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A Scene is the Smallest Unit of Story

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I was working on a scene in my novel-in-progress this week that wasn’t going anywhere. It was flat, dull, lifeless. Everything was happening in the scene that I wanted to happen, but it was just sort of sat there.
 
I dove in to try to fix it, and realized that the way I approached the fix is a tool many of you could put in your author’s toolkit, too.  It starts with the awareness that a scene is the smallest unit of story.
 
What does that mean?
 
First you have to know that a story is about change. At the very heart of it, when you strip everything else away, that’s all it is – a way of tracing a change in someone. They started out as one thing and ended up another.
 

  • They were a person who didn’t believe in love and ended up in love.
  • They were a person who took their mother for granted and ended up taking everyone else for granted, too.
  • They were a person who never felt heard and thought the way to being heard was to become an actress and realized that they were wrong.

 
The change can be big and dramatic or small and nuanced, but if you don’t have change, you don’t have story. (Note that this definition of story applies to memoir, too. And actually it applies to non-fiction of every kind but the change is taking place in the reader themselves, not the characters on the page. They go from not knowing how to lose weight to having a plan for healthy eating. They go from not understanding how to do well as a manager to being a good manager.)

 

Every scene of your story is a tiny slice of that arc of change. Therefore in every scene, something has to change.

 

In the scene I was working on, I brought one character on stage to make the other doubt her ability to write the story she has to write. She is a TV writer named Ruby and she is my protagonist. She is up against a pressing and very emotionally resonant deadline because her writing partner, who is her lover and her best friend, has been in a terrible accident. They were days away from doing an 11th hour rewrite on the finale of their hit TV show, and she doubts her ability to write without him. The guy I brought on stage to provoke her is a big movie producer named Jason, and he was the guy who hired her partner but did not hire her.
 
I thought I had the ingredients for a great scene because here is an antagonist, a truth-teller, someone who can rattle Ruby.
 
But the scene was flat because although it provided an external bit of “drama” it didn’t allow Ruby to move, to grow, to react. There was no consequence to her action – no dominos falling against each other. Nothing, in other words, was changing. So I knew I had to make something happen.
 
I dove back into the scene and here's what I asked myself:
 
What’s the worst thing that can happen here? What can I do to cause Ruby to struggle even harder than she is struggling?
 
The answer was that Ruby would learn something about Henry from Jason that she didn’t know – something worse than what she imagined had happened, something that would give her no choice but to take some kind of action. (And action, remember, can be a decision, a shift in mindset, a commitment… it doesn’t just have to be a sword-fight or meteors falling on Kansas.)
 
No sooner has I asked the question, then the answer came to me:  Ruby would go into the scene believing that Jason was the bad guy – he had hired Henry without Ruby. In the midst of the scene, Jason would tell her that, in fact, Henry had applied for the job. He had wanted to write without Ruby. It had been his idea. Ruby would exit the scene knowing that Henry had taken action to write without her – which would make her angry enough to want to prove to him and to herself and to the whole world that she could write without him. So instead of hemming and hawing and doubting, now she’s on fire.
 
Boom! Story deepened by a mile, scene made resonant, story moved forward.
 
Ask yourself the same questions of every scene you write -- What’s the worst thing that can happen here? What can I do to cause my protagonist to struggle even harder than she is struggling?
 
Odds are good this will shake out an answer that will move your story forward.  

 
To read the revised scene CLICK HERE

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Leveraging Curiosity

I was working with a writer this week whom I shall call Steve. Steve is writing a novel and we were working on a bit of dialogue that, in my mind, stopped the story cold. 

The scene was between two old friends. Character B was prodding Character A (the protagonist) about a situation that will later explode in Character A’s life. Character B sees clearly the train wreck that is coming, and tries to call her friend out on it,  but Character A deflects the prod from her old friend in this way:

 “I said nothing in reply. I was not going to get into that conversation. Instead, I changed the subject.”

It was a very small moment, but my notes in the margin were strong: “Wait WHAT? Why wouldn't’ she go there? The reader is DYING to find out! Why are you keeping it from us? This is going to piss off your reader…”

Steve’s answer to me: “Because if I explain it there, it will give everything away. I’m saving that reveal for later.”

Steve, in other words, had a secret he wanted to keep from the reader and he wanted to keep it because he felt that the opposite -- holding his cards really close to his vest -- would pique the reader’s curiosity.

This is a very commonly held belief, but unfortunately, it doesn’t work that like. In fact, it works precisely the opposite way. That’s the secret about keeping secrets in writing.  They usually only work if you let the reader in on it. Otherwise, the reader will be feeling left out, dismissed, disregarded.

If Steve had instead told us something of the secret, we would have been curious in the way Steve really wanted. If he had written this….    

“I said nothing in reply. I was not going to let memories of my mother’s death influence my career choices, and didn’t even like suggestion of such a thing on the table. Who did Sally think she was to question my integrity in that way? She of all people should have known better. Instead, I changed the subject.”

…the reader  would have thought, Oh NO I don’t have a good feeling about this, I think this is going to come back to bite Character A, I wonder when that will happen and what she will do and what the consequences of that will be. I’m going to keep reading to see if I’m right and to watch this drama unfold.

We read, in other words, for the WHY of the story – why people do things, what they make of it, what it MEANS to them. We don’t read for the what – for what happens. We talked about this last week on a bigger picture scale, but I wanted to drill down this week to show you exactly how this works.

You can give away what happens all day long as long as you let us know there IS a why and that it’s coming.

A fantastic example of this truth is in the memoir When Breath Becomes Air, which I am currently reading. This book is the story of Paul Kalanithi, a 36 year old man who was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer when he was a chief resident in neurosurgery at Stanford Medical School. It’s a tale about life and death – but mostly death. Kalanithi dies in the end. And the reader knows that the moment they read the book jacket copy:

Kalanithi himself reinforces that truth in the very first sentences of the book, in the prologue:

“I flipped through the CT scan images, the diagnosis obvious: the lungs were matted with innumerable tumors, the spine deformed, a full lobe of the liver obliterated. Cancer, widely disseminated. I was a neurological resident entering my final year of training. Over the last six years, I’d examined scores of such scans, on the off chance that some procedure might benefit the patient. But this scan was different: it was my own.”

So is not a secret to the reader what happens in this story – not in the slightest. We know everything about what happens.

What we read for is how he makes meaning of his reality – in other words, the why of it. In particular in this case, we have the following questions in our head:

  • Why did he decide to write about his own death?
  • Why did he decide to have a child when he knew he was going to die?
  • Why did his wife agree to that?
  • What did it feel like to make that decision?
  • What does it feel like to chronicle your own death?
  • What does someone who knows so much about what sustains life bring to the task of dying?

I just read a passage last night in which, having gone back in time to Kalanithi’s decision to go to med school and having followed his journey through it, we arrive again at the day of diagnosis.  This is now the second time he has written about this day – first in those sentences from the prologue I quoted above and now on this page – page 119. Only moments have passed between the two instances and we are right back with a man reading his CT scans.

He writes:

“Lying next to Lucy in the hospital bed, both of us crying, the CT scan images still glowing on the computer screen, that identity as a physician – my identity – no longer mattered….”

The only difference to the reader is that this second time, we know even more about why this moment matters to this man in particular. We know that Kalanithi has witnessed many deaths, has wrestled with the meaning of life, has made professional choices based on his beliefs about life and death, and has just suffered the loss of a colleague who took his own life. We know even more acutely what death means to him and we know with more assuredness that death is coming for him.

But again, no one in their right might would stop reading just because we know what’s going to happen. It’s not the WHAT we care about it. We KNOW what. It’s the why we continue to read forward to find out.

In your own work, look for places where you are holding back information from the reader.

  • It might be in dialogue like it was with Steve. Make sure you are not being coy with information, that you are not holding back things on purpose. It almost never works – because if the good thing happens on page 100 and your reader never makes it there, who cares?
  • It might be when conclusions are being drawn from a scene or situation – it’s easy to assume the reader knows what the conclusion is (Isn’t it obvious? the writer thinks), but we usually don’t. We need to be told. Every time your character thinks a thought or makes a decision or takes some action, we want to know the conclusions the protagonist is drawing from it. Why does it matter, why are we being asked to pay attention?
  • It might be in how you are structuring your entire story – giving us far too much what before you let us have any why. We want why

Odds are good that you can add in the why in small and large ways throughout your work. My advice is to err on the side of saying too much. You will do more damage holding back than you do in spilling your secrets.

I’ll leave you with one last moving passage from Kalanithi’s book, where he employs this tactic with masterful precision. He and his wife Lucy are having a discussion about whether or not to have a child, given Kalanithi’s diagnosis. She begins the conversation:

“Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?”
“Wouldn’t it be great if it did?” I said. Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.

That last line – that add on – is what gives that passage such depth and nuance and power. Kalanithi doesn’t leave us to wonder what the conversation means or why it matters. He doesn't leave his question unanswered. He answers it himself, right on the page, and thereby invites us into the heart of his devastating experience.

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The Beauty That Follows the Fail

I wrote a couple weeks back about holding a webinar where no one came. Last week, I held another webinar and had 210 registrants. I was so excited to speak to so many writers – and then another problem occurred. My software didn’t work correctly and no one could get in the classroom. Everyone was shut out, and they flooded my inbox with emails asking what was going on. I was frantic and mortified and trying desperately to make it work.  I assumed, of course, that I had done something wrong. I had messed up. It’s what we always assume…

So for the second time in a few months, I went ahead and did the webinar with no one watching. It was for very different reasons, but still, it felt the same: like I couldn’t get this right.

I recorded the webinar then got on the phone to the tech people and learned that what went wrong wasn’t my fault. It was a software glitch. Something that rarely happens, but it happened nonetheless.

When I went through the emails from participants who had been shut out, I realized a very curious thing: Almost every single person who wrote to me assumed that it was their fault. They were at Starbucks and the wifi didn’t seem to be working. They had never done a webinar and must have signed on incorrectly. They must have had the time wrong.

We so often assume it is out fault.

I realized that I see this all the time when writers pitch to agents, especially when submitting full manuscripts at the agent’s request. The writers assume that they don’t hear back right away because their work is not worthy of feedback. But many times, it’s that the agent’s kid was sick. Or their mother died. Or someone hit their car in the grocery store parking lot. Or they never got the email….

We are so hard on ourselves.

We should give ourselves a break.

And we should try to look at these things that go wrong in a totally different way. Because two things happened with my upsetting webinar tech failure, which turned out to be quite wonderful:

1.)  When I explained to everyone what had happened and apologized and sent them the recording of the webinar, people were so terribly nice about it, and forgiving, and comforting. About twenty strangers took the time to tell me not to worry, not to beat myself up, and to thank me for trying. It was very moving and it lifted my spirits. To those of you who did that, thank you for your kindness.

2.)  That same day, I had an assignment from Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story and the forthcoming Story Genius. I agreed to develop a novel in the pages of Lisa’s new book so we could show people how the process really works.

Lisa was pushing me on what she calls the “aha moment” scene – the scene when a character in a novel realizes whatever it is they have to realize about themselves and the world, the moment when they GET whatever it is they haven’t been getting. Lisa wanted more specifics than I had on the page. She wanted me to go deeper – “How does your character feel at that moment? What exactly changes her?” she kept asking, and I kept resisting.

 I didn’t know how my character felt except for sad. So I put something simple down – “Ruby feels sad.” Lisa very nicely said, “I need more than that.”

So I put something else down – “And she also feels regret.” Lisa very nicely said, “That’s not deep enough.”

And meanwhile the clock was ticking because Lisa’s editor at Ten Speed/Random House was waiting.

I thought about giving up – I mean, why not? Does anyone really care about this character who doesn’t exist except in my head? The answer is no. They do not.

And then I had my own “aha moment.” I realized I could give my character the experience I had just had in feeling the love of strangers.

Ruby is the writer of a hit TV show. She has 72 hours to rewrite a script and she has to do it without Henry, her writing partner who is also the love of her life and who happens to be on his deathbed. She has been unable to complete this task, and the Internet is on fire with speculation about her mental health and fans offering alternative endings to her show. Writing the script forces Ruby to confront everything about love and loss she has been unwilling to confront.

Here is what I finally wrote about what she feels:

How will Ruby feel when she finishes her rewrite? Ripped to pieces. But once it airs there will be an outpouring of love and concern and care for her from all the fans and strangers she had come to disdain, and this love will transform her; it will make her realize that she does in fact have the capacity to withstand the pain of losing Henry because of what she had with Henry all along.

 

Lisa said, “Yes!” which means that I finally went deep enough. The only reason I got there in my work is because I am a person who is alive, who is experiencing success and failure every day, and who had the presence of mind to recognize the parallel between my character and myself.

 It was a powerful moment of turning life into art.

And the tech failure? I’m already over it.

 

Sign up to join me and Lisa Cron for a free conversation about story.
January 7, 2016

 

 

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