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Rewriting 101: Week Four – Key Scenes

A key scene marks acts, openings, closings, curtains rising and falling, turning points, drama. In the novel and the filmscript, there are seven key scenes: Page One and After, Plot Point One, Midpoint, Plot Point Two, Climax, Ending, and First Encounter. When you rewrite, you lock down the First Encounter first: Lover A meets Lover B; Protag meets Antag; Sleuth meets Killer; Hero meets Monster. Handy tools are scene profile and scene template. Handy structures are scene sandwich and scene sequence.

  • Scene Performance.
  • Homework that links to Week Five.
  • Suggested reading: Two books by Barbara Walker: The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (Kingship, Knights Templar, Marriage); and The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects (dive in, go deep)

Café Argento

It’s raining outside the Argento. Writers enter seeking coffee and companionship. 

My advice today focuses on the resource base: What do your characters want? What do they need? What will they kill for? What will they die for? Examples of resource bases come from films:

A circle of wagons is the resource base for the Mel Gibson film, Road Warrior. The backdrop is a post-apocalyptic waste land, a land of rock and sand and no water. Armored bandits in made-over motor vehicles control the road. Motor vehicles need fuel. Inside the circle of wagons is a fuel depot. The fuel depot in Road Warrior is the visible floating city-state, Thebes-Troy-Denmark-France after the apocalypse, a visible outpost of civilization, assumed safety within walls.

The fuel depot in Road Warrior functions like the floating pontoon city in Water World. The bad guys of Water World, led by Dennis Hopper in an eye-patch, invade the pontoon city, using force to penetrate the closed circle. The bad guys tear the place apart; they are hunting a map that charts a course for an island. The resource base in this world of water is not the pontoon city-state, but dirt, a plot of land on the fabled island, a place to grow food, a return to family, starting over. Photosynthesis needs dirt. Dennis Hopper’s siege of the pontoon city in Water World is like the Greek’s siege of Troy, all that circling of the walls by water scooters.

The resource base in Moby-Dick, an epic tale of another water-world battle, is blubber. At the end of Act One, Mad Captain Ahab tries to replace blubber with a gold doubloon from Ecuador, the reward for first sighting of the white whale. But the crew knows the value of the real resource base: there’s more gold in blubber.

The resource bases in Gorky Park are gold and fur. The fur comes from Barguzhinksy sables. In the back story, two months before Page One, the killer kills in Moscow’s Gorky Park to keep safe his theft of sables: sable by sable, the killer is busy cutting the economic heart out of Mother Russia. Tracking bits of sable fur and remnants of sable food, the dogged sleuth winds up in rural New Jersey at the killer’s sable

The Workshop – Writing the Three-Act Synopsis/Treatment

The writing on Day Four is a plot sweep that starts on Page One, hits the plot points, and stops at the End. The writing on Day Four balances three weeks of work on the antagonist – character work, First Encounter, and Climax – because the three act synopsis/treatment takes us back to the Protagonist and gives us a bird’s-eye view of the plot. To online users: If you’re fretting over a synopsis/treatment, try this exercise.

The treatment-synopsis template came from Elements of Dramatic Writing, which Jack and I taught for six years at the University of Washington School of Extension. The course ran for three weeks; it was focused on two writing products: one scene and one synopsis.

There are two keys to writing a lengthy, multi-part timed writing: one is momentum – as you press ahead, you can feel the ribbon of prose uncurling in your wake. The other key is planting objects early. The diagram below shows a plot track on cars in The Great Gatsby: a roadster, a hearse, Daisy’s white car, Gatsby’s yellow car, Tom’s car coveted by George Wilson (an ironic mirror of Tom’s use of Myrtle as his mistress). So if you can list some objects, your writing will go smoother. The numbers identify chapters in the novel:

Because the playwrights are working in two acts instead of three, they fix their midpoint at the break between Acts One and Two. In the writing below, the warm-up takes one minute. The subsequent writings take five minutes each.

Writing the Three-Act Story Sweep

  1. I am rewriting a story about….
  2. Act One opens when….
  3. Act One ends when….
  4. Act Two opens in a scene called….
  5. At the middle of my story, my protagonist….
  6. Act Two ends when….
  7. Act  Three opens when….
  8. My story climaxes in a scene called….
  9. My story ends with this final image….
  10. Scene Performance and Scene-Analysis

It’s Day Four and the scene performances are much improved. Below is my analysis of Page One and After from the Three Kingdoms fantasy novel.

Title: The Wedding Bell

Scene: Page One and After:  King-Castle-Baby-Dying Queen-Wet Nurse

Core Story

The King – when his Queen dies, his core story becomes Queen Replacement.

The baby is Intruder One – she replaces the Queen – not a happy solution, excellent drama with the King blaming her for his wife’s death – and then the wet nurse is Intruder Two.

Closed Circle and Intruder

The closed circles are kingdom, castle, nursery – and the King’s personal space.

The baby’s core story is Coming of Age.

Not sure about the wet nurse, but she could become the victim in a Scapegoat Sacrifice.

Subtext and Biology

The subtext burbling under this scene is biology – sexual selection, survival, death, and genetic success. The sexual selection happened  in the back story when the King chooses the Queen. The baby arrives swathed in irony: the Queen is dead, but the King’s genes will blossom in the baby – his eyes, his brain, his royal self – and what emotion grips him now? Which of these emotions will drive him through the story?

The grid below uses the Three Goods (good genes, good resources, good behavior) to simplify the powerful ritual of sexual selection. The grid comes from the Oscar-Winning film, As Good as It Gets.

Character Genes Resources Behavior Archetype Core Story
Melvin Good Good Bad Monster Coming of Age
Carol Good Bad Good Cinderella Rags to Riches
Simon Good Bad Good Wounded Knight Grail Quest

(If you need to know more about the three goods, and if you don’t have time to study evolutionary biology, then check the rewrite book—The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel.)

Subtext and the Sexual Triad

When the Wet Nurse enters, the subtext of Roxana’s scene ripples with a sexual Triad: King-Queen-Wet Nurse.

Homework:

Type up your three-act synopsis-treatment.

Back to course descriptions

© 2011 Robert J. Ray. All Rights Reserved.

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