One of the stories I was coaching this week had this little wrinkle: the main character’s quest was interrupted by a flashback scene showing the hero as a boy delivering newspapers, falling off his bike and being laughed at by a group of girls standing on the opposite corner. After that we were back in the thick of the hunt for the adult hero’s blackmailer.
I kept waiting for that flashback scene to connect to the story. It didn’t.
I asked the writer why it was in the story. He said because it had actually happened to him, back in the day, and he’s never forgotten it. Yeah, I countered, but why is it in this story, in which the hero has no issues with women laughing at him.
He said he thought it contributed to characterization. He said he thought it was cool.
It didn’t. It wasn’t.
The scene didn’t have have a purpose in this story. It contributed nothing. It was a misstep, a faulty creative decision on the part of the author. The scene didn’t connect, it didn’t drive the story forward. It was not only a flashback, it was a side-trip.
Side-trips are almost always a bad idea.
I told the writer he needed to cut it. When I told him why, he asked me this: “Gee, can’t I put anything I want into my story?”
My answer: “Yes, you can. But if you want it to be published, and to be successful… then no, you can’t.”
Scenes are always strategic in nature.
When a story works, its scenes have a reason to be. A purposeful mission to fulfill.
The best writing tip I know, if I HAD to boil ‘em all down to just one essential, universally reliable and devastatingly effective piece of conventional wisdom, is this:
Make your scenes read as “mission-driven.” Write them with a specific NARRATIVE purpose in mind. Not just characterization and setting. Not just the passing of time or the execution of logistics that need no explanation.
Have each scene CHANGE the story and the reader’s experience of it, even just a little.
Do this at the story design level — each of the four parts of your story has a unique contextual mission — and at the scene execution level.
Especially at the scene execution level.
Because even if the Big Picture of your story is contextually spot-on, a wandering or pointless scene can drag the whole party into a dark corner. You might get away with one or two weak scenes, but any more than that… that’s like a Shakespearean actor with a speech impediment. The whole suffers from its weakest links.
Scenes are like position players in a violent, constantly moving sport where strategy is as critical as speed and strength. They have a role to play. Imagine a wide receiver running rampant in the open field. An infielder throwing the ball to any base he chooses, regardless of where the runners are.
Imagine one singer in a barbershop quartet suddenly getting it in his head that he should rap.
Imagine a chapter in Harry Potter showing the kids eating lunch. Just that. A bowl of borscht and some chit-chat.
Your scenes own the whole story in their brief moment in the spotlight. Writing a great scene is always a question — a carnal union – of knowing (the mission) and executing (creative narrative choices that determine clarity and effectiveness).
Scenes never stand alone.
Scenes have an implied mission by virtue of where they fall in the story, and are framed by what preceded and what follows. Direct, implied or even delayed connections are required.
If the scene is a major story milestone — hook, inciting incident, first plot point, first pinch point, mid-point, second pinch point, second plot point, major climax, aftermath — it shoulders the weight of the whole thing while spinning the story toward the ensuing, now-shifted narrative path. It functions like a 21st birthday… everything is different after that.
The question you should ask before writing any scene becomes: is this a tent pole, weight-bearing moment of story architecture, or is this scene mere connective tissue, the canvas that bridges one tent pole to another? The answer defines everything about the nature and content of the scene itself.
But always, in both cases, there should be a mission. A purpose beyond character. Some bit of exposition contributed to the story.
That becomes your first and most important question to ask before writing: what is the mission of this scene?
My advice, to both planners and pantsers: don’t write the scene until you know.
Here are more questions you should ask about every scene:
In addition to demonstrating character and setting — something done differently in early scenes versus later scenes, yet is incumbent upon every scene in a contextual sense — what single element of exposition does this scene contribute to the narrative?
Is there, in fact, more than one expositional mission for the scene? There shouldn’t be (one scene showing a car crash and a drug deal and a sexual encounter… not a good idea), especially after Part 1. If so, consider creating separate and sequential scenes, even a series of scenes, to deliver them.
If there is no obvious mission (example: guy intends to break up with girlfriend… so you have a scene of him driving over there… then the next scene — or an extension of the driving scene — actually shows the breakup speech; if the driving scene isn’t necessary, CUT IT), why are you considering this scene at all?
If your scene is there simply to create or reinforce setting and show characterization, or to fill in blanks that the reader is fully capable of filling in themselves, consider adding that context to scenes that DO have q clear narrative mission as their main purpose and point.
Knowing the scene’s mission, you now cut into the scene (begin it) at the last possible moment, avoiding obligatory chit-chat that doesn’t setup the “moment” the scene delivers. In fact, the later into the sequence a scene begins, the better. And the only way to succeed at that is to write it with the point in mind.
Ask: How does the scene CHANGE the story? If it doesn’t, look closer at it.
Is your scene part of a dramatic sequence? Is the sequence broken up by cutaways to another point of view?
Each beat of a sequence that contributes NEW INFORMATION is worthy of its own scene, as is each POV CUTAWAY. A bar fight sequence, for example, showing the action from different points of view, each with something new and unique to chip in (the bartender calls the cops… a guy in the hall pulls a gun… one of the fighters has a brain aneurysm etc.), would in execution play as a series of short punchy scenes, EACH with its own expository mission, each yet connected to the others.
Do you know how to set up a scene to empower the scenes that follow? Know how, and when, each scene connects to the whole.
When a scene CHANGES a story, versus simply adding layers to it, is the new context or direction clear? Does it shift things as you intended? Or does it change it gratuitously, which is rarely a good thing.
Where in the scene does its moment of revelation (fulfillment of the mission) occur? The later the better… even down to the last sentence.
Is the scene for the reader, or for you?
Remember what William Goldman told us… about the need to “kill our darlings.” You can do that in the planning stages, or you can whack them in an edit. Either way, sideshow and non-connected scenes should be axed if they don’t overtly and consciously forward and strengthen the narrative.
That is rarely a happy accident of simply writing along.
The best scenes know precisely why they are there, what they need to contribute to the story at that particular moment in the narrative sequence, and how to frame and deliver that moment, or that fact, or that nuance, to best contribute to the overall storytelling experience.
The best scenes are always contributing to characterization. But, with the possible exception of opening scenes, rarely is characterization the point.
Even pantsers benefit from this. Because you still must face the blank page before you commence writing a scene, and this knowledge gives you an edge: don’t begin it until you have an expository mission in mind. If you’re well into the flow your story, you will.
After the mission is clear… then what?
Once the mission is identified, the questions sound like this: What is the best creative STRATEGY for this scene? Does it leverage previous scenes, and thus remains bound in alignment to them?
Tarantino is a master of this, of the optimization of a scene’s mission. Check out the opening scene in Inglorious Basterds… there is really only a singular narrative mission there, and he takes nine delicious moments to execute it. It wasn’t a “pantsed” scene that finally discovered its purpose (that’s the risk of pantsing, in a nutshell), Quentin knew precisely what had to happen in that scene — the daughter had to narrowly escape with her life — and the scene he build with that in mind could now be optimized in terms of tortuous dramatic tension and the introduction of the villain.
Mission in hand, you should now ask: When should I cut IN to the scene? How much setup and foreground ramping is required? How much chit-chat between players? How might setting and peripheral factors play here? What does the reader need to know, and how much will they already know?
Does the scene have sub-text to offer, and do I really understand what that means?
What’s the payoff — the strategic reason to deliver this scene?
Does the scene offer a cut-and-thrust into the scene that follows i? The goal should be to force the reader to keep going, instead of tabling the book on the nightstand at the scene’s conclusion.
At the structural level — is the scene aligned with the proper context of the “Part” in which it appears (each scene resides in one of the four contextual parts of a story, each of which has a UNIQUE context that flavors the scenes within it):
- Part 1 scenes are all about SET-UP introducing the main players, foreshadowing, showing pre-First Plot Point lives and worldviews, while mechanically setting up the dominoes that the FPP will soon topple.
- Part 2 scenes, which follow the First Plot Point (which changes the whole story by LAUNCHING the core story experience for the hero), turning the hero into a RESPONDER (to the FPP), and a bit of a wanderer, maybe even a victim (for the time being), someone who needs to drop back, assess, find new information, take stock of what this really means and what’s at stake. Here in Part 2 your hero shouldn’t be too eager to attempt much in the way of heroics, and if they do, chances are they won’t work very well.
- Part 3 scenes, which kick in after the context-shifting Mid-Point, evolve the hero into WARRIOR mode, a pro-active attacker. Here we see the early emergence of their inner hero, battling a foe who is, like them, also upping their game.
- Part 4 delivers scenes in which the hero brings a steep and strategized learning curve to the problem, with a view toward taking risks and then taking charge, leading to a collision of desires and an explosion of consequences, some by design, others considered collateral damage. This is where the hero is instrumental – the main catalyst — in the RESOLUTION of the story. No more victim, no more wandering and wondering… action is required.
When your scenes fit into their respective parts, both in terms of contextualmission and action, they are in lock-step with the story itself, like flaps on a wing that know just when to lower, and at what angle so they can land the airplane safetly.
A story is a machine with dozens of moving parts called scenes, all of them defining the reading experience.
The balance and harmony of the story contextual parts is never random, there is timing and power and noise and comfort and navigation in this dance. With within the context and focus of each scene’s mission… there are no boundaries.
Here is where you and your Muse get to soar.
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