Ten Questions to Ask of Every Scene
So here are 10 questions to ask of every scene that you write. 10 questions. The first question is: is it clear where we are and why? A big mistake that writers make is they will leap into a scene from another scene and we have no idea where we are, how much time has passed, why it's relevant or even who's there in the scene. Sometimes writers will start, I'm not saying this is a bad idea all the time, but they'll start a scene with dialogue, and it's like, we can't even figure out who's there let alone what they're saying and why it's of significance and that catapults us out of the story because now our thinking brain is trying to make sense of all of it and figure it out. You always wanna let us know where we are. We need those transitions, those segues always. And this is a place where writers will go, oh that feels clunky. Oh that doesn't sound right. You gotta and start noticing how much they are in what you read. You've gotta give us a clear transition, especially if you're leap...
ing time. Even if it's something, a sentence as simple as, it wasn't until the next week that Jake ran into Fred in aisle four of the supermarket and realized that with the cops coming over that night to search the backyard, he wasn't really sure where Fred had buried Binkie and he needed to find, you see what I mean? I mean right there we know how much time has passed. We know who the characters are, we know why it's significant, we even have gone into the future so we know, given what they want because, I don't know who Binkie was but man if the cops find him buried back there, I think somebody's gonna be in big trouble. You need to give us context. Some of the reasons why writers don't do that is because of what Chip and Dan Heath, who are brothers who write and they've got this amazing book called Made To Stick, it's about why some ideas stick and why some don't. Great book. They talk about the curse of knowledge, and the curse of knowledge is, you as the writer know what's happening, and it doesn't occur to you that the reader doesn't. I mean curse of knowledge basically is once we know something, it's almost impossible to put ourselves in the head of someone who doesn't know it. And I think that's why these transitions can feel clunky to writers, because they know where they are. They get why it's significant. The reader doesn't have a clue. The readers need a map, where am I? So you always want to get that onto the page. This was missing a lot. The next question you wanna ask, and you wanna ask this early on, is does this scene affect the protagonist's overarching agenda? Does it, because that is what your reader is tied into. They wanna know with everything, I told you. That's their score card, that's their yard stick. Does this get them closer to what they want? Does this get them further away? Is this gonna cost them more or is it gonna cost them less? Are they gonna be willing to pay the cost, because I know they really want that. It needs to affect that overarching agenda. If it doesn't, don't write it. Like seriously, the reason you wanna ask this even before you write this scene is because once you've written it, you've committed to it. And now it's a darling that you will need to destroy ruthlessly because it's gonna pull you away from your story and the problem when writers do that is also often that it hasn't even occurred to them that they need to stick to the protagonist's agenda. And so now they're going off in some other direction. Even if they knew, oh I'll get back in a minute, but this direction's interesting. And now they've gone in some direction that has nothing to do with what we were following, and you've broken the spell and now your reader is going to the kitchen to get a snack. So you always wanna ask yourself that question in the beginning, does it affect their overarching agenda? How? Is the reader gonna know it? You don't want it to be one of those things that the reader doesn't know. Is it on the page enough for the reader to be able to get that too? Because again, that's often, I'm so deep, I can't let my reader inside my protagonist. They'll guess or it'll give it away. We need to be able to figure that out too because that's what we're gonna be thinking about. So does the reader know? Next question is what does your protagonist want to have happen in this scene? What's their goal? And the reason I wanna hit hard on this is that remember we were talking in the beginning about there's no such thing as a one-off scene? When I say what does your protagonist wanna happen in the scene, I don't mean what do they want to have happen just as a one-off, like, your protagonist is a vegan and they're going to a barbecue and they really hope that this time it's not just hot dogs and hamburgers. Please let them have that tofu whatever it is that they're gonna fry up. It's not like a desire just in that scene. What do they want to have happen that plays forward? What do they want to have happen given what they wanted, what they long wanted, what's gone in, and what do they want that's going to then play forward? And really the key thing is everything has to play forward. Everything has to play forward, so what does your protagonist want to have happen in this scene? And the next question is, might sound like the first, what does your protagonist expect will happen? And are her expectations on the page? And you might go, wait, what they want and what they expect, isn't that kinda the same thing? And the answer of course is no. It's like I might be walking in to pick up the test results from the final I took in my Spanish class of college and I want to get an A, but because I don't know a word of Spanish and the only question I answered was name, I expect to completely fail. So there's often a big difference between what they want and what they expect. So what do they expect is gonna happen, and here's the biggest thing. Are her expectations on the page? One of the biggest mistakes that writers make is they don't let us know what the character expects. Stories are about what happens when our expectations are not met. If you don't know what a character expects, how can you possibly know if their expectations aren't being met? How can you possibly know how they are going to react, how's it gonna make them feel, what they're gonna think about what's happening? The expectations must be on the page. Let me give you an example, it's sort of like, imagine a scene and imagine now, you're looking at me and I'm in the scene, I'm a protagonist right now, and I've been working really hard and it's late at night and I walk into the kitchen and I open up the refrigerator and I look inside and there's an empty pie plate and I look at it for a minute and then I open a crisper and I take out a brick of cheese and I walk in the other room. Do you care? Does that matter? Yeah okay, why are you even telling me that? Because there's no expectations on the page. Now imagine that I had been working really hard because I knew that, and I love pie, did I mention I love pie? I actually really do in real life, I love pie. So I love pie, that's why I made up this example. So I've been working really hard and I'm waiting because I know when I open that refrigerator, there's going to be a piece of pie there, because my sister, who always eats the last piece of pie. She doesn't even like pie that much but she knows I like it. She always goes in and takes the last piece and she promised me, she promised me that she was gonna leave that piece for me and I trusted her and it really mattered beyond the pie because the thing is, Mom is sick, and I really need her to come and be able to help and to do the finances and I don't quite trust her that much. So this was gonna be a way that she promised I could trust her and this was the first thing that was gonna actually prove that. So if you knew that and then I walked in and I opened it up and I looked at the pie plate and then I took the cheese, now you understand how I'm feeling, you understand why that has significance and again, it doesn't just have one-off significance in the sense of, I was hungry and I wanted the pie and there was no pie and I'm upset, but it had story significance because the reason the pie wasn't there played forward on that third rail. Played forward in what I expected and now I'm going, I sure can't trust my sister. So you want to be sure and again, this is also something that when you're first doing it might feel clunky. Don't worry about that. You can smooth that out as you go forward and sometimes it feels clunky because writers aren't used to putting their characters' expectations on a page and sometimes it feels clunky because you don't actually know what the character expects. In general you know, but really specifically you don't and in that case, go back and figure it out before you write forward. So, what's your protagonist or point of view character expect and are their expectations on the page? The next question you wanna ask is: what's at stake? What's at stake? What is your protagonist afraid might happen? What are they worried about? What are they afraid might happen instead of what they want or instead of what they expect? What are they scared of in this scene? What's the bad thing that can happen? And again, you wanna get that on the page and it also means you kinda wanna take a look at, is there a bad thing? Is there something that they're worried about? So what is at stake? What could they lose and again, when we talk about what's at stake, what was at stake there wasn't just that there's not pie, what was at stake there was I can't trust my sister. That's what was at stake and that's what was proven by the fact that once again, once again, she always did eat that last piece of pie. Probably why I made that one up. (chuckles) Anyway, but so you wanna know what's at stake. If there's nothing at stake that's gonna go forward, there's nothing at stake or nothing they're gonna gain that later on is gonna make things worse. What's at stake? Then you don't wanna write this scene. There's gotta be something at stake or else it's gonna be flat. The next question is, and this is a bit of a trick question. Is is there external conflict? Now sometimes there's not. The two things you wanna be careful of is if there is external conflict, are you sure there's also internal conflict? Because writers will make that mistake, something big and dramatic is happening externally, but it's not costing anybody anything. There's no emotional cost, it doesn't play on that third rail so even though it's a big, giant, like a meteor's falling in downtown Cleveland, it doesn't matter. There needs to be internal conflict as well, whether it's on the page or whether the reader actually knows what it is, if there's external conflict, how is that affecting your protagonists internally? But sometimes there's not external conflict. Sometimes there's a scene that just looks fine. If there's not external conflict, you really wanna be sure that there is internal conflict. Let me give you an example and this is from a movie that I frequently talk about, it is a documentary. It's called Protagonist and it's four men just telling their stories and pretty much, the arc of the story's the same early in each of their lives. They don't know each other, they're all four separate stories. Early in their lives, something happens that really gives birth to a really significant misbelief. They then live their lives in accordance with that misbelief up until the point where life says change or die and in two of the cases, it's like literally change or die. And then they see their misbelief for what it is and then they either atone given the horrible things they did as a result of their misbelief, or in the case we're gonna talk about, they become the person who they should have been in the beginning. The story that I tend to use from that movie is a story of a man named Mark Pierpont and Mark Pierpont was gay, is gay. And he grew up in a very small fundamentalist Christian enclave, not like Ruby Ridge or anything, but just loving but really fundamentalist. And he always sort of knew he was different, and he realized wait a minute, if I'm gay, God can't love me, therefore, I can't be gay. Because God's love meant more to him than anything at that point so he decided he wasn't gay, he dated women, got married to a woman. Counseled guys against being gay, but the point is, the reason I'm mentioning it now is this notion, is there external conflict? So in that documentary they show his wedding videos. To a woman, got married to a woman. So showing these wedding videos, now let's face it. Let's face it, with wedding videos, even one's own wedding videos, after you've watched them once, they're really boring. You know, it's like, you put them on, you go, oh my God I got insomnia. Let's put the wedding video on again. We'll be out like a light. So the point is you're watching this video, and it is, it's really kind of dull, after you get over the Laura Ashley dress and the big, poofy hair, it's like really boring, but it's not, because we know that even though there's no external conflict, internally this guy is dying. Oh my gosh, what am I doing? Have I made a mistake? I can't believe I'm going through with this, oh my God. I love her, I think I do, do I? Oh my God, there's the best man but don't look. I mean, you know that he is struggling internally even though on the surface everything seems fine. Often, really, that great big conflict, the calmer it is on top, the bigger the conflict. In the bottom, on that third rail. So is there external conflict? Next question, next question is: does the scene force your protagonist to make a meaningful choice? I say meaningful, I mean meaningful to that agenda. Do they have to make some kind of choice? Now to be very clear, sometimes the choice is something that you can't see, in that, in fact, internal choice. It's not a choice like somebody saying, you better do this or I'm gonna lock you in a door. Or lock you in a closet, but sometimes, as with that scene that we were just talking about, he was making a choice. He was making the choice not to say to his bride, "Honey we've gotta talk. "There's something I think you need to know." That was the choice he was making, or, the scene we talked about a second ago with me looking at the empty pie plate. That's pretty passive aggressive, right? She left that empty pie plate. She should have gotten rid of it. She was giving me a message though, she left it there for me to see. Now I might have been making a choice there and the choice might have been this, and again, that would need to be on the page. It might be, okay she's gonna do that. Usually what I do is I go, that's okay, I understand. She's had a rough life and then I roll over. I'm not gonna roll over this time. Because I happen to know that she loves cheese. I'm lactose intolerant, I don't even like cheese. That's not true that's just the character. I don't even like cheese, but I know that not only does she love cheese but that is her prime source of protein in the morning and I know she has a big meeting with her boss tomorrow morning and I know that she plans to eat this brick of cheese in the morning. So I think I'm gonna take it. I'm gonna give it to the dog outside. That's the choice I'm making. Now you wouldn't see that, no one's forcing me to do it on that level but that would be the choice. So often the choice is a choice either as it was in Protagonist with Mark Pierpont. It was a choice of omission. Sometimes it is a choice of, would that be commission? You're doing something but sometimes it's just you by yourself. So are they making some sort of meaningful choice? Is what they're doing, whether it's by commission or omission, does it play forward in terms of what they want? Next question, and this is that key one is: are your protagonist's thoughts on the page as she struggles to make this choice? Because how else would we know she's making the choice? The place your protagonist's thoughts are, is the command center of your novel. Your protagonist's brain is the command center of your novel. This is what we come for, when we were saying that it's that internal struggle that your protagonist goes through, how she makes sense of things, this is what we're talking about. This is how you bring backstory onto the page, all that stuff that you would have dug up in order to know what her misbelief is and what her desire is. Her thoughts would be on the page as she's forced to make whatever choice the scene's gonna force her to make and she is gonna often turn to the past to try to figure out what the heck do I do now? Don't come to story, I cannot say this strongly enough, we don't come to story for what a character does. We watch people do things all the time, in the surface world that we live in. We see it all the time. What do we wanna know? Why would she do that? And the why is always in her thoughts as she's making sense of it. Think of it this way: story is a cost benefit analysis of taking a particular course of action. That is what the struggles are. It's not just what should they do in some sort of objective, let me make a list of, you know, here's the pros, here's the cons, okay this is what I'm gonna do. It's not objective. It's completely subjective based on the meaning that they read into it and what these actions think that they're going to say about them. What will people think of me? Can I be vulnerable? That's what story really is about, that voice, right? The internal voice. It's not what we say out loud, it's what we're really thinking when we say it. The things we're afraid to say out loud. That's what's on the page here. This is where your protagonist needs to be vulnerable. This is where we find out what really scares them and why, and we find our why they're really doing what they're doing. They need to be on the page. Can't say that strongly enough. (chuckles) Although I try. So the next thing that you want to ask, the next question is what does your protagonist realize at the end of the scene? It's what we were talking about before. What is that aha moment? What do they realize that changes them? What insight do they have? What have they realized and sometimes the realization is something as simple as oh my God, this really is gonna work. Oh my God, I can't believe it. Oh my God I did the right thing. What conclusion do they draw? What conclusion do they draw? I can't say that strongly enough. The aha moment is, it changes how they see something, they draw a story-specific conclusion that will then play forward. This is how your reader can anticipate what they might do next. Because we can't anticipate what they might do next until we understand why they might do it. Again, and I know I've said this 10,000 times. This is 10,001. We don't come for what they do, we come for why. So you really want to get that aha moment onto the page. Every scene is a little aha moment. Every scene should have a little aha moment. Next question is, will the consequences of this scene play forward and is it clear? And again, we're saying story cause and effect trajectory. Third rail, internal, that narrative thread as your protagonist is making sense of things. It needs to play forward. We need to see, be able to anticipate how we think it's going to, we could be wrong, but we need to be able to anticipate how is this gonna play forward? You don't wanna keep it so secret or secret at all so that your reader can't even guess at what this might be. My advice always to writers, first, second, third draft. Give it all away, not just in the beginning of the book where you really need to, but all the way through. Make it really clear what it is because a problem that writers often have is, they don't make it clear how it plays forward, you know why? Because they know the answer. (chuckles) And so they just write forward thinking they'll figure it out later and you can't do that. You need to know where you're going. You need to know that point you're making. You need to know where is this going to end? If the story is that cause and effect trajectory, story about one problem that grows, escalates, and complicates and to get to the end, if you don't know what that is, how can you write something that gets to it? So you wanna ask yourself, since you did do that, I'm assuming (chuckles), or you will from now on, and now you know where it's going. Does this play forward? Can the reader begin to guess or even see or know what it is? My advice always is give everything away to go forward because that's what the delete key is for later on if you decide you have given too much away. Writers tend to really go in the opposite direction and not give enough away, and again, almost always it's because they don't have it to give it away 'cause they haven't figured it out yet, so, can we see how the consequence of this scene plays forward and as you can see, I'm hitting on all of this hard because this is what we started with. There's no such thing as a one-off scene within a story. All scenes are born of the story and part of the story. So this is another way for you to go, wait a minute. I don't know how this plays forward. Now maybe you'll find a new way it plays forward. Does not mean you're locked into something. You might go, well, I didn't play forward in the direction I was going but it plays forward that way and that seems like a way better direction and then you'll know when you can change everything. But you wanna be able to see how it plays forward in some way or else what's the point, because here's the thing, the reader is going to assume that it's going to, I mean, if you've been specific enough so we know what it is. The reader's gonna assume it plays forward. And if it's not, like that writer I was telling you about before who had Gwen who's suddenly mean to Julia and it's like, well we're going to expect now to find out that there's something really weird going on between Gwen and Julia. I mean who knows, maybe one of them stole the others' boyfriend and we don't know it yet and we're gonna find that out. In other words, we assume that she has a story specific reason for suddenly being mean to Julia as opposed to it was just, I needed Julia to make that one realization because you know what would happen after that, then the next time Gwen would have been in there, everything would have been fine. And we would have been thinking, see we just don't give that up, so they'll think, wow. Gwen's acting like everything's fine. She must really have a plan to get back at Julia. She's faking it because we know she was really angry, so now we make up this story. I asked you guys at home, how many times have you watched a movie where the movie in your head was 1,000 times better than what you were seeing in the screen because you were playing it out and they were going in some direction where they had no idea where it was going. I mean that happens so often. So the point is, if you know where you're going, you will be able to write a story that gets there and this is one of the ways to do that. So I know I said 10 questions but I'm actually giving you an 11th one and that is (chuckles), just to make it even harder, and that is: are all the characters in the scene acting in accordance with their overarching agenda? Are all the characters in the scene, because again, the way to think of it is is a scene doesn't move the story forward one step at a time. Certainly not one plot point step at a time. It isn't just one plot point step and one internal struggle step. Every scene will, almost every scene, will move your story forward several steps in unison. And the steps belong to the other characters. Because they have agendas too. And just one slight caveat. This isn't to say that you might not have a scene somewhere where some of these things aren't true. It's not like this is hard and fast. The part that's hard and fast is, it needs to be part of the ongoing storyline. It needs to have that third rail. It can't be a one-off. But that isn't to say that every single scene needs to meet every single one of these criteria, just to be clear. But if they can, yahoo.