Monday, December 10, 2012

Three Great Scenes, and No Weak Ones, Make a Successful Story

Do you have a manuscript that flies off in too many directions, or maybe the opposite—doesn't have enough going on in it to sustain a long-form project? Or even worse, in my opinion, is your manuscript plotted so minutely that the creativity is lost? Well, I can relate!

I'm writing historical fiction now, and unlike suspense (my other genre), there's no built-in intuitive structure to make it flow in sensible fashion. The plotting part is a much bigger challenge (at least for me) in historical. 

Plotting is primary and key, even if it's not something a writer is comfortable focusing on at the early stages.

Whether the challenge is to pare and contain a massive amount of story detail in a way that creates a page turner, or to expand a linear and/or simple plot line into a story that is complex enough to be compelling over the length of a novel, you need to know how the plot unfolds and where to zero in for impact to make your book work.

One of my favorite pieces of advice for tackling this issue comes from James Scott Bell, who quotes John Huston (movie director of The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and The African Queen) as saying that "the secret to a successful film is three great scenes, and no weak ones."

Bell points out that great scenes make memorable fiction, too. (p. 160, The Art of War for Writers).
What does Bell mean by a great scene? One that is packed with conflict, emotion, and surprise. "Passions run high; stakes run higher. What happens in the scene affects the rest of the story, and in a big way." (ibid.)

Conflict: crank it up. "How? Through emotion. Make sure readers see the stakes to the inner life of the character. Surprise: the unexpected setback, revelation, or question raised by the events." (ibid., p 161)

He suggests we think about the scenes in our stories, figure out which are the ones that readers are going to remember most when they finish our book, and "think about where they [the great scenes] might land in your structure. A climactic scene near the end is a good place to start." (p. 160) Then, write toward these great scenes. And when the first draft is done, go back and look for weak scenes. Would a tired, overworked editor be tempted to put the ms. down there? If yes, it's weak. Either cut the scene or make it matter.

I find this advice to be excellent, and enough to work with when I'm thinking of overall structure. I thought about my novel and realized  that, of the most powerful scenes (four of them—novels often have more than three major scenes), three are action scenes that illuminate huge stakes (external and internal), and one is gentler, but equally powerful on an emotional level. I'm now happily writing toward them.

One of the best things about this approach is that it shows you your story arc (the real one, which may not be exactly what you thought you had). Plot out your three or four or five great scenes on an arc line. Where do they fall? Is your first great scene not until the 1/4 mark on your arc? That's about page 75 in a 300-page book, or page 100 in a 400-page book. We usually need a great scene before that. Maybe you need to cut the opening chapters. Pull the critical elements out of them and sprinkle them into your action scenes later in the book, or, if you really need those critical elements to set up the story, condense them into a chapter that's necessary to the rest of the story). Looking at your story arc from the great scene perspective can give you the courage to kill your darlings, and the understanding of why you want to.

But let's dig a little deeper. I feel like it's useful to have more specific advice on how a great scene is generally structured, as well. Elizabeth Lyon (A Writer's Guide to Fiction), says that these big, fully-realized scenes, which can be short or can go on for pages and pages, include:
  • setting details
  • physical sensations of the point-of-view character
  • immediate emotional reactions by the characters to the unfolding events
  • show of "turns" when emotions shift and reverse, and
  • clarity of shifting emotional truths and needs of protagonist and main characters
Now we're getting to the nitty gritty! Lyon also says that these scenes have high dramatic intensity and end either with disaster or surprise; they are crisis scenes or triumphal

This is all a lot to digest, so let's see if we can find a couple of well-known "great scenes" as examples. I'm going to use a movie rather than a book to provide examples, simply for space reasons. All the fully developed scenes I want to take from books are just too many pages to include in an already-long blog post. With a movie, the visuals that take up so much space in writing are on the screen simultaneously. If you've seen the movie, you'll remember the visuals.

Since the climax is almost always a great (fully realized) scene, that's a good place to go for a demonstration. But let's also look at an earlier scene in the same movie that's in the fully-realized category.

Let's use the classic movie, Casablanca. (The old classic movies offer fantastic, clear examples of these principles. If you haven't seen this movie, rent it. Watch it for its structure if nothing else. Every necessary beat is hit with clarity and made powerful through action/reaction, dialogue and atmosphere.) 

First, a bit of background to refresh your memory of the story, or give you the essentials if you haven't seen the movie: In Casablanca, we have Rick, an American expatriate who runs a saloon (Rick's Cafe Americain) in Casablanca, Morocco, during World War II. The war is raging in Europe, but America hasn't entered it yet. Rick, however, had gone overseas and fought the good fight against the fascists where he could. But Europe, hard as it fought, wasn't strong enough to stand up to the Nazis; the good fight wasn't good enough. Now Rick has given up, he's soured and bitter as he sees the Nazis powering through Europe, destroying as they go. (He barely escaped Paris as the Nazis entered; he would have been captured and executed for his past heroism had he stayed. Significantly, while he was in Paris, he met and fell in love with Ilsa, a young woman who doesn't tell him everything about her past. When he left Paris, she was supposed to escape with him, but she never showed up, further destroying Rick's faith in goodness.) Now he's a cynical saloon-owner who doesn't mind bending the rules, and he has a serious self-destructive streak. He's an anti-hero. Into this setting, one night, walks Ilsa, on the arm of the husband she'd never told Rick about, Victor Laszlo, War Hero, underground leader of the great cause against the Nazis. Even if you haven't seen the film, you no doubt know Rick's drunken, bitter line after Ilsa leaves Rick's Cafe with Victor that night  . . . "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world,  she walks into mine."

Meanwhile, there's the cop with no morals— good or bad—Louie, who runs the police in Casablanca. He and Rick have an understanding. Louie cheats at the gambling tables in Rick's Cafe, and Rick lets him, in exchange for not having his gambling tables shut down because gambling is illegal. And then there are the Nazi soldiers, led by the evil Major Strasser, who have arrived in Casablanca and are doing their best to take it over, although Morocco is not officially part of the War. The Nazis want Victor Laszlo so bad they can taste it. 

The drama revolves around not only Rick and his disillusionment and need for Ilsa, but around "papers of transit"—the open sesame that can get whoever holds them out of Morocco and onto a plane that will take them to a safe country. There are papers of transit for two people that have become available in Casablanca. The names just need to be filled in. Rick has them.

Okay, now to the great scenes. The first one below comes a while before the climax, and serves to thicken the plot and heighten the tension to the point where something is going to have to give, one way or another. 

Great Scene One:

Ilsa wants those papers of transit for Victor and herself, and she'll do anything to get them. There's a night curfew in Casablanca, but she risks being caught and arrested to go to Rick's living quarters above the saloon late at night, after Victor has slipped out of their hotel room to go to an underground meeting.  Ilsa is conflicted. She's still in love with Rick, but she reveres Victor and she is, after all, his wife, and she knows what's right. When Rick comes in and sees her he's shocked that she's there, but plays it cool. With all the dignity she can muster, she asks for the papers of transit. Rick says no. He's no hero. To hell with Laszlo and his unique value to a noble cause. Rick's heart has been broken, and he's got no mercy. She pulls a gun on him, but when he steps close and says, "I'll make it easy for you. Go ahead and shoot. You'll be doing me a favor," she breaks down in tears, the gun goes away, and she falls into his arms. Ilsa can't resist Rick and he finally has the chance to spend his life with her. They cook up a scheme to get Victor on the plane to safety. Victor won't know that Ilsa isn't coming with him . . . that at the last moment she will stay behind so she can be with Rick.

Conflict and emotion? You bet. The stakes couldn't be much higher. And you clearly see what the stakes are to the inner lives of both characters, as well. Surprise? Ilsa pulling a gun is a surprise, to Rick as well as to us. And as much as we know Rick is self destructive, we are surprised and upset that he invites Ilsa to kill him and put an end to it all. When Ilsa falls into Rick's arms that's a big reversal of intention, or what Lyon calls a show of "turns" when emotions shift and reverse.  And there is certainly clarity of shifting emotional truths and needs of protagonist and main characters at the end of the scene.  The other things Lyon tells us a great scene needs: setting details, physical sensations of the point-of-view character, and immediate emotional reactions by the characters to the unfolding events are clear as can be to the viewer in the cinematography.

Great Scene Two—the final, climactic scene:

Late the next night, Rick enlists Louie's support to get Ilsa and Victor on an airplane to Lisbon that will be leaving shortly. Louie has to sign off on the papers of transit, so Rick has no choice but to involve him. Louie quickly agrees, but when Rick isn't looking he telephones Major Strasser, pretending he's calling police headquarters. Through careful language he alerts Strasser to get to the airport to capture Victor Laszlo. (Louie always hedges his bets, he's likable but untrustworthy.) Rick and Louie rush out to the airport in Louie's car. It's a foggy night. At the airport, they wait in the cold, then a black car pulls up and Ilsa and Victor get out and come to them. Louie turns away (turns a blind eye). Ilsa and Victor come over to Rick. Victor thanks him with great eloquence. Ilsa's conflict is written all over her face, but she covers it for Victor's sake. The airplane's propellers start up out on the tarmac, and they all turn toward it. Rick hands over the signed papers for Victor and Ilsa and tells them to go. Ilsa is dumbstruck. This wasn't the plan. She won't move. Rick pulls her aside and gives the speech we all remember about what really counts, that ends with, "It doesn't take much to see that in this crazy world the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans." Then Rick faces Victor (who's no dummy and has figured out that his wife is still involved with Rick) and tells him that the night before, Ilsa came to him to ask for the papers and was willing to do anything for them. "I let her," he says, and adds something about her being noble, implying that she only did it for Victor, and Rick would not hold her to any promise to stay with him. Victor listens gravely, nods, and says he understands. Then he and Ilsa turn toward the airplane, her looking back with anguish but relief at the same time, and walk onto to the tarmac to board the plane.

A moment later Major Strasser's car screeches into the airport. Rick whirls on Louie, who has no remorse. Strasser runs over, but the airplane is taxiing down the runway. Strasser runs to the telephone to alert someone to stop the plane and Rick pulls a gun on him. Rick tells him to stop or he'll shoot him. Strasser, on the phone, whips out his gun to shoot Rick, but Rick fires first and kills Strasser. The airplane takes off. 

Now what? Sirens are everywhere as the police rush to the scene, having been alerted that there was trouble at the airport. Rick looks at Louie. Louie looks at Rick. Strasser's body is lying on the ground, still warm but very dead. Louie turns to the officers, who are his subordinates. There's a moment's pause, and then he says, "Round up the usual suspects." Rick is shocked. The officers rush off to round up the usual suspects. Louie points out that neither he nor Rick can stay in Casablanca now. It's too dangerous for them. Rick and Louie walk off into the sunset . . . oops, I mean the fog, and Rick utters the immortal line, "Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."  THE END.

The conflict, emotion and surprise are all over the place as everyone is trying to survive and achieve their own agendas (which are at cross-purposes) in a desperate situation. The conflicts are both external (Strasser) and internal (Ilsa and Rick, Ilsa and Victor, Rick and Louie). The external stakes are life and death. The internal stakes are right up there with "reason to live"— to have love or not, to be honorable or not.  The show of "turns" when emotions shift and reverse and  the clarity of shifting emotional truths and needs of protagonist and main characters are not only with Ilsa as she accepts Rick's sacrifice, but with Rick when he  realizes, at the last moment of the movie, that he's just rejoined the world of people who fight the good fight, and that's what he and Louie are going to do.

Identifying the great scenes in our manuscripts and applying these standards to them is a ticket to a good, strong plot, not to mention achieving success with our scenes. Of course, there's a lot more to it, but this seems like an excellent place to start. (AND, don't forget, when you've got a finished first draft, it's time to read through it and cut or change any scene that's weak. You can kill your darlings. They'll stand out like a sore thumb if they don't support your great scenes.)

Do you have a favorite fully-realized scene from a movie or a book that inspires you to write something that good


  1. An EXCELLENT post! Gonna tweet it!

  2. Casablanca is such a great example. Great post!

    1. Yes, something about Casablanca is irresistible. Thanks, Lydia

  3. Pretty much the entire movie, Braveheart, has always made me want to write something THAT good. I just love it!

    1. Ah, that's perfect for your work, Heather. I can see the connection clearly.

  4. Linda, this is the problem with my current work. "What happens in the scene affects the rest of the story, and in a big way." I'm not sure that mine does. Well, not at this point.
    This is exactly what I needed. Thank you so much!!!

    1. I'm so glad it was timely for you, Karlene. It's helping me a lot right now, too! :)