Writers know that reading is essential to growing their craft, but did you know there’s a difference between reading for fun and reading analysis?
When I became a Certified Story Grid Editor in 2019 (Story Grid is an editing methodology that provides practical tools and tips to help writers in the writing process), this understanding became crucial for my ability to:
- Edit a client’s work with a sharp eye.
- Communicate why certain elements in their scenes weren’t working.
- Discuss how they could revise their scene by using Story Grid’s practical scene analysis template.
Sharing Story Grid’s scene analysis template has also been invaluable in teaching my clients and students how to participate in deep discussions about their work on the scene level. For further study, we use the scene analysis template and Socratic Learning Method to explore what makes masterworks great. Note, reading with an analytical eye is also a HUGE pillar for DIY MFA’s philosophy, and the cornerstone of all the columns I contribute to DIY MFA.
Being a Word Nerd, you know how important it is to Read With Purpose. That’s why I’ve decided to dedicate my next handful of articles to breaking down scenes using Story Grid’s Scene Analysis Template, so you can learn how to read like a writer instead of a reader. It’s my hope that by sharing this, you’ll get excited about studying scenes from masterworks and comparable titles from an analytical perspective—all while leveling up your writing craft by learning how to edit your scenes with intention and purpose.
The Essentials of a Story Grid Scene Analysis
It’s important to understand what a scene analysis template consists of. There are four parts:
- A summary of the scene
- An analysis of the scene
- How the scene follows the Five Commandments of Storytelling
- Notes (anything additional you want to jot down)
In this first article, I’ll take the time to explain exactly what these elements are and how you can apply them to your breakdown of a scene. In future articles, I’ll dive deep into specific scenes from beloved and current stories so that you can grow more confident in your ability to analyze published works (and revise your own!).
Something Additionally Important to Remember: It’s vital to recognize that while a scene analysis can be explored with practical tools and principles, each analysis uses the Socratic Learning Method—a cooperative, argumentative dialogue between individuals who ask and answer questions to stimulate critical thinking and draw out underlying presumptions—to do this.
This learning method is most successful when learners prepare by closely reading and researching first. Ultimately, it helps learners take subjective material and explore it with a critical eye, thus allowing them to share ideas based on trained and sophisticated perspectives rather than opinion alone—i.e. your opinions gain credibility because you can support them with a common language and system.
Determining the Story Event
A Story Grid scene analysis identifies whether or not a scene makes sense (is it confusing or not) and if it works (does the scene show a change from beginning to end).
To do this, we need to determine the Story Event. This is an active change in a life value for one or more characters that happens as a result of conflict (one character’s desires clash with another’s). A “Working Scene” contains at least one Story Event.
To determine a scene’s Story Event, Story Grid encourages readers to answer these four questions.
- What are the characters literally doing?
- What is the essential action in the scene? (In other words, what does the POV character driving the scene want?)
- What life value has changed for one or more of the characters in the scene? (Life values are determined by a change in the scene from positive to negative or vise versa. An action or revelation in the scene causes this turn because it forces the POV character to make a decision—they must do something in order to advance the plot and/or develop their character. Stasis = death.)
- Which life value should I highlight on my Story Grid Spreadsheet? (If you like to use Story Grid as the editing tool for your manuscript, this spreadsheet breaks down each scene with the most important elements to consider, including the value shift.)
The Five Commandments of Storytelling
After you identify the big picture of a scene, it’s important to take a look at the scene’s five commandments. Personally, I consider Story Grid’s Five Commandments the cornerstone of Story Grid’s resources. These five elements identify if a scene works (something to look for in your own scenes!).
The five commandments are the following:
Inciting Incident: The inciting incident is the disturbance or inciting event that sets your scene into action. In other words, what forces you character to move, but doesn’t necessarily cause them to do something that changes the scene from a positive to negative, or vice versa. Inciting Incidents are Causal (a person causes a disturbance) or Coincidental (a coincidence, like a hurricane, causes a disturbance).
Progressive Complication Turning Point: This is the most important commandment in the list of five because this is the Action or Revelation your POV character experiences, and that forces them to make a Crisis Decision about what to do next.
To abbreviate this commandment, I like to call it the Turning Point. The first part–the progressive complication–is a conflict that causes a negative or positive obstacle for a POV character but doesn’t necessarily demand they do something about it. However, the Turning Point is the complication that can no longer be ignored because ignoring it causes inevitable consequences. The Turning Point is what ultimately causes the value shift. Without a Turning Point, the scene holds no purpose because it does not advance the plot and/or develop a character—i.e. it doesn’t work.
Crisis: A Crisis Decision is the Best Bad Choice or Irreconcilable Goods decision a character must make because of the Turning Point. A character is forced to either make a decision that will result in negative outcomes for them regardless of what they decide to do next (Best Bad Choice), or it will benefit them but negatively impact others (Irreconcilable Goods–the inverse of a BBC). These decisions are subtle, but knowing that a character undergoes one raises the stakes and defines how a character changes the scene (and the outcome). Thus, the characters become active instead of passive.
Climax: This is the action the character takes as a direct result of their Crisis Decision. We see the character make their decision within the context of their actions, which changes the value shift that provides purpose for the scene.
Resolution: The outcome of the climax—i.e. how has the scene changed? If you can’t identify a resolution that signifies change at the end of your scene, it probably lacks one or more of the five commandments, and will likely disengage the reader.
Putting the Template Into Action
Because today’s article focused on explaining how Story Grid’s scene analysis template worked, I’m going to use a movie clip to break down today’s scene. In my next articles, I will deliver full scene analysis templates—the summary, analysis, five commandments, and notes—for scenes from published works.
Before diving into my scene analysis template for today’s scene, give it a quick screen here: The Burning Bush Scene from The Prince of Egypt.
For a quick overview: In this scene, Moses (the Prince of Egypt) encounters a burning bush when tracking down one of his sheep. He investigates the bush and is introduced to the Voice of God, who calls Moses to lead his people out of Egypt.
Prince of Egypt Scene Analysis
To determine the scene’s Story Event, we’ll answer these four questions:
- What are the characters literally doing? Moses watches his flock when one sheep wanders off. He leaves to collect the sheep and encounters the Voice of God.
- What is the essential action of what the characters are doing in the scene? Moses wants to retrieve his sheep. God wants Moses to lead his people out of Egypt, and Moses (initially) does not want this because he’s afraid.
- What life value has changed for one or more of the characters in the scene? Moses begins his day content and naïve, following through with the quiet and routine work of his new life. He’s learned about God at this point, but his understanding of his personal relationship with God is thrown for a loop when, after chasing a wandering sheep, he encounters a burning bush. Through the bush, God speaks to Moses and calls him to lead God’s people out of Egypt. Moses doesn’t want to do this, but is eventually comforted by God and persuaded that—with his faith—he can do this.
- Which life value should I highlight on my Story Grid Spreadsheet? Some words that could work as Value Shifts for this scene could include, but are not limited to: Naïve to Cognitive Dissonance, Alone to Spiritually Accompanied, Content to Afraid to Encouraged, Complacent to Enlightened (Notice how it’s not so important that you choose the perfect word to define your Value Shift, but rather you indicate how a Value Shift turns the scene from positive to negative, negative to positive—or in some cases like this scene, Positive (+) to Double Positive (++).)
The Five Commandments of Storytelling in the Prince of Egypt Scene
- Inciting Incident: Coincidental. One of Moses’ sheep wanders from the herd.
- Turning Point: Action. God calls Moses to lead His people out of Egypt.
- Crisis: Best Bad Choice. Moses can reject God’s command and suffer supernatural and internal consequences, or he can accept God’s calling, which means facing his brother and the inevitable hardships ahead.
- Climax: Moses rejects God’s calling but is quickly reprimanded for challenging God. Afraid, Moses is comforted by God, who encourages him that He will be with Moses when he faces pharaoh.
- Resolution: Enlightened, Moses returns to camp and enthusiastically shares his experience and mission with his wife.
The Big Takeaway
Understanding how to use Story Grid’s scene analysis template will strengthen your ability to dissect scenes so you can identify why and how a scene advances a plot and/or develops a character (i.e. why it “works”). Also, embracing the Socratic Learning Method encourages writer-readers to engage in discussions without fear of rejection of sounding “wrong.” Story Grid’s scene analysis exercise is not about creating arguments about “who analyzed the scene best,” but rather helping you understand how to read like a writer and editor–so you can become both for your own work!
If you’d like to learn more about Story Grid’s scene analysis tools or continue this discussion, I’d love to hear from you! Visit my website at www.abigailkperry.com to connect. Until then, enjoy analyzing your favorite story scenes, and look for my next DIY MFA article, which will analyze the first scene in JoJo Moyes’ historical fiction release, The Giver of Stars.
Happy reading and writing!
Abigail K. Perry is Teacher-Turned-Certified Story Grid Editor with literary agency, publishing, and production experience. With a B.S. in TV, Radio, and Film from Syracuse University (Newhouse) and a Master’s in Secondary Education from Endicott College, Abigail created and taught three creative writing and film courses at the high school level for several years, and she continues to teach writers at her local bookstore, her DIY MFA column, and her services and podcast, Story Effect (all found on her website, www.abigailkperry.com)
Although trained in multiple genres, Abigail specializes in Scripts, Women’s Fiction, Contemporary Fiction, Upmarket Fiction, Historical Fiction, General Fiction with Magical Realism, and YA Fantasy, many of which she reviewed (and loved!) as the editorial intern for P.S. Literary Agency’s VP and Senior Literary Agent, Carly Watters. She currently works at P.S. Literary as the Agency Relations Assistant.