You know it needs improving, but you don’t know where to begin.
This is a process I’m using to help me get a grip on my scenes and their dramatic structure. I’m using it to analyse scenes I’ve already written, but you could also use it to plan out a scene before you write it. Of course, if you are a pantser and planning makes you want to claw your eyes out, then this post is not for you… at least not until you get up to editing your story.
On the other hand, if you’re someone like me who likes processes, this is more fun than a weekend on a yacht with Chris Hemsworth and Jennifer Lawrence.* There are even some handy printable templates at the end of this post.
* may not actually be more fun
Firstly, I figure that in any scene, the drama revolves around 3 main questions:
1. what happens?
2. how do the characters feel about it?
3. where is it happening?
Sure, there are other details, but these seem to be the big points that guide the nature and feel of the scene. Also, I feel that scenes that don’t work tend to have a mismatch of these elements, or are even missing some altogether. Perhaps you’ve glossed over how a character would react or are unsure, or perhaps the reaction is disconnected from what’s happening. The setting may be vague, disinteresting, or working against the atmosphere of the scene (talking head in a white room, anyone?).
I think all the key dramatic points of a scene can go under those headings… if your scene is already perfect. If you are human, like me, you will need a place for one more thing:
4. wait… what?
How come your characters can see in the pitch black? Why don’t they just use the life raft? Better remember to have them pick up a torch in an earlier scene if they need one here etc. Sadly, scenes do not appear on the page fully thought through. So you need somewhere to note up all your
idiotic mistakes areas for improvement.
Based on these thoughts, I developed a table and worked through one of my scenes:
In case it’s not clear, the table has four columns: What happens, Internal Reactions, Setting, and Thoughts. (‘Thoughts’ seemed better than ‘All the stupid mistakes I have made’). I’ve lined up what happens with the relevant internal reactions and other notes, so it’s really easy to see whether they match up and whether there are any gaps. For example, I realised that my character ‘D’ is told something momentous at one point in the scene and has no noticeable reaction. Of course, in my head, I assumed she was shocked, but given she’s the POV character, the absence of a reaction reads as her being disinterested in the new information.
1. Write the first thing that happens, then write the internal reactions of all the characters before you go on to the next thing that happens. Otherwise, you won’t leave enough room, and you won’t see whether one is leading to the other. (Unless you’re doing it on a computer, of course.)
2. Colour code your characters and their reactions. This makes it easier to see if you’re paying attention to all the characters, and to pick out an individual character’s journey in the scene. For example:
3. When doing your notes about the setting pay attention to practical details which may impact on the plot (eg. If your character needs to escape, does the room have a back door? Is it locked?) but also atmospheric detail such as the space, mood, lighting, temperature, smell etc.
4. In the ‘internal reactions’ column, I found there were some key recurring kinds of reactions I wanted to highlight:
shifts: when a character makes an inner shift in belief or perspective, usually as part of their journey (eg. Shift: Joe previously thought someone else would fight the army of diabolical llamas. He now understands he must fight back himself if he wants to survive.)
internal conflicts: when a character is wrestling with two competing goals and/or emotions (eg. Conflict: Joe knows he must kill the llamas but cannot forget his feelings for the cute llama he owned as a child.)
problems: when a character identifies a problem to solve or investigate (eg. If ‘what happened’ was that Joe discovered he was out of ammunition, in the ‘internal reactions’ I might note: Problem: What will he fight the llamas with now?)
Download Free Printable Templates
If you are handy with a pen and ruler, or know how to ‘insert a table’ in your word processing software of choice, you may wish to draw up your own table. However, if you prefer to handwrite (and don’t want to redraw the table repeatedly), then here are some printable pdf Scene Analysis templates.
Because I am Australian, I originally did these in A4. But because I’ve noticed web traffic tends to include lots of US / Canadian folks, here are some printable templates in US Letter as well (you’re welcome). I’ve also included some printable instructions, in case it’s too cumbersome to come back to this page:
US Letter Templates
Tell me your thoughts!
What did you think of this article? Was it useful? Do you have any tips or suggestions for other writers on how to analyse their scenes? Please like or leave a comment!