As Shawn Coyne always says, stories are about change. There has to be a change in every unit from the global story down to the micro beat. This applies to writing scenes as well.
But how do you do that?
The short answer is to make sure every unit turns on at least one value and includes The Five Commandments of Storytelling that Shawn talks about again and again. In outline form, the commandments are as follows:
- Inciting Incident
- Progressive Complication
- Active Turning Point
- Revelatory Turning Point
- The Best Bad Choice
- Irreconcilable Goods
But what does all of that mean and how does it fit in to your story?
The Five Commandments are the elements that build story. Without them, a story will have no life. These elements are what knock a character out of their routine, make situations worse, ask them to make a choice, and resolve that choice. If you don’t include these elements, your story won’t move. Whether you like it or not, these are the integral materials that combine to create every unit of story.
These elements ignite and track the change.
Change is usually obvious at that global story level. The story starts at one point and ends at another. A character experiences conflict and by the end, makes a change from one value to another. They learn a lesson. The events of the story have changed their way of thinking and, thus, their entire lives.
But, to make every other unit work, there must be changes occurring there too. Starting with the global story, which breaks down to subplots, to acts, sequences, scenes, and finally beats. Every unit of story must include a change of some sort.
Rather than spinning your wheels unnecessarily, we’ll focus on writing scenes because it is the building block of a story. Keep in mind, however, that all the commandments must be included at each level.
Writing Scenes that Work
Per Shawn’s Pride and Prejudice Story Grid edition, a story event is an active change of life value for one or more characters as a result of conflict and a working scene contains at least one story event.
Once again: stories are about change. More specifically, stories are about change motivated through conflict, and the change is designated by a shift of a story value.
According to Robert McKee, story values are the universal qualities of human experience that may shift from positive to negative, or negative to positive, from one moment to the next. For example: alive/dead, love/hate, wisdom/stupidity are all story values that may change from one to the other and back again.
These values must shift from the start of each scene to its end in order for a change to have occurred. For example, in Harry Potter, when Harry gets to go to the zoo with his cousin the scene shifts from left out to included as well as from normal to weird. There are many ways to interpret a scene, so don’t get worked up about finding all the changes. Whichever you choose here, it’s obvious that something has happened. Harry is not the same boy living under the stairs. And those changes promise to be paid off in a larger way later on.
So, every scene must contain a shift of a value on one position on a value’s spectrum to another. If there is no shift in value, the words you’ve written do not equate to a scene. They are exposition or description or scene setting or just plain rambling.
But how do The Five Commandments create change?
Each of The Five Commandments serve as components to create the change… they are akin to the mixing of elements and energy to create molecules. When writing scenes that work, you must have all five commandments. Two atoms of hydrogen plus one atom of oxygen results in one molecule of water. Similarly an inciting incident plus progressive complications turn into a crisis which leads to a climax and the net effect is a resolution.
The Inciting Incident kicks off each scene. At its most basic concept, an inciting incident must upset the life balance of a lead protagonist(s). Whether it’s for good or ill, the inciting incident makes your protagonist feel uncomfortably out of sync. It asks them to look at reality in a new way, to readjust to new information, or to settle in to uncomfortable circumstances.
There are two ways to frame an inciting incident: Causal or Coincidental. In either case, the inciting incident gets the story or scene going and makes a promise to the reader of what’s to come. Causal inciting incidents are the result of active choices a character makes. A wife leaves her husband, a boy chooses to trust a girl, a character faces their antagonist head on. Coincidental inciting incidents occur when something happens by chance, or randomly. A train arrives a half hour late, a boy comes home to the parent he didn’t want to meet first, a woman grabs the wrong suitcase at the airport.
To excite a reader, write inciting incidents that hook them and make big promises. Just remember to pay them off…that is resolve them clearly in a way that has changed the character by the end of the scene or if it’s a huge inciting incident (the one that will begin the entire story) by the end of the story. Also, fulfill the expectation in an unexpected way. When the reader expects one thing, give them something else so that they don’t see what’s coming. Mix up causal and coincidental inciting incidents throughout a story. So long as every scene contains an inciting incident, something meaningful has potential to happen. And when that potential is in every scene…the reader will keep reading.
Progressive Complications are the escalating degrees of conflict that the protagonist faces. To test whether or not each complication builds in intensity (and this should be the case for both successes and difficulties), assign each complication a number from 1 to 10 and track the numbers. And yes your subjective interpretation is valuable. If your complications never make it higher than a 5, you know things aren’t really going anywhere.
Turning Points are the peak progressive complications of a unit of story. These are the highest complications in the scene when the character is presented with fresh information that pushes them to a crisis (revelatory turning points) or someone or something actively forces the character into a crisis. The character is forced to react. Turning points drive the complications to a point of no return. They can be active or passive. Active turning points are turned on character action while passive turning points turn on revelation.
Without escalating degrees of conflict reaching a point where the character has to react, a scene will be boring. It will feel like nothing is happening. And, without tension, no change will occur. To surprise readers, vary the types of turning points you use in your work and make sure the complications build to a point of no return, or when the protagonist can no longer return to the way things used to be. This will resonate with your readers because it forces your characters to make a choice and that will drive meaningful change.
The definable dilemmas that a character faces must coalesce into a question that offers a choice between two options, or a Crisis. A crisis asks a character to make a decision (and, yes, choosing not to act is still a choice). Making a decision is the only way to show who a character is. Who we really are as human beings is revealed by what WE DO not what WE SAY.
How boring would it be to follow the life of a character who spent every day doing the things we do? Wake up, get ready, go to work, come home, get ready for the next day. Yes, it’s essential we follow our routines or we risk losing our jobs/livelihood which could lead to even greater complications later on. But, having a character who doesn’t make any drastic choices will leave the reader feeling like they don’t know the character no matter how well described their features are.
Character is action. We make a choice and we execute a choice that results in change. Action leads to plot. Plot is the sequential events of a story. The events are created by inciting incident, complications, crisis, climax, and resolution. It’s all connected.
There are two ways to force your character’s choice: Best Bad Choices or Irreconcilable Goods. Basically, they boil down to how the situations fare for the character and those around them. Are both choices seemingly terrible or do they both seem good but for different characters? Chances are the first is a best bad choice and the second is irreconcilable goods. Either way, a decision has to be made. Will a starving vegetarian eat fish or meat if those are the only two foods available? Will I take the last piece of pizza or let someone else have it?
And the answer to these decisions is the active choice of the character, the Climax. Climax is the truth of the character. Do they say one thing only to turn around and do another at the last possible second? Do they put in the work they say they will? The choices a character makes usually build throughout a story, but at a scene level must still occur. Choices define who the character is and, in order for change to occur (whether internally or externally), active choices must be made.
A Resolution is the necessary followup to everything that has happened before it. It doesn’t have to be long, but in order to feel like a story was completed, a resolution must be included and compelling. Resolutions shouldn’t be summations of the prior events, but don’t exclude a resolution altogether. They should instead let the reader know what the climax of the story means and how the worldview has shifted because of it.
The Importance of Story
I don’t know about you, but I believe the only way to bring about meaningful change in the world is to first be shown how to change through story. Stories show us how to love, what decisions we should/could have made, and let us try out various situations from the comfort of our own homes. They teach us what to do and what not to do. And, they are important on a level way beyond that of pure entertainment, though we can pretend that’s the only case.
Writing scenes that work means hitting all five commandments of story telling. You’ll need inciting incidents that knock a protagonist out of their normal. Progressive complications that build tension until they are given a choice and forced to make a decision. A choice that defines who they are and must be answered. And an answer that will lead to a resolution and a new way of looking at the world. Without any of these elements, a piece of writing is not a scene. Scenes have to move and change has to occur because meaningful change is the whole purpose of a story.