On the Level

Part 9 of “The Language of Story”

This installment of our ongoing series is Based On Actual Events!!!

Not in the sense of it being ripped from the headlines or anything. Just in the sense that if you’re a writer, the following has already happened to you. And if you’re not yet a writer, listen carefully that you might learn from our cautionary tale…

(As with previous installments, we’re going to talk about screenwriting in this post, because film’s rigorous and relentless forward-moving narrative structure lends itself to useful analysis. In film, everything is scene based, and film scenes are easily demarked by movement in time or place. This same thing I’m about to talk about happens in prose fiction all the time as well, but because prose can be more fluid in its scene structure, it’s not always as obvious.)

You’re working on a story. For the purpose of general discussion, we’ll think about the specific context of working on a feature screenplay.

You’ve written a scene for your story and it doesn’t work. You’re not entirely sure why. You can’t put your finger on it but something’s wrong. A kind of dramatic flatness. A feeling that the scene just isn’t hitting with all the energy it should have.

So you rewrite the scene.

And you rewrite it.

And you rewrite it again, and again, and again. Each time you do so, you change this, you fix that, you workshop the other thing. You improve, you shorten, you expand, you focus, you hone — but as much work as you keep putting into the scene, nothing seems to be able to solve the unseen and indefinable problem.

And the reason for that is that the problem isn’t actually in the scene. The scene is fine. The scene might have been fine all along (notwithstanding that you should always feel a strong desire to keep bashing away at your writing in pursuit of making it better).

The problem with this not-working scene lies in how the scene fits into the sequence that it’s a part of.

Every story has a consistent dramatic structure. Setup, complications, resolution. Every sequence that builds that story has the same consistent structure. Setup, complications, resolution. That’s the pattern that your storyteller’s mind has understood almost since the day you were born, consuming story in ever-increasing amounts.

Every time you consume, you subconsciously look for that pattern. Setup, complications, resolution. Every time you write a story, you subconsciously seek that pattern. Setup, complications, resolution. However, because the process is subconscious, making the transition from understanding it to articulating it in the course of the writing is difficult.

When we read a book or watch a film and get a sense that the story is off, we don’t go, “Well, d’oh! Too many complication beats in that sequence!” We’re just aware of the vague feeling that something is off, that something isn’t right.

When we’re writing at the scene level, deep in the heart of the story, we don’t instinctively say, “Wait a minute… have I just made this sequence too short because I added another complication before that resolution scene?” We’re just aware of the feeling that something is off, that something isn’t right.

You’ve written a scene and it doesn’t work. But the problem is the scene’s place and function in the sequence — and in the extreme number of accidental and dead-easy ways in which we can mess up the structure of a sequence when we focus in on writing our stories at the scene level.

Maybe we’ve got a complication scene that’s accidentally wound up anchoring what should be the conclusion of a sequence. A complication scene is primarily about the tangling up of narrative threads, creating an increase in dramatic tension and conflict. In the resolution slot, which should be about tying up those threads, it feels wrong.

Maybe we’ve accidentally shifted a resolution scene earlier so that another complication now follows it, rather than the resolution feeding into a new setup narrative beat. Our sense of story tells us that the proper flow of action has been changed up somehow. It feels wrong.

Maybe we’ve jumped right into a complication scene that hasn’t been properly led into by a setup scene. Our sense of story tells us things are happening too fast, coming out of nowhere. It feels wrong.

Maybe we’ve run only one complication beat where the sequence demands two. The story feels rushed as a result. It feels wrong.

Maybe we’ve lost track of the sequence, letting it spin out to five complications and seven overall narrative beats, rather than the three to five beats that are always the goal. It feels wrong.

When faced with any of these scenarios, your storyteller’s mind flashes a bright red warning sign. Your storyteller’s mind knows that something’s wrong. But because the storyteller’s mind is all subconscious processing, it can’t always articulate what’s wrong. Your storyteller’s mind is the “Check Engine” light on a car, alerting you to the existence of some problem but cheerfully offering no real insight into what that problem might be. So you spend your time trying to fix a problem at the wrong level — reshaping the scene over and over again when it’s not the content of the scene that’s the problem.

The placement of the scene is the problem. The function of the scene is the problem.

Scenes create sequences, sequences create acts, acts create the story. The function and placement of dramatic beats within the larger whole is the language of story.

In the previous installment, we looked at this particular approach to laying down scenes, with its big, wide-open expanses of red question marks:

When we sense a problem with a scene and try to fix that problem by rewriting the scene, we’re focusing in on a paradigm of story that exists only at the scene level. We think of story only as a collection of unrelated red question marks. We remain vaguely aware that our story has act breaks, and that between each act, we have special scenes that spin the story off in a new direction (the transition from the resolution scene of one act to the setup of the next in our model). But in between those sparse anchor points, it’s all just a sludgy mass of dramatic moments shuffled into place by guesswork.

The classical approach to storytelling works on one level — the scenes that make up a story. In film storytelling, the scene-level composition of story is straightforward. But even in long-form prose fiction, story is still composed of the same sorts of narrative beats. First something happens, then something else happens. Prose fiction has a lot more flexibility in terms of where, when, and how those things happen, but the movement forward in the narrative still obeys this beat-by-beat, scene-by-scene pattern.

When we start out as writers, we almost always start out writing at the scene level. Sometimes this is the process of starting with a blank sheet of paper and just writing from the beginning and seeing how far we get. Sometimes it’s the process of working out the broad strokes of the story as a beat sheet or with index cards. But either way, we focus on the scene level of the story because that’s the level at which we actually write.

The scene level is all about the language of words. But when we’re working with the language of words, we lose sight of the language of story. When we’re writing at the scene level, we lose track of the structure that our scenes need to create.

Working the language of story is a matter of focusing on the scenes in the context of the overall structure that the scenes are a part of. Scenes build sequences, sequences build acts, acts build story. The same model we’ve been talking about all along can be viewed as a succession of levels from the top down.

When we’re in the middle of writing scenes, we focus on story from front to back. We don’t necessarily write a story in strictly linear order, starting at page one and plowing through to the end. (We’ll talk more a few installments from now on why you should never do this.) But focusing at the scene level always creates a sense of the story on a single plane — scene after scene, pushing from the beginning of the narrative to the end. This single plane is where we work when we’re writing scenes, employing the language of words.

Working with the language of story is about adopting a top-down approach for storytelling — “top down” meaning from the act level down to the scene level. We don’t just focus on movement from start to finish, left to right. We focus on moving up and down within the structure of the narrative at the same time. We think about our story as a collection of acts. We focus in on those acts, thinking about each one as a collection of sequences. We focus in on those sequences, thinking about each one as a collection of scenes.

Think about the idea of microscopic and macroscopic viewpoints, or about the telephoto and wide-angle settings on a camera’s zoom lens. We start out with the widest possible angle — we see our entire story laid out.

When we read a story, when we consume a story, this is how we interact with it. We focus on the story as a single unit of drama. We know that every story has a start and end, and we’re aware that a story has a shape of some sort and rising action and all those other things. But when we’re reading a book or watching a movie, we don’t consciously say, “Yowza! Nice rising action here!” We’re simply aware of the story and of how it makes us feel.

As readers, that works fine for us. But as writers, it’s not enough.

As writers, we need to zoom in a bit, so that we can see that what looked like a single cohesive story is actually composed of smaller parts — acts, all laid down in a cohesive structure. Setup, complications, resolution.

Zoom in some more. We can see more detail. Each of our acts is composed of sequences laid down in the same structure. Setup, complications, resolution.

Zoom in even more. We can see even finer detail now, noting that each of our sequences is composed of scenes and that the pattern of those scenes is a mirror image of the patterns above.

Exercise — Putting the Top Down

In the exercise from last time, we talked about how when you broke your sample film down to the scene level, you most likely ran into the problem of having some of your one-sentence sequence summaries break down into too many one-sentence scene summaries. We remember that the magic number of narrative beats we want in any part of our story is from three to five. Three to five acts in the story as a whole. (This is specific to feature film story. We’ll talk about how this translates for long-form prose fiction later on.) Three to five sequences in each act. Three to five scenes in each sequence.

What you discovered in the exercise — when the number of scenes didn’t automatically fit like it was supposed to — is exactly the same problem talked about at the beginning of this post. When we’re processing story at the scene level, sometimes things don’t fit. We end up with too many narrative beats or too few. We lose track of the overall structure that the scenes create.

And just as we talked about above, this problem can’t be fixed by trying to beat those scenes into shape. Rewriting a scene in a finished story is exactly the same process as rewriting the one-sentence scene summary in the exercise. And if you’ve got a sequence in your sample film breakdown that has six scenes in it, you can rewrite the one-sentence descriptions for those scenes until the end of time. They’re not going to magically turn into three to five scenes. The essential structural issue — too much story — is never going to change.

What needs to change is the structure of the sequence that the scenes are a part of. Because if you have six scenes all trying to crowd their way into a sequence, that sequence needs to become two sequences.

At each point when you reshape the structure of your story, you’re guided by the fundamental sense of structure that shapes every level of the story. Setup, complications, resolution. Because if you add an additional sequence description to address the problem of too many scenes, you’re not adding additional story. The sequence summary is simply an abstraction that “collects” the scenes on the level below it. Whether you divide them into one sequence or two, the scenes are the same. And so our understanding of structure reminds us that the problem with these particular scenes isn’t just one of placement and number — it’s one of function.

Our new shorter initial sequence can’t end with a complication. Likewise, the second new sequence can’t begin with a complication. If this is a story that we’re reading, this is the sense of the story that our storyteller’s mind has flagged for us. And it’s that understanding that we need to bring into play as writers to guide us in reshaping those two problem scenes as a resolution and a setup.

Our storyteller’s mind knows instinctively that six narrative beats is too much story. We sense this when the dramatic energy of those four complication scenes begins to flag. And simply rewriting those four complication scenes will never fix the problem — because the problem isn’t in the scenes.

Working with the language of story, we focus in on the different levels of our story. The problem of scenes not fitting together properly is fixed by zooming out. Pull back to look at the sequence level. Look at the sequence that’s problematic because it’s trying to break itself out to six scenes and rework that single narrative beat as two narrative beats. Your one-sentence description becomes two sentences, and each of these new sequences has plenty of space to break out as three scenes each.

Sometimes expanding sequences in this way leads to new problems. If our hypothetical sequence was originally one of five sequences in an act, then splitting it creates another issue — an act with six sequences. Same structural problem as before. Same sense from our storyteller’s mind that something’s wrong, that the story is flagging and dragging just a little bit. Same solution. Don’t start rewriting the sequences to try to make their count magically change — zoom out again, up to the next level. Look at the act structure as a means to fixing the problems at the sequence level, just as you focused in on the sequence level as a means to fixing problems as the scene level.

When we’re writing — when we’re engaging the language of words — we’re working exclusively at the scene level. But the language of story is about understanding that our story exists on different levels. We start at the top level — the story itself. We work down to the act level, then down to the sequence level, then down to the scene level, each time focusing in on smaller and smaller pieces of the overall narrative.