The 1 Thing Your Scenes MUST HAVE
Sully is a good representation of how I want people to react when enthralled by a story I’ve written:
But more often than not, I get a reaction more like this:
Or at least, I did. I couldn’t understand why my writing produced these less-than-stellar responses. I had meticulously worded every sentence. I’d made sure there were exciting parts. I had parceled out backstory, setting, and exposition so the reader could understand what the heck was going on. So why did eyes glaze over while reading my book? Why did MY eyes glaze over while reading my own work?
The problem, I finally found out, was that my scenes didn’t turn.
I was cramming all that exposition in right out of the gate, so the reader knew absolutely everything … which meant there wasn’t anything to find out. The scenes were just tiny chronicles where the main character set out to do something and accomplished it with flying colors. Nothing ever happened that surprised him. And consequently, nothing ever happened to surprise the reader.
I wasn’t withholding information, and revealing it methodically.
I wasn’t letting the story spin in new directions. It was always chugging along the straightforward track where I’d dropped my reader.
I wasn’t letting my scenes TURN.
To illustrate what I mean, here’s an example of a great scene with a great turn from a wonderful movie: Beauty and the Beast
*Opening music that makes me want to cry from how beautiful it is*
“Once upon a time, in a faraway land a young prince lived in a shining castle…” (Action: Apparently the world takes action to make sure this prince lives a cushy existence.)
“Although he had everything his heart desired, the prince was spoiled, selfish, and unkind.” (Reaction: And he acts like a brat anyway.)
“But then, one winter’s night, and old beggar woman came to the castle and offered a single rose in return for shelter from the bitter cold.” (Action)
“Repulsed by her haggard appearance, the prince sneered at the gift, and turned the old woman away.” (Reaction)
“But she warned him, not to be deceived by appearances, for beauty is found within.” (Action)
“And when he dismissed her again …” (Reaction)
“The old woman’s ugliness melted away to reveal a beautiful enchantress.” (Action)
“The prince tried to apologize …” (Reaction)
“But it was too late, for she had seen that there was no love in his heart. And as punishment, she transformed him into a hideous beast and placed a powerful spell on the castle, and all who lived there.” (Action)
“Ashamed of his monstrous form, the beast concealed himself inside his castle, with a magic mirror as his only window to the outside world.” (Reaction)
“The rose she had offered was truly an enchanted rose, that would bloom until his 21st year. If he could learn to love another, and earn their love in return, by the time the last petal fell, then the spell would be broken. If not, he would be doomed to remain a beast for all time.” (Action)
“As the years passed, he fell into despair, and lost all hope.” (Reaction)
“For who could ever learn to love a beast?”
Turn: The 6th beat is the turn. The story has spun in a new direction, the direction the WHOLE STORY will motor towards.
Revelation: There’s the big one of the scene turn, but I love how every action and reaction in this prologue feels like a revelation. Each one feels like it could be a scene on it’s own, but it’s told in a just few words, with beautiful imagery. There’s no fluff in this, nothing unnecessary, everything is perfectly needed. (Sorry, I just really love this opening. I can remember sitting in my little wicker rocking chair when I was four watching this in awe. This movie is one of the reasons I’m story obsessed.)
NOW let’s remove all curiosity and surprise from this scene.
We’ll take away the atmosphere of “all is not as it seems”, the “seeking and learning significant information” feeling, the sense that we’re climbing to something significant. Instead of withholding and revealing snippets of information, after gradual beat-by-beat escalation of curiosity, we’ll dump all information right away. We’ll take this beautiful scene, and make it distinctly not a scene by removing all traces of a turn.
So! The purpose of this “section” of story is to communicate necessary information. What info? The guy used to be a terrible prince. Someone cursed him to be a beast. His castle and the people who live there are also cursed. He’s got a rose that will bloom until he’s 21. He’s supposed to fall in love with someone and get that person to love him back. Or he’s going to be a beast forevermore. So, let’s give it a whirl.
Let’s say it opens up on Lumiere and the Beast. They’re just hanging out in the West Wing, the Beast watching the rose sparkle, Lumiere extinguishing and reigniting his left candle/hand for something to do.
LUMIERE: “So Master, it’s been years since you were turned into a beast and the castle staff was turned into objects.”
L: “I wish you hadn’t have upset that enchantress, and been a bit kinder.”
B: “Me too. Don’t know how.”
L: “Now our only hope to return to our human forms, is if you fall in love and get that person to fall in love with you.”
B: *Noncommittal grunt*
L: “Better happen soon, before that last petal on the magical rose falls. When you turn 21, it’s going to fall. And if you haven’t learned to love by then, well, we’re stuck.”
B: “I’m aware."
Well, that was extraordinarily awful.
So what about these scenes is different? (Besides one being a work of art and the other being agony in text form.)
– One withholds information and reveals it slowly, turning the story at the end.
– One is just an info dump.
So how can a turn be accomplished? There are four types of turns:
– Amplified Curiosity
– New Insight
– Spin in New Direction
A SURPRISE turn is the difference between what the character expects and what actually happens, surprising them, surprising the reader/audience that is enthralled by your story. A CURIOSITY turn is when a new mystery is presented to the reader, increasing their drive to find out what happens next. An INSIGHT one is when a scene ends by solving a mystery, answering a question that the audience has been wondering about. And a SPIN is just that, a turn that jolts the story into a new unexpected direction.
And how do they work in a scene?
The turn happens at the end. It’s the point of the scene. Everything’s leading to it. Think of it as the period punctuation mark on the end of the sentence that is your scene. But really your reader is anticipating that turn throughout the scene.
It’s this anticipation and “gradual illumination” that’s crucial to a story turn. This is the wonderful curious feeling that keeps us turning pages. That sense that “all is not as it seems, and if I keep reading I’ll find out the truth.” which is so intoxicating. And this is accomplished with beats, the exchanges of action and reaction, each acting like a escalation on a roller coaster, each increasing anticipation for the drop.
Turns and revelation anticipation are rather magical when you think about it. They really are (as Robert McKee says) the substance of story. (Or they’re magical to me. I said I was obsessed. Blame this movie!)
Now I’m going to go watch Beauty and the Beast again.