It can be easy to assume that writing a story is just about getting words on the page. After all, we've read and watched and listened to so many stories that creating one can't be difficult, right?
In today's article, Valerie Francis breaks down the elements of a scene.
Scenes are the foundational building blocks of story and when they work, readers are hooked. They devour the book and then they recommend it to their friends. As authors, this is exactly what we want. So, how do you write a scene that works? The theory is pretty easy to understand but, fair warning, the execution takes practice.
Quite a bit has already been written about this in Shawn Coyne’s book, The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know, on the Story Grid website (here and here) and on the flagship Story Grid podcast (here and here). Joanna has also interviewed Shawn Coyne about the Story Grid here.
I urge you to check out these resources, but as a quick overview, here are:
The Five Commandments of Storytelling
Inciting Incident: Something has to happen to knock the protagonist off course. It can be big or small, but there must be something to upset the status quo.
Progressive Complication(s): The important thing to remember here is that complications must be progressive; the stakes must be constantly raised and they must build to a turning point. The turning point is the peak complication in the scene. It’s when the character can no longer deny the need to act.
Crisis: Realizing he must act, the character asks himself, “what will I do now?” The choice will inevitably be between two good things (where choosing one means losing the other; the character can’t have it all), or two bad things (he’ll lose either way but must decide which is the lesser of the two evils).
Climax: The character makes his choice and acts on it.
Resolution: Once the action in the scene is over, the reader – and the character – needs time to metabolize what has just happened.
Scenes that work keep readers reading
So, if you’ve got a book in Kindle Unlimited and want more page reads, one of the things you can do is analyze your scenes to make sure all five commandments are in place. Since stories are a series of scenes strung together, for a reader to stay engaged every scene in your book needs to work. Long passages of exposition and/or shoe leather (irrelevant information) make readers lose interest in a story.
Writers often shrug off this advice. After all, exposition is much easier to write and plenty of books have it, but it’s a risky strategy in today’s marketplace. Since exposition is an information dump, nothing actually happens. There is no tension and no conflict. Without tension and conflict, a story is dead in the water.
Our job, as authors, is to tell an engaging story. Our fans give us their hard-earned money in exchange for a novel that will capture their imaginations. We’re competing for their attention — not with other books, but with Netflix, cell phones and television. We simply can’t afford to give them long passages where nothing happens.
People don’t become emotionally involved with prose.
The connection happens with characters and the struggles they’re going through. The five commandments are a way of structuring a scene so that readers empathize and become emotionally involved in our stories.
To illustrate what I mean, let’s take a look two scenes; the first from The Hunger Games (novel by Suzanne Collins, screenplay by Gary Ross and Billy Ray) and the second from The King’s Speech (screenplay by David Seidler).
Have a look a this scene from the The Hunger Games.
This is a fairly straightforward scene near the beginning of the story. It contains all five commandments as follows:
Inciting Incident: It’s the day of the reaping.
Progressive Complication(s): Prim’s name is drawn.
Crisis: Katniss has a choice; she can do nothing and allow her sister to most likely die in the games, or she can volunteer to take Prim’s place and most likely die herself.
Climax: Katniss volunteers to take Prim’s place.
Resolution: The people of District 12 give Katniss a silent three-fingered salute, showing her that they admire her decision.
Note that the selection of Peeta as the second tribute is part of the resolution. It doesn’t serve to progressively complicate this scene because Katniss has already put her life on the line. The fact that she owes Peeta a debt of gratitude pales in comparison. However, it does set up other complications further in the story.
Now have a look at this scene from The King’s Speech.
In terms of the five commandments, this scene breaks down as follows:
Inciting Incident: Lionel arrives for a session with Bertie.
Progressive Complication(s): Bertie confronts Lionel about his credentials, and about his motivation for wanting to work with him, forcing Lionel to defend himself. The turning point comes when Lionel sits in St. Edward’s chair, and in doing so, disrespects King George VI and all the kings who have come before him.
Crisis: Bertie must make a choice between speaking and not speaking. By speaking up, he will be facing his demon; his stammer. By not speaking, he will be allowing a commoner to disrespect not only the throne, but him as reigning monarch.
Climax: Bertie confronts Lionel and demands, as king, to be heard.
Resolution: Bertie claims his voice and with it, his self-respect. He owns his position as King. By finding his voice and facing his demon, he also earns Lionel’s respect.
What a scene is really about
To truly understand Seidler’s mastery of the craft, we need to realize that scenes operate on two levels. There’s the literal action and the essential action.
On the surface (literal action), this scene is about Lionel Logue’s credentials, or lack thereof. Bertie, and the people he answers to (“you have no idea who I have breathing down my neck”) know that Lionel is not a doctor and does not have any official training as a speech therapist.
However, the scene is really about respect (essential action); respect for self, for fellow man and for the crown. While Lionel has a healthy degree of self-respect, Bertie does not. He sees himself as a burden to his people (“you’ve saddled this nation with a voiceless king”), as the source of unhappiness for his family, and mad King George the stammerer. How can he respect himself when he cannot speak for himself?
Lionel, in turn, feels disrespected because the success he’s made with Bertie is cast aside for lack of certification. He’s forced to defend himself and explain why he doesn’t have formal training.
These issues serve to progressively complicate the scene and the turning point comes when Lionel sits in St. Edward’s chair; an act Bertie interprets as disrespect for the crown. An act he will not tolerate.
Bertie has sacrificed everything for the monarchy. He’s living a life he doesn’t want and has taken on responsibility he never bargained for. He did it from a deep sense of obligation and respect for the institution; items like St. Edward’s chair, represent the royal family. They represent everything Bertie holds dear.
It’s this second level of meaning, the essential action, that the audience engages with.
We empathize with these characters. We can relate to them because we’ve been in similar situations. We may not be kings and queens, but we know what it feels like to be disrespected, or to feel as though we’ve been made fools of.
The audience may not even be consciously aware of the essential level of action, but they feel it nonetheless. They react to it on an emotional level because it connects to something deep within them.
If this is something you want to achieve with your novel, craft the five commandments around the essential action of the scene. For more about literal and essential action click here.
While both scenes work and contain the five commandments of storytelling, The Hunger Games example operates on the literal level only. It turns on the value of life and death, and it does a great job of setting up the rest of the story. It’s a wonderful book, was a highly publicized (and high budget) film and fan favourite.
The scene from The King’s Speech goes deeper. With a comparatively low budget, it became popular due to word of mouth and in the end grossed nearly $400 million. The story, with its essential action and subtle value shifts, resonated so much with people, that it got them talking.
That’s the difference between stories that operate on the superficial (or literal) level and those that go deeper. We’re entertained by Katniss and her adventure, but we empathize with Bertie. When he’s standing in front of a microphone, and is unable to string three words together, we feel his frustration and mortification.
To engage your audience and keep them reading, you need to write a story that works. That means including the five commandments in each scene, and making decisions about the literal and essential action.
Have you practiced writing a scene using the 5 commandments of storytelling? What's the essential action of the last scene you wrote? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.