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The Anatomy of a Scene

Lesson 4 of 7

The Layers in Each Scene


The Anatomy of a Scene

Lesson 4 of 7

The Layers in Each Scene


Lesson Info

The Layers in Each Scene

So now that we have some notion of how a story works, let's talk about the layers that are in each and every scene. Because a problem that writers have is that they will understand that it is about this internal struggle and about how it affects the protagonist and about the plot and then that's all they think of. And they don't realize there's so much more to it than that. Because they know and they know this: they know that every scene talking about the cause and effect trajectory of the plot and of that internal struggle every scene will force your protagonist to make a meaningful, internal choice that affects her agenda. A meaningful choice that affects her agenda. If it doesn't do that, it's not moving your story forward. It's just standing there. So something happens. There's some kind of a choice. There's some kind of realization. There's something that is going to affect what she's going to do, meaning she reads into what's going on, what's happening. It has to affect that agen...

da because if it doesn't, that's what we're there for. We understand from the very beginning, what that agenda is. It's something that would get onto the page in the very beginning. It's what I talked about in another creative live course on nailing your first three pages. Your really have to get that onto the page, in the beginning, so we understand what that is. Your reader immediately is hooked onto that so we expect every scene to, in one way or another, affect are they or aren't they going to get what they want. And I just don't mean externally, but I mean internally as well because it's not just are they gonna get that thing they want, it's what that thing means to them and is it going to, and are they going to be able to get it. And if they do, will it have the same meaning? Will it say the same thing about them that they think that it will? So every scene will force your protagonist to make a meaningful choice and writers tend to know also that they'll have a small aha moment toward the end. In every scene, they're gonna learn something new and realize something. This is how, again, writers will often think about the plot and how the plot mounts by external things getting from bad to worse to worst. But really, it is how the internal struggle builds and what she's gonna realize and what her actions might look like on top and what it is she wants to show and how much she wants to reveal of how vulnerable she is because think a story. Story's about the plot is what happens. That's what we're willing to say out loud. Stories are really about what we're actually thinking while we're saying it. And that is an aha moment. Often those aha moments are things they would never say to anybody else. They'd never admit it to anybody else. It's a realization they have had. Not always, but sometimes that is exactly what it is. So you want them to draw some small conclusion, some small aha moment that will play forward. And once they've done that, they're gonna change a little bit. In every scene, the protagonist has to change a little bit. What they believe, what they're gonna do. The way that they think that they're gonna achieve their agenda. There is a change. If there's not some kind of a change, a deepening, an understanding, that plays forward, then you don't need the scene. But here's the problem. And this is what I was alluding to in the beginning. It's very easy because this is hard. I'm not saying this is easy. It's very easy and what writers tend to do is they'll focus on these two things. They'll go okay, I completely get it's not just about the plot. It's gonna be about how the plot affects the protagonist so we're not rushing from plot point to plot point to plot point. It's like a race. Sometimes writers write it like a race. Like, how can I get there the fastest? And then get to the next one the fastest. Not a race. But they'll go okay, got that. It really is about how the plot's affecting the protagonist because that choice the protagonist makes very well might change a plot point that you had anticipated, you know, further down the line. So now you've got, okay, great, I get it. What's happening has gotta force my protagonist to struggle a bit to make a choice and then that might change the plot point or deepen the plot point. And the problem is, that... And that's good. That's not a problem. You should do that. But the problem is, because that takes so much energy and so much focus, writers tend to forget the other characters. Because here's the thing. It's not just these horizontal layers going across. They're vertical layers in every scene and they belong to the other characters in the scene and what happens when you're not aware of that is that those characters become, what I like to call, plot puppets. I mean, in other words, they suddenly will do whatever that particular scene needs them to do because you need the protagonist to do something or realize something. And the problem is that you'll have a character do something over here and now, three chapters down, they're doing something else that you know, that person has no reason to do and now it's confusing and they don't make any sense. Let me give you a quick example. I was working with a writer and she had... her protagonist's name is Julia. And she had a friend, whose name is Gwen and they were good friends. They were good friends, they really go along. There was no bad blood between them. They had really similar agendas but then all of a sudden, in this one scene, out of nowhere, Gwen started to needle her over something that was the last thing you'd think she'd ever needle her about. And she really needled her hard. And what that resulted in was suddenly, Julia had a realization that she couldn't have had any other way and that realization changed what she did. But as a reader, I'm looking, going, "Did she fight with Gwen? "Is there something about Gwen I don't know? "What's going on?" And I realized what it was and I said to the writer, I said, "Here's what I think you did." I said, "You got to that scene "and you knew that Julia had to have the realization. "That was really important "and the only way you could think of to do it "was to have Gwen needle her out of nowhere." And she went, "Oh my God, yeah, "that's exactly what happened." This is what happens when we're only focused on just the protagonist and just the plot. Which is a lot, in and of itself. Every other character has their own storyline, not just the protagonist. Every character steps onto the page with the story specific agenda, exactly like your protagonist does and major secondary characters, they have their own misbeliefs, they have their own desires, partly because, guess what, we all do. We all do. I frequently work with writers who go, "I was looking for my protagonist misbelief "and I found my own." Because we've all got them. This isn't like a writing technique. This is psychology. This is how the brain works, therefore, it's how your protagonist and your characters also need to work. And your readers get it. We are much more forgiving about plot glitches then we are about psychological and emotional glitches. When somebody does something they would never do. We pick up on that really fast because that's what we're there for. That's part of that, that third rail that we're going forward and that we're really hooked onto almost biologically. So, when you're writing, you really need to be aware of what every character wants in that scene. In every scene, each character's trying to move their own story specific agenda forward. And you have to be aware of that. And I know that that sounds like a lot. That sounds like a lot. How would you possibly hold that in your head? In fact, you might be thinking wait a minute, you know what? I don't even know if I believe you. Because when I read a scene, when I read a chapter or a novel, it is all of a piece. I open it up and I read that chapter and there might be lots of characters but there's just one thing coming at me. So what do you mean there are all these layers and everybody's got what they want? It's one thing. Here's the analogy that I like to use. It's like music. Think about classical music. You go to a concert and the curtain goes up. And the conductor comes and hits their baton against the music stand, which I don't know if conductors actually do that. I mean, I saw it a cartoon (laughing) so maybe only in cartoons do they do that. I don't know. But they do that thing and then the orchestra tunes up and then they start to play. And they play some beautiful piece of music. For me, it would be, like, Dvorak's New World Symphony. And it just comes at you. And it's one sheet, one wave of music. It's beautiful. But think about it. When that composer wrote that music, he wrote different notes for every instrument in the orchestra. Every piece of sheet music has different notes. Different notes for the viola, the violin, for the bass, for the trombone... Not that there's a trombone in that, I don't think. Flute, oboe, that word that they always use in easy crossword puzzles. Every single instrument has a different set of notes that when you play them together, comes across as one continuous wave of music. If every piece of sheet music had the exact same note, played at the exact same tempo, it would just be this giant dome, monotonous cacophony of sound. It would not be that sheet that comes over you and the same is true of novels. Think of this way. I like to think of it as fabric. Like when you look at this sweater. It looks like one thing, right? You see a sheet of fabric. This is fabric. But the truth is, it's got, and I don't know if I've got these terms, the right one, the warp and the weft of it, it's woven together. It's the got warp and the weft. This is hundreds of strands of thread that have been woven together to look like one solid thing. But here's the thing. Think about any sweater that you like and why does it always seem like its your favorite, best sweater that this happens to? But you know, you've got the best sweater, the one that you love that you hardly ever wear and you go out and the door jab just kind of, you know, catches you right here and it pulls one of those threads loose. And then what happens? When people look at it, they don't see this part that's still woven together. They don't see that part. They just see that big snag right there in the middle and then you can never wear the sweater again and your heart is broken. The point is, you have to be careful of all these layers. You have to create all of them. So, now, we are going to go into the 10 questions to ask of every scene. I just wanna say before we do that, just to let you know, that when we get to the scene template, I'm gonna give you a way to do that. I'm not leaving you with that because I scared myself with that so I don't want you to think, "Oh my God, I'll never be able to do that. "I'm gonna take up crocheting. "It sounds much easier." Again, not that there's anything wrong with crocheting.

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.