When was the last time you were in a really awkward situation? A time you felt embarrassed? Like, when you wanted to crawl into a hole and pull the hole in after?

I still remember the first time I ever felt embarrassed in public. It was back in Kindergarten. We used to get stickers in our folders on days that we were well-behaved, and on bad days we got a note sent home. One Friday I was called up to my teacher’s desk to get my sticker for the day. She said something like,

“All stickers this week. You’ve done very well, Tiger.”

And I said:

“Thanks, MOM.”

The entire class heard; everyone laughed. It was horrifying. A simple slip of the tongue turned a positive experience into a scarring trauma. You might ask: Tiger, what does this have to do with storytelling? A lot actually.

You see, I caused my trouble through an action- calling my teacher mom, but the trouble came in the form of my classmates’ reaction. This goes to the heart of what makes up a scene.

A scene is made up of small segments called beats. What’s a beat? Well, I’ll tell you. A beat is an action plus a reaction. I call my teacher mom: the class erupts in laughter. Action: reaction. A beat.

The trick of making a good beat is- according to Robert McKee– creating a reaction that surprises the reader. So, if my teacher complimented me and I said, “Thanks, Mrs. Crabtree.” There’s no surprise there. Both characters acted and reacted exactly the way the reader expects them to. No conflict; no story.

To illustrate further let me tell you about another awkward situation I found myself in. Over the summer I was invited to a pool party by a good friend of mine, Seth. He said he was going to make an important announcement…

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We all gathered around the pool talking and laughing,
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When Seth suddenly called us to order. He turned to his longtime girlfriend, Ashley and said:
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I overjoyed for Seth and Ashley. There was only one problem- Ashley’s answer
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Seth was obviously devastated.
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After that the party kind of fizzled.

 

That was a terrible comic, but thanks for indulging me. However, the lesson remains the same. Seth’s engagement ended in what Jack Bickham- in his book Scene and Structure– calls a “tactical failure.”

Ending a scene in a failure for your protagonist, and pushing her further from her goal is what will drive your story forward. After failure, characters are forced to make new, more drastic, choices.

So, to recap- a scene is made up of beats which are actions and reactions. Whatever your reaction is, it should never be expected. A character should never turn on a faucet just to have water come out.

Ending scenes in failure will force your character to try something new, and make harder choices to reach their goal. You don’t want your story to begin and end on page one.

This post came out a little late, but I hoped you liked it. I spent entirely too much time trying to make a comic strip.