Need a quick review of the three Cs in Three Story Method? Listen to the audiobook excerpt before beginning the lesson.
Hey there, I’m J. Thorn, and it is time to write a killer scene. So before we get into this, let’s talk about some of the important aspects of scenes, why they matter, and how you can drastically improve your writing and your storytelling by focusing on scenes. First of all, scenes are definitely the most important aspect of storytelling. If a scene doesn’t work, nothing else matters. You can put together a long string of scenes and have a brilliant plot, but if you can’t execute it, the reader is not going to turn the page to chapter two. When you boil the essence of storytelling down to its most fundamental component, the scene would be the one you want to focus on. Now, it’s not the smallest unit of story—that might technically be a beat, but I think it’s the smallest unit of story that is fundamentally the most important. If you can’t get a scene right, nothing else will matter.
The great thing about writing scenes and getting really good at writing scenes and short stories is that that the skill can then be extrapolated out to longer works. If you are planning on writing a narrative nonfiction or a novel, if you can write a good scene, then you can replicate those skills out to the size of the story that you want to create in the medium that you want to create. But again, it comes down to this idea that you’ve got to nail the scene. Your scenes have to be tight. They have to make sense. They have to work. Something has to happen. And most importantly, as we’re going to see, there must be a choice a character faces in every single scene.
Now, one of the pushbacks I hear a lot when I work with clients is that putting too many parameters or too much structure on any aspect of a creative outlet will do harm to the creativity. In other words, if you put too many strict parameters on it, it’s hard to be creative. I believe it’s the opposite. I think if you put guard rails up on your highway of creativity, it’s going to foster more creativity. And the way that you do that is you become systematic about scenes and how you approach the craft of storytelling. That is not to say that this is a template, or a recipe, or that it’s an algorithm that you can plug into. There’s a lot of nuance in scene writing, a lot of art in scene writing. But at its core, there have to be some very strict parameters that all of us follow as storytellers, otherwise readers won’t understand why. They will disengage from a story if there’s certain core components missing—some that have become hardwired over hundreds, possibly thousands of years of storytelling.
Before we get into it, I’ll also make a recommendation—short stories are great practice. So we’re talking about writing one scene, and that scene can be a short story. You can also write several scenes, string three or four of them together into a very satisfying short story. Again, the idea is that if you can really fine-tune your ability to craft a scene, you can then extrapolate that out to longer works. Before we get into some of the weeds of how to write a killer scene, let’s talk a little bit about what we’re going to do here so that you’re going to know what you need to learn and that you can come back at the end and make sure that you’ve got that.
First of all, I take my storytelling cues from Aristotle, probably the first person in the world to write this stuff down. He might not have been the first person to identify it, but Aristotle believed that storytelling had…stories have three components—no surprise, beginning, middle, and end. That’s it. A story does not have to be any more complicated than that. Certainly there are other story structures that you can follow, 4-act, 5-act, 7-act, 11-act. You can get as crazy as you want, but at its essence, a story must have a beginning, and a middle, and an end. And if it’s missing any one of those components, it’s not a story. I know this sounds highly obvious, but you would be surprised at how many scenes over the years I’ve looked at where one of those three components were missing. And it’s easy to do when you get into it as the author. So that’s good to use that as a framework as we move forward.
Now, a lot of what you’re going to hear was developed into Three Story Method, which was the approach that I developed over years with working with clients. Zach Bohannon helped me out with this when we were doing our own collaborative works and anthologies for other folks. It is tested, time-tested. As I said, hundreds, probably thousands of scenes I’ve analyzed at this point in both my writing and editing career. And I believe that this is a method that works. It’s simple, it’s easy to understand, and after you do this a few times, it’ll become intuitive, and you won’t even have to think about it anymore.
The approach, again, going back to the ancient Greeks—they had a lot of things right. I like the Socratic method. It’s something I used in 25 years as a teacher. It’s a very powerful way of facilitating learning, and the Socratic method is simply asking questions. That is going to be the approach that we’re going take in writing a killer scene, as I’m going be asking a lot of questions. It’ll be upon you as the author to answer this. And the big red flag is if you don’t have an answer for one, that’s usually a problem. Now, your answer may vary, and there’s no such thing as a right answer, and I think that’s important to note as well. But you must have an answer for all of the questions that are going be posed to you. And if you can do that, 99 times out of 100, your scene is going work, and readers will want to keep turning pages.
Another thing that we should mention before we get into this is, well, what if I’m a pantser? I’m a discovery writer. I like to sit down, and I just sort of type as I go, and I like to be surprised by the story. Or at the other end of the spectrum. What if you’re a plotter? You’d like to know exactly what you’re going be writing about in that scene on that particular day at that time. Well, the good news is this method, this system will work no matter what type of writer you are. If you’re a plotter, you can use these before you start to write, and you can plot out the answers to these questions. If you’re a pantser, let it fly, come back when you’re done and see if you can find the answers to these questions in what you’ve written. Either way it works. This works for any type of writer from pantser to plotter and everybody in between.
Here’s what you’re going learn today and what we’re going to come back to at the end and summarize to make sure you got it. These are the key comments and questions you need to know the answers to for every single scene. Number one, in three sentences or less, explain what is happening in this scene. Number two, why is this scene important? Number three, what does the main character want? Number four, what does the main character need? Number five, what does the antagonist or force of antagonism want? Number six, what does the antagonism or force of antagonism need? Number seven, what’s wrong with the protagonist’s personal world? What is the disruption? And numbers 8, 9, and 10 are the three pillars, the Three Story Method of your scene—that is conflict, choice, and consequence. We’re going to go into all of these in detail, and hopefully, by the end, you’ll have a very good understanding of what it’s going to take to write a killer scene. So let’s get started.