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The Anatomy of a Scene

Lesson 6 of 7

Scene Template


The Anatomy of a Scene

Lesson 6 of 7

Scene Template


Lesson Info

Scene Template

Now that we've got that, we're at the end of the questions, the question is okay, that's really interesting theory, (laughs) we've now ripped apart stories and ripped apart how to write them, so what are you supposed to do now? Are you supposed to hold all of that in your head and then write something? Like how could you possibly do that? I couldn't do it. So, what I wanna leave you with and this will take awhile and I am not leaving you quite yet, is a scene template. I wanna leave you with a scene template. This is something that you can use before you write any scene that you are going to write so that you are sure that all of these layers that we're talking about are in fact there and that the scene is actually part of the cause and effect trajectory that as you can see has several layers. It's got several vertical layers and all of those vertical layers go horizontally. So you can really figure that out. And you'll also be able to keep yourselves from writing scenes that are one-o...

ffs. So I would advise that you would use this before you write forward at all, that before you write the scene you would see if you could answer all these questions, we'll go to them very quickly. And if you can't, I just wanna say this first and upfront, if you get to a place where there's something and you don't know the answer, you're not sure, or it's vague or fuzzy, stop, dive into your protagonist or whatever character it is, story specific paths, and figure out the answer. Because if you write forward with a lot of assumptions, you very well might find, and really often do, that some assumption you made about something that could happen or would happen simply isn't true. And that means that everything after that point is now gone, moot, over, And you have to rethink it. So really writing a story is iterative, it really is you go forward and then you go back. You go back a little more and then you go forward, it is iterative. I understand that you write and you read a book from page one all the way to the end, that is not how you write a book. So let's talk up about what goes into each and every scene. So let's take a look now. I'm just gonna, it's right up here. Let's take a look at what the template looks like. This is what it looks like. So notice up here it says scene number. To be very clear, as we said earlier, you do not want to be moving scenes around, which isn't to say at some point you couldn't. You do not wanna write a story where you can move scenes around, you want to write scenes if possible, which means you really should, in order. Do not jump around other than you do before you start really diving into the writing. You wanna write that ending ah-ha moment, you wanna know where you're going. If you don't know where you're going, how can you possibly write a story that gets there? So with the exception of that ending, you wanna write in order as much as possible. And the reason is because what's going to move your story forward is your protagonist's internal reactions to things. It's going to be there's action, something happens in one half of the scene, it forces your protagonist to struggle deeply, they are going to make a decision that's going to cause them to take action and that's what's gonna actually move your plot forward way more than just when plotters plot forward, this happens, that happens, this happens, that happens. Which means that if you do write forward 'cause you go well that plot point has to happen, and there might be some that do have to happen, but even if you get there, it might be very different, feel very different, have a very different focus. And sometimes by the time you get there, you have got something much more organic, much realer. But now if you've actually written these scenes over here, well it's really hard to kill your darlings is the point. And so now you start sort of engineering to get toward that as opposed to really allowing yourself to dive into the story itself. So my advice always is write your scenes in order. If you have to write some scene out of order, like you woke up and you had this dream and it wasn't one of those things where you wake and you have a dream and you go oh my god, that's the most brilliant thing, I gotta write it down, and then it says six eggs and a rutabaga. And you go okay, well sounded good while I was asleep. I mean if you really have something that you gotta write, go ahead, go ahead write it, just don't do that too much. So you've got the scene number. So the next thing right here it says alpha point. Alpha point is why is this scene necessary right here right now? This is really simple. Think of it this way, because the truth is, as we'll discuss, there are lots of reasons to have a scene in a particular place, lots of things that happen. You're looking for the main reason. What is the main reason that this scene is here now? I like to 'cause I love using the word concrete, I think basically, think of it this way, think of your story as a concrete bridge. You know those concrete bridges and they're like made of concrete slabs and the slabs are laid end to end and that's what makes a bridge? And you're driving over one of those bridges and your tires are going cathunk, cathunk, cathunk, cathunk, and you think oh my god, I got a flat tire. And then you realize no, no, no, it's just I'm going from one concrete slab to the next. Think of your story that way, think of each scenes as one of those concrete slabs. So the alpha point is why is this necessary now, why would it be that, again, envisioning that bridge, that if I pull this scene out, it will be like taking out a concrete slab and that car with that poor person in it who thought oh my god, thank god I don't have a flat tire, now falls through and gets completely smashed to the bottom? What is the one reason it's necessary? If you pulled it out, what couldn't happen? For instance, an example I like to use, and again, I use movies rather than books just 'cause more people have seen the same movies and it's easier to pull the spine out of, example I like to use here is Casablanca. In Casablanca there's a scene, I think we all know it, the alpha point of this particular scene it is a, I'm gonna say it in a much, (laughs) in a very plain way as opposed to the poetic way everybody thinks of it, of all the gin joints in all the world, she's gotta walk into mine. So the alpha point of that would be Ilsa walks into Rick's Cafe Americain, because guess what, if Ilsa doesn't show up, the story can't go forward. But lots of other things happen in that particular scene, you've got Rick coming in and seeing her, he thought he'd never have to see her again and he's still angry 'cause he thinks that she jilted him back in Paris. She's there with Victor Laszlo, her husband, who she thought was dead and wasn't and that's why she left. And so she's kind of trying to reconcile with Rick, Rick's trying to figure out what's going on with Victor Laszlo whose work he knows 'cause Victor Laszlo is working to stop the Nazis, he is a great guy. You've got that there. You've got Renault is in that scene, Renault is the chief of police there in Casablanca and he is trying to figure out what's going on. You've got him seeing Rick breaking, again, his expectations. Stories are about what happens when our expectations are broken. So here they come in and Renault sees him going up and talking to Ilsa and to Victor Laszlo. And Victor Laszlo, I think it's Victor Laszlo who says come on, sit down. And Rick sits down and Renault goes whoa, there's a precedent broke and you never sit with anybody. So then he sits down with them as well and they talk and he's watching. And then Victor Laszlo says it's late and he's gotta go to bed and so they get up to leave and the waiter comes to bring the check and Rick grabs the check. (laughs) And Renault was like whoa, two precedents broken. And so now he's seen something as well. So all those things happen in that scene, but none of them matter if she doesn't walk into his Cafe Americain, so that would be the alpha point. It is simple, it is usually short. sometimes it is like that, it is something that is an actual thing that actually happens in the actual plot. Sometimes it is something that's conceptual or something that the character finds out. Like for instance in Return of the Jedi, that scene toward the end, we've all seen it, it's Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader or like they're battling with their lightsabers or whatever those things are, they're in that big giant, is it the Death Star? I don't know what they're in, it looks like the Death Star or a giant jungle gym is what it looks like, but I think it's the Death Star. And you know this scene, the alpha point would be Luke learns that Darth Vader is his father. That's the alpha point of that because that's what has to happen in that scene, can't go forward without that happening. Other things happen in that scene. In that scene, if you recall, Darth Vader actually cuts Luke's hand off, which you think might be a story point, but in fact absolutely nothing happens of that. In fact, do you ever notice that? Like he cuts his hand off and there's no blood. (laughs) It's just gone. And we were thinking about it the other day, I saw the movie again with someone and we're going why wasn't there any blood? So sometimes like I said, plot things you'll sort of let go sometimes, it's the interpersonal stuff that we're more fussier about. And we were literally making up reasons. I said why isn't there any blood? And we thought well maybe those lightsabers are really, really hot and it cauterized the wound. (laughs) Maybe that was it. And of course, in the next scene you see him getting a mechanical hand so like nothing ever came of that. But so that would be the alpha point. So the next thing that we would look at here would be, and this goes to what we were just talking about before, other characters' storylines. So it says blank storyline, blank storyline, blank storyline, meaning other characters in the scene, secondary characters in the scene. And the question that you're asking is how are these characters trying to move their story specific agenda forward in this particular scene? It was the only thing I changed in I wrote a book called Story Genius and I said blank, when I first made these cards, subplot. I don't use the word subplot anymore because subplot's vague. It's one of those things that's a vague, like what do you mean by subplot? Is it a bunch of things happening? And the truth is most subplots are carried out by characters, so I changed it to storyline. So it's blank storyline, blank storyline. So really ask yourself, and again, these aren't question you can answer unless you know specifically what their agenda is. For instance, In Casablanca it might be Ilsa's storyline and what's Ilsa trying to get forward there? What Ilsa's trying to do is she really wants to reconcile with Rick, she was dying to see him again, and she really is trying to let him know that she didn't jilt him because she didn't care. That she didn't show up because Victor Laszlo's there and she's kinda trying to keep Victor Laszlo from figuring out that there was anything between them. So that's her agenda. What's Renault's agenda? Renault's agenda is he is, I mean he also does not like the Nazis which is a good thing, but he's also like he wheels and deals. So when he sees somebody who is a big player in Casablanca doing something that is not normal, he wants to figure out what's going on to see how he can use that to his advantage. And Victor Laszlo, I mean he wants to go to bed early so he can fight the Nazis. We have to admit, Victor Laszlo might have been a great Nazi fighter, but when it comes to interpersonal relationships, he's like (chuckles) really not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Because if you watch that scene, I mean there's Ilsa and there's Rick and I mean you could cut the chemistry with a knife. And he's like oh, pleased to meet you, come on honey, let's go to bed. You're thinking like dude, are you blind or something? Anyway, so that's his agenda there. Or in going back to Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader had a major agenda there. What was he trying to do in that scene? What he was trying to do in that scene is he'd been told by, I dunno, who's Darth Vader's like boss? Whoever his boss was, and he said to him the only person who can really screw up the dark side is Luke Skywalker and I want you to kill him. And of course, he's his son. So Darth Vader does not want to kill Luke Skywalker, what he wants to do is bring Luke Skywalker over to the dark side. That has been his goal, that is his goal in the scene. In fact, that's why he ends up saying I'm your father, Luke. It's the last card he has to play. And of course, it doesn't do him any good, unfortunately. (laughs) He's so much the most interesting character in that whole thing. But anyway, so Luke decides to stay good. So the next thing that we will look at, so once you've got all that, and the reason, just before we go on to the next thing, the reason that you wanna do all that is because it lets you know where characters are at cross purposes. It keeps you focused on what each character wants, no character becomes a plot puppet. I mean really what you wanna be able to do in any story, and again, the more you dig into it in the beginning so you really know who these characters are and what their agenda is, the easier, if fact it gets real easy, the plot starts to auto-populate once you've done this. But you really want to be able to put yourself in the head specifically, not in general or generically, well this is the mom so I know what moms think, but this particular character. You wanna be able to put yourself in their head, in their skin, I don't mean to go all Ed Gein on you, but that's what you wanna do. You've got to be able to become them, so in each scene you know what each character wants and you know why because it plays forward. So the next thing to look at this entire rest of the card, first it's broken into a top and a bottom, and the top part, this is plot, this is for what actually happens, and you've got what happens and the consequences. We'll talk about that in a sec. The bottom part is the third rail, this is where all meaning lies. All meaning and all emotion is down here, this is where it comes from. You'll see it's also, so just so I'll put the slides that way, so the top half is the plot, the bottom half is that third rail. You see it's also broken down the middle, you've got cause and effect. Every scene to some degree arcs. So when we say cause and effect it's not like this is the cause of this scene and the effect is gonna be something that happens in the next scene, that's for the and so down there. It's cause and effect within the scene, something happens, it causes your protagonist or point of view character to struggle, they make a decision, there's a consequence, and then they learn something from it. So cause and effect, what happens, the consequence of what happens in the scene. And then down here we've got why it matters. And the why it matters goes to why does what's happening up here in the plot, why does it matter to your protagonist given their agenda? Why is it important? What does it mean to them? Motivation, emotion, meaning, all lies down here. And this gets really easy to do as you go forward because you're playing it all forward. So if the scene before caused this scene, you're pretty much gonna know this. But often this is where it gets much deeper 'cause it's not just the obvious, but in this moment in this scene, why does this matter? So you've got why it matters, here's what happens in the scene, now the protagonist is gonna have to make a hard choice which makes them struggle with that, what should I do? Here's what's safe for me to do, here's the surface and this is what's safe. Here's what I really want, here's what I really think that I can't actually say out loud, what should I do? The vulnerability, all is down there. They make a decision and now you get the consequence of the scene and almost always the way stories work is stories are about what happens either number one, when our expectations aren't met, what are we gonna do? Or number two, when our expectations are met and gee-whiz, it sure doesn't feel the way that we thought it would when we went in expecting that. And then over here you have what the protagonist realizes. What have they learned? When we talked about they learn, they've got some kind of ah-ha moment, what have they realized, what change did they go through that's then going to play forward? What conclusion have they drawn? What new is there? And often writers will go something happens, here's a consequence, something happens. This is just one scene, this is not for a chapter, unless your chapter is one scene, this is not for a chapter, this is just one scene. Character comes in, they want something, something happens, they don't get it, and now we've moved to the next scene. So it's just one scene. So the thing to think of as you go forward, oh, let's wait, take it back. Let's go down to (scoffs), okay, left cause. I should pull these slides out anyway 'cause we already knew that. I actually put these up before I made the slide of the whole card which was like so much easier. (chuckles) And I was like oh well, I'll just leave these. But anyway, so the left is cause and the right is the effect. Cause, effect, that makes total sense. And so let's now talk about this and so. And the and so goes toward what is your protagonist or point of view character going to do next? And so as a result of this, what are they gonna do? Now it might not be next because you might be writing a novel that is either in the third person omniscient or you might be writing a novel with more than one first person narrator. And in that case, that character might not be in the next scene. The question is so and so specifically what are they gonna do and how is it gonna play forward? Whether they'll do it immediately and then the consequences are gonna be known much later to your protagonist or it's something that will play into what your protagonist is doing next, what is that thing they're gonna do? And the thing you wanna think of with this and so is that it is something specific and concrete. You wouldn't want it to be, and I think I'm gonna get this right, I haven't seen this movie in such a long time, but you know that movie, god, I don't even know when it's from, called Say Anything with John Cusack and Ione Skye? And it's the one, and again, remember we started by staying you tend to remember one iconic scene? I remember the last scene of that movie, I probably remember it wrong, but that's what I remember. And it's the two of them and he's trying to have a romantic relationship with her and I think they do for awhile, and then they break up and he wants to get her back. So the and so when they've broken up wouldn't be Ione breaks up with Skye, right, Ione breaks up with John, and so John goes home and tries to figure out how to get her back. That would never be an and so because that's generic, like what would he do? Can you picture anything? Is anything gonna happen? You're gonna get to that scene and go I have no idea what happens. It's something concrete. Instead it would be Ione breaks up with John and he goes and gets his boombox and plays it under her window until she decides to either come back with him or take out a restraining order, which probably would've been the smarter thing, I'm just saying. (chuckles) But that's what that and so is for. Now some writers when they're doing this and I've seen writers especially if you're writing something that has intrigue in it or is some sort of a crime something or some kind of mystery, or even something that is sci-fi, they will take every character's storyline and put why it matters and the realization to them underneath that so they really understand what's going on with every character. And that can be really super helpful. If you are writing something either in the third person or you have multiple first person narrators or just more than one, more than one or you have another voice. What I'm trying to say is if you have a story where your protagonist is not in every scene and now you're writing a scene without your protagonist, then this alpha point would go toward your point of view character in the scene. And this and the realization and the why it matters would be filled out for the point of view character in the scene, but you'd also think about how is this gonna affect your protagonist? You might do that beneath it. When they find out, how is this affecting their journey toward achieving their agenda, so that you really, really, really keep that in mind. If perhaps with that and so this is then a character who's not gonna show up for several chapters, really as I said figure out okay, what would they do next and the next time they show up, how is that going to affect them and everybody else? Because a problem that writers sometimes have is that, and this might be true of any secondary character and even if you're writing something in the first person or third person limited, is that there's a character and something big happens, and then they're not in the scene, there might be three our four chapters before they show up again. And it's as if you've taken that character and put them into cold storage. (laughs) You hit the pause button and now they come back four, five chapters later and it's like nothing's ever happened to them, they're exactly the same. You really wanna figure out story-wise what's happened to them in that interim, especially if they were a point of view character before that because we expect that to play forward. So you don't wanna let that go.

Class Description

Although your novel is made up of individual scenes, in truth those scenes are not individual at all, but part of an escalating internal and external cause-and-effect trajectory. Each scene is made up of myriad layers, and performs multiple tasks: they move subplots forward, give the reader insight into the protagonist, develop secondary characters, ratchet up what’s at stake, foreshadow what’s to come, and trigger changes that will ripple throughout the novel.

Wow, that’s a lot! How do you keep track of it? And how do you get it onto the page so that all those layers merge to create what reads as a seamless whole? That’s exactly what we’ll unravel, giving you a clear, concise and concrete method of making sure that every scene you write not only serves the story you’re telling, but rivets the reader.

Never again will you face that frustrating struggle, wondering if the scene you’re contemplating is relevant or not. You’ll learn how to identify and create each layer in every scene, bringing your story to life and creating the irresistible sense of reality that hijacks the reader’s brain.

In this session you’ll learn:

  • What makes a scene work, and what every scene must do in order to be relevant and riveting.
  • Maddeningly common mistakes writers make when writing scenes and how to deftly avoid them.
  • How to keep track of every layer in your story – scene-by-scene -- from beginning to end.
  • Why you should never write scenes out of order.


Emily Brady

I love Lisa's book, Story Genius, and this course helped me to get a more solid handle on how the individual scenes are part of a greater whole that give them meaning. Great class!

Jerusha Billington Gray

Great storytellers are not born - they are made. The story wizard Lisa Cron helped to peel back some of the mystery behind what makes a scene work and pinpoints pitfalls that make it fall flat on its face. The magic formula of epic badassery is ours for the taking. Lisa helps us get there. 10 out of 10 - will listen again.

Jennifer Baylor

I've read Lisa's books and used her Story Genius techniques for three novels. Still, sometimes I find myself struggling with some aspect of the scene card when it comes to implementation. This class on the Anatomy of a Scene really helps to clarify the scene card ideas with more explanation and detailed examples.