Writers’ Resources – Scene and Plot in Story Structure
Who this is for: Any writer who wants to understand and strengthen the underlying structure and meaning of what they write, before they write 100,000 words and then try to edit it. Warning: Also works for novellas, short stories and poetry.
See Shawn Coyne’s book, The Story Grid for his concept of building a complex plot through crisp understanding of literary genres. A deep and demanding study, but worth the effort.
Coyne gives you an easy out. He says if you can write an effective scene, you can write an effective novel by putting one great scene after another. Look at the obligatory elements and see how one scene sets up the next. And you’re off!
OBLIGATORY ELEMENTS OF EVERY SCENE
Inciting incident — something throws the protagonist’s world out of wack
Progressive complications — as the protagonist tries to fix it, more obstacles appear – quicksand!
Crisis — Should hero go ahead, or go home?
Climax — Protagonist makes a decision. Reader should be surprised and satisfied, feel some catharsis or change of worldview. The climax should fit with the earlier parts of the scene.
Resolution (turn) — Who won, who lost, can protagonist go back to how things were? If the answer is yes, it’s relatively boring. If the hero must go forward, your story becomes about life or death.
The Resolution is called a ‘turn’ because every SCENE is about CHANGE. If nothing changes, all you have is a pile of words. Your scene must have conflict. Someone must win or lose. Hero’s outlook on the world (or the world itself) must change by the end of the scene.
Learn to identify the five components of scene in everything you read. Watch what the turn of the scene FEELS like.
Work to create inciting incidents with the most meaning and rocket fuel for the story you want to tell.
If you can write one good scene after another, you’ve got shot at a book.
Beats in Screen or Novel Writing (See savethecat.com/services/beatsheet)
Numbered points below describe each of the 15 beats. Page ranges are assumed to be from a 110-page screenplay.
This is ONE take on the application of beats to writing a script or novel. It’s not genre-specific, but it points out what a little structure can do to keep your writing lurching along a solid path.
1- Opening Image pg 1-5
First impression of what the story is, establishes the mood and type of film.
Sally encounters raccoon holding a crystal cylinder. She and raccoon disappear. Poof.
Anna, wearing a breathing mask, runs past a rebreather station that’s removing carbon from California’s murky yellow sky. Not the world we once had.
2 – Theme Stated pg 5
Somewhere in the first five minutes of a well-structured screenplay, someone will pose a question or make a statement (usually to the main character) that is the theme of the movie. This statement is the movie’s thematic premise.
We’re living in poverty / This is not the world we once had / Life’s a dangerous adventure or nothing / We all think we deserve what we’re unworthy of.
3 – Set-up pg 1-10
Sets up the hero, stakes, and goal of the story. Introduce or at least hint at every character in the A story. The first 10 pages is where to plant every character tie, exhibit every behavior that needs to be addressed later on and show how and why the hero will need to change in order to win.
Anna developed an algorithm that can locate ancient alien mining sites on Earth.
Her prof Mumford suppressed it under their contract.
Anna is unwittingly processing daily dig data from a Colombian archeological site which her research located.
Anna is ready for her PHD to be conferred
Everyone must wear breather helmets to filter the poisoned air.
Rumors of 60 thousand missing women across the Americas, gone without a trace.
NASA classified Mumford’s “paper” because they think it is communication from aliens.
Trachler targets her as a galactic terrorista.
4 – Catalyst pg 12-15
The catalyst kickstarts the action… First point of no return.
Anna’s object of desire: Finish her degree. She’s sick of this male-dominated university, wants to get a job far from here.
Scene – Degree Denied
Inciting Incident: Ph.D. advisor Carl Mumford tells Anna her degree will have to wait.
Mumford wants her to travel to an archaeological dig in Bogota, Colombia.
She refuses, but Mumford reveals the dig team is after a second gold sculpture that will add to their knowledge of the Raft.
Time’s running out: recurrent earthquakes in Colombia threaten to seal up the borehole.
Crisis: Still she refuses.
Climax: Mumford reveals her thesis was classed as plagiarism. She’ll need time to fix it – while she’s on the dig site in Colombia. He says two months, you’re back and you’ll get your degree.
Why was her paper called plagiarism? Because Mumford himself published it under his name and got it classified by the Dept. of Defense.
But because she wrote the paper, she’s the only one qualified.
Resolution: Anna gives in and agrees to go, angry but now interested in the project.
5 – Debate pg 22-25
Last chance for the hero to say: This is crazy. Should I fight or run?
Scene – Anna’s Refusal
Inciting Incident: At the Colombia dig site, Sandoval tells Anna that she’s here to retrieve a new find, which was lost underground during a cave-in that killed two researchers.
Sandoval, a member of her doctoral committee, distrusts her because of the p-flag on her thesis.
Anna learns from dig leader Sandoval that two million women have vanished without a trace in the last five years.
It fires up her conspiracy theories of UFOs and a sinister governmental authority.
Sandoval reveals they’re in a race with NASA’s predictive data computing experts.
When Anna sees the borehole, she knows something is very strange. She checks her algorithm, and finds out this is an alien mining site from prehistory. Why the HELL didn’t you tell ME? It’s MY site!
Anna finds out it’s Mumford’s company, using her calculations.
Anna says send someone else down the hole.
Crisis: Sandoval tells her that NASA wants to take the project away from the university because of “national security.”
Climax: She’s won over by her disgust for the security apparatus and lifelong fear of conspiracies.
Resolution: Anna agrees to be lowered into the earth in search of the artifact.
6 – Break into (Act) Two – pg 25 –
This is the moment we leave the old world behind and proceed into a world that is upside down.
Anna agrees to go down the hole.
She thinks she finds the object the two lost archaeologists were seeking.
Scene – Things Get Creepier
An earthquake shatters the ground and she falls deeper.
She’s disconnected from her ropes, her harness, her radio.
A mysterious golden light gathers her up and pulls her deeper into the ground.
She lands in an underground cavern populated by very unusual people/animals/animated things.
Anna sees blue sky outside, runs toward it, not knowing what to believe but hopeful of finding her way back to the surface.
Crisis: Anna with her astronomy knowledge knows the night sky here different than seen from Earth.
Climax: This could be an illusion, but she decides she’s somewhere else in the galaxy.
Resolution: She now knows she’s not on Earth, and mentally surrenders.
Anna petted by Celtyne while the others watch.
7 – B Story pg 30
B story of most screenplays is the “love story.” It is also the story that carries the theme of the movie. The B story often introduces a brand new set of characters. Often a friendship story. [Very formulaic]
The women are treated as pets, like purring kittens.
More generally, the B story is the protagonist’s inner struggle. Who she is versus the forces aligned against her.
8 – Fun and Games p 30-35
Provides the promise of the premise.
Speech in praise of the villain. Speech (knowledge) in praise of the villain. Anna recognizes Celtyne’s power while being petted. Outline the enormous power and cunning of the villain to defeat the protagonist.
9 – Midpoint pg 55
Midpoint is either an “up” where the hero seemingly peaks or a “down” when the world collapses all around the hero.
50% is mark where the sex kicks in with many screenplays
Anna realizes she’ll be with this horde of abducted women forever.
Anna feels love for Celtyne, tries to convince her to save Earth.
Celtyne says NO it’s your job you would feel diminished if we did it for you.
10 – Bad Guys Close In (pg. 55-75):
This is the point where the bad guys decide to regroup and send in the heavy artillery.
Also where internal dissent, doubt, and jealousy begin to disrupt the hero and her team.
11 – All Is Lost
All is Lost is the matching beat to the Midpoint…these two beats are always inverses of each other. It’s the opposite of the midpoint in terms of an “up” or a “down.” Point of the script often labeled, “false defeat.”Even though it looks all black, it’s just temporary. All aspects of the hero’s life are in shambles.
Sally is gone (sent back by Beatrice)
Anna faces her fear.
Anna goes below.
Anna thrown out of heaven, back to Earth.
12 – Dark Night of the Soul pg 75-85
This section depicts how your character experiences and feels at the All is Lost point. Hopeless, clueless, drunk, and stupid–sitting on the side of the road with a flat tire and four cents, late for the big appointment that will save our lives.
Anna back on Earth, having meat sacs.
13 – Break into (Act) Three pg. 85-90
The Solution! Both in the external story (the A story) and the protagonist’s internal story (the B story) now meet and intertwine. The hero has prevailed, passed every test, and dug deep to find the solution. Or not. Now all he has to do is apply it. An idea to solve the problem has emerged.
Scene: Hero at the mercy of the villain, Trachler.
She employs her skills and new strength to kill him.
14 – Finale
Where the lessons learned are applied. It’s where the character tics are mastered. The chief source of “the problem” – a person or thing – must be dispatched completely for the new world order to exist.
Wrap B story and A story together if that fits.
Talk of Mars
Sally more reasoning about why they have to separate from Earth.
15 – Final Image pg 110
The new world order is visible.
Opposite of the opening image. Proof that change has occurred and that it’s real.
Drill rig falls into hole.
Sandoval loves her, believes in her work.
Sally with her for Mars
Celtyne with her.
This is a revealing analysis of the structure around theme and why it made the X-Files such a compelling story.