Monday, March 11, 2019

Dissection: Anatomy of a Scene

-snaps rubber glove-

Hello, my most peculiar posse. My inexplicable assembly. My curious congregation. I'm in a mood, today, if you couldn't tell.

Today we're going to be dissecting scenes.

Content Warning: This product can expose you to chemicals including a (presumably) healthy dose of irreverence, the aberrant ideals of plot structure and a less than 3% chance of detonating into a cloud of vaguely human-colored mist.

Let's dive in, shall we?




So scenes. What do we know about them? We know bigger stories are made up of them. A novel is a series of linear scenes culminating in a special scene called the "climax". Much like lovemaking is a series of movements culminating in a special rush of chemicals called the "climax". The biggest difference between these two things is that even if you're not lazy and determined, hitting a satisfying climax in a novel is a pretty difficult feat to accomplish.

Think about it, though, because it's not a bad metaphor; if you're having a good time in the sack and suddenly your partner grabs the extra skin on your elbow, and that isn't a partialism for you, you're going to be like "whoa dude, what?"

Similarly, a scene that doesn't belong in your novel is likely to throw your reader wide. Pull them out of the action. My mentor, Mary McFarland, just gave a wonderful presentation about this. The "everything fits together and belongs in the same work" thing. Apparently this is called 'unity', and that was my thing I learned for the day.

For the unity of a story, your scenes should all touch the main plot in some way, and prove they belong there. If you're furthering the plot, great. If you're developing a character involved in that plot, also great. If it was just Character C's "turn" and you wanted to write something with them so they're baking a pie for some reason, not so great.

Yes, even if bats fly out of it when you cut it open.

I mean, unless that's the plot. If you're writing about a magical goth bakery and that bat-spawning pie is a trojan horse gift for a cruel food critic that is trying to put the bakery out of business with poor reviews...or something like that.



What is a Scene?

It's characters, on screen, doing something, right?

Not quite.

A scene is like a small chunk of story. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. It has a character who wants something. It has something in the way of the character getting what they want. It ends with a yes or a no. Depending on the kind of scene it is, it either springs off of what was set up before it, or offers a springboard for what is to come after, or both.

Now, make sure to hold your scalpels with a steady grip. We're about to make the first cut.

A scene has a beginning, a middle and an end - Your scene starts when a character with a goal makes their first push toward accomplishing it. Your scene ends when it becomes clear whether or not they are going to get it. Every push and pull about that goal, comes in the middle.

It has a character who wants something. - If no one wants anything, there isn't enough friction in your scene. Someone has an agenda. That agenda basically is the scene.

It has something in the way of the character getting what they want. - When you're making love you rub the naughty bits, create friction, and create pleasure. When you write, you rub the conflict-y bits, create friction, and create pleasure. Conflict is the life blood of any story.

"I want this." "No, sorry, you can't have it."

As long as that goes on, you have a scene. If they get what they're after too easily there is no story.

It ends with a yes or a no.- Oh yes, it can be either. At any point. I know I just got done saying 'if they get what they want too easily you have no story', and that's true; but there's the fun part.

Sometimes, what they want something smaller in order to get the bigger thing they want. Yes. A+, go on right ahead. Many a good plot line has been built on the acquisition of smaller macguffins.

Sometimes, it's the end of the story and the story ends well, and they get what they want because that's how the story ends.

Sometimes, it's the beginning of the story, and they get what they want. And then they learn it wasn't what they thought it was and they didn't really want it after all.

Springs off of what was set up. - You look at what you already have, find a spring point, and use it. The Huntsman has just refused to kill Snow White and bring her heart back to the Wicked Queen. He cuts out the heart of a stag, instead.

From this scene:

-Snow White could want to get out of the kingdom; his terms were that she run and never come back. Unfortunately there's a retinue of her own guards on the road, that are very likely in the Queen's pocket. Can she hide from them? Is she going to build a pit trap and leave in the chaos? Can she possibly get them back on her side?

-The Huntsman has to deliver that heart. What happens when the queen starts to realize it's a fake? "This is rather large for a teenaged girl's heart." "She had horrible cholesterol my lady, that's what happens when mice bring you sweets all the time."

-Perhaps a local fey spirit is enraged by the slaying of the stag and brings an unseasonable storm to the area, making Snow White's passage more dangerous and driving most of the game in the area back into their dens.

The only scenes that don't have to springboard off of what is already there have their own sorts of rules to follow. Those scenes are called "Beginnings". We're going to get back to that in another blog.

Offers a springboard for the next scene. - You know what you're doing in this scene. Great. Just realize that if you don't leave any loose ends there will be nothing to pick up in the next scene.

Let's go with "The Huntsman Delivering the Heart".



We're springboarding off of him cutting out the heart of a stag. Our scene begins when he brings the heart to the queen. He really has to sell this or it could mean the end of his life.

The Queen weighs the heart and she is suspicious because it is so large.

The Huntsman, who has decided he's not in a comedy story, tells her "you should have expected so much from Snow White, a smaller heart could not hold so much care."

The Queen purses her lips. She doesn't like that. After all, in her eyes Snow White is a wicked, selfish child who kept all of her father's love to herself and now stands between her and a throne.

"I suppose," she says. But in her heart she doesn't want it to be true. Were she not so selfish she might just accept it, but she is, so she turns to the magic mirror and asks what can be done with a heart like this.

"The heart of a stag," the mirror says, because he cannot tell a lie. "If you manage to get a man to eat every bite of it he will fall irrevocably in love with you."

And now the Queen knows the Huntsman has lied to her. And the Huntsman knows that she knows. And he is standing in her evil tower having handed her exactly what she needed to control his loyalty forever.

And they both know what happens next.



What are our springboards here?

-The Queen obviously just made the Huntsman eat that heart. The next time she sends him after Snow White, he isn't merely following a royal command. He's doing what the woman he loves desperately needs him to do.

-The Queen now knows what can be done with a stags heart. She might post a bounty on them. The loving loyalty of every guard in the keep is a tempting prize...and after all isn't that what she's always wanted? Love?

-The Huntsman has now fallen under a curse. True Love's Kiss can break any curse, no matter how potent it is. Perhaps there are other ways. He cannot lay a hand on the queen, but if you've ever been in a bad relationship you know first hand how easy it is to love and hate someone in equal measure.

Once again, you can get away without leaving a springboard if you are writing a very special kind of scene that doesn't have to. An ending. And we'll get back to that in another blog as well, but let me mention really quick, if you're ending a subplot, that's fine too. It doesn't have to be the whole end of the story as long as it's the end of /a/ story.


Story Beats

One last point and then we're done, my darlings. -snaps that glove one more time for the joy of it-

Scene beats happen with any significant change to the momentum of the scene. Character A wants something. Character B wants something else. They back and forth about this. Sometimes Character A will be pushing for something and sometimes character B will, and every time that changes, you're entering into a new beat.

And in fact that is how we just outlined the scene where the Huntsman brings the heart to the Queen.

Let's take that scene for dissection.


Our scene begins when he brings the heart to the queen. He really has to sell this or it could mean the end of his life. [Starting beat-the Huntsman is the push here. He wants the Queen to believe him.]

The Queen weighs the heart and she is suspicious because it is so large. [Beat. She doesn't believe him. She puts the burden back on him to prove it.]

The Huntsman, who has decided he's not in a comedy story, tells her "you should have expected so much from Snow White, a smaller heart could not hold so much care." [Beat. It isn't a bad lie, but it puts the burden of believing him back onto the Queen.]

The Queen purses her lips. She doesn't like that. After all, in her eyes Snow White is a wicked, selfish child who kept all of her father's love to herself and now stands between her and a throne.

"I suppose," she says. But in her heart she doesn't want it to be true. Were she not so selfish she might just accept it, but she is, so she turns to the magic mirror and asks what can be done with a heart like this. [Beat. It isn't a bad lie. It's just not the lie you would tell to /her/. So she puts the burden on a third party.]

"The heart of a stag," the mirror says, because he cannot tell a lie. "If you manage to get a man to eat every bite of it he will fall irrevocably in love with you." [Beat. The mirror has to speak the truth. That is a part of his curse. And it changes the course of the scene.]

And now the Queen knows the Huntsman has lied to her. And the Huntsman knows that she knows. And he is standing in her evil tower having handed her exactly what she needed to control his loyalty forever.

And they both know what happens next. [End beat. The Queen secures the Huntsman's loyalty with the lie he brought her.]

They're not always going to be this short, and in fact mostly won't. Sometimes the jostling will be faster paced. But the big sweeps, the passing back and forth of the burden of proof; that's a beat. And there isn't a specific rule for how many beats to a scene.

Alright, that's enough for now, I'll see you on Thursday <3

Fortune Favors,
Megan R. Miller

No comments:

Post a Comment