On the Path to Story Analysis, Scene Analysis, and Sentence Analysis

Science is a test of facts. Art is an exploration of values. They are different realms of experience, knowledge, and insight. Writing fiction is an art. Creating stories is the most important art. It's infinitely complex. We need a framework to understand both the meaning that we can pull from existent stories and how to create new stories. I've studied many, and like all conceptual frameworks, I've found that I need to build my own.


I think there are three important levels to focus on if you're writing stories: sentence, scene, and story. I am going to briefly introduce three sources for each of these that I'm trying to integrate and adapt into my own system.

Do we want to start at the top or bottom? Let's start at the top, with story, and we'll work our way down. Remember, this is a general overview so all of these books will contain a lot of good info that I'm not going to cover.

There is a great little ebook by Martin Turner called "The One Basic Plot". It's been on my most liked books list for years. That list is linked on my about page. I just emailed with Martin today to clarify something. He responded right away. Good guy.

The basic idea is that a compelling story is a double reversal. A story without a reversal is like someone tries to do something and they do it. That's boring. A story with a single reversal is like a person tries to do something. They get close, but they fail. That's a tragedy, it could go the other way too. A double reversal is when someone is trying to do something, they are getting close, then it looks like they are going to lose everything, then they win. This can play out over a long story and out in smaller sections in a story.

Another great idea from Turner's book is of colliding narratives. That's where you have two stories that aren't compatible with each other. This is often the hero and the villain, but it can take different variations.

I have some adaptations of this, which is one of the great things about it. Turner made an incredibly flexible framework to work within that you can layer more complexity into, which is what my adaptation does.

That's entirely oversimplified, but let's move to the next book about story structure.

Jordan Peterson is my favorite living psychologist. "Maps of Meaning" is one of five books on this list that I haven't read straight through. When I was a kid I always started at the beginning and read every book straight through. Now, I read what I want when I want to, in the way that I want to. When you're reading non-fiction, find what you need. You can also take Peterson's entire Maps of Meaning course at the University of Toronto for free online, right on Youtube.

The basic idea here is that there is a part of the world that is known and a part of the world that is unknown to a knower. Those are the three elements: knower, known, unknown. The knower seeks to extract order from chaos. That's the job of the hero for society.

I combine this with my own conception of the true essence of a story. I did a deep dive into that in my article "What Is a Story?" here: http://www.jeffreyalexandermartin.com/2019/04/what-is-story.html
and followed it up with "Story, Drama, Conflict, and Suspense" here: http://www.jeffreyalexandermartin.com/2019/04/story-drama-conflict-and-suspense.html

My two useful insights were:

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A story is the representation of a change, or set of changes, resulting in a steady state.

Drama is the potential or actual change to a thing of value, in its value.

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If we work on pulling my definition of story and Peterson's ideas about chaos and order together we get something like a story telling about a dramatic change from a state of order, to chaos, to a new order. Notice that I'm just including Turner's idea about the double reversal here rather than exploring single reversals like order to chaos or chaos to order.

But, what is order and chaos. I think the perspective needs to be from the point of view of the knower. From the knower's point of view order is when predictions and expectations are fairly accurate over time. Chaos is when predictions and expectations are inaccurate, false, wrong, pointless, etc. So we move from a state of predictable order with accurate expectations, to unpredictable chaos with inaccurate expectations, to a new state of predictable order with accurate expectations.

That's interesting stuff.

Next, we have "The Story Grid" by Shawn Coyne. There is a lot in that book. It's an entire system in itself. Coyne is the only person with two books on this list, and he really only has two books. The key insight that I'm referencing here is his emphasis on genre conventions and obligatory scenes.

Basically, when someone picks up a murder mystery there has to be certain things. These are things that people are expecting. If you don't include them you will violate their expectations and they won't like it. There has to be a scene where they find a murder victim. There has to be a red herring where you follow a false lead because a clue leads you in that direction. There has to be a scene where the murderer is revealed. And a number of other things. And this is different for the different genres. The importance of expectations in all areas of life is hard to overstate.

Alright. Those are the three books covering story structure. It's both a lot and not very much. Mostly, not very much since I skipped most of the stuff in all three of those books, and it's only three books out of a countless number. I'm trying to whittle down to the key insights that I can use, combine, and adapt to create something better. So we don't need to cover everything, especially since this article is just the beginning of a lifetime pursuit.

Next, let's look at scenes. A scene is a unit of story. Exact definitions of scenes are hard to find. It's only a slightly fuzzy concept. It's something like a unit of story connected by space/time where there's a set of connected actions that result in a value change. That's the best idea I have off the top of my head. People mostly determine what a scene is by feel. I'll probably work on creating a better definition in the future, but that's not the task right now.

"A Practical Handbook for the Actor" has six authors: Melissa Bruder, Lee Michael, Cohn, Madeleine Olnek, Nathaniel Pollack, Robert Previto, and Scott Zigler. Oddly enough, it's a small book, less than 100 pages. It's based on a seminar put on by David Mamet, W. H. Macy, and Gregory Mosher.

They use a three step scene analysis method that I like. I think it might even be useful for life.

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1. What is the character literally doing?

2. What is the essential action of what the character is doing in this scene?

3. What is that action like to me? It's as if...

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Now we'll look at how Rober McKee does scene analysis from his book "Story". I'll include a couple of quotes to define and explain things a bit.

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Step One: Define Conflict
First ask, who drives the scene, motivates it, and makes it happen?
What does he (or it) want?
What forces of antagonism block this desire?
What do the forces of antagonism want?
(Use the infinitive for the verb.)

Step Two: Note Opening Value
Identify the value at stake in the scene and note its charge, positive or negative, at the opening of the scene.

Step Three: Break the Scene into Beats
A beat is an exchange of action/reaction in character behavior. Look carefully at the scene's first action on two levels: outwardly, in terms of what the character seems to be doing, and, more important, look beneath the surface to what he is actually doing.
(Use a gerund for the verb.)

Step Four: Note Closing Value and Compare with Opening Value
At the end of the scene, examine the value-charged condition of the character's situation and describe it in positive/negative terms.

Step Five: Survey Beats and Locate Turning Point
...locate the moment when the major gap opens between expectation and result, turning the scene to its changed end values.

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In "Pride and Prejudice: The Story Grid Edition" Shawn Coyne does his scene analysis 61 times. Here's the basic idea.

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A story event is an active change of life value for one or more characters as a result of conflict (one character's desires clash with another's).
A working scene contains at least one story event.

1. What are the characters literally doing?

2. What is the essential action of what the characters are doing in this scene?

3. What life value has changed for one or more of the characters in the scene?

4. Which life value should I highlight on my story grid spreadsheet?
Highlight the value that best tracks the scene-by-scene progress of the global value at stake.

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You can see how Coyne has used ideas from both of the previous books.

The last subject for this article, sentences. Don't worry, we are just going to skim lightly over this area for now.

"The Brilliance Breakthrough" by Eugene Schwartz is an odd book. He throws out all of grammar and then recreates his own system based on image words and connecting words. It's a different way of thinking about language. It goes well with my idea of the semantic square, which I still haven't written an article about yet. The focus is on communication rather than language.

"The Sense of Style" by Steven Pinker is a fairly classic take on linguistics, probably the best modern take. His chapter on arcs of coherence seems like it might be useful to dive into and explore with experimentation.

Technically, this idea comes from Tzvetan Todorov in his book "The Poetics of Prose", but the genius Jerome Bruner made it better in his book "Actual Minds, Possible Worlds". The general idea is that you can transform a sentence from a simple statement to being psychologically active in six basic ways, and six more complex ways. I am just going to list examples here based on the statement: x commits a crime. The possibilities are much greater than these examples.

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Mode: x must commit a crime.
Intention: x plans to commit a crime.
Result: x succeeds in committing a crime.
Manner: x is keen to commit a crime.
Aspect: x is beginning to commit a crime.
Status: x is not committing a crime.

Appearance: x pretends he has committed a crime.
Knowledge: x learns y has committed a crime.
Supposition: x foresees he will commit a crime.
Description: x reports he has committed a crime.
Subjectification: x thinks he has committed a crime.
Attitude: x enjoys committing a crime.

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I definitely need to explore that more.

That's the idea, if you can write good sentences that make good scenes that make good stories then you have mastered writing. It's a process that would take the rest of an immortal's life.

I will need to take these things and apply them to digging into a story. Then I'll need to try to use them in adjusting my own writing.

The story that I apply them to needs to be short, or it will take a long time to go through each iteration. The more iterations I can go through the faster my learning curve will be. Jerome Bruner used the short stories from James Joyce's collection "Dubliners". I'm thinking about using "Cain and Able" first. It's short, powerful, and ancient. Then maybe "There's No Such Thing as a Dragon" by Jack Kent because it's amazing and short, and fun.

For my own writing, when I play with these ideas I could do a completely original story, or I could play with something like a fairytale. You can write a fairytale in a lot of different ways. I can't remember which writer recommended it, but some famous one. They recommended doing it to get a feel for the genres. For instance, take "The Three Little Pigs" and write it as an action story, then a murder mystery, then a romance (somehow?), then a western, etc. It's a cool idea.

That's a project for a different day.

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Read more of what Jeff deems worthy of attention at: http://www.JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com

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