the secret ingredient to telling a good story
I have this friend who considers himself a professional in his field. When he encounters other professionals acting unprofessionally, he reacts with some reserved disgust, as well he should. I’m like that too. Everyone I care to know is like that, because it’s a sign of pride; frustration at a peer acting carelessly, with no respect for the art you both work in, is a sign you Give A Shit.
One of the things I Give A Shit about the most is telling stories effectively, and it’s frustrating to see so many people fail to do so. I’ve talked about it before, but for me, a lot of this comes down to the simple fact that everyone thinks they can tell a story.
The truth is that everyone can tell a story, much like anyone can become a musician or a doctor or whatever else they can imagine. There’s no elitism here; sure, certain elements of storytelling might come more naturally to someone for various reasons, but there’s no magic bloodline, no secret genetics that will make you a good storyteller. All you’ve got to do is work at it. Reserve the disgust for the lazy and unwilling, for the people who’ve got no respect for the art form. Kindness is the only thing you should extend to the beginners.
“I went to the store today” is a not story. “I went to the store today and on the way back, I got a flat tire,” is getting there, but it still isn’t quite a story. “I went to the store today and on the way back, I got a flat tire, and a guy pulled over like he was going to help me, then he shouted something I couldn’t make out and raced off, like something had spooked him,” is the beginnings of a story, and it might even be interesting. A story pops off when something happens that sparks the imagination.
As you learn to write, you’ve probably gone through this process yourself. As a five year old, you left it at “I went to the store today.” As you progress in life, you’re probably writing better, more sophisticated stuff. It’s not a linear progression — tonight I was reminded of some excellent writing I’d done, and I also stumbled across some work that made me wince — but you are, gradually, getting better. At the gym, you don’t have to lift one more pound every day, but hopefully, on average, weeks and months after you started, you’re lifting 10 pounds more here, 50 pounds more there.
When we write stories, we learn little tips and tricks and things that make our stories pop, and when I set out to write this piece, that was what I intended to write about, but in setting up how we get there, I inadvertently wrote an entire thing on “how to tell a story,” so this is that now.
As we develop, we start to avoid pitfalls without even thinking about them. A common mistake that bad writers make is that they try to keep things close to the chest, especially when it comes to horror. Misunderstanding that terror is the buildup to horror, and that you can’t have setup with no punchline or punchline with no setup, many of them elect to write so cryptically that the story itself becomes difficult to follow. When a story becomes so cryptic that nothing means anything, the story stops being interesting.
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Good writers know how to maintain the audience’s interest, and they know that meaning is a big part of that. Bad writers generally copy what they’ve seen without understanding its purpose — like an architect asking “why don’t we put the roof on the bottom of the house?” It makes no sense if you understand why a roof exists — if a roof is on the bottom, it’s just flooring with shingles on it; it’s not a roof anymore. Things are and are not done for good reasons all the time; being good at what you do is about internalizing why things are done.
A helpful maxim: “why don’t they just…?” is a question that has a very, very low success rate. Most of the time you ask that, someone smarter and backed by more resources than you has asked the same question, frequently, internally, and there was a good reason not to do it. Not always, mind you, but there’s usually a reason someone did something that, to you, seems complicated and weird and wrong.
You may notice that, in my writing, I work very hard to avoid going “why don’t they just?” and frame it instead as “the way they’re doing it is causing this problem; here’s a solution to this particular problem.” It may or may not have been thought of before, but that’s okay — our goal in these essays isn’t to force people to do things our way, it’s to identify problems and possible solutions in a way that increases our own ability to solve problems.
So, let’s not throw something out because it does something that isn’t immediately clear to us, right? But let’s dig deeper — let’s get into how and why things work, and it’s in knowing that how and why that we will become much better equipped to write our own stories.
When writing a story, it’s not enough to say “the character went to a store.” If you’ve figured that out and you go “the character went to the store but heard a strange sound,” okay, you may have something interesting, but “a strange sound” is vague and meaningless. If you say that the character went to the store and heard a strange sound and, upon investigating, found a hatch in the floor, and inside the hatch was a deep, dark hole, you’ve gotten the audience interested, but if you end the story before the character goes into the hole because you’re trying to ‘leave it up to the imagination,’ you’ve abrogated your responsibility as the storyteller.
Without implication, nobody’s gonna Give A Shit about your story (in horror, implication is everything); you’re not just trying to give the audience a couple weird images or descriptions, you’re trying to make them leap out of their chair and dive underneath the covers and hope the monsters won’t get them. “But that would mean…” is where you want them going. If they don’t understand what’s going on or why they should care, then, well, they won’t care.
As a quick aside, I like to say that good storytelling is predominantly emotional — that is, what sticks with the audience is the heightened emotionality of a work. If characters seem flat or bored, they’ll seem uninteresting, and the audience will fall off. But “horror” has this nifty little trait where the genre name and the emotion name are the same thing. You ask someone to write a drama, they might get melodramatic, all Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments with its sweeping musical strings, where you might have been expecting David Mamet’s quietly contemplative movie The Verdict.
With “horror,” everyone knows the general feel they’re going for; the same theories we discuss for horror can be used in any story, so we use horror as a way to communicate to writers, especially ones who are beginners or unsure of themselves, how storytelling functions; if you’re reading this and going “well, I have no intention of writing horror,” that’s okay; these ideas are still for you! We’re just using this genre because it’s emotionally very pure — people too often forget the point of their stories when they’re writing in a lot of genre fiction (they start thinking ‘oh i need to have magic in this fantasy story,’ or ‘oh there has to be computers in this science fiction story’), so they get sidetracked with unimportant things like lore and forget all about the real reason anyone tells any story: emotions.
So we’re gonna use horror as a frequent example, but the rules here apply everywhere; all you need to do is keep sight of the emotional goals; treat every genre like you’re trying to hit the emotional payoff that a horror story does, and you’ll be good to go.
One of the best horror stories I’ve read, recommended by a good friend of mine, was Hell Hath Enlarged Herself, by Michael Marshall Smith, a story where the protagonists realize the implications of what they’ve done something like half way through the story. As I recall, one of the most haunting images in it is from the aftermath, where the protagonist describes seeing the results of his creation while living, alone, in a motel somewhere. The ghosts are outside, watching.
Because you’re a storyteller, you want people to care! That’s the whole dang point! So with horror, you’ve got to imply something that sets the brain alight, yes, but you have to give the audience enough to go on. You don’t simply say “there’s ‘something’ out in the woods, woooo,” and leave it at that; you want to get the audience to think something along the lines of “But that would mean…”
So how do you fuckin do it?
I’ve heard all the ideas; a silent protagonist will be so bland that the audience will superimpose themselves onto the character and then they’ll care! (not really! not at all!) You don’t show the horror, you leave it up to the imagination! (no, even Lovecraft made it clear that things were terrifying — when Nyarlathotep sends people to an unimaginable kaleidoscopic hell, what’s frightening to the audience isn’t the vague depiction, it’s the idea that something alien to us could compel us to seek it out, as if mind controlled, as if the Call of the Void was too strong to resist) You add a twist! (a twist for the sake of being a twist will leave your audience feeling betrayed due to its artifice). On and on I could go, but you get the idea.
There is no formula to good storytelling because storytelling feels pandering when it’s not genuine, and story that ignores the storyteller’s instincts in favor of rote structure is disingenuous; I stumbled across my copy of David Mamet’s (the man has stupid political views and has since like, 9/11, but much like Frank Miller, he is an expert in his own field) Three Uses of the Knife the other day and finally decided to give it a read, and in it, Mamet makes the (correct) argument that people will recognize when they’ve been pandered to, and the pandering story won’t work for them. It is, essentially, too cheap to leave a lasting impression. Pandering through structure is the empty calorie of the storytelling pantry.
You can only tell a story by being genuine, which means delivering it in an organic way, and formulaic structure is not organic. It’s the opposite. A movie might set up a relationship between two characters; when one dies, the other becomes angry. The iconic revenge scene that follows might be considered the high point of that film. Another film might take that same scene and attempt to make it the climax of its own narrative, but the director doesn’t know why the first director had all those “pointless” scenes with the characters kissing or whatever, so in the new director’s movie, the protagonist sees a stranger die and gets upset.
The director of the second film can copy every shot, every line, every sound effect, and none of that will matter because it’s a scene plugged in without any genuine emotion behind it — the imitator is relying on the setup from the other movie to do the emotional heavy lifting; they want the punchline without the setup. But what happens if your audience hasn’t heard that setup, didn’t watch the other movie? Why would they even transpose the dramatic revenge from one movie onto yours? They wouldn’t; instead, they might go “why does this character seem so upset about this?”
It’s not enough to copy the form of the scene; that’s all the spice that gives the scene its flavor, but it’s — and this is very important — not the same thing that gives the scene its power. Shots, sounds, whatever, all of that is about enhancing the emotion that’s already there; you still have to build those emotions in the preceding acts, scenes, and shots.
It’s not enough to copy the surface elements; you have to understand the setup and how to make it work. The only way for your audience to Give A Fuck is if you yourself Give A Fuck; if you don’t know why this moment is happening, if it isn’t building up to something or paying off that build up, if it isn’t serving some vital function, then cut it right out of your story.
Do you know the intended audience for books like Save the Cat and Story? It’s not you, writers. It’s not meant for you at all. These books are written for the psychopaths they churn out of Business School whose jobs are to balance the books but fancy themselves as something more. It’s for the would-be god-emperors of Hollywood, who hate sitting there in a meeting with you and other storytelling experts and have nothing to say. So they desperately look for someone to give them something to say in business meetings so they can look smart (which is what they want; it’s why so many business guys try to give stupid as fuck notes in Hollywood these days: they want to be seen as creatives but they want a get-creative-quick scheme), and there are plenty of grifters out there writing “how to write” books for these jokers to be able to give pointless notes.
I’m prefacing the piece like this because I want you to understand this before we start: what I am telling you is not formula. What I am giving you is salt, so you can make your savory dish pop just that much more.
Well, it was, and then as I wrote the rest of this piece it turned into a whole “here’s how to go from idea to story” piece. So, uh, here we go.
So You’ve Got An Idea
Okay, let’s start at the beginning: you have an idea. Maybe it’s a single image — a scene where a woman, her body more metal than flesh, coldly tells a character “I’m not human anymore. I don’t have feelings.” But you know that deep down somewhere, that’s not true, and someone’s got to do something about it!
Well, you’ve got a potentially interesting idea (personally, I dislike this kind of story beat; I just grabbed a quick, cheap emotional scene that you’ve probably seen before so you’d understand where I’m going with this; please don’t take it as “ah so if i write a scene about a character pleading with a robot to have feelings, i’ll tell a good story” because our goal is to get a scene anyone reading can understand, even if they’re a fourth grader). No idea is inherently good any more than any ingredient in your pantry is inherently good; sure, some are of higher or lower quality, but so much of the dish is in the cooking; even the best tomato in the world will taste awful if you burn it down to nothing but carbon. A great chef can make an ingredient you hate (for me that’s brussels sprouts) into something tasty (no great chef can do this with brussels sprouts). Never judge an ingredient on its own (unless it’s brussels sprouts). It’s what you do with it that matters (except for brussels sprouts).
So here you are! You have a conflict, you have a desired outcome (to prove to her that being 90% robot doesn’t mean she’s no longer a person), and from this, you can probably build up a protagonist: the kind of person who would want our robot lady to realize she’s still a person; she doesn’t have to be cold.
From here, we can probably figure out some important things — why did she become a machine? What does she feel about the protagonist (some people might phrase this as “what is her relationship to the protagonist?” but a lot of people who do that think “are they literally blood relatives?” and not “what is their emotional dynamic? does one count on the other? what happens as this relationship disintegrates due to the aforementioned belief one is no longer human?)? Who is the protagonist and why do they view seeing someone becoming a machine and losing their humanity as a bad thing? Is it a bad thing?
I would generally say yes — humans create stories for emotional reasons, and we are highly emotional beings, because that’s an essential component of being human, so telling a story where we say “getting rid of your humanity is a good thing” would be fundamentally antithetical to our existence. It’s also entirely impossible to do, at least in our current world. You cannot be ‘not human.’ At best you’re misanthropic, which just makes you someone who pretends goodness does not exist, which means you create a moral framework in which you yourself can never be good, which is simply just being lazy and giving up on the difficult task of being a good person. Misanthropy is cowardice. But I’m getting carried away.
“Can humans stop being human?” might be an interesting thought experiment, but it is meaningless because you can no more remove humanity from human existence than you can make fire something other than an exothermic reaction or pretend that light can be something other than visible electromagnetic radiation. That’s the fundamental nature of the universe; at some point, asking “what if…” becomes a nonsensical question to ask. I’ve seen a few people on the internet ask lately “what if the world was made of pudding?” or something to that effect as a way to illustrate this point.
Some things are what they are, and if they were something different, they would be something different. The questions we have should be about interacting with or being influenced by them in some way, not ‘what if things were different somehow’? So yeah, “can humans stop being human?” is a pointless question. No, they can’t. Everything a human does is within the scope of what being human is. You cannot get outside of being a human. If you do something no human has ever done before, congratulations, you found out another thing humans can do.
(put another way: a lot of reality works a specific way — exothermic reactions exist, for instance — and some of us have this bad habit of asking “what if things were different?” but the difference is usually just “what if we didn’t call fire ‘fire’?” It’s putting the word before the thing the word is referring to; even if we didn’t call it ‘fire,’ that specific kind of exothermic reaction still exists fundamentally; anyone who thinks ‘what if this term meant something else?’ is really just bickering about the pointer (noun) to the concept, but the concept itself still remains, unchanged. you can’t win an argument with physics. it is what it is; all you can do is try to understand it.)
(please note that this is not saying ‘there’s no point to writing stories where things behave differently than they do in our world’! the point of a superhero story is to deal with human emotions — it’s about thrilling and exciting us. “What if gaining superpowers caused someone to lose their emotions and disconnect from the rest of humanity?” is a fun thought experiment, but it doesn’t really mean anything as it relates to humanity. Asking that question isn’t really a Genuinely Meaningful Philosophical Question that is Being Explored in Meaningful Art, which is the point I’m trying to make in this aside — it’s okay to change reality, but pretending a pointless question is important is silly and futile. Now, if you wanted to use superpowers as a metaphor for being a billionaire, you’d be writing your superhuman to be more like, say, an egomaniac like Elon Musk, who is desperate to be loved but refuses to work on himself at all, and that would be a much more interesting character that audience would resonate with more strongly)
Back to the storytelling part.
By establishing needs in our scene, we can draw an entire story out of the conceptual well. Put another way: if this dramatic “i’m not human/but you are!” scene is the emotional climax of the work, okay, how far back are we going?
At this stage, it’s important that you keep in mind that all-important writing adage: start a scene as late as possible and end it as early as possible. During the editing phase, you can often run yourself past this particular bit of advice and find ways to make scenes pop just a bit more by following it. But, again, not always. There are no rules aside from “do what’s best for the story,” which really means “keep the audience interested.” The best way to do that is to get them emotionally invested. People aren’t interested in the things they don’t care about, right? And caring is, y’know, being emotional about shit. So your goal, as a storyteller, is to make your audience feel things that keep them engaged for the duration of the story.
When we’ve got our character’s needs down, we can develop those core moments that we need to hit in the narrative. If the machine woman’s transformation is a core conflict, we probably need to start our story time — as opposed to run time, story time is the time in which the story takes place (e.g. “127 hours” is not a 127 hour long movie), the run time is the duration the audience will deal with it, like a 120 minute run time for a movie — with her being a normal human, we probably need to introduce our major characters, including whatever or whoever turned her into this thing. We’ll definitely need the incident that causes the transformation directly (or results in it happening — e.g. we see a car crash, then we see a scene in which the character emerges from the hospital as a robot), or the audience will be very confused as to what’s going on.
In other words, a lot of figuring out the story itself, once you’ve got an idea, whether it’s a single scene, a premise, a character, or even just a vibe, is a process of extrapolating — working backwards. An architect might figure out the general shape of a building, but he’s still going to have to sit down and figure out where all the metal beams go to keep the skyscraper upright in heavy winds.
So, early on, you’re going to want to look at the end result and figure out the general shape of what you’re building.
You’re going to want an overall structure.
So You’ve Got A Structure
Alright, now that you’ve got a destination, it’s probably time to plan a route.
Recently, my friend (and frequent writing collaborator) Phil and I were having a discussion where he mentioned wanting to adapt a particular manga, and we were kind of bemoaning how we’re unlikely to get the rights because we’re not fabulously wealthy people who could afford to option it (that’s the Hollywood term for buying the right to adapt something, basically), so I said “well, what if we came up with a story like that, but our own thing, the kind of thing that, if made, would convince people that we were a natural fit for adapting the thing you really want to adapt.”
So we broke down all the elements of what makes this particular mangaka’s work tick, particularly the work that Phil was interested in adapting. We talked about it for a little while, and wouldn’t you know it, we basically came up with the premise and plot the same way that you and I covered above! Something I didn’t mention — which I probably should — is that we also did a thing we do where we naturally find ourselves digging into our mental cabinets and drawers and resurfacing old ideas that would work.
It wasn’t like “hmm let’s go look through these drawers,” it was that I said “well, to get this kind of story, you need to start with a really weird mystery hook, like [idea I came up with on the spot],” and then I went “well, that’s probably silly, but we’re brainstorming,” and Phil went “actually that’s good. Remember that old idea you had about another thing? What if the protagonist in this scene is that guy?” We realized it was fantastic, and we started bouncing tons of ideas off each other, some new, some old. Nothing deliberate other than our goal to match a specific style of story.
Sometimes, breaking down ideas is easy — we knew our first villain couldn’t be our main villain, so we asked how he was able to do what he did? This helped us come up with a particularly haunting prototype for a scene. As we worked out that scene, we started coming up with other ideas where the villain could appear, and pretty soon, we had enough of it to make the idea snap into place.
In essence, once you have the idea, the next step is when you want to go “okay, so the overall structure should probably look like this.” So, okay, how does this story work? Maybe it’s a serialized story — you have particular scenes that work really well as episode openers or closers, which means it probably won’t work well as a movie.
Okay, then, realistically, how long do you think the story needs to be to achieve that format you have for it? For one story that ended up as a television pitch, Phil and I decided a single season would be enough. For another, we decided we’d need a few seasons.
Set up our conflict in the pilot, end the pilot with a compelling twist, begin establishing relationships and building up the mystery, have shit break down around here, leading to the climax, which leads to this final scene there, and a final shot that gets the audience wanting to come back for season 2.
The structuring part of the process is about figuring out the following:
- What are the scenes I feel are essential? (for example: a scene where a character dies and another scene where a character gets revenge)
- What scenes would I need to build up to the essential scenes? (if a character dies and we want that death to be emotionally very sad, we probably want a series of scenes where we get to know the character enough that their death will be tragic, and then after that, we’ll probably want scenes dealing with our protagonist’s reaction and their desire for vengeance. depending on our format, the fallout of that vengeance as well)
- What scenes will I need based on the format I’ve chosen? (if a video game, we’ll need a tutorial. if a television series, each season needs a helluva first episode to get people into (or back into, for later seasons) things and set up the conflict for the season, possibly a mid-season break if our seasons are long enough, and the finale that gets people wanting to come back next season)
Now, you might miss some scenes here or there. That’s okay; you don’t need to be perfect, you need to get the story structured. What you’re trying to do is figure out the load-bearing scenes. Don’t worry about interior decor until you know how you’re supporting the roof to keep the rain from getting in and messing up all that lovely decor. The entire story will change dramatically until you’ve completed your first draft, and then you’ll probably change it some more as you work on your drafts, and eventually, you’ll hit script lock, which is the point when you accept that you’re done writing and pass it off to production. Don’t worry about getting everything in on the first try. Someone, somewhere, is going to have notes.
Usually, in this stage, I’m going by my gut. I’m teasing out whether things feel right to me. A lot of this comes from literacy — I’ve consumed a ton of different media, I’ve pushed myself outside my comfort zone, I’ve experimented with media I’m not sure I’ll like, and I’ve seen what’s so common that it’s become boring for the audience. Playing bad games helped me understand bad pacing enough to know when something feels wrong, y’know? Playing good games helped too, because literacy isn’t just about volume, but about discernment, and you become discerning by being able to compare and contrast things. Why did this Spaghetti Western not work for you? Why did that one work? Can we take elements from a Spaghetti Western and put it into a Crime Noir? Those have different pacing approaches, how do we make it work? What do we leave out, what do we bring over? On and on it goes.
Sometimes, something in your gut says this scene needs time, and that’s how we figure out that we need to put a scene or two between point 1 and point 4. We need scenes 2 and 3 to make this all work, even if we don’t know what they are right away, we just know we need some space for things to develop between scenes 1 and 4. There’s no formula for this, you just gotta feel it out.
Now, if you want to tell a boring story, just do whatever first comes to mind. Chances are, you’re pulling it from somewhere else. I had a great idea for something until I realized I’d just been inspired by a video game I was playing at that moment and what I was actually doing was teasing out the implications of a scene. This isn’t always a bad thing — I’ve speculated where a story is heading, my speculation has been wrong, but what I’ve come up with is interesting enough that it could work as a story on its own. But, overall, your first instinct for what you should or shouldn’t put in a story will likely be one that’s coming from your memory, and when that happens, you run the risk of telling the audience a story they already know. If you do that, then they’ll probably get bored, because, like the guy in that Twilight Zone episode who always won every game of chance, they’re in hell because predicting the future makes the world boring.
For one project I was working on, my first thought was that a character’s wife would reply to him somewhat dismissively. But, honestly, this is because I’ve seen so many scenes like that; a character wants adventure, but another character says “no, don’t do that.” That’s dramatic, in the most limited sense — a character wants something and something or someone is in the way of that — but a scene like this gives the audience an obstacle that we know is ultimately trivial.
If our character wants to go on an adventure, and our audience saw trailers with the character on the adventure, the movie poster shows us a picture of the guy standing there facing down a storm or whatever… we can reasonably assume that despite his wife’s objections (and all too often, it’s the wife: see casually misogynist adventure Uncharted 4), this adventure is going to happen.
So, okay, we scrap that scene. We’ve just dug up our memories of every movie where a character wants to do something and some concerned family member says “don’t do that, I’m here to be in the way of you having fun,” and it’s just… dry. It’s boring. The audience doesn’t care for it, nor do they care for us being lazy. Not only that, but no one will remember the wife as anything other than a nag. If nobody likes her (because all she’s doing is holding up the fun adventure from happening), then no one in the audience will really want this man to get home to his wife when the adventure inevitably goes awry. Why would any of us want to see a daring adventurer partnered up with a party pooper? What good is she?
Alright, so, what do we do?
Well, in this project, I had an idea: she likes adventures too, but it’s his turn for an adventure this week and hers next week. So she presents him with snacks she’s prepared for his adventure, but they’re not the kind he likes (oh no!), to which she laughs, mentions that those snacks are for a mutual friend going on the adventure, and whips out a box of his favorite snack (what a relief!). Then she says something that conveys the following sentiment: “don’t hurt yourself; if I have to miss my trip next week cause you sprained an ankle or something, I’ll be bummed out.”
Obviously that’s not interesting dialogue, but what’s important here is to figure out sentiment first — what’s the purpose of this exchange? What we want emotionally is important before we figure out how it’s said aloud. With this scene, we are establishing a healthy, loving relationship, and we can see why this guy loves his wife and we’re rooting for them as a couple. As a result, when he runs the risk of injury later in the story, the audience will feel tension — worry he’ll break his promise to be careful, worry he won’t get back to his wife (and they’ll want him to, because she’s a likable person rather than a wet blanket).
In other words, go with your gut when you’re thinking about time, but your gut will often offer up things you’ve already seen when thinking about specifics. Dodge that bullet as best you can. You’ve seen misogyny a million types; why on earth would you want to repeat it just because your gut was like “yeah I’ve seen this a lot so that’s what’s supposed to go here.” Be more interesting about it! You might want a conflict to happen here, but think about what that conflict might do to the audience. If they want him to leave her because she’s boring as shit, but your character incessantly talks about how he wants to get back to his family, the audience won’t buy it. So you gotta make his family the most likable thing in the world so the risk of not getting back to them suddenly becomes too great to bear.
It’s important to remember that stories don’t come about by accident. When I analyze video games, I often think “why was this built this way?” because, unlike real life, where a lot of things simply exist, like “light” or “gravity” or even “the location we’re filming at,” every single thing in a video game has to be created by hand. It has to be created intentionally.
The same is true of your story. You do not walk into a room for the first time with half the script just… sitting there, already existing, unless you’ve got a writing partner or you’re taking over someone else’s work. What’s going to happen when you’re beginning a story is that you’re going to sit down and intentionally create every single scene in that script. You don’t even have to create them in order! Write the scenes you care about first, arrange them in the order you intend for them to appear, and figure out what scenes are missing to make it all work! There’s got to be a point — not a message, not a theme, but a reason that this particular scene needed to be in the script! If a scene is pointless, the audience will know and decide you don’t care so they shouldn’t either! Don’t do it! One of the reasons people make fun of Quentin Tarantino for putting feet scenes in his movies is because they’re indulgent. They’re in there because Tarantino thinks feet are sexually attractive.
One really embarrassing story I started taking notes for back when I was in my early teens saw me trying to inject a lot of religion into the story, because I wanted to write science fiction, but my parents didn’t like sci-fi, so I figured I could make them see it was okay if I put a bunch of religious bits in it, like C.S. Lewis did for his stories. It all felt wrong, because it was me trying to proselytize, to artificially inject a lesson into the work, rather than deal with being human. This, too, was indulgent.
We explored this idea in “should art say things?” (pt 1) and “does art say things?” (pt 2), and I’m particularly fond of Ursula K. LeGuin’s take on it:
…that’s not the same as having a message. The complex meanings of a serious story or novel can be understood only by participation in the language of the story itself. To translate them into a message or reduce them to a sermon distorts, betrays, and destroys them. This is because a work of art is understood not by the mind only, but by the emotions and by the body itself.
I was playing a Star Wars game not long ago where the writers clearly thought “we should diversify the cast more,” so the white supremacist organization, the Empire, was transformed into a bizarrely diverse, but still evil, organization. It’s like doing a search and replace for the word “anus” into “butthole” and accidentally turning Janus, the god of doors, into Jbutthole. They lost sight of the whole “white supremacist organization is bad” thing and just did a quick find and replace. Remember how we said implication is everything in horror? Well, implications are everywhere, all the time. When you do things, they have domino effects — so make sure that in your attempts to do good or regurgitate things you’ve seen before, you don’t inadvertently, say, defang an argument against white supremacists?
When you write, you write with purpose. You should know why a scene is in your script, whether it advances the plot, helps us understand the characters, or sets the emotional tone of the work. Every scene you write is a scene you came up with, so the least you can do is make sure that the scene builds interest over the course of the story leading up to the climax.
Think of this like sales: if you are approached by a dishwasher saleswoman who wants to tell you all sorts of stuff you don’t care about and wastes your time without giving you a good idea why you should care.
(and remember: why she cares is because it’s her job and she’ll get fired if she doesn’t sell it to you; that’s not why you care, though, and as a saleswoman, her job is to explain why you should care; as a human being with compassion, you may care about her keeping her job, but you might not be able to afford nor do you need a brand new dishwasher; it would be better for both you and her if you quickly told her you weren’t in the market so she has more time to find someone who is in the market. i’m getting lost in the weeds)
Storytelling works the same way; you want the audience to pay attention, so don’t write a boring scene (one that only exists to impart information to the audience, for instance). An uneven movie would be one where one scene is interesting as heck and another scene has nothing going on and so on and so forth. You want a story that’s a series of interesting or engaging scenes, one after the other. You want the audience spellbound. It’s always strange to see a writer go “I want people hanging on to my every word” and then spend several chapters discussing the minutae of breadmaking in a world where no one figured out how fire works. That’s a paper on breadmaking theory, not a story.
Put another way: you are an entertainer, therefore, the person you need to be thinking about is the person you are trying to entertain. You must engage them. If you get lost in the weeds of self-indulgence, you’ll stop being engaging, and your audience will wander off, and then, like the poor dishwasher saleswoman above, you’ll lose your job.
So, working from an idea, getting to a structure, the next step is making sure that each scene, from one to the next, is spaced appropriately (that’s what we call “good pacing”), and that each scene is vital to the work as a whole because it’s engaging to the audience and leading to even more scenes that are engaging to the audience. If you feel like you can cut a scene, then you should should cut it because it doesn’t deserve to be included.
(“but doc, what about that story about how critically acclaimed anime director Hayao Miyazaki sent a sword to Harvey Weinstein, his American producer at the time, saying ‘no cuts’?”)
(Well, that’s very simple: first, Miyazaki didn’t do it, his producer did, but what’s important is this: Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli had already done the important cuts. Weinstein was like one of the psychopathic suits we mentioned above — he is also now in jail for being a psychopathic suit — who wanted story input where his input was not required, and he wanted to cut scenes that were intentionally put in the story to give the audience room to breathe — they were, in fact, essential scenes, just emotionally essential, which is far more important than plot-essential. Weinstein wanted to cut it further because he considered only information essential, but Miyazaki knows the importance of emotion — scenes with bubbling soup pots and characters sitting and enjoying themselves are crucial to the mood of the story, which is more important than the information contained within)
What’s Pacing? How Do I Organize My Story?
So, pacing is really hard, and it’s something you can only truly see the full picture for when you are able to step back from the whole story. Then, once again, you go by feel — the story drags here, it picks back up there, etc. Over time, once you’ve consumed hundreds or thousands of stories, as well as written dozens, hundreds, thousands, millions of your own, you’ll figure out how to do this really well. Don’t sweat it too much if you aren’t perfect today; you’re growing into perfection. You’ll get there.
So there’s not a lot I can say there: you are going to have to feel it out. Make it slow when it needs to be slow, make it fast when it needs to be fast. I like to put cuts in my work because “walking slowly in a straight line” isn’t very good pacing — in games, you can think of it like “level design.” A big open room with nothing in it is boring to traverse.
However, in the Elden Ring screenshot above, you might notice something: as you look at the screenshot, you start thinking about where to go. If you’ve played the game, you know you can go to all three of those yellow trees (because you can always go to the yellow trees). You’d be right to suspect you can go to that big castle in the distance. There are obvious paths down ahead of you, leading to a tower and a bridge on the right, and so on. So you start thinking about all the things you can do, which is mentally engaging. In other words, level design is the art of crafting anticipation and encouraging planning.
Scene design is the same thing, both inter-scene and intra-scene. Inter-scene is what happens between scenes, and intra-scene is what happens inside the scene; this section is on that inter-scene contrast.
On every game I’ve written, I’ve come up with individual scenes — it’s how my brain works. Then I arrange those scenes in the order I think I want them to go in, with a focus on emotions over anything else, even time.
When I was about 19, I moved away from my parents for the first time, which meant I could finally watch a lot of movies I’d not been allowed to see. I immediately checked out, though I can’t remember why, Reservoir Dogs. I loved how it was nonlinear, and I thought I could tell nonlinear stories too.
For a long time, I couldn’t, because I didn’t really get why the story was nonlinear; I only knew that it was, and that I wanted to do that myself. Of course my nonlinear stories sucked! It would be years before I wrote something nonlinear that I was proud of.
It all clicked for me when I realized that I needed to place the scenes in emotionally progressive order. That is, starting with something interesting, then building up — like the anticipation as you crest a roller coaster — before finally hitting that release and the scream of excitement as you descend. The best nonlinear stories all work like this — even when the events of the story aren’t in linear order, the emotions are.
There was this guy, Lev Kuleshov, who noticed something really, really interesting about moviemaking back in the day, and in honor of his discovery, we call it the Kuleshov effect:
Take a picture of a person with a neutral expression, put a different picture after it, and then show the same expression, and the audience will feel they understand what the actor is feeling, even if the reaction shot is always the same. After a shot of food, audiences said the man was hungry, and so on.
Alfred Hitchcock takes this a step further, calling this “pure” cinematics:
Show a shot of a man, cut in a shot of a woman with a baby, cut back to the man, and he smiles: he’s a kindly old man who thinks babies are cute. Show the same two shots of the man, but change it with a girl in a bikini, and suddenly, the smiling man becomes a lecher.
The audience creates meaning through contrast, so before we get into the specifics of a scene, we want to think about how each scene contrasts with the one immediately before it.
On a horror project I created some time ago, I wanted to do a scene where a character is standing, blankly, staring at the camera, with a shadowy monster standing behind them. The person slowly pulls a knife up to their mouth, ready to slice their cheek open all the way to the ear. The monster grins. “Pull!” we hear… and we immediately cut to a scene of two characters playing skeet, leaving the audience hanging on what exactly happened to the person with the knife, while also creating a sense of relief from the slow tension of the monster creeping up on the person with the knife. Now we’ve got a scene with two people jovially talking about something completely unrelated. Each scene has its own emotion as well, but there’s something between them, created through friction, that makes it all flow much more strongly.
In prose, it’s the difference between:
- “I went to the store. I walked inside the store. I walked back to the dairy section. I looked for the whole milk. I picked up a gallon of whole milk. I walked to the front. I gave the cashier my money. She gave me a receipt. I left with the milk.”
- “Realizing I was out of milk, I hopped in my car and drove down to the grocery store. I’m a big whole milk guy, so I immediately headed to the dairy section, found what I was looking for, headed back to the register, made small talk with the cashier, and left with the milk I’d come for.”
See how it flows better? Inter-scene juxtaposition is about creating flow on a macro level. Think of it a bit like pixel art: each scene might be a distinct chunk, but when every pixel is small enough, and you’ve got enough of them, an image that appears blocky when you zoom in suddenly appears to have curves. Heck, if you’re reading this on a computer, the letter S may appear to be curvy to you, but with a magnifying glass, you can see that it’s just a lot of little squares on a grid.
Likewise, your scenes might just be little squares on a grid, but if you’ve got enough of them in the right order, you can create a sense of flow — the curves of your letter S — that feels natural, rather than stilted.
So while I can’t tell you how to arrange scenes in the way a grifter “how to write books” guy might, in the sense that I’m not going to tell you all sorts of techniques and methods to put in your scenes, because people who tend to do that end up writing very samey, boring, paint-by-numbers story, all I can give you is one very simple rule, that, if you follow it, will give you a lot more flexibility than a grifter’s techniques ever could:
Put the scenes in emotional order.
If you find that a scene does not have the proper emotions prior to it to set it up, then either put those scenes in or cut that scene out. The story doesn’t have to make temporal sense — it’s not about whether or not the scenes go in linear order — it just has to make perfect emotional sense; the audience needs to build up to a climax and then cool down and get off the ride.
Emotional ordering is the single most powerful tool to help you figure out what scenes you need but don’t yet have.
Once you know why each scene needs to be there and in what order those scenes need to appear, you can get to the important part: making sure each scene is interesting.
“How do I write an interesting scene?” Well, that’s the actual point of this essay.
So You’ve Got A Scene
A lot of people want stories to be, essentially, mathematical formulas: plug this value into this formula, get an expected result. Unfortunately, stories are emotional tools that humans created for emotional reasons. Feelings aren’t super rational, and hoping to simplify the act of storytelling into plugging and playing won’t work. It’s an entirely gut-driven process, and that means the only way to get truly good at it is to just… develop the gut.
Put another way, storytelling is like sailing: you can’t just put up a sail and go “yes, I want to go in a straight line.” What you need to do is go “I want to end up here,” and then work with the currents and the winds to get to your destination. Don’t fight them, don’t go for what seems simplest; the best quality of ride you can get is the ride where you listen to the wind and waves.
In flying, we do this thing called “crabbing,” which is basically, “hey, I want to go North, but there’s a wind blowing from another direction and it’s knocking me off course. What I’ll do is fly at an angle — I’ll use my rudder to yaw right or left, and then I’ll increase my power a bit, and the plane will fly north even though it’s facing northeast or northwest. Planes don’t always fly in straight lines; I once landed a Cessna 150 by crabbing almost 45 degrees to the right of the direction I was traveling because the winds were that high.
The thing is: you can’t think about this. There is no mathematical formula for it, no way to simply know what to do by studying it in a book. The only way to crab correctly, at least in a small passenger aircraft, is to simply feel it out, using your gauges to make sure your gut isn’t wrong (because it can be wrong!). So much of crabbing is about feeling it out; you keep your goal in mind — landing on the runway — and you do things, even if they don’t seem intuitive to get there.
In the case of storytelling, like we said, a lot of what seems intuitive isn’t. Our gut might say “well, the hero wants to go on an adventure, so his wife should protest, because the hero’s journey says that someone should try to stop the hero at this point of the story,” but the hero’s journey is shit and we’ve inadvertently done a misogyny that we didn’t need to, just by going with our ‘gut.’
So you have to go with your gut when it comes to “hmm, does this emotion feel earned?” “is the pacing interesting?” “is this scene dragging?” but your gut isn’t always going to give you the best solutions; all you can really do is just feel it out.
So, here you are. You’ve got a key scene, and from that scene, you figured out how to get there, you figured out how to put the scenes in an order that’s emotionally compelling. You’ve thought about when to give or withhold information based on what it will make the audience feel. Awesome. You are finally in possession of a great outline, and now it’s time to write a scene.
What do you do?
Back in my old roleplaying games, I tried everything from lore to descriptive prose to experimental formatting and… none of it worked. Sure, some of it was entertaining, and even less was good, but enough of it was good enough to keep me wanting to try and try and try some more until I got better at it.
After a decade or so, I finally figured it out.
Good writing is about scene dynamics.
Well, not go go all “webster’s dictionary defines dynamic as…” on you, but basically, something dynamic is something characterized by constant motion or change. A scene that’s relatively static — a woman walks into a room, says “I know who the killer is, it’s bob,” and walks out — is rarely an engaging scene. If you look at scenes that make people snicker and go “what was that?” they’re almost always scenes that feel extremely out of place because they weren’t established correctly; that might be an emotional non sequitur — a laugh or a scare that feels inappropriate — or it might be something that’s indulgent, or it could be any other of a number of potential pitfalls.
But… there’s almost always one other thing behind it all — the scene itself wasn’t interesting in and of itself; you can get away with all sorts of bullshit if your audience has bought into the scene. The triumphant “I am no man” gotcha is amazing in The Return of the King because of all the work that goes into setting up that moment; if it came out of nowhere, it wouldn’t feel nearly as powerful or engaging.
The best way to make a scene interesting, after you’ve done all the stuff above, is to focus on changing the dynamics of the scene in the scene. You might’ve created a cool Kuleshov effect between the previous scene and this one, but now that you’re in this scene, you’ve got to figure out how to keep the audiences with it until the next one.
And that, my friends, is scene dynamics.
Or, in video games, we’d call this part “encounter design.” That’s right, level design and encounter design are all storytelling! People love to be like “what’s more important? gameplay or story?” Mwahaha! You fools! Gameplay is how you tell the game’s story!
In fact, why don’t we actually explain storytelling through the lens of encounter design.
A long time ago, for the Seven Day FPS jam, known as 7DFPS, a bunch of game designers gave little bits and pieces of advice on shooters. I was surprised at the time to find that one of the people giving advice was Dan Pinchbeck, who had, at that point, only made walking sims. Now as someone who has really only been able to talk about the walking sims I’ve worked on because everything else is under non-disclosure agreements, I would be much less surprised to see someone who knows game design despite only having apparently made walking sims. I think he actually has a doctorate in shooter design or something.
Anyways, the important thing he said was that there are basically two different kinds of shooters. There’s the monster closet ones, which, for years, I have noticed that people tend to deride — that’s where your opponents tend to ambush the player (pouring out of closets full of monsters) — and then there’s the ‘planning’ shooters, like Halo.
If you’ve played Halo, that might sound surprising to you; do you really plan in Halo? And the answer is, like… well… yeah. Here’s the Amnesia director Thomas Grip’s take on planning in games. The basic idea is that being able to see something and go “ah yes, I will…” makes a game more mentally stimulating than one where you merely react to things all the time.
In Halo: Combat Evolved, one of my favorite levels, The Silent Cartographer, begins with you flying in a Pelican dropship over the level, from where you will end up walking all the way back to the start — you get to see part of the journey you’ll be making, and you get to see where some of the enemies are. As your Pelican flies over the initial combat encounter, you’re able to take stock of what enemies there are and where they’ll be — making it easier for you to devise a strategy.
Bungie, Halo’s developers, would continue to use those tactics throughout the game. When enemies enter the level, the game always makes it clear, as you either approach enemies who are already present, or enemy dropships bring new enemies into the space, announcing their presence by firing at (and initially missing, but later hitting if you aren’t careful) you, opening their doors, and letting enemies drop into the map. It gives you time to think and plan. That’s good.
But dropships serve another purpose: as an example, you might enter a space, find a group of weak enemies, take them out, start to pick up ammo, feeling good about yourself when, oh no, a dropship brings in two huge, tanky enemies, who can kill you easily if you aren’t careful.
Emotionally you went from anticipation (seeing small enemies), feeling empowered (taking out the small enemies), relieved and engaged (foraging for ammo or weapons), and then surprised as a new group of stronger enemies entered, upping the stakes of the encounter.
Now, to make a good game, you want the environments and the encounters to be varied; if you have just one specific kind of encounter formula, your game becomes predictable and dull (which is why, even if I like Halo 3 more than Destiny, I can put more hours into Destiny — because Halo 3 does get predictable after a while, due to its linearity), so instead of looking at specific ways to change the dynamics, just think about how to change dynamics in different ways.
At its basest level, dynamic shifts in a scene are based on things you don’t know. For instance, a character enters a scene, angry at another character, ready for a fight, but they find that character crying instead. This is our ‘intra-scene dynamics’ we talked about earlier.
Take this scene from Superman/Shazam: First Thunder.
Superman is prepared to fight Captain Marvel for something he’s done, and he’s angry about it. These guys are both super strong; a fight between the two of them will be devastating, and Superman knows this. Still, he’s determined to do the right thing, even if it means beating up this other guy.
Shazam is crying. That wasn’t what Superman (or the audience) expected.
Hold on, “best friend”?
That’s not how adults talk…
Because Billy Batson isn’t an adult.
We get this fantastic reaction panel, and without really changing his expression, Superman’s entire demeanor changes. He goes from wanting to fight what he thought was an adult who hurt people weaker than him to realizing a kid has been given more power than he ever should, and he wasn’t handling it well.
Superman’s entire relationship to Captain Marvel changes in a single instant.
Now, in one sense, we could say this is about information — but the information given here only matters in the emotional context of the scene; the information changes how we feel. If information is simply Lore, then it’s spice, and having too much Lore is like getting an interior decorator who’s actually just a hoarder. A good interior designer knows to arrange things for specific effect, where a hoarder just… y’know, throws everything around haphazardly. One designs for effect. The other has some problems that need addressing.
The information here is relatively subtle — all we really need conveyed to us is that Superman Learns That Captain Marvel Is A Boy Cursed/Blessed With Magic Powers And He’s Doing His Best But It’s Hard Because He’s Like… Twelve.
And what Superman learns changes him.
So we deploy information in our scenes as a means of influencing emotion, rather than simply Teaching The Audience because this isn’t school, it’s art, and art is about emotions.
In essence, scene dynamics is how the things the character does or the things the character says changes things. “You’re fired” is one dynamic, “You can’t fire me, I quit,” is a dynamic shift — it’s the character without power seeking some level of power over the other person in the conversation.
There’s a scene in Breaking Bad season 5 where Hank is trying to flip another character. Hank thinks this character is the victim of another character, so he’s like “we’ll get you out of there, we’ll protect you,” and so on. It’s all meant to be helpful, but the dynamic slowly changes as he starts to lose the familial quality of the discussion and begins starting to sound more and more like a cop. When she comes back with “I think I’d need to talk to a lawyer,” we’re taken off guard.
The scenes leading up to this quietly built up a hope in us that maybe Hank would finally catch Walt in a very “boiling frogs” sense (based on the untrue adage that if you slowly turn up the heat on frogs they won’t notice until you cook them; useful metaphor despite not having a basis in reality), but as we see him move too quickly, he pushes another character out of her comfort zone and she shuts him down. He goes from being in control to losing it as she screams, in front of an entire diner “am I being arrested?” and walks out on him.
It doesn’t have to be about control, mind you, it’s just that shifting power dynamics are some of the easiest ones to illustrate.
So, in a game, we might change the dynamics by defeating a shit-flinging monkey in Sekiro, only for that headless monkey to stand up and start flinging more shit, and we’re like “oh shit, that monkey can fight while headless!!!” or we might do it a lot more subtly, like in Adios, where, at its most extreme, the strongest dynamic shifts happen in the Chestnut scene, where Farmer talks about growing Chestnuts and why it matters to him.
If you haven’t played the game, you should, it costs less than a meal at Arby’s for two and it’ll last a lot longer. If you have, then, hey, you know the Chestnut scene is where Farmer falters — he’s practically bursting with pride, and then when confronted with the question “why are you telling us this?” he starts to realize this is it. This is the last day of his life. And that realization — that understanding that he cannot just quit the mob, that no matter what he wants, there is no way out of this, is where he starts to hang up. He’s been reflecting on his life all the way up to this point in the game — now he understands the implications.
Of course, we do that throughout. In The Way scene, which is, in a way, about fathers and sons, the paths we lead them on, there’s a quick moment where Hitman says “Roy would have been about his age.” If we were focused on lore, we’d then explain who Roy is and why Hitman brought it up — but we’re not, we’re focused on the dramatic nature of the scene, so Hitman mentions a character that Farmer clearly knows, he establishes an age — Roy was about as old as Farmer’s son Bill — and we can infer from there that Roy was probably Hitman’s son. Speaking in the past tense, oh, that son’s probably dead. Huh.
Now, you don’t need to know this as an audience member, but I, as a writer, was communicating a few things about Hitman, including that bit where, earlier in the game, he basically just suggests Farmer find a replacement for his dead wife. To me, when Roy died, that signaled a shift in Hitman’s life, and he’s been protecting himself ever since — he’s trying not to care about family, but the way he treats Farmer, even when he’s trying to play it cool, makes it clear that, well, he does care, he’s just trying to hide it.
But that’s overarching character stuff that makes them pop. What it’s there for in that scene is to mess with the dynamics of it all. Hitman accidentally lowers his guard. Both men recognize it’s an uncomfortable subject, and this gives us a pause in the scene, like taking a breath. It shifts the relationship between these two characters, if only for a moment, and then the scene continues.
Characters are acting and reacting to other characters. In their reactions, the relationship between them changes, not always drastically — it’s not about falling in love or becoming enemies or whatever — just, like, who “has the floor” in the scene, who has “control” of the conversation. A character might simply own another character with a sick burn or a cool turn of phrase, then capitalizes on this advantage. A character might open up about a secret she’s been carrying, which cause a character to become more sympathetic to her.
Enemy reinforcements might show up, a new weapon gets dropped onto the field (like the rocket launcher that lets you kill Mr. X at the end of Resident Evil 2), sometimes it might not even be gameplay-effecting, like the level in Max Payne where you can stumble upon two mafia goons trying to unlock a door with explosives, which detonates early, killing them both, and then the whole wall (except for the door) falls down, letting Max simply jump through. That wasn’t a power dynamic thing, that was “I’m going to have to find a key or fight these guys, I bet” to “haha oh wait no that was a really funny Buster Keaton gag!”
Shifting the dynamics in a scene is just about changing up what the player understands, thinks, or knows throughout the scene in an emotionally compelling way so that we leave it in a way we weren’t entirely expecting.
You can combine this with tension to create really interesting effects.
Hitchcock explained how to create anticipation in a movie. Put a bomb under the table. Show the bomb to the audience, but don’t let the point of view character (could be the protagonist, antagonist, deuteragonist, whatever) know about it. Show the clock ticking down, make it so the audience wants to shout “get out of there! there’s a bomb!!! if you don’t run, you’ll die!”
The tension comes from us knowing something the character does not.
In games, this is particularly hard; if I’m a player and I’m in control, my baseline desire is to not die, so I’m going to get as far away from the bomb as possible. A lot of frustrating moments in games come from this — a sequence is scripted, which means the player will try to mitigate damage because that’s what the game has taught the player to do, but the game goes “nah, for this one moment we’re gonna force you to do it,” and it can end up being really frustrating.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare did this beautifully. You do your mission — when in danger, a helicopter pilot shows up and saves your life. When she crashes, you are told they’re evacuating the city, but you don’t want to leave her to die (because you owe her your life), so your commanding officer is like “we understand the risks, let’s go save her,” and you do it, carrying her back to the helicopter, taking off, and then… the nuke you were hoping to escape from goes off.
You knew something, you did what you could — tried to get out in time — but you were in a helicopter as you were leaving, so there wasn’t anything you could about it.
If we can define tension as “knowing something bad will happen and being unsure of our ability to overcome it,” and dynamics is “changes in a scene that alter our understanding of what will happen or is happening,” then a dynamic, tense scene would be one where, say, we’re trying to run away from an exploding space ship, but when we get to the hangar, an enemy escapes in the last shuttle, and we have a “oh no, what now” moment, because now we need to come up with a new plan, and our expectation for the last few minutes (between knowing the self-destruct is happening and being unable to escape the way we thought) is now out the window. We’ve got to set up a new expectation.
Now, you can’t make every scene this tense all the time — again, look at Adios. One scene, we have Farmer initially talking about what he loves (soda machines), before slowly getting into what he’s really thinking about (dealing with grief via fixing things, as opposed to talking about it, and how people feel the need to make us grieve the way they do). We see a little of Hitman opening up too-the two aren’t really vying for power, but at least in that sense, they’re competing in a different way; they’re both trying to convince the other that their way is the right way. One wants to quit, the other knows he’ll die if he does and wants him to stay.
Dynamics in a scene are about shifting our understanding, through information, events, or even vibes. It’s Peter Parker’s spidey-sense tingling mid-way through a date with Mary Jane. It’s a defeated enemy rolling over to reveal he’s holding a live hand grenade. It’s characters accidentally saying something they regret and the entire tone of the scene changing. It’s a character opening a fridge to find out the pie they put in there and were excited to eat is missing. It can be anything that changes what the audience was expecting to happen.
It’s Time For An Ending
Originally, I wanted to talk about scene dynamics because it’s the thing I see beginners — even professionals — struggle with time and time again. You write a scene where a character says “I’m going to the store to get some milk and come back,” and then you write exactly that. Cool, but you told the audience it was going to happen; without complications… why is it interesting? Getting milk isn’t interesting in and of itself.
But if that scene becomes “i tried to buy milk but on my way in i bumped into an asshole cop who was kind of rude to me, and when I found the milk I wanted and walked back to the checkout, a guy tried to rob the store but then the shitty cop pulled a gun on him, so the guy grabbed me and took me hostage but the cop, being an asshole, said he didn’t care and started shooting us both, so now I’m trying to break free of the hostage taker while also not getting shot by the cop and in doing so i accidentally hit the cop and now the cop says I’m an accomplice and is actually trying to kill me”… well, that’s an extreme example, but you can see how it just flows into more and more compelling stakes, right? You can see how it might be entertaining?
That’s what I wanted to do; get you thinking about how to take a scene from “exactly what I expect” to “not what I expected but perfectly understandable in the context, maybe even enjoyable for the audience.”
As I wrote, I realized not everyone would be able to start from there, so I started laying out some storytelling basics, ended up just kinda… explaining how I write a story from beginning to end, so there you go.
Take a scene.
Try to figure out where it goes in the story.
Figure out who is needed in the story to get us to that point.
Figure out scenes involving the characters.
Place them in emotional order.
Then work on shifting the scene dynamics so it’s not just characters sitting there and doing lore dumps back and forth. Make it emotionally stimulating.
If you understand people — and you understand people by engaging with them — and you understand storytelling (and the fact that storytelling is supposed to entertain those people, and NOT than be a copy of a copy of a copy of another story, like a blurry, shitty jpg that’s been saved and compressed through fifty different meme websites), and you build a story in this way, you’ll… well, if you’re new, you’ll probably still write a lot of bad stories, but that’s normal, in the same way you can’t lift seven hundred pounds your first day in the gym. What I’ve done is give you some tips on diet and exercise routines. Ultimately, just like working out, how you tell a story is still going to need to be tailored to you, and there’s only one you.
What I can do — and what I hope I’ve done — is give you some general pointers about form, reps, diets, that kind of thing. I can tell you to take leg days. I can’t give you exactly what you need to be a great writer, because being a great writer means telling stories the way you’d tell them. Writing is as much about getting to know your self as much as working out is; no rule set works perfectly for everybody.
Still, I hope this information points you in the right direction — hopefully, if you’re new, you can get started, write some absolute dogshit, laugh it off as growing pains, figure out what’s missing, and after ten thousand or so hours (as the science goes), you’ll finally be an expert.
I guarantee if you think about emotionality, contrast, and dynamics, you’ll get there. Don’t worry if it doesn’t happen right away. It takes time to be able to lift seven hundred pounds, and it takes time to be able to write really well. You never really stop.