There are few things as soul-crushing in the writing process (at least to me) than getting a bunch of characters in a room with the intention of something happening, then the characters proceed to stand around and stare at each other.
Or worse, look at you like this.
My characters didn’t know why they were there. I didn’t know why they were there either. I had no clue what they were supposed to be doing, so I’d start throwing random instructions at them: “Fight, characters! You guys should fight now! Maybe fighting will make this event have a purpose!” Which inevitably resulted in characters going through the motions of battle for no apparent reason, like they had all lost their minds.
What was the problem? I didn’t know how to write a scene. I didn’t know what a scene was. I had a vague definition that it was something about changing scenery, or just “something happening”.
It’s not. And once I learned what a scene was, my characters got to stop pummeling each other, while wishing they could pummel me.
So what is a scene?
The definition of a scene is kind of like the definition of a story. Story is change, a massive change in the life of your main character. A scene is change too, but much smaller, and part of that huge story change. You couldn’t have the BIG change without these tiny changes. Thus, a scene is not switching scenery. It’s not flipping to a new Character’s POV. It’s one segment of change, which triggers the next change, which triggers the next, which gradually build into sequences, which build into Acts, which build into story.
So what goes into a scene? How does it work?
1. Alternating Charges
If a scene opens positive, it will turn negative by the end. If it opens negative, it will end positive. Simple.
2. Character Goals
Everybody in a scene wants something. If they don’t want anything, they shouldn’t be in the scene. And these characters, with their often opposing goals, are going to employ different tactics on each other to get what they want. Which creates …
3. Escalating Conflict
Conflict is created when one character wants one thing and another wants something else, right? So the characters in the scene are each pushing for something different, each new tactic increasing in determination. And what are these actions called?
The beats of a scene are exchanges of action and reaction. One character does something, another character reacts. All exchanges (beats) are pushing the scene onward, building tension and conflict, until finally …
5. Turns & Revelations
The scene turns. The positive has changed to negative. Something has been discovered. The story has spun in a new direction.
6. Connection to Story Objective
Every scene must be connected to the BIG goal of the story, the main character is taking small actions to reach that big goal. If it isn’t obviously connected to this big plot, it won’t make sense. Your reader won’t know why the heck they’re reading the scene. Which brings us to …
7. Logic & Necessity
Every scene must be necessary. It must be able to be linked with the previous scene. “Because that happened in the previous scene, THIS must happen in this scene.”
So! To see how that all works, let’s break down a scene from Tangled. (Because I used it in the last post to map out how a premise works, and my little writer heart can’t resist symmetry.)
Rapunzel’s Goal: Rise up against her mother – finally.
Gothel’s Goal: Regain control.
Escalating Conflict: They’re fighting over who controls Rapunzel, and this battle causes them to go from “mother and daughter” to “enemies”. The conflict builds nicely in this scene, causing the story turn.
Connection to Story Objective: Throughout the movie, the big thing Rapunzel wants is freedom, she wants her life to begin, she wants to have a new dream. This is the moment she figures out how to do that; it’s not escaping the tower, it’s escaping Gothel’s control over her.
So! Here’s the scene.
“Rapunzel? Rapunzel, what’s going on up there?”
Ignores her. Still processing the tremendous implications of this revelation.
“Are you alright?"
"I’m the lost princess.” (Dumbfounded. Almost whispering it to herself.)
“Oh, please speak up Rapunzel! You know how I hate the mumbling.” (Bullying.)
“I am the lost princess! Aren’t I?” (Fighting back. She will not be bullied anymore.)
Gothel stares, stunned. She’s rendered temporarily speechless, because her secret’s been revealed finally, and her victim is actually fighting against her.
“Did I mumble, Mother? Or should I even call you that?” (Accusing. Drawing herself up taller. Looking down on Gothel and glaring. She’s seeing her clearly for the first time in her life.)
After a pause, thinking up a tactic. “Oh, Rapunzel, do you even hear yourself? How could you ask such a ridiculous question?” (Laughs. Ridicules. Attempts to make her feel childish, dumb, worthy of being mocked. Tactics which have always worked. She even begins to hug her.)
Rapunzel pushes her. “It was you! It was all you!” (Still accusing and angry, but pain is beginning to show. It’s almost like she’s giving her a chance to explain herself.)
“Everything I did was to protect you.” (And Gothel doesn’t say anything redeeming. She’s holier than thou, regal, bestowing kindness on an ungrateful, stupid child. Trying to control through guilt.)
Rapunzel rams her out of the way.
“Rapunzel!” (Shouting. Now trying anger.)
“I’ve spent my entire life hiding from people who would use me for my power …” (Leaves her.)
"Rapunzel!” (Still trying the anger angle.)
“But I should have been hiding from you.” (Throwing the truth at her.)
“Where will you go? He won’t be there for you.” (She’s tried everything else. It’s time to attack her heart.)
“What did you do to him?” (Fear)
“That criminal is to be hanged for his crimes.” (She’s keeping up the disapproving mother act, but striking her right where it will hurt her most.)
“No.” (She’s stopped. Shrinking in on herself. Staring, horrified. And Gothel thinks she’s won.)
“Now, now. It’s alright. Listen to me. All of this is as it should be.” She goes to pat Rapunzel’s head, a gesture symbolic of her superiority, her physical, mental, and emotional control over her victim.
Rapunzel grabs Gothel’s wrist. “No! You were wrong about the world. And you were wrong about me! And I will never let you use my hair again!"
Gothel wrenches free, stumbling backwards in shock and anger, breaking the mirror in the process.
"You want me to be the bad guy? Fine. Now I’m the bad guy.” (Well, now emotional control is over. It’s time to start stabbing Rapunzel’s boyfriend.)
This action has no reaction, interestingly. It leaves us hanging, a cliffhanger created with only beats.
Closing Charge: Negative. She’s now a full-fledged villain, the motherly persona shed, and she’s determined to get what she wants whatever the cost.
Turn: It changed from positive to negative, and now we’ve got a Flynn-stabbing witch to deal with.
Revelation: She’s always been evil. She has always been the bad guy. The motherly act was just that, an act.
Logic & Necessity: This scene fits with the previous scene, and the one that follows.
Though I’ve seen these concepts in many books, the place I first learned about it (and the best resource for scene design in my opinion) is the book Story by Robert McKee. It’s helped me countless times, is one of my favorite books on storytelling, and I highly recommend it if you write anything.
I realize that these definitions were a little vague, so I’ll be explaining things more thoroughly in subsequent posts.
To all the writers who have ever felt lost, alone, and completely confused during the labyrinthine journey that is writing anything, and felt like screaming this at your story …
There’s a light at the end of that darn tunnel. First, let me describe how I used to fight my way out of these periods of confusion and hopelessness.
Usually, I would try to force myself to get back into the groove of the story. I would reread it, and be yelling at myself in my head, “Remember why you love it! LOVE your book again! Keep reading and FALL IN LOVE, damn it!” I’d go over descriptions, bits of dialogue, banter between the characters. I’d go over settings and imagery, and try to make myself remember how much they’d once excited me. I’d read things that had made me laugh when I typed them, sentences that I was particularly proud of, paragraphs that made me feel particularly clever. But the thing was, it didn’t work.
I didn’t care.
What was the problem? The problem was some of those descriptions, settings, images, and witty episodes of bantering had no Story Reason to be there. They were just there because they amused me. Just because I found the imagery beautiful. Just because I found a sentence or joke really clever and wanted to share my wit with the world. But the world didn’t care about my wit. Because the world (the people reading my book) knew subconsciously that there was no story to give that so-called witty sentence substance and meaning. I could create the most breath-taking images, I could make the most well-rounded living and breathing character, I could make a setting that you wanted to run away from home and live inside … and it didn’t matter. If the thing didn’t have a purpose for being there within the narrative, nobody cared. And I didn’t either.
So what is a Story Reason?
Everything in a story exists to support one of three things.
1. The A-story: The surface plot, the quest of the main character to achieve a specific tangible goal. What the story is about on the surface.
2. The B-Story: The love story, or relationship of the thing. Usually this relationship is instrumental in causing the third element, which is …
3. The Character Arc. The theme of the story, the purpose, the piece of truth the story seeks to prove to the main character and the audience.
If something in a story doesn’t contribute to the progress of these three, there’s no reason we should care about it. It has no point. Because in the end, all we care about is the story!
When it comes to scenes, story reason means continuity. It means the way the story unfolds logically. If every scene is there for a darn good reason, the scenes after and before will make total sense, they’ll connect seamlessly, a steady progression of events. Every scene’s turn triggers the next scene.
And to do this, every scene must be able to be linked with three words:Because of that.
Because of the turn of one scene …
The next scene happens.
And because of the turn of that scene the next scene happens.
To illustrate how this works, let’s look at a small movie you might have heard about called Zootopia. (Thanks to @inked-withlove for the movie suggestion!)
So let’s start at this point, the turn of the scene with Clawhauser and Judy searching the file on Emmitt Otterton.
Turn: “I have a lead."
Because of that …
Judy has to get Nick to tell her what he knows about Otterton.
Turn: It all goes poorly, and now Nick and Judy are stuck together by an incriminating adorable carrot recorder. (The B Story, the relationship, has intertwined with the A Story.)
Because of that …
Nick takes Judy to the place he saw Otterton go, a place he thinks will cause her to give up.
Turn: She doesn’t quit, she marches right in. (B Story: Nick sounds surprised, and a little impressed, that she didn’t back down.)
Because of that …
She has to question a rude yoga-performing elephant.
Turn: Though the elephant is absolutely no help, the seemingly addled yak is more than helpful – he even remembers the license plate number of the car Emmitt left in.
Because of that …
Nick thinks his part in this endeavor is complete. But Judy remembers that she’s not in the system yet, and thus can’t run a plate. Nick, however, can. And he’s going to, or else.
Turn: It just so happens that he has a pal at the DMV.
Because of that …
Sloths. He takes her to a DMV run by sloths and wastes as much of her precious dwindling time as he can.
Turn: “It’s night?!”
Because of that …
Legitimate Enterprise Car Service (at least that’s what it’s called in the screenplay) is closed. Judy doesn’t have a warrant and Nick is enjoying her suffering tremendously. After a spat, she tosses the carrot over the fence instead of handing it to him.
Turn: Because she has now seen a shifty low-life climbing the fence, she has probable cause, and doesn’t need a warrant. She can go in. (B Story: Nick is looking at her with more respect.)
Because of that …
They find the car and begin investigating. The car is a crime scene; claw marks everywhere, the missing otter’s wallet … and a cocktail glass etched with a "B”.
Turn: And it all adds up for Nick. This car belongs to Mr Big, a notorious crime boss. And his polar bear henchman are right outside. They grab Judy and Nick and yank them off screen.
Because of that …
Judy and Nick are wedged between the bear henchman, on their way to face Mr Big.
Turn: Nick sold him a very expensive rug that happened to be made from the fur of a skunk’s butt. Or in other words, Mr Big really doesn’t like Nick.
Because of that …
They wait fearfully for Mr Big to appear, and even when he’s revealed to be a tiny shrew, Nick still launches into obsequious and panicked mode. He tries talking his way out of it, but Mr Big really REALLY doesn’t like him. And when Judy shouts at him that she’s a cop and she has evidence on him –
Turn: “Ice ‘em.”
Because of that …
“No icing anyone at my wedding!” Fru Fru Shrew is not a happy camper. Father and daughter bicker about his promise of no murder on her wedding day, and the fact that “I have to, baby. Daddy has to.” Until –
Turn: “She’s the bunny who saved my life yesterday. From that giant doughnut!” Well, Judy is now in Mr Big’s good books. He’s going to pay her kindness forward. Nick is floored.
I’m gonna stop there.
SO! After going through that analysis of how the scenes are linked together, let’s abandon the “everything needs a story reason to be in there” rule, and see what happens.
After the scene where Judy and Nick reluctantly join forces, we could add a scene where Nick is trying to remember the name of the place, and where it is. Then we could have them asking around, searching the city, refusing to ask for directions, lots of banter. THEN we can finally get to The Mystic Springs Oasis.
And after they get the plate number, maybe Nick grabs the carrot pen and makes a run for it. Then we can have a chase scene, but he gets away. Then we can have Judy trying to run the plate on her own, before realizing she isn’t in the system, and failing. Then we can have a scene where she has to track down Nick again. Then a scene where she figures out how to blackmail him into it. THEN they finally get to the DMV.
And you know what would have happened then?
Zootopia would have made everyone bored.
All of these inserted scenes are unnecessary. Sure, they might add conflict, add complications to Judy’s quest, but they’re ultimately just filler. They’re just there for the sake of bulking out the story. This is why that tip I hear so often in writing circles always perplexes me: “Figure out the worst possible thing that can happen to your character, then do that.” If people went with this rule, they’d just keep throwing terrible things at the characters for no apparent reason, one after another, and the reader or audience would be expected to be entertained by it (but wouldn’t be). It would be like cartoons before Mickey Mouse came along and applied story to animation: before, cartoons were just gag after gag, slapstick situations mashed together like a funny video compilation. Except with books and movies, it would just be conflict-heavy situations strung together, taking an inordinate amount of time to make any actual progress.
Once you make sure everything has a purpose within the narrative, things get so much better. And I find, when I reread my work I don’t have to scream at myself to “love your book or else” if everything has a reason for being there. And instead of feeling like yelling at my story like an angry overworked crab, I feel a lot more like this gif.
I can’t believe what a good sport Lil J is he literally has a massive fear of heights and when he comes into the office to find out they raised his desk and chair up to the fucking ceiling he’s just like “welp, okay, this is kind of funny, WINCH ME UP” what a cool guy
You will find that it is extraordinarily
difficult to watch yourself in the mirror of relationship without any
sense of condemning what you see, and if you condemn what you see, you
do not understand it. To understand a thing as it is, condemnation,
judgment, evaluation, must go which is extremely difficult because at
present we are trained, educated to condemn, to reject, to approve, to
deny.And that is only the beginning of it, a very shallow beginning. But
one must go through that, one must understand the whole process of the
mind, not merely intellectually, verbally, but as one lives from day to
day, watching oneself in this mirror of relationship. One must actually
experience what is taking place in the mind-examine it, be aware of the
whole content of it, without denying, suppressing, or putting it away.
Then, if you go so far, and if you are at all serious, you will find
that the mind is no longer projecting any image, no longer creating any
myth, any illusion; it is beginning to understand the totality of
itself, and therefore it becomes very clear, simple, quiet.
Dear Duke, I have noticed something about my writing: I do not know how to conduct a dialogue. I do not know how to add an emotional "burden" to the discussion. It does not sound believable what I write. To me, it seems more like a lecture than a simple conversation. I just wanted to write engaging more with the emotional side of my characters than with the intellectual. How can I do it?
Hi! You’re in the right place because dialogue is actually my favorite thing to write and any book of mine you pick up will probably be like at least 40% people talking. Idk if this is because I did so much theatre or because I just can’t shut up, but it’s high time I did a real post about it, so:
Advice for Aspiring Authors: On Dialogue
You need it so don’t resist it. Books that are just huge chunks of prose are exhausting, and if you never use dialogue you’re either (1) summarizing or (2) writing a really boring book, and either way the the result is the same. Your reader is going to be bored. Choosing the right scenic mode is important and sooner or later people are going to have to speak in the moment.
Don’t stress about speaker tags. Putting this at the top because a lot of new writers seem to get hung up on it. But I’ve already addressed this, so read this post here. Pro-tip? If you’re writing a conversation between two people or even three, you often don’t need speaker tags at all. I recently wrote a conversation that takes place over the phone which consists of about 25 lines exchanged and didn’t use a single speaker tag because it was, in all instances, obvious who was doing the talking. Later in the same MS I have a really chaotic hospital scene where like twelve people are yelling at the same time and interrupting each other and there are no speaker tags because idgaf if anybody knows who’s saying what. It should feel like chaos. (If you want a really great example of this, pick up a copy of William Faulkner’s Sanctuary and read the funeral scene.) Readers are smart. They’ll figure it out.
Different people speak in different ways. Who a character is will often determine how they speak. For instance, Theodore von Wammelspout, Crown Prince of Prosenstatz, is probably going to have a very different dialect than Paw Paw O’Halloran, Louisiana shrimp fisherman. (If you want a better example of what I’m talking about, watch the movie Kingsman and pay attention to how and when Eggsy switches dialects, or read the prologue to The Taming of the Shrew and pay attention to the immediate tonal shift in Christopher Sly’s dialogue when he wakes up from a drunken stupor thinking he’s a lord.) Think about a character’s origins and upbringing and backstory when deciding how they talk.
But stay away from writing dialect unless you really know what you’re doing. Don’t try to phonetically write a character’s accent or dialect unless you’re a linguist, because a lot of dropped consonants and deliberate misspellings can be really difficult to read, come out like you’re trying too hard, or even end up looking vaguely racist. If a character has an accent, find a way to tell us they have an accent and then spell all their dialogue correctly. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule–i.e, if a phonic misunderstanding is crucial to the story. But basically, unless you’re writing Trainspotting, don’t do this. What’s much better and much more effective is to describe how a character says something or what their voice sounds like. What’s the texture? The color? The temperature? A warm, rough, slow voice belongs to a different character than a cold, high, slick voice does. Or maybe the same character can switch from one to the other. Give your character’s voice the same attention you would give their body or their habits or anything else.
It’s a character speaking, not the narrator. Each character should have their own voice, in the same way that each story will have a slightly different narrator, even if it’s a neutral third person narrator. Writing is all about voice and style, and part of the challenge is that you as the writer have to be a mockingbird and be able to speak in as many different voices as you have characters. It will take practice. It will require a lot of questions asked, such as “Who never says a bad word? Who swears like a sailor? Who talks in a constant, uninterrupted stream and who hardly says a word?” For an exercise, write out a plain uninteresting sentence like, “He was on his way home from the store when he got a flat tire,” the way the narrator would say it, and then rewrite it in every character’s voice. Because one character might say it just like that–”I was on my way home from the store and I got a flat tire”–and another might say, “You’re not going to fucking believe this. Okay, so I’m on my way home from the store, because we’re out of beer again, because Steve was supposed to go get more and he didn’t, the dickhead–and what happens? Well, obviously, because this worthless excuse of a city can’t be bothered to keep the roads clear, I drive right through a patch of broken glass and BANG! Blow a tire. Swear to God, I thought it was a gunshot, I nearly ran my car into a telephone pole.” If all your characters sound alike or sound like the narrator or (worse) sound like you, it’s time to stop and reevaluate.
Characters don’t speak for you. Look, unless you’re writing a really boring story it’s going to have a bunch of people in it with a bunch of different ideas and some of them should believe things that you don’t agree with or speak in a way you find objectionable. Characters are sometimes going to have to say things you find morally deplorable and they have to say them with conviction. I recently wrote a scene where my FMC’s boyfriend and her dad argue about what they’re going to do about her, like she’s not a grown-ass woman who can take care of herself. And they both say things that are utterly atrocious and that if I heard a man say in real life, I would probably punch him in the face. But that’s important. In fiction, you gotta tell it all and tell it like it is. Fiction isn’t true but it should be honest. Not every character can agree with you or with each other. (This is a big part of the reason that authorial intent is a flawed concept. An author who depicts something isn’t necessarily condoning or endorsing it.) You should be writing about difficult shit and writing about it from every vantage point and using dialogue to do that. You don’t need to agree with angelic equality crusader Nancy and homophobic Uncle Jeff equally but they need to be equally convincing. Write disagreements. Write arguments. Let characters fight and get pissed and tell each other to fuck off. It’s honest, and it’s interesting. Conflict is good.
Incomplete sentences are your best friend. So are run-ons. That scene I mentioned that was 25 lines with no speaker tags? There’s also not a complete sentence in that whole exchange. We rarely speak in full correct sentences, even if we know perfectly well that what we’re saying isn’t grammatically perfect. So something like this: “Seen my keys?” “In the basket.” Totally acceptable. People are lazy. They talk in fragments. Dialogue doesn’t have to be correct, because it often isn’t. Stick commas and dashes wherever the fuck you want to mimic the pattern of speech. Worry about what’s natural, not what’s correct. Sometimes what goes unsaid is just as interesting as what does get said. For instance, if Joe turns to Carol and starts to say, “Have you ever thought about–” and then never finishes the sentence, that’s going to keep a reader wondering. Has she ever thought about what? In much the same way, you can have a character ramble for an entire paragraph in an epic run-on sentence if that’s the way they talk, or if they’re distressed or upset and trying to get the words out. The last book I finished has a chapter at the end where one character literally talks without interruption for nine pages. And as insane as that sounds it’s actually totally necessary because she’s telling a story that’s important for the readers and the other characters to hear but it’s a hundred times better to hear it in her own voice, grammatical correctness be damned.
Don’t try too hard to be eloquent. How many people do you know in real life who spout off perfectly articulate declarations of their feelings? Probably none. They ramble and stall and repeat themselves. Real-life conversations are not movie conversations. They’re not smooth. They’re not perfectly timed. A character just saying “Fuck me” because they have no idea what else to say is perfectly plausible (and also a great opportunity for comedy). Here’s an exercise if you’re having trouble: Make two columns on a page, and on one side write out what this character is trying to say (i.e, “I love you.” “I’ve been trying to tell you for years.” “But I’m afraid you don’t want me to.”) and on the other write out what they actually say (i.e., “I really hope you’ll stay.” “You know you’re always welcome to stay.” “I don’t want you to feel like you have to stay. Just that you can. If you want to.”) Sometimes the juxtaposition between what we’re trying to say and what actually comes out is so important. So don’t worry about perfect articulation or doing justice to the “emotional burden.” Worry about the intent and the impact and how those two things align–or don’t.
Read it out loud. This is one of the most important things teachers in playwriting workshops will tell you to do. Read it out loud. If it feels awkward or unnatural, it probably is. Thus also to dialogue in prose fiction. Even better option? Get a couple of friends to read it for you. This will work wonders for helping you figure out what feels awkward.
HAVE FUN WITH IT. When I say dialogue is far and away my favorite thing to write, I’m not kidding at all. You can learn so much about a character or how two characters interact by how they talk to each other. Do they tease, do they nag, do they finish each other’s sentences? Do they use slang, do they slur, do they talk about celebrities they’ve never met as if they’ve known them for years and they’re the best of friends? Let their personalities shine through, because when characters speak is the only time they’re not getting filtered through a narrator, even if that narrator is themselves. Dialogue provides some of the most poignant moments of characterization you’ll ever get. So play with it. Try the same line fifty different ways until it feels right. Let your characters speak for themselves.
Good luck! Go forth and write great dialogue and have a blast doing it.
the fact that darth vader built his fucking emocastle on Mustafar where ol’ ben cut his arms and legs off just makes him even more of an edgelord and his garbage pun as he was choking tf out of krennic and then his #sashayaway and oh my god his chest panel lights up so when he made his entrance onto the rebel ship you KNOW he turned off the chest panel so he could light up his lightsaber and be all dramatic honestly #iconic
How do we know if it is the proper time for us to enter into the spiritual life? Can the spiritual life help us to overcome frustration?
We can begin the spiritual life only
when we feel the need. When we feel hunger we eat. Similarly, when we
have the inner hunger we have to feed ourselves with Peace, Light and
Now human beings are full of frustration. Every day begins with a new
frustration, disappointment and sense of total failure. How can we
conquer frustration, despair and other unaspiring and negative forces?
We can do so only when we consciously feel that there is something
beyond, far beyond these frustrations and so-called failures. Our human
life cannot and does not end with failure precisely because the divine
in us will never accept failure. The divine in us will eventually
manifest the soul’s Light and Truth on earth if we have the conscious
cry, or conscious hunger for the Light that can transform our
frustrations into radiant achievements.
He who does not aspire is a total failure in God’s Eyes. But his
aspiration is only a matter of time. God Himself will aspire in him and
through him when the hour strikes. But if we consciously fight on the
side of the inner Truth and inner Reality, if we listen to the dictates
of the inner voice, then we hasten the progress of our own life and the
progress of all mankind.
Frustration exists just because we do not see anything beyond
frustration or do not consciously want to go beyond frustration. Let us
take frustration as a thing that can be captured and offered at the feet
of God or offered at the feet of any happiness or good experience we
have had — even if it was ten or twenty years ago. The power of the
happy experience will destroy the power of frustration or transform
frustration into glowing inspiration at the feet of inner awakening and