I've always been curious on how scenes were constructed and made memorable. Think of Vader's reveal that he is Luke's father, or think of Brad Pitt's character in Seven finding out that his wife is in the box. Scenes are not only made to be memorable, but they are used to sustain audience interest throughout the story
I did a lot of studying with regards to scenes. Through my journey as a writer, I've come across one of the best tool on how to construct scenes. This tool is the "Scene & Sequel" method. To avoid confusion between Scene (with a capital S) and scene, I will refer to Scene as active scene, and Sequel as reactive scene.
Active scenes comprise of Goal, Conflict and Outcome. For example, Luke's Goal is to defeat Vader. His Conflicts are Vader's skill and his deficiency in skill. The Outcome of this scene is Luke getting his hand chopped off, and furthermore Vader reveals that he is Luke’s father.
Reactive scenes comprise of Reaction, Dilemma and Decision. For example, Luke’s Reaction to Vader revealing he is his father is denial and dread. Luke's Dilemma is choosing between joining his father (but be corrupted by the dark side) or refusing his father (and most likely die). With those choices, Luke's Decision is to refuse his father and jumps to his death (but is rescued later on).
That's the quick and dirty of active scenes and reactive scenes. If you want further details, I recommend Jim Butcher's article on it. Here are the links:
One thing I've noticed on both types of scenes is that it culminates to a "Fork on the Road." On the examples above, the outcome on defeating Vader can either succeed or fail. The dilemma for Luke is a choice between joining Vader or refusing him.
- Scene: https://jimbutcher.livejournal.com/2647.html
- Sequels: https://jimbutcher.livejournal.com/2880.html
Whatever path they are forced into or whatever path they have chosen, Complication follows. With the same examples, the complication for failing to defeat Vader is Luke losing his hand, and the complication for refusing to join Vader is possible death.
With this in mind, active scenes and reactive scenes can be compressed into a Narrative Q&A. To construct a Narrative Q&A, the question should be close-ended where the answer is either “yes” or “no”, then followed by a complication. With the same examples above, the Narrative Q&A would be “Will Luke defeat Vader? No, and furthermore his hand is cut off,” and then “Will Luke join his father on the dark side? No, and furthermore he falls to his death (but his fortune is reversed).”
These narrative questions are asked unconsciously as we watch or read stories, and these questions sustain us throughout. As soon as we reach the answer, the scene reaches a Turning Point. The turning point changes the trajectory of the story, provided there's a complication.
I've been using Narrative Q&A for my outlines instead of active and reactive scenes. The reason why is because I can clearly see the tension of a scene or sequence. For example, In Seven, the climax has Detective Mills facing a dilemma: Will he shoot John Doe to avenge his wife whose severed head is in a box?
With the given example, you can see how it swings from "yes" and "no" until we arrive at a definite answer. The back and forth between "yes" and "no" is tension.
- Maybe YES as John Doe confesses on killing his wife
- Maybe NO as Detective Somerset tells him to drop the gun
- Maybe YES as the rage overwhelms Detective Mills (assumed)
- Maybe NO as Detective Somerset tells him that John Doe wins if he shoots him
- DEFINITELY YES as Detective Mills decides to shoot John Doe
Often, the Narrative Q&A won’t have a zig-zag pattern. At times it’s either a rise or a fall, depending on how the scene is constructed. For example, in Alien, when the facehugger alien dies and falls off Kane’s face, the narrative question is this: Is Kane healthy?
Should there always be an answer to a Narrative Q&A? Not really. When an answer is not established or ambiguous, then it’s a Cliffhanger. For example, the ending in Inception (spoilers ahead, of course) has the question: Will Cobb find out if he’s in the real world?
- Maybe YES as there seems no complications on him and he’s eating
- DEFINITELY NO as an alien burst through his chest, and FURTHERMORE there’s an alien loose in the ship
So why call it Narrative Q&A and not Scene Q&A? Because Narrative Q&A can apply to sequences which is a group of scenes. One scene may not have a conflict or dilemma, but it could be a build-up for a scene that has those dramatic elements. For example, in Pulp Fiction Jules and Vincent’s drive-up to Brett’s apartment has no dilemma or conflict, but the scene is kept in because it illuminates the characters as they talk about royale with cheese. The next scene does have conflict, which is Vincent and Jules trying to retrieve the briefcase. The narrative Q&A for that sequence is this: Will Jules and Vincent get the briefcase?
- Maybe YES as Cobb spins his totem
- Maybe NO as his children call to him
So how does Narrative Q&A help you as a writer? You can use it as a basis to construct your scene. From the Narrative Q&A, you can extrapolate the scenes or beats that will lead up to the Narrative Q&A. Here’s how I would outline the sequence for Pulp Fiction:
Here you can see that the Narrative Q&A is the nucleus to the build-up and send-off. Also, it clearly delineates the sequence’s beginning, middle and end.
- Jules and Vincent driving to Brett’s apartment
- Jules and Vincent talking about royale with cheese
- Jules and Vincent arriving at their destination
- NARRATIVE Q&A
- Will Jules and Vincent retrieve the briefcase?
- Maybe NO as Jules toys with Brett
- Definitely YES as Vincent finds the briefcase
- Jules further toying with Brett
- Jules and Vincent killing Brett
I've been using a lot of examples from movies, but the Narrative Q&A works on novels. The following links will take you to a sheet where I made note of the Narrative Q&A on Nabokov's Lolita and Vonnegut's Sirens of Titan. I had chosen these titles because they are literary works and they have a unique narrator. I wanted to test if the Narrative Q&A holds up on these two titles.
The lists above do not show the connective beats and scenes; they only show the Narrative Q&A.
- Lolita: https://jonmayo.blogspot.com/p/narrative-q-lolita-by-vladimir-nabokov.html
- Sirens of Titan: https://jonmayo.blogspot.com/p/narrative-q-sirens-of-titan-by-kurt.html
As an exercise, try finding the Narrative Q&A on movies, shows or books you consume. If you come across a scene or sequence, figure out the Narrative Q&A. Once you have the question, study how the scene or sequence is built-up.
There you have it folks! I hope this will help you in constructing scenes and sequences that elevate your story.