So Arjuna and Krishna you know they’re hanging out on the battlefield
Arjuna is like tired of war, he’s trying to get out of this battle
so Krishna drops a little science on him, he says you know it’s the way of
a man must go forth from where he stands
he cannot jump to the absolute, he must evolve toward it (can you hear that)
Sojourn of Arjuna (music: Victor Wooten/ Future Man; lyrics: Future Man. Bela Fleck and The Flecktones. Warner Bros., 1998.)
The first story I ever wrote was completed with reckless abandon. It was terrible. So was true of the second story, and the third, and fourth etc. Now, I enjoyed writing all these bad stories, but eventually, I decided I needed to learn how to actually write good… I mean well! So, I picked up a book on the subject, Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks.
I learned a lot from that book. I was suddenly aware of an entire toolbox of proven techniques for writing great stories! And all the mistakes I’d made in my earlier work…
I read a lot more about storytelling, but something else happened. I quit writing. The more I learned the more I felt paralyzed by the fear of making an error, or not writing perfectly, of being what I was- an amateur.
Suddenly, the task of writing a story went from trivial to monumental. There were so many concepts to remember, so many rules I might break. I knew I couldn’t master them all. At least not all at once.
No one likes to be terrible at something, and it’s especially hard when that something is the one thing you want to be great at. But, being terrible is where we all start, and a person must go forth from where they stand…
For me, that meant breaking down the task into its basic elements. Then practicing each of them one at a time. The most basic element of a story is the scene. So, that’s where I started.
Robert McKee defines a scene as:
“An action through conflict… that turns the value-charged condition of a character’s life on at least one value with a degree of perceptible significance.”
To break that down, a scene needs two things to be effective. The first is easy- conflict. It could be a subtle conflict- like an argument over where to eat lunch- or massive conflict- like a gun battle on the tarmac at JFK International.
The other component of a scene is what Mckee calls a value-charge. Meaning, your central character, or characters, will go into a scene with an emotional charge. This could be happy, hopeful, desperate, or despondent, but whatever emotion begins the scene the opposite should end it. This contrast is what brings a scene to life.
But McKee also defines another aspect called a turning point– a singular moment in the scene where the value-charge suddenly flips (in longer scenes the value-charge my flip, back and forth, multiple times). To illustrate this, we can look at a scene from Zack Synder’s 2006 film- 300.
While you watch see if you can identify the opening value-charge, the turning point, and the ending value-charge. The conflict, I think, will be clear.
Did you catch the opening value-charge? The Persian messenger approaches King Leonidas. These men are advisories however their discussion is calm, cordial, even diplomatic, but as we see things don’t end that way.
So, where’s the turning point? Now you may be tempted to say it’s somewhere around the time Gerard Butler mule kicks the guy down the (inexplicable) giant pit in the center of town.
While that’s the most dramatic point in the scene, I’d argue that the turning point comes a little earlier. At about the 1 minute 45-second mark, when Butler utters the line “Submission,” his character makes an unspoken decision. Whatever the cost Spartan’s do not submit.
After this, the tone of the conversation turns to sarcasm, and gradually to aggression, until we hit the climax- the mule kick. Our closing value-charge: Chaos, violence. The onset of war.
Bonus- this scene also serves as the films inciting incident!
There’s more to a scene than these three elements, but I’ll leave it here for now. If I missed anything please let me know in the comments. Also, do you have a favorite scene from a book, film, or play? Let me know, and thanks for reading!