Every Scene is a Story

Without getting too terribly esoteric, I’ve been seeing a lot of holographic patterning in my Year of Cruise.

To display both my geek and hippy-dippy tendencies, I mean “holographic” as in “whole in every part.”  If you cut a hologram in two, each half will still hold the whole picture.   Cut those in half– same thing.  Which is frankly fascinating to me — I am a big fan of patterns and seeing micro/macro relationships — but probably not as fascinating to, say, all of you.

What I’ve noticed that is actually applicable, and hopefully of interest, is that your story essentially works the same way.  Sort of.

Each scene is representative of a story.

Ideally, each scene is set up like a story.  It has a goal.  That goal is motivated.  There is an obstacle to achieving the goal.  There’s a POV.  And finally, there’s an arc.

Let’s take a popular example.  I’ll use the opening scene of Turn Coat, by NYT bestseller Jim Butcher.  It opens with a bang:  our narrator and hero Harry Dresden opens his apartment door to see Morgan, a frenemy who has often wanted him dead, bleeding and half-unconscious on his stoop.  “The Wardens are coming.  Hide me, please,” he asks, before promptly passing out.  (Hell of a hook, incidentally.)

Considering their history, Harry could just as easily shut the door, leaving the guy to his fate.  But Harry’s a hero, and he’s terminally curious and generally has a worse relationship with the wizard communities police force (the Wardens) than most, so he takes the guy in and calls a friend, a medical examiner, to help patch Morgan up.  They patch up Morgan as best they can, but it doesn’t look good — and now it looks like whatever trouble Morgan is in will no doubt rope Harry in, as well.  Like, this-could-get-him-killed trouble.

This is the Inciting Incident — the day something changes. It sets the story goal:  will Harry find out what’s going on and keep himself, and Morgan, out of trouble?

Right from the jump.  Frickin’ brilliant.

What about the “filler” scenes?

That’s the thing.  There are no filler scenes.

There is a little “scenelet” right after a crucial character — Anastasia Luccio, Dresden’s girlfriend and Morgan’s boss — discovered that Dresden is harboring the “fugitive” Morgan.  She’s angry, because Dresden lied.  Morgan is shattered, because he had been in love with Luccio for centuries and didn’t realize she’d hooked up with Dresden.  The prior scene ends painfully.  The next mini-scene is a sequel, a reaction scene, where Luccio talks to Dresden.  She explains what had happened between Morgan and herself.  She then asks what Harry’s planning on doing.  Harry believes Morgan is innocent: despite the fact that he may die, his character will not allow him to back down and leave a true traitor on the loose while a good man dies.  Despite many misgivings, she tentatively agrees to help.  By helping she, too, may condemn herself to death.

In a nutshell, it’s a choice between doing what’s safe, perhaps even smart… and doing what’s right.  Which, in a nutshell, is the crux of the book.

The little not-quite-a-scene, and its expository dialogue, is really the wrap up of the previous scene.  It acts as both a breathing space (things have been pretty damned exciting up to this point) as well as a quieter echo over the overall theme.  Best of all, even though it seems completely perfect, natural and in-place, if somewhat tangential… it sets up something later, showing something crucial.

Make the causal seem casual.

Again:  the scene is a microcosm of the whole novel.  It shows theme.  It sets up something key.  That’s a lot of heavy-lifting for something that’s just a few pages long.  And there’s no feeling of “uh-oh, signpost ahead:  this information is going to be important.”  It’s just a nice little scene that plays out into something bigger down the line, something that makes a turning point twist.

Every scene should do more than one thing, but it should absolutely support the story.  It should hold the dynamic, the essential question, of the story at the forefront at all times… either from the external, or internal, GMC.

How to actually use this esoteric information.

Well, if you’re using Rock Your Plot or you’ve taken one of my classes, you know that I put a lot of emphasis on scenes, as well as the interplay between scene and overall story structure.

When you know where the story needs to go, you can lay out scenes.

When you know what the scene needs to do, you can load it and layer it with elements of the story as a whole.

This is the purpose of revisions.  That’s the tweak, the dialing-in.  The glorious, torturous, necessary element, whether you’re a plotter or a pantser.  This is where the gold is.

4 Replies to “Every Scene is a Story”

  1. I’m putting the (hopefully) final spit-polish on the opening chapters of Bonds, and I know my understanding of each character’s G-M-C has played a vital role in the book’s evolution. Can’t tell you enough how much I appreciate your guidance in getting me here. The opening scene in particular has come so far.

    I’ll be hitting the send button very soon. Fingers crossed. Whatever the outcome, I am grateful, my mentor. Great post (and I will start reading Butcher this time–I promise).

  2. The right choice always gets in the way of the smart or safe one my MCs could reach for–but that’s what makes the most interesting conflict! The balance is so important, if a story has filler, I generally skip over it, if it doesn’t take a breath, then I miss details that didn’t have time to sink in.

    Great Post! I love the Dresden Files. 🙂

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