Okay, readers, today (and the next fourteen articles) I’m going to try something different. If you’ve read my articles before, you might remember one about outlining. In it, I mention James Scott Bell’s (JSB) idea on signposting scenes, which fuses the processes of outliners and non-outliners together—genius!
Well, I’ve got even greater news. While reading up on more books about the craft of writing, I came across another James Scott Bell title—Super Structure: The Key to Understanding the Power of Story. This book digs deeper into the process of signposting scenes, following fourteen signposts that Bell believes mold a page-turner.
Coming from a screenwriting background, I immediately felt pulled to his process, having adored both Blake Snyder’s famous fifteen beat-sheet and Joseph Campbell’s master breakdown of the hero’s journey. And so, I purchased Bell’s book (for a mere $3.99 y’all!) with high expectations that, I am pleased to say, were stretched and satisfied.
So buckle up, because for the next fourteen articles I’m going to discuss in length these signpost scenes, using various beloved stories (and one constant) to show how they work. However, before you come with me on this journey I highly recommend that you purchase a copy of Super Structure for your bookshelf.
Signpost One —The Disturbance
In Bell’s book, he opens his chapter about the first signpost scene (the disturbance) with a question: “What is the opening shot, after the credits in The Wizard of Oz?”
Surprisingly, he’s collected various answers over the years, one main answer being the tornado (you know, that twister that hits Dorothy’s farm and sends her into that oblivion otherwise known as Oz). This answer, despite its popularity, is indeed not the disturbance, seeing that it occurs a quarter into the movie and acts as the main factor of plot point one more than anything else.
But the tornado is a disturbance, isn’t it? Of course it is, but not the disturbance Bell refers to as his first signpost scene structure.
What is The Disturbance?
A disturbing event in a character’s ordinary world that hooks a reader to that character because it causes her trouble, a challenge, or threatens a change.
But the tornado does all this to Dorothy. Yes, it does, which is why I want to add another important detail to the disturbance’s definition…
The disturbance must happen on page one.
Ah-ha! The secret factor! The tornado cannot be the disturbance then, can it? And it’s not. The opening scene in The Wizard of Oz is nothing more than Dorothy sprinting down a road with her little dog, anxiously looking over her shoulder. There’s a disturbance to her ordinary world that we cannot see…but definitely want to learn more about.
(For those of you who remember the movie well, you’ll know this disturbance turns out to be none other than that nasty Miss Gulch trying to take Toto! Disgusting!)
The Disturbance in C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew
For today’s story, I’d like to analyze the first book in C.S. Lewis’s classic Chronicles of Narnia series, otherwise known as The Magician’s Nephew. Although disturbances should always create trouble, challenges, or change to a character’s ordinary world, they don’t always have to be as drastic as war.
In The Magician’s Nephew, for example, the disturbance is none other than a new child moving in next door to a little girl. A boy named Digory.
Notice the first lines: “This is the story about something that happened long ago when your grandfather was a child. It is a very important story because it shows how all the comings and goings between our own world and the land of Narnia began.”
Now, Digory (the disturbance) isn’t mentioned until page two: “One morning she was out in the back garden when a boy scrambled up from the garden next door and put his face against the wall.” Before you ponder over why this doesn’t happen on page one, I’ll tell you, it’s because there is a very large graphic on the first page that takes over half the page’s room. Thus, I would wager that if this picture were removed, Digory’s disturbance to the little girl Polly’s world would be, indeed, on page one.
And what a disturbance it is! True, there are no bombs or basilisks on page one of this story, but there is a boy who, for reasons we know not, “put his head against the wall.” Something is wrong with the boy. In fact, he is crying. And because we humans care about characters that are in trouble, have a challenge, or experience a change to their ordinary world, we want to know why. The answer, readers learn, will come before the end of the chapter.
And a relationship that we know will begin the “comings and goings” of Narnia will, from this new friendship, begin.
How Can I Apply This To My Writing?
Now you might be thinking, “well, that’s all good and grand that Bell came up with this amazing structure of signposts scene, but how can I apply it to me writing?”
I have an answer for you: Train your writing mind to naturally brainstorm potential chapter one disturbances before writing your book. One good exercise I like to try is the first line exercise.
The First Line Exercise
Spend a good chunk of time writing as many first lines as you can brainstorm. Don’t judge your ideas, and don’t slow down as you jot them on paper (or word document). Go, go, go write! Do this for at least twenty first lines.
Then, go up and pour yourself a cup of tea or coffee. Come back and read your lines over. Does anything stand out to you? Does one line create a more exciting disturbance than another? Eliminate all the lines but your top three.
Last, plot the scenes that would follow these top three first-line contenders. Scribble ideas for the characters in each scene (the first chapter), the action, and the purpose. Then, get writing! And stop judging your initial work so much. All writers need to revise. You can fix anything weak about your story later…but this feat is much harder if you need to revamp developmental ideas verses basic line-editing.
Lucky for you, you’ve taken on Bell’s fourteen signposts scenes, which structures a basic skeleton for a strong story before writing and inevitably rewriting one.
A story that always starts with the disturbance.
What is the disturbance for your novel? Is there a clear threat, needed change, or trouble for your protagonist? How can you make the disturbance even tougher? Why is it important to observe how your protagonist reacts to this event?
Use #LetsTalkBooks to continue the discussion!
Abigail K. Perry is a commercial fiction writer living in Massachusetts where she teaches creative writing and film production. She received her B.S. in TV, Radio, and Film from Syracuse University and her Master’s in Education from Endicott College. She has worked as a creative production intern in for Overbrook Entertainment and as a marketing and sales intern for Charlesbridge Publishing.