[Podcast] Cristen Iris on How to Move your Story Forward with Scenes

3 honing the writing craft podcast post Jul 17, 2023
[Podcast] Cristen Iris on How to Move your Story Forward with Scenes

Scenes are the building blocks to good storytelling.

But too many new writers struggle to conceptualize their story in scenes. They think a scene is a dinner table conversation. Or a mere stroll through the forest.

Scenes are mini-stories with a beginning, middle, and end. They concern a character’s line of thinking.

A scene serves a specific purpose. It has a nameable goal, a sequence of events in which the protagonist tries to achieve their goal, and a conclusion of either success or failure.

And then BAM! A new scene begins with a new goal.

A scene is NOT bound by location or a time period. It can switch locations. And it can extend from one day to the next. 

Your story—its structure, pacing, characters—is dependent on scenes. The most successful books are those that have mastered the art of storytelling through scenes.

Cristen Iris, award-winning ghostwriter and publishing consultant, offers new writers tips on how to move their story forward with scenes.

Her top advice: Know how to organize your scenes.

The Sequence of Scenes

A scene is a mini-story. And a book is made up of dozens of scenes compiled into a narrative arc that keeps the reader engaged.

According to Cristen, the average novel and memoir has 40-60 scenes. Your job, as the writer, is to organize these scenes into a compelling arc that takes the protagonist—and the reader—from page one to the end.

One way to think about the sequence of your scenes is to view each scene like a stepping stone to cross a river. Every stepping stone must be able to carry the weight of your story and must be correctly placed to provide a seamless crossing.

Insignificant scenes will sink your reader. Improperly paced scenes will bore your reader and they might turn around. They’ll give up on your story.

Think of your scenes as a sequence of events that raise the stakes of the story. Each scene should build off the former and effortlessly lead to the next.

Here’s an example:

The protagonist wants to start a job her parents don’t approve of. She talks with her parents—with the hope they will change their minds and be supportive. But they don’t. That’s the scene, and the protagonist failed to achieve her goal.

The next scene is a new sequence of events. The protagonist submits a job application and lands an interview, despite her parents not supporting her. Her new goal is to survive the interview and get the job. Once she learns she landed the job, she’s achieved her goal. The next scene has a new goal: to gain her parents’ support. And so forth.

As you work on your manuscript, don’t overthink it. Understand what a scene is, and then determine the best way to stack your scenes so that your story is well-paced. 

Move Your Story Forward with Scenes

To help you conceptualize your story through scenes, Cristen recommends new writers start with “tent-pole” scenes.

“Tent-pole” scenes are the pivotal scenes in your memoir or novel. These scenes represent the major plot points in your story where something significant happens that takes your story in a new direction.

A little lost? 

Let’s use a movie example.

Interstellar follows former NASA pilot Cooper and a team of researchers as they attempt to find a viable planet to host humankind.

We can break the movie into four major plot points:

Plot Point One: Cooper leaves his family and embarks on the journey through the wormhole. His goal is to find a new planet and return to Earth after a few years.

Midpoint: Cooper and two of his teammates land on the first planet. Cooper’s goal is to rescue the scientist and the scientist’s data in order to determine if the planet is viable for human survival. They learn not only is the planet uninhabitable, but they also lose one of the researchers, fail to recover the body of the scientist, and waste 23 Earth years.

Plot Point Three: Cooper and his two surviving researchers land on a second planet where they meet Scientist Mann. Cooper’s new goal is to access the data concerning the planet’s habitability and then return home to reunite with his family and save humankind. Except his goal is disrupted. Mann lied about the planet’s viability and attempts to kill Cooper, and in the process of escape, Mann ruins Cooper’s means to return to Earth.

Climax: Cooper’s new goal is to secure his last-surviving researcher, Brand, a flight to the third and final planet option, thus, ensuring humankind’s survival. He sacrifices himself to the wormhole and comes across a five-dimensional tesseract. From inside the tesseract, he helps his daughter solve the gravity equation, and, by extension, allow humans the ability to leave Earth.

The major plot points are the backbone of the movie. And they provide a clear sequence of scenes from each point to the next.

This strategy works for memoirs as well. Once you name the “tent-pole” scenes of your novel or memoir, consider how many scenes fit in between the major plot points. One way to determine the amount of your story’s scenes is through simple math.

Say you’re writing a story with 40 scenes. Plot Point One occurs 25% into the story, so you’ll have 10 scenes leading up to it. Between Plot Point One and Midpoint (the 50% marker), you’ll add another ten scenes. From Midpoint to Plot Point Three (75% marker), you’ll have ten more scenes. And from Plot Point Three to the end, you’ll add ten more scenes.

Once you have a good idea of how many scenes you’ll need for your story, forget the numbers. You want to tell the story well and to have it be balanced. But the actual number doesn’t matter. It’s simply a tool.

Cristen argues the number of scenes will help you conceptualize your plot. But the number can also hold you back. Like we said before, don’t overthink it.

As you work on your manuscript, consider asking these key questions:

  • Does each scene serve a purpose to the overall plot or big idea of your story?
  • Does your protagonist have a namable goal in each scene?
  • Are your scenes stacked in a way that maintains an engaging pace?

Now, buckle up and write!



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