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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