters are delivering what would otherwise be static talking-head dialogue. There are two main subtypes, the Drive (or Ride) and Talk, and the Walk and Talk.
The Drive (or Ride) and Talk
In a conveyance of some kind, the Conversation in Motion Scene Type adds more than just motion. It can reveal characters’ social status through the quality of the car or carriage they’re in. It can establish a setting as they pass through a landscape. It can build tension because characters can’t easily get out of a moving vehicle.
Example: Sense and Sensibility (forward to 2:11)
Here the characters start a fairly statis conversation in a room, then continue it on and off in a carriage. It has the effect of making the husband a captive audience while also revealing a lot about the historical and social setting of the story.
Conflict enhancement and avoidance: The wife subtly but aggressively pushes her agenda on the unwilling husband, who feebly parries until she has changed his mind completely.
The Walk and Talk
The Walk and Talk subtype differs from the Drive or Ride and Talk by adding physical exertion—possibly to compare characters’ fitness or their relationship to the environment. It slows down the passing scenery and can expose characters to weather, hazards, and distractions that a vehicle would protect them from; and it gives characters more opportunity to exit the conversation.
Example 1: The West Wing
Conflict enhancement and avoidance: in every piece of the conversation someone questions someone else’s choices, while the other person defends, explains, or avoids the attack.
This particular Walk and Talk scene is a piece of filmmaking virtuosity by Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme, and would be extremely difficult to render clearly in prose, but a Walk and Talk scene doesn’t have to be so complex or large to work.
Example 2: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
More like a Run-and-Talk, this on-foot first encounter specifically serves to play up physical differences between a superhero and more ordinary mortal. Notice the monumental setting in a place of power, which sets the tone of the story.
Conflict enhancement and avoidance: The superhero politely provokes the ordinary mortal by passing him several times. The ordinary guy shows comic irritation. His sense of humor and the superhero’s politeness resolve the conflict in a new friendship.
You’ve seen a thousand of these. Just as people in real life need to meet each other, apply for jobs, socialize over beverages, and move from place to place, so they also need to eat.
But we don’t write a meal scene—or any other Scene Type—just because “at this point in the story, they’d be hungry.” By that reasoning, we might as well include going-to-the-bathroom scenes, scenes of characters asleep, or descriptions of the long drive from point A to point B.
No, the Meal Scene, like all Scene Types, must serve a story purpose. We’ve identified two principal categories of Meal Scene: Meal Scene of Dominance and Meal Scene of Discomfort; and one minor type: Meal Scene of Celebrating Too Soon. While all of them involve people eating, note that none of them are fundamentally about people eating, or about the food.
Meal Scene of Dominance
This Scene Type lets us create tension by pitting characters—typically two of them—against each other in a highly civilized environment where their choice of acceptable actions and reactions is limited by social convention.
Once you see it you’ll never look at a two-person meal scene the same way again: in a surprising number of cases, one character eats while the other refrains.
Example 1: Primal Fear (Warning: strong language)
In this example the older character, the villain, shows dominance by eating heartily in front of the younger protagonist while praising himself. The protagonist attempts to show dominance by refraining from eating (as if to show that the need to eat is a weakness). Not eating also makes it easier for him to walk out of the restaurant.
Conflict enhancement and avoidance: The villain pretends that there is no conflict and that this is a social occasion, until the protagonist forces the conflict into the open.
Example 2: Supernatural
See it again? One character eats, one doesn’t. Here, an omnipotent non-human character demonstrates dominance by offering food to the human character, who is afraid to eat it and afraid to offend by not eating it.
Conflict enhancement and avoidance: The non-human character subverts the human character’s expectations of conflict by offering instead to negotiate (at which point they both normalize the situation by eating together).
Meal Scene of Discomfort
The family dinner table is a setting fraught with social mores. We set a scene there in order to limit what it’s appropriate for characters to say or do. We can use manners, table settings, and the food itself to reveal social differences, and build tension by restricting a character’s ability to leave.
Unlike a conversation in a moving vehicle, in this Scene Type the constraint against leaving is social and internal rather than physical.
Like the Friends Having Coffee scene, a Meal Scene of Discomfort is a well-established way to have characters deliver exposition in dialogue, reveal their attitudes and traits, and show the social and class setting in which they operate.
Unlike the coffee scene, this one tends to focus on the discomfort, testing the reserve of the uncomfortable characters and the boldness of those breaking the “rules.”
Example 1: Grace and Frankie (a bit of strong language)
While not technically the family dinner table, the restaurant dinner with two very close couples here fills a similar function.
One wife specifically calls out the social restrictions inherent in this Scene Type: that there is subterfuge and dominance involved in holding a difficult conversation in a restaurant, where the expectation is that everyone will keep a lid on their emotions for the sake of appearances.
Conflict enhancement and avoidance: The husbands’ choice to reveal their secret in a public place is clear conflict avoidance. The wife cranks the conflict up to eleven when she breaks the rules and creates a scene.
Example 2: Supernatural
Instead of a public place, here we have guests at someone else’s family dinner table. The norms of one family (the woman and her daughters) go wildly against the norms of the other (the men).
Conflict enhancement and avoidance: The girls don’t care who they make uncomfortable. The mother tries to mediate two conflicts—between the daughters, and between the daughters and the guests. The men are comically conflict-averse.
Meal Scene of Celebrating Too Soon
A third, more minor Meal Scene Type is one we might call Celebrating Too Soon, where any conflict at the table is restricted to harmless banter, and instead we have an air of genuine conviviality or celebration at the end of some challenge. This subtype creates a sense of peace or resolution, only to give way to a shocking event.
Here’s one famous example:
Summary and What’s Next
We’ve identified some common Scene Types:
- Stranger Knocks on the Door
- Coffee With Friends
- Conversation over Drinks
- Drunk Scene subtype
- Conversation While Moving
- Walk-and-Talk subtype
- Driving/riding subtype
- Dominance subtype
- Discomfort subtype
- Celebrating Too Soon subtype
In our next post, we’ll continue to expand the list as we dig into practical applications.
First we’ll experiment by casting a particular obligatory scene into some different Scene Types, the way a Plotter or an Outliner would do.
Then we’ll try changing the Scene Types in Valerie’s work-in-progress to discover whether it improves her story. (Spoiler: it does.)
There are many, many more Scene Types than we’ve discussed here, and we’re compiling them into a Scene Type database as we discover them. Our aim is to build a kind of grab-bag of possibilities that we can all reach into to stimulate our writerly imagination, either while planning or revising our stories.
Can you think of other Scene Types with examples from novels, movies, or television? You can help build the database by letting us know in the comments.
Special thanks to Rachelle Ramirez, who gave us a lot of editorial support.