An Insightful Question from a Storyfix Reader

And hopefully, an answer that will empower you.

I make a lot of noise (both in my book and here) about “mission-driven” storytelling.  Especially “mission-driven” scene development.

The bottom line is this: every scene should have an expositional mission.  Meaning, it delivers one piece of story that propells the narrative forward.  Think of your story as a puzzle… that moment of exposition in a scene is a piece of that puzzle.

If you have too many expositional pieces in a scene — two is often too many — the scene isn’t optimized.

Storyfix reader Gary MacLoud wasn’t exactly confused about the concept… but he did ask a very reasonable and important question about how this mission-driven context relates to characterization… which also a goal of every scene.

A bit of a can of worms.  So let’s discuss.

Here’s how Gary positioned the question:

I have been reading your Story Engineering book, and I am finding it a fascinating read. It’s great to see you expand on things I have read on your site over the last few years. However, one thing I am having difficulty with is understanding mission-driven scene writing. I understand that you want to always just have one mission you are working towards with each particular scene, but when you brought characterization into the mix and started talking about primary and secondary missions of a scene, I began to get confused.

I think I understand that we should always have two things in mind when crafting a scene – advancing plot and advancing characterization. More often than not we are simply advancing plot and the particular piece of plot information that is uncovered during the scene is the thing we have been ‘driving towards’, but should we still ensure characterization is maintained or advanced alongside this? If we are showing the reader something about the character, such as in DeMille’s The Lion second scene, does that mean we can’t uncover a particularly important piece of plot information in the same scene?

If we have an important point to make about the character, and an important piece of plot information to uncover, we can’t have them in the same scene because we would be driving towards two missions for that scene. Is that correct?

Or is it always a case of there is a primary mission and a secondary mission, either one being plot related or character related, but sometimes the characterization is stronger than the plot and that is obvious to the reader, so character is primary, and sometimes plot is stronger than the characterization, therefore plot becomes primary. Therefore, it becomes a case of which mission, primary or secondary, we want to apply more weight to in a scene, but both are most definitely needed. If this is the case, could you provide a brief example of primary and secondary missions in this manner in a scene.

This was my response:

Hi Gary — great questions.  And your take in the final paragraph is very solid.  The fact that you even notice a sense of flexibility in these principles (which I admit were put out there, or could be perceived, as rather inflexible) is a great sign that your inner storyteller is flexing.
At a professional level of anything, fundamentals are largely inflexible.  We should teach beginners about principles with this as context.  Michael Jordan can shoot a free throw with his eyes closed, Josh Groban can “speak” a lyric without holding to the melody, a painter can throw in a secret message… but one must earn one’s stripes to make this work.  It’s not about “having a right” to do something out of the box (because this is “art” after all), but rather, having the skill and sensiblity to allow it to work within the sequence of the narrative, without becoming  disruption, a break in the rhythm or otherwise taking one’s eye off the expositional ball.

In other words, there are “general fundamentals” that become default contexts.  In scene writing, they are: always be true to (or further) characterization, and deliver a piece of story exposition that moves the story forward.
If a moment of characterization does, in fact, move the story forward, then THAT becomes the scene’s mission.  If it simply illustrates characterization that is already in place, then without an expositional revelation the scene becomes moot.  You can get away with this once or twice in story, but a pattern of character-only scenes quickly becomes a deal killer.
These decisions are the art of it all.  Characterization is like interior decorating in a fine restauant… it only goes so far if the food isn’t right.  But it can also define and differentiate.  People come for both reasons, and you need to serve both.
Sorry my answer isn’t more precise, but the question is bigger than that.  Thanks for asking, hope this helps.

Feel free to chime in on this.

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Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

12 Responses to An Insightful Question from a Storyfix Reader

  1. I’d also like to chime in for Gary’s sake.

    It is possible to over analyze the process when in reality, and practice, the story needs to flow. While each scene should have a mission, or many depending on the plot layers, it is the overall story that matters in the final draft. Without a level of competency and professionalism, you can be a one-book-wonder. With a level of competency and professionalism you can understand that your masterpiece floundered because of bad marketing. Learn, then grow as an author.

    Gary, when you write a story you are making a promise to your audience that the overall experience will be good. Whatever your reason to write the story, why ever you chose to take the story journey, is your own way. The more you nit pick on process the more you take the chance you are flattening the flavor of your story. That jeopardizes the potential of your story reaching an audience. As trite and often repeated the phrase may be, when it comes to story, sometimes you have to go-with-the-flow.

    There’s a lot of great stories beloved by global audiences, some of them are even well written. It’s very important to be aware the masters, like DeMille, didn’t have a whole lot of processes and analysis to study. They wrote. And for those of us today we need to draw a line regarding how much perfection is required, and just write.

  2. Larry – Thanks for the extremely valuable post. Scene execution can be a powerful nemesis to many writers and I am one of them. I’ve recently added sections to my beat-sheet that state each scene’s goals in terms of plot and character. (Doing so seemed like such an obvious task that I wondered why I hadn’t done so early on. Then I remembered that I didn’t have a clue about story milestones and therefore didn’t know where I was going!)

    Anyway, the planning definitely strengthened the plot and gave me a better feel for how the character arcs (both hero and villain) could be demonstrated. Still, instinct tells me that my scenes could be stronger, express more emotional impact, contain sharper subtly… Like everything else about storytelling, it’s a journey to education and mastery.

  3. Lori – I’d like to propose something in response to your comment. While it’s necessary to go with the flow during any creative process, it’s important to note that stories have varying degrees of complexity – and thus require various levels of thought and planning to execute.

    An example: Scene execution intertwines with character at an astounding level. If you want to show that a character is succumbing to demonic possession, for example, you had better have a good hold on who that character is before the demon strikes. This includes his back story and what made him susceptible to the evil foe in the first place. Then, by analyzing each scene and moment of the story within the milestones you can better see who he is at each of those moments. As the internal challenges and antagonistic force grows, the character evolves. Likewise, he presents his symptoms in different ways and at an increasing intensity.

    Some writers might be able to nail this tricky kind of storytelling by going with the flow. They must be far more talented me because I need to stay up late and think about it. I have no choice but to nit-pick. Like you said, it’s the overall story that matters and I want it be one that leaves people breathless, double checking their doors at night and even looking under the bed with a flashlight.

    Oddly enough, this hasn’t hindered word count. It’s improved it – dramatically. Just my thoughts. Hope to hear yours back.

  4. Terri Osburn

    This paragraph left me with a question.

    “If a moment of characterization does, in fact, move the story forward, then THAT becomes the scene’s mission. If it simply illustrates characterization that is already in place, then without an expositional revelation the scene becomes moot. You can get away with this once or twice in story, but a pattern of character-only scenes quickly becomes a deal killer.”

    So, if you have a moment of characterization that DOES move the story forward, you should then avoid also having an expositional revelation in that same scene? (And vice versa, obviously.) You don’t want two elements pushing the story at the same time?

  5. I’m trying to polish a short story for an anthology and needed to be reminded of this principle. It’s bad enough when a scene in a novel meanders, but there’s no room in a short story for even one pointless paragraph.

    Following the principles of story engineering keeps me focused so the story can flow. As a former seat-of-the-pants writer, I fought the idea of outlining until I had to start working under the constraints of actual deadlines.

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge and insights.

    Thank you!

  6. My interpretation is that scenes can – and should when possible – develop characterization AND move the story forward. I believe this excerpt from a scene in my Civil War novel, The War Between the Hearts, exemplifies this. Sarah-Bren Coulter knows the Virginia battle areas well from her childhood days and has decided to solicit work as a scout for the Union Army in the guise of a man. She informs her brother, Scott, and their friends, Colonel Theo Showell and his brother, Captain Phillip Showell. Scott is arguing against it. Sarah’s decision and her determination move her characterization forward, and the exposition – mostly accomplished through dialogue – moves the plot forward.

    Theo stood a little straighter. “Thank goodness Grant’s been successful. He’s chased the Confederates clean out of Kentucky. But you’re right about Jackson. It would help a lot if we knew where his army would hit next. He’s a wily one. He makes up his own rules of engagement.”

    “Trouble is, we need more reliable information about the Rebel troop movements,” Phillip said.

    [Sarah informs them of her intention to help with this, and Scott argues that she shouldn’t do it.]

    Sarah plunged ahead. “This fighting has been going on for more than a year, and every family on this street has sent someone to serve. All except us.” A wisp of disappointment crossed Scott’s features. Everyone knew he wanted to be a part of the Union Army, just as Theo and Phillip were, but the government requested that he stay at his position as director of Coulter Foundry.

    Sarah’s demeanor softened. “Look, Scott, I realize you have to stay here to run the foundry. Making cannons and ammunition is essential to the war effort. But I don’t have to be here.” Her hands formed into fists and her voice grew harsh. “I don’t have to be anywhere. I’m not making any difference in this war, and I want to. I need to. I’m sick of sitting back and doing so little.”

    This is a small part of the scene, but I think it displays how a scene can fulfill more than one purpose. Scenes can be purposely built to do this, and they will keep the writing exciting and enticing.

    Hope this example helps.

  7. Loyd Jenkins

    This discussion reminded me of another post on plotting comic books, and how to make a story entertaining. He took a page from Howard Hawks and the movie Rio Bravo. It boiled down to hiding plot elements by making each scene do two things: action scenes should also show something about character; conversation should have some action or movement mixed in; exposition should be done in a humorous or confrontational way. (

    I feel that scenes should follow this, in not being on the nose, but being more entertaining than that. Adding characterization to the mission of the scene makes it a better read. It also keeps subtext where it belongs, in the background.

  8. I really enjoyed terri patrick’s comment about “just write.” I get so stuck in the rules of storytelling, that it often cripples me from writing my story. This is an awesome post! The “mission-driven” scene must mean the writer should not over-do it and throw in a bunch of junk, but be selective in what they choose. Too much will hurt the scene. Adding nothing does nothing. One goal for one scene, and if you can put some characterization into the mix and it advances the story, great! Just write! Right?

  9. spinx

    What is a really important moment of characterization that drives the plot forward?

    Give me examples!!!!!! WHip it!

    (good question indeed…)

  10. @spinx — when a scene’s sole mission is to characterize, it’s almost always most effective in the Part 1 quartile of the story. It’s all set-up there, so we need to know things about the character that become contextual and dramatic once the full conflict kicks in. After that point (usually plot point 1, which is where the full drama ensues), any scenes that are solely devoted to character (unless they are short) tend to slow things down, hit the pause button. Those scenes should be expositional in nature.

    An example is from the hunger games. Before the first plot point, Collins takes into the past with Katniss simply to show us who she is, what she is capable of in the wild (self-sufficiency), and to set-up certain dynamics with other characters. All of this is a side-trip from the main thrust of Part 1, which is the day of the Reaping, before, during and after. Notice that there are almost no scenes after PP1 that are exclusively missioned for internal characterization, they all forward the plot, which includes her emerging relationship with Peeta.

    I’ll soon (very) be deconstructing this book, I invite you to read it or see the film (if you haven’t) and hop aboard. Hope this helps — L.

  11. spinx


    Forget the wip – you just helped me out a great deal here. I don´t even know where to——-ah, forget that!

    The thing is, you always feel that something is not going the way it should, but the lack of skill keeps you from ever getting it.

    And – DAMN IT – that was my mistake!
    I never gave the characters a try – not the way I should have. YOu are very right! From now on, I will let the plot relevant elements in the background.

    I will follow that one up; boy will I ever!!

    The story will start with character, attack with plot, and leave with character.

    Thanks, Larry…….just, thank you, so damn much……….I know, I sound like a silly fool saying that – BUT, how else do you show your graditude to someone who gives so much advice and freetime for some losers who just so happened to stumble upon this site?

    Thank you………………………….hohohoho, plus, I bought two of your books; now that makes me feel a lot better.

    peace out ;T

  12. LOL @ spinx! I love it that someone else doesn’t quite know how to express their gratitude for the light bulbs that keep going on around here. 🙂 Larry just keeps drawing us pictures and making valid, usable points.