News | 2006 | The Technique of Scene Analysis

Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee

Recently, I've read Robert McKee's Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. Awesome book. Even though McKee deals with screen writing, his comments are definitely applicable to most fiction. The idea I want to highlight today is his technique for analyzing scenes (chapter 11). In our Writer's Studio workshop, we're analyzing fiction and I thought McKee's ideas were an interesting way to get down to looking at what works for a scene and what doesn't, with the intent of making it easier for us to provide helpful criticism (beyond what's the statement of theme for the work and where's the capsize point). So, here is a paraphrasing of McKee's thoughts:

To anaylze a scene, you must slice into its pattern of behaviours at the levels of both text and subtext (what's happening on the surface, and what's really happening, underneath). Once you look at a scene with his five-step process, McKee feels that any flaws should become readily apparent.

1. Define Conlfict
First, who drives the scene? What does this character (or force--doesn't have to be a person) want? Desire is the key. Next, find out what's blocking this desire? Then, what does the antagonist (the what from the previous sentence) want? Good scenes have direct conflict.

2. Note Opening Value
What is the charge (positive or negative) of the value at stake in the scene opening?

3. Break the Scene into Beats
A beat is an exchange of action/reaction in character behaviour. Look at the action on two levels--what the character seems to be doing (text) and what the character is actually doing (subtext). Note the reaction of other characters to this action as an action/reaction pair. Note all the beats in the scene.

4. Note Closing Value and Compare with Opening Value
What is the charge of the value at stake in the scene closing? It had better not be the same as the opening value--if it is, then nothing's happened and this is not a scene. Only when the value has changed has the scene turned.

5. Survey Beats and Locate Turning Point
Review all of the beats from the scene (those action/reaction pairs from #3). A pattern should emerge--even behaviours that seem random will have an arc and a purpose. Within the arc, locate the moment when the major gap opens between expectation and result (what a character expected to happen and what really does happen), turning the scene to its changed end values. This moment is the turning point. You scene should have one.

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