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This week we’re studying a scene from The Secret Life of Bees (2002) by Sue Monk Kidd. It’s the third section of chapter 9 and it begins with, “If the heat goes over 104 degrees in South Carolina, you have to go to bed.”
We’re focusing on scenes this season because scenes are the basic building blocks of story. To be able to write a story that works, you must be able to write a scene that works. And we’re using stories that already appear somewhere in the Story Grid Universe. The story we’re discussing is featured this year in the Story Grid Guild.
GENRE AND THREE-ACT SUMMARY
The Secret Life of Bees is a global Worldview story, and here’s a brief overview of the three-act summary.
- Beginning Hook – When Lily Owens is severely punished (abused) by her father, T.Ray, for something she didn’t do, Lily decides to run away from home to find out about her mother, Deborah, who’d died when Lily was four. T.Ray had told her that her mother had left them and when she’d returned for her things, Lily shot and killed her. Lily refuses to believe that. She breaks their housekeeper, Rosaleen, out of prison and the two hitchhike to Tiburon, South Carolina.
- Middle Build – Lily and Rosaleen are taken in by August Boatwright and her sisters, who make Black Madonna Honey, and decide to stay until they can figure out their next move. When Lily discovers that the Boatwright sisters knew her mother, she presses August for details and discovers that Deborah did indeed leave Lily and T.Ray. But, rather than abandoning her daughter, she returned for Lily intending to take her back to Tiburon.
- Ending Payoff – T.Ray discovers Lily’s whereabouts and shows up at the Boatwright house intending to take Lily back to their farm in Sylvan, South Carolina. But when T.Ray is physically and verbally abusive to her, August steps in and says that Lily is welcome to stay with them. Lily decides to stay in Tiburon but demands that T.Ray tell her the truth about her mother’s death. He confirms that she did kill her mother, but that it was an accident.
ANALYZING THE SCENE
Editor’s Scene Type: What function does this scene serve in the story? Spinal scene–MB1 Turning point progressive complication. In terms of external story movement, this is all about how the protagonist-luminary agent is becoming a target of the antagonist. In terms of the heroic journey, this scene is about how the protag-luminary agent comes to understand the forces of antagonism must be reckoned with, their fix it and forget it mission they had when entering the extraordinary world is an illusion.
Writer’s Scene Type: What kind of scene is this? “Allowing the truth/insight to bubble up” or a “Lightbulb” scene.
What does this scene type accomplish within the context of the novel as a whole? It plunges Lily, and by extension the fictional world and all the characters in it, into chaos.
How many people are in the scene? Two on stage, but the prior actions of two offstage characters, Deborah and T.Ray, are influencing Lily’s insights.
Where does the scene take place (location)? In the kitchen of August Boatwright’s house (the pink house). Again, this location isn’t arbitrary. The kitchen is the heart of the home and this particular home represents Lily’s extraordinary world. When Lily leaves the honey house and walks into the pink house she is, in a sense, entering the inmost cave.
What is the power dynamic at play in this scene? May has the power because she’s the one who has information about Deborah Fontanel. Due to her condition, Lily respectfully chooses not to try to take that power from her in this scene. Conscious choice to remain powerless: short term/scene level climax.
- What is the point of conflict, and how does that relate to the characters’ objects of desire? I think it’s all within Lily. There’s a push and pull within her as she puts the pieces of the puzzle together. Lily’s object of desire is to find out more about her mother and this scene is the first time she meets someone who knew her mother when she was alive.
When we analyze a scene we need to answer four story event questions, and identify the five commandments of storytelling. These are covered in detail in Story Grid 101 which is available as a free download from the Story Grid website.
Story Grid Scene Analysis Questions
1. What are the characters literally doing—that is, what are their micro on-the-surface actions?
Lily lies in bed unable to sleep, in oppressive heat, so she is thinking and goes to the kitchen for a drink, where she encounters May, and they have a conversation.
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?
Lily is trying to avoid thinking about her mother. We might also say she’s avoiding the truth.
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?
There are plenty of ways to describe the changes that occur here, for example, Lily cannot sleep and then falls asleep quickly. She is hot and thirsty and then her thirst is quenched. Of course the obvious shift is that Lily is unaware that her mother had stayed in the honey house to awareness. It’s clear that this is the important change, the one we would track in the spreadsheet, but in a scene that isn’t so obvious how can you tell? There are two really useful SG tools.
First, look to the change in the core value for the global genre. Here we’re identifying the global genre as Worldview-Revelation, the value spectrum includes ignorance appearing as wisdom, ignorance, cognitive dissonance, knowledge, and wisdom.
I identify the shift as Suppressed Truth to Truth Revealed.
The second tool is the turning point progressive complication, which we’ll look at in a moment. Identify what’s at stake when that happens, and you’ll have a strong clue to the change that really matters in the scene.
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.
Lily can’t sleep in the oppressive heat, and to suppress thoughts about her mother, she goes to the kitchen, but instead of suppressing her suspicions, she asks May if Deborah Fontanel had ever stayed there, and May replies, yes.
Questions 1-3 help us craft the Story Event which we’ll enter in the Story Grid Spreadsheet. This sums up what’s happening, the point of conflict, and what changes, so it’s a useful summary of what happens in the scene. The Five Commandments show how we enact or execute the Story Event.
So you can see how we can use this as a tool to analyze (a masterwork or our own work in progress), but also to plan or outline a scene when we have an idea of what the characters are doing, what the main conflict is, and what needs to change to keep the story moving.
Story Grid Five Commandment Analysis
Inciting Incident: Lily goes into the kitchen for a cold drink and discovers May sitting on the floor with graham crackers and marshmallows, claiming to have seen a cockroach.
- May’s past behaviour causes Lily to miss the significance of May’s current actions.
- Lily is so hot, she can only focus on getting a cold drink.
Turning Point Progressive Complication: May says that she luring the roaches out of the house; this is exactly what Deborah used to do.
Crisis: Does Lily ask “Crazy May” if she knew Deborah Fontanel, or not?
Climax: Lily asks May.
Resolution: May confirms that she knows Deborah, and that Deborah used to live in the same honey house that Lily currently inhabits.
WHAT’S SPECIAL ABOUT THIS SCENE?
I think this scene is a great model for dramatizing big moments of insight. Notice that Lily is trying to resist what she needs to see even as she wants to know more about her mother. When we resist insight, it seems as though everything and everyone in the environment is nudging or shoving us in that direction. The phrase what we resist persists comes to mind.
What does that look like practically, though?
We have the heat, and if you’ve never been in 104 degree heat, 40 degrees for our friends used to Celsius, it is oppressive, and without air conditioning, you can’t escape it. It’s hard to do anything but think or obsess. It’s a physical manifestation of the forces of antagonism weighing Lily down.
Notice how she establishes the setting and then gives us a little story about the boy with the steel plate in his head to chew on while we go through what could feel like a monotonous setting.
Middle Build One Turning Point: This scene is the turning point of Middle Build One of the novel. In Action Story: The Primal Genre, Shawn broke the middle build down into two sections, and in season 7 of the Roundtable podcast, I studied how that breakdown applied to stories in various genres. Those were all films though, so behind the scenes I’ve been applying it to novels, and I thought that the MB1 Turning Point scene of The Secret Life of Bees, which is a global Internal Genre story, was worthy of a closer look.
In global external genre stories, the commandment scenes are typically easier to identify. This is especially true in films because big scenes, like the turning point, are right in front of our eyes. Sometimes, identifying them in novels and global internal genres stories can be more challenging because it’s much more subtle.
This is a short scene and it’s quite subtle. It’s rather quiet. But, it’s still the MB1TP and as such it’s the point when the protagonist descends into chaos, and when that happens, the entire world and everyone in it descends into chaos too. One side note: so far in my study, I’ve noticed that the MB1 Crisis, Climax and Resolution happen fairly quickly after the TP. I’m certain there are examples where this isn’t the case, but in the contemporary works I’ve looked at so far this is the case. In The Secret Life of Bees, the end of MB1 and the beginning of MB2 overlap a little bit, but MB1 still clues up relatively quickly.
Internal Conflict and Character Revelation: Sue Monk Kidd could have had Lily press May for details about Deborah. That would have created external conflict that would have been easy for us to spot. However, remember that characters aren’t developed, they’re revealed through their actions under pressure. Lily is a 14-year-old girl who believes that her mother abandoned her because she’s unlovable. She constantly lies and hates herself for it. Her self-image is very negative because the world she’s grown up in has made her feel unworthy. In this scene, we see how thoughtful and caring she really is, even if she doesn’t yet realize it herself.
May is a tortured soul. She feels life’s pressures keenly. When she’s beginning to slide into her darkness, she begins by singing ‘Oh! Suzanna’ and then goes to her wailing wall to regroup. This scene happens in the middle of the book. Lily has been looking for information about her mother for ten years. She’s run away from home at great risk to herself, and Rosaleen, to find information. This scene represents the first time Lily finds someone who knew her mother. She could press May, she could shout and scream and put her own needs and wants first, but she doesn’t. Lily puts May’s needs ahead of her own.
Small Turning Points with Big Impact: I’m often asked what constitutes a turning point and the answer is, it depends on the story you’re writing. When we’re learning the craft, we lean toward big, dramatic (and cinematic) turning points because (1) those are easier to identify in other stories, (2) we’re so used to watching film and television, that we try to copy in prose what we’ve seen in image, (3) turning points have a big impact so we want to make them big scenes.
When people are learning to play an instrument, sooner or later they learn about tempo and dynamics. A common mistake is to couple speed with volume. So, when a student has to play loudly they also play quickly, and when they have to play softly they also play slowly. Tempo and dynamics are two different things though, and that’s what we’re talking about here.
A scene doesn’t have to be loud/overt to increase the pace of the narrative. Here we have a very quiet scene in which most of the drama is within the character. And yet, it adds jet fuel to the novel. (IMO, MB1 is kind of slow. But from this point forward we’ve just got to know how it turns out.)
Leslie: To create a rich and satisfying experience for the reader, we need to be willing to pay attention to and reconsider the story details that come to us in the form of inspiration.
Valerie: Remember that there’s a difference between tempo and dynamics. Conflict don’t have to be externalized to create a powerful scene. Sometimes subtlety, or the quiet moments in a story, can have as much or more impact than the loud, overt scenes.
Your Writers’ Room editors are Valerie Francis, specializing in stories by, for and about women, and Leslie Watts who helps fiction and nonfiction writers craft epic stories that matter.
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