Dear Heather and Meg,
Among other amazing friends and writers, I saw Julie Larios and Susan Fletcher at a Vermont College reunion yesterday at Golden Gardens in Seattle, and thanked them both again for their luscious contributions to the StorySleuths blog. Anyone who is new to the blog and has not checked them out really should take a peek at Susan’s post on fantasy and Julie’s on poetry in picture books.
Onward to today’s post, which is inspired by a recent critique group session where Cora Grubbs shared with us her approach to figuring out her current novel. She is going scene by scene, looking at how things are flowing and working, and mentioned that, in addition to other things, she is interested in ensuring that there is a value change in each scene.
Value change? She said it was something she’d learned in Robert McKee’s book, Story. Written for screenwriters and filmmakers, it is a craft book with enormous application to the writing of novels. I decided to check it out, and soon found the tidbit Cora had referred to.
On pages 257 – 260 in his book, McKee describes “The Technique of Scene Analysis.” While Cora is applying this five-step process to her own work-in-progress, I decided to apply it to Grace Lin’s marvelous book in an effort to understand more about Lin’s magic, while at the same time learning a technique I might try applying to my own writing.
Here it goes. McKee says, “To analyze a scene, you must slice into its pattern of behaviors at the levels of both text and subtext.” Text, in this case, means what is going on at the surface--what our characters see, hear, say and do. Subtext is what is going on beneath the surface—the character’s true desire, which is something he or she may not be aware of. McKee says, “There’s always a subtext, an inner life that contrasts or contradicts the text.” He points out that in a poorly written scene the author relies on dialogue to show the subtext instead of letting the subtext unfold organically through the characters' actions. He refers to this mistake as writing “on the nose.”
Here is McKee’s five-step process applied to a scene in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. Note that in Lin’s books the chapters are very short, and are often just a single scene. For this exercise I am looking at Chapter 22. In the previous chapter Minli has discovered that a street beggar is actually the king. Here, she chases after him, finally catching up with, and confronting, him.
Step One: Define Conflict. In this step we examine the character driving the scene (character in this case could be a person, an inanimate object, a force of nature) and ask what that character wants in this scene. Next, look at the source of antagonism in the scene and ask the same question. McKee says, “If the scene is well written, when you compare the . . . desires from each side, you’ll see that they’re in direct conflict—not tangential.”
Now, looking at how this applies to Chapter 22:
The character driving the scene is Minli, and what she wants is to connect with the king so that she can seek his help in accomplishing her quest. The king is the antagonist. He does not wish to have his undercover identity as a street beggar uncovered. The protagonist’s and the antagonist’s desires are in direct conflict.
Step Two: Note Opening Value. Here we are looking at what is the value at stake in this scene. Values could be things like happiness, friendship, freedom, justice. Once we have identified the value at stake, we determine whether that value is in a positive or a negative state.
Naming a value is a challenge for me, and I resorted to looking online for a list of values. Perusing that list I came upon discovery. And I would say that in this scene, discovery for Minli is at a negative state. She wants to meet the king and get his help, but he is eluding her.
Step Three: Break the Scene into Beats. In a scene there are actions, which cause reactions. McKee says, “This exchange of action and reaction is a beat.”
1. In a panic, Minli chases the king—action. The king runs--reaction. Several times she thinks she loses him, but stays on his trail. He disappears behind a hidden door which leads to the palace garden.
2. Minli discovers the king cleaning himself of his beggar disguise. Minli drops to her knees – action. The king responds with kindness – reaction.
3. A parade of servants descend upon them. The king panics and insists that Minli hides – action. Minli hides, making herself as small as possible – reaction.
4. The king is confronted by the hoard. He insists that he has been in the garden the entire time that they were looking for him and demands that this evening they bring him dinner for two in the garden—action. Counselor Chu agrees to comply with the king’s wishes—reaction.
5. When the king insists on dinner for two he glances toward Minli—action. Minli catches his eye and shrinks out of sight—reaction.
6. The crowd leaves. The King invites Minli to come out of hiding—action. Minli crawls out—reaction.
Step Four: Note Closing Value and Compare with Opening Value. Here we move to the end of the scene, and determine whether the charge of the value identified in Step Two has changed or remained the same. If it has stayed the same, the scene has likely fallen flat.
In Chapter 22, discovery has moved to a positive state. As the scene has played out Minli has determined that the beggar is indeed the king, she has made contact with him, and he has invited her to join him in a meal and a conversation.
Step Five: Survey Beats and Locate Turning Point. Look at the beats identified in Step Three to trace the arc of the scene. McKee says, “Within the arc locate the moment when the major gap opens between expectation and result, turning the scene to its changed end values. This precise moment is the Turning Point.”
Beat 4, when the king suggests that Counselor Chu bring two evening meals, is a Turning Point. Minli’s expectation is that she should get to have a conversation with the king to plea her case. Here, the king indicates that he is going to be taking a meal with her, opening the way for her to tell him what she is after.
In summary, McKee says, “Ill-written scenes may lack conflict because desires are not opposed, may be antiprogressive because they’re repetitious or circular, lopsided because their Turning Points come too early or too late, or lacking because dialogue and action are 'on the nose.' But analysis of a problematic scene that tests beats against scene objectives, altering behavior to fit desire or desire to fit behavior, will lead to a rewrite that brings the scene to life.”
Here, I have looked at a scene that works. The conflict is clear, the beats each have an action and a reaction. The scene has an arc with a clear turning point, and a value, which transitions from negative to positive by the scene’s end. While I do not believe I would feel compelled to do this for every scene in my novel, I can see that it could be very useful in analyzing scenes that fall flat. Thank you, Cora, for turning me on to this!
StorySleuths Tip #73: When a scene is falling flat, consider using Robert McKee’s Technique of Scene Analysis to locate problems and determine how to best fix them.