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31 January 2012

Lesson 3: Putting it all Together

Writing a story is like putting together a puzzle. You have all these pieces - protagonist, antagonist, subplots, setting, and so on - and you're trying to make it all fit into a coherent and compelling story.

Where do you start? How do you put it all together?

Just like a house requires load-bearing beams before you can add the walls and roof, what holds your story together are scenes and sequels. 

First of all, what is a scene and what the heck is a sequel? 

According to Jack M. Bickham's The Elements of Fiction Writing: Scene & Structure a scene "is the basic large building block of the structure of any long story." He defines sequel as "the glue that holds scenes together and helps  you get from one to the next."

Here's the gist of it:

  • A scene consists of a goal, conflict, and disaster. 
  • A sequel consists of emotion, thought, decision and action.   

Here's an example from Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn (Hopefully I am applying this correctly!):

GOAL: The first scene of the book introduces a unicorn who lives alone in the woods. It is her nature to live alone, she is immortal and seems blissfully unaware of the passing of time. This bit of setup is essentially the statement of the story goal - unicorns are solitary and immortal creatures and they like it that way.

CONFLICT: One day she sees two hunters riding through her forest and she eavesdrops on their conversation. She overhears them saying that unicorns are long gone, if ever they existed. The introduction of the huntsmen into her peaceful forest literally upsets her world. 

DISASTER:  The scene ends when she realizes she might be the only unicorn in existence, that she might not be eternal after all.
The unicorn stood still at the edge of the forest and said aloud, "I am the only unicorn there is." They were the first words she had spoken, even to herself, in more than a hundred years.

What immediately follows is the SEQUEL.

EMOTION and THOUGHT: The sound of her own voice frightens her. Wandering through her forest, she thinks whether it could be true -that she is the only unicorn in the world. She debates leaving her forest and going in search of the others. The idea scares her.

DECISION: Even though unicorns are bad at making decisions, one night she decides she must look for the others.

ACTION: She leaves her forest.
Under the moon, the road that ran from the edge of her forest gleamed like water, but when she stepped out onto it, away from the trees, she felt how hard it was, and how long. She almost turned back then; but instead she took a deep breath of the woods air that still drifted to her, and held it in her mouth like a flower, as long as she could.
What follows is the start of a new scene - the unicorn's first adventure outside the safety of her forest.

There are of course variations to the scene-sequel structure. Bickham explains these concepts in greater detail. I highly recommend reading  Scene & Structure  since I truly didn't do it justice.  But here's the take away message: Stories can't be all non-stop action (the scenes). There are times when characters need to reflect on what has happened before mustering enough courage to keep on going (the sequel). 

So what is it supposed to look like when you put it all together?

VoilĂ !


MaryAnn Pope said...

Awesome post!! I love the examples they really make everything more clear.

I've never broken down my scenes like that before, but I always have a mental idea of the goal and disaster. It is really helpful to see it broken down, and looks like a great tool to figure out why a certain scene isn't working.

Thanks for sharing.

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