Our stories are made up of scenes: first this happens, then that happens, then this happens … This, that: these are scenes, our basic units of construction. Some might call them chapters, but often chapters are made up of several related scenes.
Research the narrative arc. It’s how our stories flow. In the largest units, stories often follow the format of failure, failure, big failure, and finally success. Failure is what pulls us along. We want our protagonist, our hero, to succeed. We want him to get the girl, we want him to save the world, we want him to transform. Stories written in the format he does this, then he does that, then he saves the world are not attractive. Our hero hasn’t overcome anything. There’s no tension, there’s no obstacles, there’s no failures that make us question what will happen, what will flow next. There is nothing to make us anxious.
All basic stuff really. I haven’t said anything new. I haven’t created any tension myself, yet.
Let’s look at scenes first then sequels. Scenes start out with a hero following a purpose, he meets some resistance and tension is created, then he fails. That’s it. There is no more, except all teh words we choose to make it happen with. But all stories use scenes, at least the stories I’ve read. Say our hero is a spy: he follows a target to determine who their contact is, the target walks through a dense crowd, a mall, spots our hero, and makes for it, our spy gives chase just because, and at the fork in the mall, he turns the wrong way. Purpose, tension, failure. We’ve seen the scene a million times in the movies and read it millions more (hopefully) in books. It’s basic. It propels the story forward. We want to know what happens next. We want to know how our hero solves whatever mystery he is trying to solve.
But we also want to know what it all means. Stories aren’t all action. At some point we need to ask the question “So What?” So what if he loses the target. So what if the girl leaves him. So what if the planet gets blown up? So what? What does it mean to our character? What does it means to our plot? Our themes? Our … How do we move to the next scene? An escaping target is not much of a lead in to the next scene. As I’ve said, action, action, action becomes tedious pretty quickly.
Let’s continue with our example. Maybe our next scene is a stake-out. Maybe our hero’s unit sets up shop across the street from the target’s home. Does this just happen? No, of course not. We have another scene where the decision is made, except scenes don’t end in decisions. Scenes end in failure. Sequels end in decisions.
A Sequel also has three parts: reaction, dilemma, and decision. This is the meat of our story. This is where we learn about our characters’ motivations. This is where we add depth, logic, and forward motion. Let’s build this sequel: our hero returns to the office and meets with boss-dude, boss-dude isn’t happy because now the target is on to them, our hero isn’t happy because he failed (reactions), boss-dude wants to set up a stake-out but our hero wants to go alone (dilemma), so a decision is made: boss-dude sets up a stake-out and orders our hero to embed in it. And this leads to a new scene where we watch the target, something nasty and weird happens, and we fail to catch him or uncover the truth. We follow that up with another sequel, and we’re off to the races.
There’s one problem here. Most novels don’t work this way.
“But you said this was the basic format.”
“It is, but it’s not the whole picture.”
“Isn’t that why I’m writing this blog?”
“Sorry. I’ll shut up now.”
Sometimes we don’t want to move the story along with strong, linked scenes. If we do, it becomes linear, maybe predicatable, and it is difficult to make the story as deep as we’d like. Sometimes, actually this is very typical, we want scenes not directly related or linked to our main plot. Maybe it’s backstory, or maybe we need something to hilight a key motivation or driver. Many if not most literary novels, for example, will not develop strong, compelling plot lines at all. Instead, they delve deep into the main character using primarily unlinked scenes. It’s like painting a story: a stroke here, a stroke there, and voila, you have a fabulous character painting. They build up the strengths, weaknesses, and motivations. They build empathy to a fever pitch before they release the plot on us. We find ourselves reading deep into character, setting, and maybe story, but we often are not compelled to pick up the book. We’re not presented with dramatic failure that makes us want to know what happens next.
And by the way, let’s ad the caveat here that this is not the only technique employed to pull readers along. We almost always write some sort of foreshadowing or cliff-hanging, we will gravitate towards themes that build and build, we will … there are many books that discuss the various techniques used in novel writing. I am not discounting their importance, but I just want to focus on the foundation of story, the scene-sequel sequence.
Both scenes and sequels are necessary. A sequel can’t exist without a failure to drive it, a scene is irrelevant if not resolved. Sequels resolve scenes. If I write fifty scenes and no sequels, I have lots of action, lots of tension, but no resolution, no meaning, no depth. But there is no requirement to link scenes and sequels linearly, many stories do not use this straightforward approach. David Wroblewski in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle uses many little scenes where the failures are difficult to detemine, but they each build up little smidgens of tension, character, or motivation. Bit by bit he paints the story and then when he starts moving with the main line, we do find the sequencing, more or less.
If we want to add depth to our story, themes, characters, or even settings, we need to dig deeper. We need to write some relevant scenes the sole purpose of which is to add this depth. These are largely unrelated to the action. We can helicopter them. We can pick them up and drop them into many places in our stories. They depend on very little and very little depends on them. I say very little because often we do need to introduce something first. My example at the end is an example that builds character and motivation, is not linked to the story directly, but needs to go in the second half of it. Perhaps our hero is LGT. Do I write a scene where some encounter is made before I introduce this? Perhaps I use this scene to introduce it. Maybe it has no story relevance, this scene, but being LGT does later on. So I write a scene where our hero is wondering about himself, goes out to a club to have a drink and think, and some transsexual sits down. You pick the failure. This scene does not in any way tie into our spy story, yet, and we don’t need a sequel because it’s not a thread that goes anywhere, yet. It simply shows us our hero’s LGT life, somewhat. Maybe later on he follows the target into a LGT club, and maybe there’s some argot he uses to communicate with the wildlife to find the target. Ah, indirect or delayed linkage.
So when you read your next novel, try to determine the scene or sequel’s characteristics. This can be tricky. Not all scenes are easily deconstructed. Some might contain multiple scenes, multiple conflicts, delays, abstractions. Sometimes success is failure and failure is success. Go figure that one out. Often the objective is not stated but implied. But know this: our objective is the opposite of our failure. I’m currently reading Madelaine Thien’s Dogs At The Perimeter. Early on there’s a scene about a woman who loses her mind. She starts out experiencing champagne on the brain at church, struggles to keep painting (tension), and finally loses the ability to speak and even move (failure). So what’s the objective? It’s to maintain one’s self, the opposite of being lost due to brain deterioration. What’s the purpose? Hiroji is missing, and she presumes he’s made himself anonymous, a typical Cambodian Khmer Rouge thing, a practice to hide yourself from your world to protect it, your family from being hunted down. So I take the purpose of this scene as to echo the tension involved in losing yourself. To do it intentionally must involve a great burden. Think now, this scene is not relevant to the action of the story but rather illustrates or echoes tension in another character’s decision. It adds depth and meaning. It adds breadth in the story. It makes it much more interesting.
The following is a short scene I just wrote and edited once – yes I still have issues with it, especially the internalization. It does not tie into my plot but serves to highlight my character’s motivations, situation, obsolescence, and situation. The objective is implied and the tension not particularly straightforward. I found the failure quite humorous. Understand that at the beginning of my story, my protagonist is illiterate, so yeah, obviously this can’t be placed at the beginning.
Dan feels hungry on his drive home. He’s worked hard all day, even read a whole book, all 24 fucking pages. He knows he shouldn’t be so down on himself. Being down never works, he reminds himself, it only puts you … down. He thinks what’s in his fridge – beer, beer, and more beer, eggs, milk, butter, and a green pepper, he thinks. He’s already past the last grocery store, the last fast food joint, and the last Tim Hortons. Christ, he’s going to have to back-track, but he sees the corner store and pulls over. It’s been three blocks from his home since; Christ, it’s always been there. He’s never been in before, even when he still smoked. He scolds himself for being a stranger in his own neighborhood, that real neighbors become friends, greet each other with hellos, and look out for everybody else.
He can’t see it. He can’t envision himself walking door to door introducing himself to families, old ladies, or a house full of crack dealers. Christ, who the fuck lives beside him? He doesn’t even know. He knows there’s a guy about his age, but he wears suits. He sees him in the morning, and he’s seen him come home late at night. He’s a guy Dan nods to and the guy nods back; then both drop their eyes or turn their heads. A car salesman? An insurance adjuster? No, he looks too neat, too tight. His hair always looks perfect and his glasses fit. He’s probably an executive of some sort or one of those ambitious middle managers that think they know so much. Maybe he even works at Knopf Breweries. Now wouldn’t that be something, Dan living next to the change in financial leadership. But he’s been there for … a few years anyway. Or maybe he’s the changed financial leadership. Maybe he’s on the way out? There’s no for sale signs.
He scolds himself for letting his mind wander. Christ, his mind has always wandered. He remembers wandering in school, day dreaming, sitting at his desk lost to the world but alive and well in his own. Was that because of him or the way his teachers treated him? Or was it something else, something deeper, something shameful. Christ, it’s been a bad habit since he could remember. “Focus Danny,” rang in his ears.
He looks out the window at the houses across the street. They look like his but worse. But they could be better. They could all look so much better if people would do something about them, if people weren’t too fucking scared to get off of their couches and do something with them. Do you need to dream to do that? Do you have to have a dream about a nice looking home before it happens? We don’t dream those dreams while we sleep. We can’t control those dreams. Don’t we have to dream such dreams while we’re awake? Don’t successful people have to dream to move forward? Isn’t that how they formulate their targets? Their objectives? Maybe they can dream better, maybe they can focus their dreams. Is that how they do it? There’s that word again, focus. It didn’t feel right, that word. It felt close, but it didn’t feel right. Dreaming can’t be focused he said to himself, but maybe these people are able to interpret their own dreams. Maybe they are able to read what they really mean and make a decision, and then maybe they focus on that decision, like when he takes apart a machine. Once he knows what the problem is, once he stops fiddling and testing and trying things out, once he’s pressed a few buttons, turned a few gears, and pulled a few springs, once things are clear, he has no trouble focusing on the problem, on fixing that broken machine. Was he simply a broken machine?
Christ, he was still dreaming.
He turns off his engine, slips it into first, and lets up on the clutch. A young lad walks by. He’s dressed in a long green plaid flannel coat, really faded jeans, and big shiny white sneakers. Dan notices his straight, sandy brown, shoulder length hair. It’s like watching himself in a time travelling window. Christ, now he’s thinking like Lizard Man and his science fiction books. Jesus.
He steps out and walks to the store. There’s a couple of kids at the cash haggling with the fat woman. They seem the same age as the other kid, twelve or thirteen? He remembers the age well. He remembers haggling like that too, the diversion. He scans the two aisles and sees the sandy haired kid scouring them. He moves instinctively, lines up on the row with the kid, and he stands still, like he’s part of the potato chip stand beside him. He feels the foil packages crumple against his shoulder. Shit, he doesn’t need the noise. A car outside stops at the corner. He hears voices, distant, fading. He’s alone with the kid in this back aisle who’s picking through the bars. A Snickers bar is not worth a life of pain. He walks toward him. He doesn’t know what he wants to say. How do you talk to a kid like this? How do you straighten out a life in the middle of a crime with a few words? The same way you teach a grown man to read? Jesus, Dan, what are you doing? The kid senses Dan and turns his head to him. It’s not Dan’s face but it is. It’s eyes are deep, dark, it’s lips are thin, and it scowls at him expressionless. Dan nods at him. He simply nods then stops beside him. He looks at the bars for a moment, reaches for one, and takes it. The kid continues watching him. Dan backs up, turns, and walks behind the boy to a glass refrigerator. Inside he sees a single sandwich, the store’s most rejected meal of the day. He opens the door, picks it up, then walks to the cash. The other two kids are gone, and the fat lady has her head down. Jesus, he thinks, she must get robbed blind by these punks. She must … maybe he can help her, maybe he can do something about these little bastards. He can feel his heart beating.
“Hey Jake, your mum called.” She had her head up now and was looking back at the kid. “She wants you to bring home some milk.”
“Thanks Mary,” he yells back. He sounds like a choirboy, high and musical. Dan bets he could call in birds, maybe even ducks if he tried.
“I haven’t seen you before,” she says. She’s looking at Dan like she’s doubtful about his character.
“Do you live around here?”
“Three blocks away.”
She gives him another once over.
“Well this is a community store,” she says and begins ringing in his items. “Please come back.”
The young lad walks out the door behind Dan carrying a bag of milk in each hand.
“Great kid,” she says, head down. Great family. “Say,” and she looks up at Dan, “if’n you come around enough, and we learn enough about each other, you can buy stuff on account too.”
Dan wanted to shake his head.
“I always pay cash,” he said.
“Where do you work?”
“Ahh, my brother works there. Ernie. Ernie MacDonald. Do you know him?”
Jesus, of course he did.
“Sure I do, ma’am.”
“Gloria,” she says.
“Gloria, nice to meet you. I’m Dan, Dan Donovan.”
“Well it’s nice to meet you too Dan Donovan. I’ll let Ernie know I met yas.”
Dan looks at the counter, at his chocolate bar. He reads the words slowly to himself, “Big Turk,” and wonders if it’s any good.