The Units of Story: The Scene

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The scene is the basic building block of a Story.

While the beat is the actor’s medium, and as such can be “saved” by a skilled actor, even Meryl Streep can’t save a poorly written scene. There is just no hiding for a writer when it comes to a scene. It either works or it doesn’t. There is either a very clear shift in value from the beginning to the end—a change—or there isn’t. If there is no change, no value at stake, no movement, then the scene doesn’t work. And if a writer’s scenes don’t work, no matter how well they can craft a sentence, his story won’t work.

I promise you this. If you put aside everything else that you read on this blog, hold on to this one kernel of truth. Scenes are the place to focus.

Spend your time dreaming up scenes, writing them down, working them, until you are blue in the face. Invest Malcolm Gladwell’s golden 10,000-hour labor law in learning how to write a scene and you’ll always be able to put food on the table. You will be a writer.

You can learn the other stuff easily—in fact it will probably come very naturally—if you can bang out a compelling scene with confidence. You’ll get work as a script doctor or an editor or an advertising copywriter or a how-to ghostwriter if you can write a scene that grabs a reader by the throat and surprises them. And the more efficiently you can do so, the better.

While it can be broken down into its component beats, the scene is the most obvious mini-story. They are the things that stay ever present when we talk about a great movie or great novel. Remember what happened after character A saw character B with another woman?

The structure of a scene is straightforward. A scene must move from one value state to another. From a positive expression of a value like “Love” to a negative expression of a that value “Hate.” Or from a negative expression of a value “injustice” to a positive expression of a value “justice.” Page upon page of prose without a turn from one value state to another is not a scene.

Just having two characters meet and talk does not make a scene. It’s just talk.

The driving force of the scene is conflict. One character is in pursuit of one thing and one or more other characters are in pursuit of another. Only one desire can be fulfilled. So the two forces conflict. One will win and one will lose. Scenes are battles built on conflict. Stories are Wars that take values to the end of the line or at the very least approach the end of the line.

Scenes can turn on very black and white terms—good/bad, life/death, truth/lie etc.

While long form stories can never deliver much entertainment or emotional impact by just flip-flopping between a positive story value and just its negative opposite, a scene can. In fact, it must. These black and white value shifts are usually the obligatory scenes for the external content genres. You’ll find these straightforward, easy to understand, scenes the most difficult to innovate.

Pure action scenes, for example, move between the simple value of life versus death. The character either lives or dies. These are the James Bond “Hero at the Mercy of the Villain” scenes that we all adore:

Do you expect me to talk?

 stops on the steps and looks down, both hands in his pockets.

GOLDFINGER: No, Mister Bond. I expect you to die!

Life/death is the only value at stake in many big action scenes and because it is so simple and understandable, these scenes are some of the most difficult to write. How can you innovative a scene that has been written millions of times?

Can you outdo the action scenes in The Iliad or The Odyssey or Beowulf or The Terminator or North by Northwest? Maybe not, but think about what fun it would be to try. What is very important to recognize is the size of the mountain you are trying to climb for every scene you write. Besting Homer or James Cameron is a very steep task. Better bring extra oxygen and know that this ain’t gonna be done in an afternoon.

You cannot just throw off the first thing that comes to your mind when you are creating an action scene, or any other scene for that matter. Well, you can, but it will be derivative and cliché. I guarantee it.

The reason why you can’t settle for the first thing that comes to mind, though, is that the first thing that comes to anyone’s mind is all the stuff that’s been pumped into your brain since seeing your first cartoon.

This is not to say that you should drive yourself crazy on your first draft and not use these first cliché scenes as mile markers for your story. It is to say that you can and should use them to give you a sense of the kind of scene that you need to drop in, but you cannot be satisfied with the first thing that comes into your mind. The first thing that comes into your mind has been written before.

It’s called a memory.

For example, if I’m going to write a thriller, I’ll definitely need a scene where the hero/protagonist of the Story is at the mercy of the villain. This is the obligatory scene that all thrillers must have.  If the reader/viewer doesn’t get this scene, they won’t like your book/movie.  Simple as that.

My first attempt to craft this scene would go something like this:

Our hero is tied to a wall at the four points of his body. The villain begins to crank the rope until our hero is stretched to his limit. One addition crank and our hero’s tendons and muscles in his shoulders and hips will pop.

But our hero has figured out that if he can just break his own thumb, he’ll be able to slip out of the restraint on his most powerful arm.

VILLAIN: “Your wife called…I told her you were tied up…”

HERO: “That’s very funny…Why don’t you come over here and say that to my face.”

Villain walks over to hero, Hero breaks his thumb and gets villain in a headlock with his one strong arm. He chokes villain to death and then unties himself and escapes.

On just a cursory look at this construction, you’ll see that it’s basically a mash up of every action movie scene from Die Hard to Taken to Goldfinger.

That’s okay for your first draft.

Let the cliché sit on the page while you move forward. You’ll definitely come back to it later on, when you have your critical editor cap on your head. But for your first draft, write cliché after cliché. It’s okay. No one is going to see this draft but you. What you just need in a first draft are the types of scenes you’ll need and the general order in which they’ll fall.

Just don’t write scenes that don’t go anywhere. They all must have inciting incidents (hero caught by villain), progressive complications (tied to a wall…rope pulled to breaking point), crisis (do I try and buy some time or do I break my thumb and try and free myself? Best Bad Choice), Climax (breaks thumb), resolution (hero tricks villain, kills him and escapes). The scene moves from death to life. It works.

It’s far from great, but it works.

The most important thing to remember about writing a scene is that it has to TURN. It has to move from one state of being to another. It can be a subtle turn, but it must turn in a meaningful way.

When you get stuck, think about the overall state of your protagonist’s quest for his objects of desire (both external and internal). Has his quest moved closer to success or failure from beginning to the end of the scene? It must move from positive to negative or negative to positive or positive to double positive or negative to double negative etc.

If your scene does not move, it has to be reworked so that it does. If you find that you are pulling your hair out trying to turn the scene and it just won’t turn, there’s a good reason why it won’t. You don’t need it in your story. It’s undoubtedly a Shoe Leather/Stage Business scene that just moves your character physically from one space to another.

Cut that stuff. You don’t need it and it’s boring.

What’s great about finding these bits in your first draft is that you can just highlight and delete knowing that the reader or viewer will fill in that stage business inside their own minds. They don’t want to read the part when your lead character goes to dinner with a friend who tells him all about what’s been going on back home for two thousand words.

They want to see the friend pick up a steak knife and try and kill your protagonist. Or they want the friend to brilliantly undermine your protagonist’s confidence. A scene must have conflict. And someone must win or lose.

Later on, when we lay out The Story Grid Spreadsheet (the micro editorial view), I’ll show you how to track the turns in your scenes so that you’ll be easily able to pinpoint the duds and fix them.


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About the Author

SHAWN COYNE created, developed, and expanded the story analysis and problem-solving methodology The Story Grid throughout his quarter-century-plus book publishing career. A seasoned story editor, book publisher and ghostwriter, Coyne has also co-authored The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: The Steelers, The Cowboys, the '70s and the Fight For America's Soul with Chad Millman and Cognitive Dominance: A Brain Surgeon's Quest to Out-Think Fear with Mark McLaughlin, M.D. With his friend and editorial client Steven Pressfield, Coyne runs Black Irish Entertainment LLC, publisher of the cult classic book The War of Art. With his friend and editorial client Tim Grahl, Coyne oversees the Story Grid Universe, LLC, which includes Story Grid University and Story Grid Publishing.