Summary of this month’s movie:
Here come the spoilers! It’s the early 1700s. England is at war with the French. Queen Anne is middle-age, temperamental and chronically ill. Harley, a member of Parliament, is desperate to stop the war. But more prominent members insist it continue. Sarah, Anne’s childhood friend and clever advisor, convinces the queen to support the war, as it is good for Sarah and her husband.
Sarah's cousin, Abigail, arrives at the Queen's estate, kind and desperate for a job. Sarah makes her a maid. When Abigail picks herbs to ease a painful gout attack of Anne’s, Sarah is impressed and takes Abigail on as her assistant. Abigail finds out by accident that Sarah and Anne are lovers. Harley asks Abigail to spy on Sarah and Anne and bring him anything he can use to help him curry favor with the Queen. Abigail refuses.
Sarah becomes busy with matters of state and sends Abigail to accompany Anne. Abigail sees the opportunity to win Anne’s favor and improve her situation. They bond and become lovers. When Sarah learns of this, she fires Abigail. But Anne overrides Sarah. The rivalry between Sarah and Abigail escalates. Abigail adds herbs to Sarah's tea to make her sick. Sarah goes out for a horseback ride and is found hurt and unconscious outside a brothel. With Sarah gone, Harley manipulates Anne into letting Abigail marry her suitor and making her a lady.
Sarah comes back to court, appalled to see Abigail is now a lady. Using old love letters, Sarah tries to blackmail Anne into continuing the war and banishing Abigail. Sarah burns the letters in guilt, but Anne no longer trusts her and removes her from the castle. Now, Abigail, no longer the kind, desperate girl, spends her days partying at court and reluctantly tending to Anne. Sarah writes to mend fences, but Abigail intercepts the letter and lies, saying Sarah was stealing from Anne. Anne, who by this time has suffered a stroke and is partly paralyzed on one side, exiles Sarah and her husband and ends the war. Carly, what’d you think about the movie?
Carly: I really liked this movie. It was dark and gorgeous and witty. I know we talk about how beautifully shot a movie is a lot, but oof was this one really cool. There were fisheye lens shots, slow motion shots, dolly shots that are impeccable. I’ll stop film nerding out in a minute and just say: they used mostly natural lighting in this movie and it was so cool! It added a layer of ambience and authenticity for the time period. I was really into it. Okay done with that. Now onto the story, it was super interesting and such a great take on power. It is all about who has the power in the situation and it is constantly shifting. These three women are all unhappy and trying to use each other. Who has the power in any given moment changes. The two favourites have control of Anne, manipulate her, threaten her, and control her when she is at her weakest due to her illness. But at the same time, she is the queen, she has all the power. She even has power in her illness in that they all tend to her. I just really found it fascinating. What’d you think?
Jeni: I have a love-hate relationship with stories about historical figures, especially royalty and aristocracy, mostly because it feels like it’s all part of the whole indoctrination of capitalism and yadda yadda yadda. I won’t get into that too much either. Haha But this movie is so tongue-in-cheek and really shows some interesting perspectives on these kinds of stories. It is anything but romanticized. And it’s interesting that you say that about your film nerdiness because the acting is always the thing I’m most critical of, maybe because I have dabbled in that myself. Olivia Colman especially, who won like a gazillion awards for her portrayal of Anne, was in-cred-i-ble. She made me feel sorry for Anne while at the same time feeling so repulsed by her selfishness and sometimes downright immaturity. There were so many layers there about her chronic illness and how people perceived her. It was all so well done, across the board. And then Emma Stone was also really brilliant. The role itself was so unusual, I think especially for a woman. On one level it almost feels like Breaking Bad or something where we see this person who seems naive and even fairly helpless at the beginning, and by the end, she’s really corrupt. But really, there are so many little hints along the way that she was really always like this and just didn’t have a chance to fully realize it. And for that character to be a woman in a movie that is primarily only women is really unusual. So what’s something this movie does well that writers can use in their own work?
Carly: Scene structure, definitely. It very blatantly uses chapters to mark different sections and scenes. There are 8 chapters in total in this movie and they are great ways to break up the movie into sections that really define the story and give it that novel feeling. I read that the screenplay didn’t already include the chapters, that it was a device added in during the editing process. And I think it really speaks to how natural scene structure is. People do it by default. Part of that is that we consume so much media, it becomes ingrained in the way that we interpret stories. I think Jeni and I have talked a lot about how a lot of these topics we cover you are probably doing somewhat naturally. It’s not that you don’t need to work on them or look at them with intention, but you’ll often find that a lot of it is there already. So in this movie, we are working from a chapter structure, like all novels. Chapters give readers a break, but they also help a story to feel like it is moving along. You don’t want non-stop action or too fast of a pace, because that is exhausting and draining. Chapters give your readers a mental pause and force them to almost, reset. While the story is continuing, they know that the scene has stopped and that something new is about to begin. This structure makes a story easier to interpret and prepare for, on a subconscious level. So the chapters in this movie are really helpful because we know when we are getting into a new stage of the plot. Things are about to change, and we’re going to be getting something a little bit different. Motivations, actions, intentions, etc. are all a little bit different, they’ve all progressed. Now that isn’t to say that you should do that for each chapter of your book, please don’t, because books have way more than 8 chapters. But this format gives us a really good way of looking at scene structure and how each section is a mini plot/story all its own.
Jeni: Yes! Scene structure is something I think we kind of take for granted in writing, but it has such a powerful impact on the overall story. Really, each scene is like a mini version of an overall story. What I mean is that each scene needs a beginning, middle, and end. It needs conflict and tension, both internal and external. All the elements that you think of when it comes to storytelling apply at a scene level as well as the overall, big-picture story level. So, plot, character development, setting, worldbuilding, goal-motivation-conflict, etc–all of that is just as important here as it is in the overall arc. And that’s because, at a fundamental level, scenes are the building blocks of story structure. So when your scenes aren’t working, it means the whole story is going to feel off, even if your overall plot and character arcs look good on paper, so to speak. And yes, I think we can see that in any movie really, but this one has such a unique structure because the chapters create these little vignettes, so it’s more obvious than it is in a lot of movies. So, when we are talking about writing, we tend to use scene and chapter pretty interchangeably, but for the purposes of this episode, we’re talking about a structural scene, which is not really the same as a chapter–which I think we’re going to get into a little more later. In terms of a structural scene, there’s a really important concept we haven’t really touched on much on this podcast, which is called scenes and sequels. I’m going to say now–my brain still really struggles with this terminology because it’s always like, “But aren’t there already things called scenes and sequels?” and yes. Yes, there are. So another way to think about scenes and sequels is in terms of every structural scene having an active part and a reactive part. If you’ve ever seen one of those graphs that shows the overall plot arc where there’s a sort of jagged line that shows the tension building to the climax, you can almost envision this scenes and sequels/active part and reactive part as a similar arc. And as we go through this, you’ll see how it builds on goal, motivation, and conflict too. This one is like a deep cut, Carly. This is some next-level, Writer 200 kinda stuff.
Carly: Okay so for the most part, every scene has three active parts: goal, conflict, and disaster. The main, active section of a scene comes from these three elements. Let’s start with goal. At the beginning of every scene, your characters want something. They have an emotional wound or motivation or need that is leading them to strive for a goal. It doesn’t need to be a huge goal for every scene, it can be as small, but it needs to be there. In the beginning, Abigail’s goal is to get a job and become indispensable to Sarah. She starts off by wanting Sarah to want her around because that gives her security and safety. This is her goal in the beginning. Then we have conflict, and that is usually the story acting upon the character. It is what gets in the way of your character achieving their goal. It can be internal or external, and usually is a little bit of both. What must your character overcome or deal with in order to achieve their goal within the scene? So for Abigail, Sarah has no interest in her in the beginning. She wants Abigail to stay in her place, be a maid, not overstep, and just get things done. Sarah has no need for Abigail. So Abigail must find a way to become important to Sarah. She does this by soothing Anne’s inflammation and pain with an herbal ointment. Suddenly, Sarah can use her, she is helpful. And then comes the disaster, or the consequences of the actions your characters take. Every step your characters take need to have consequences, and those consequences can be both good and bad, but preferably at least somewhat bad. This is how you have active characters, they are responding to the world and the world is responding to them. So think of the disaster as the world responding to your character’s actions. What have they done to overcome the conflict or handle the conflict, and how has the world responded to that? In this movie, Abigail becomes useful, and therefore Sarah now needs her to keep Anne happy. But most disastrous of all, Sarah now trusts Abigail and begins to use her as a replacement. She creates her own replacement but sending Abigail to spend time with Anne in her stead.
Jeni: Really, if you think about it, all of this is common sense in a lot of ways. This is what we all have to do in real-life situations too. A bunch of stuff happens and then we have to figure out what to do next. So then the reactive part of a scene is where the main character has to reassess and figure out what to do next. The three reactive parts are the reaction, where the character reacts to the outcome (aka the last active part Carly just discussed); the dilemma, where they have to think about how to overcome the consequences of the stuff that just happened and still be able to work toward the big, story-level goal; and then the decision, where the MC has to make a choice about what to do based on all the options they figured out in the dilemma portion. So one of the things that makes this movie such a good one to use to talk about scenes and sequels is that the plot is very overtly: one character takes action. Then the other character freaks out and figures out how to one up the other. So as complex as the layers of the story are, the plot itself is fairly simplistic, which makes it easier to see how these elements play out. So, the reaction sequence that stood out most to me is when Abigail poisons Sarah. She thinks it’s just going to make her a little sick, but in truth, it really makes Sarah ill. And because of the unforeseen circumstance of Sarah being pretty much held hostage by the owner of the brothel, there are also unintended consequences Abigail has to deal with. She’s legitimately concerned she might have killed Sarah, which might be traced back to her in a way she didn’t expect the whole situation to happen. So in the freaking out aka reaction portion, Abigail is very worried that, even if she gets what she wants from the action she’s taken–which she totally does, by the way–that she also has all the other possibilities to think about. So she has to decide if she’s going to have people look for Sarah or wait and see what happens or just go ahead with her plan like nothing happened, and during all of this, she’s also dealing with that emotional level of worry. Finally she decides to take advantage of Sarah’s absence as planned, but she still has concerns that there will be consequences, which of course, there are. Because it would be pretty boring if a story was just “a person does something and they win, the end.”
Carly: So now comes the cool part, or maybe it’s not cool and my book nerd is showing. But when you put it all together, you create this awesome cycle that creates a plot. The more I’m thinking on it, the more I’m realizing that it is weird that I think this is really cool. But TOO BAD, I am who I am. Anyway, okay so when you put together the scenes and sequels, you create this cycle of conflicts and consequences. As your characters are presented with conflicts, they take action which leads to consequences, and those consequences create the next conflict that your characters must take action against. And so the cycle continues. As all of these stack up, you’ve suddenly got a plot. Plot is all about writing action and reactions, and this breakdown really shows that. Now, I want to emphasize something, scene structure is not as exact a science as plot structure. Plot structure can have a percentage breakdown, and as long as you are hitting those plot points at the right point in your book, you’re good. Scene structure is more intuitive and changeable than that. They won’t all be the same length, they won’t all have the same amount of action versus reaction. The scene and sequel do not need to be the same length, sometimes the sequel can be just a couple of sentences. Sometimes the sequel can be much more drawn out. It is going to vary scene by scene and it will change based on what is right for each particular scene. Different conflicts warrant different consequences and different time spent on each. So while you need this pattern, there is no set numbered structure. It is all about what is right for each scene individually.
Jeni: Okay, so, how do you know if a scene is working, and how can you fix it if it isn’t? When I see scenes that aren’t working, it’s normally because they’re missing one or more of these elements. I think most often what I see that keeps scenes from working is missing the conflict portion. Essentially, these are where the character has a goal and takes action but doesn’t really have any obstacles in their way. Another common problem I see is when the dilemma and/or decision portions are fleshed out enough OR when secondary characters are the ones who are doing most of the thinking and/or decision making. This is where problems come in with characters not having agency. So, basically, if you’re struggling with a particular scene and you can’t quite nail down where it’s not working, look at these six elements from the active and reactive parts of scene structure. Can you identify each element in the scene? Is your main character the one who’s taking the actions to move from one element to the next? You can definitely have the occasional scene where there’s not much in the way of external conflict, but they need to be few and far between and absolutely essential to the story. These will be rare and must be used for impact. Do not let me hear that you’ve been telling people I said it’s okay not to have conflict in your scenes. I will use my mom voice on you, and you will not like it.
Carly: Jeni mentioned this earlier, so now I’m required to explain it. Scenes and chapters aren’t the same thing. Chapters break up your story into chunks that make it more easily consumable for readers. But scenes don’t perfectly line up with chapters. You can have multiple scenes in one chapter or a scene that spans multiple chapters. They don’t perfectly correlate. Sometimes you’ll end a chapter at the end of a scene, or you can end it between the active part of the scene and start the next chapter with the reactive part (aka the sequel). Like Jeni said, it gets confusing when you break a scene down into scenes and sequels, but shh, we’re stuck with it. Sometimes you want to end a chapter right at the climax of a scene so that you hook readers into wanting to read the next chapter. I recommend doing this, but don’t do it for every chapter, it can feel exhausting for your book. You want to hook them, but not everything should be a cliffhanger. Chapters should be close in length to each other (some variety is fine), but scenes can have lots of variety depending on what makes sense for the conflict. Chapters are more of a physical device for keeping your readers hooked, while also giving them that mental break of “the story is about to continue, but it isn’t all go-go-go” while scenes are a mental device for keeping readers engaged and feeling like the story is moving forward and the characters are active. So while they seem like they can be the same thing (and sometimes they can!) they aren’t exactly the same, they just have a ton of crossover.
This month our query is an adult contemporary fantasy. Jeni, what are your thoughts on this query?
Jeni: What strikes me most about this query is that it’s a little scattered. What I think a lot of writers struggling with query letters don’t understand is that there’s something of a pattern when it comes to strong queries. They often have a similar structure that focuses on the main character, main conflict, and stakes. Typically I advise the first paragraph should focus on the main character’s emotional wound and what makes them unique. Tell us what they want more than anything and why. Then in the second paragraph, tell what causes them to get involved in the main conflict and how their life changes because of that. Then in the final paragraph, you want to show how you raise the stakes even higher to make the main character have to confront their inner demons and choose between the thing they thought they wanted most and the thing that will actually help them resolve the conflict. OMG I just had a thought–can you use the scenes and sequels structure for a query letter?? I will have to do more research. Anyway. You definitely don’t have to follow this pattern to have a successful query, but using this structure can definitely help when you’re learning. What’d you think, Carly?
Carly: Okay, so this one needs a good amount of work. It has an interesting hook that pulls me in, but then the next paragraph goes on to talk about a bunch of different elements. It’s hard to connect to any one thing because there is too much going on. We’ve got family conflict, a love plot, a magic system, a coming of age story, hidden identities, and quests. Because we’ve got so many elements, we can’t focus on the important story aspects that lead to the main conflict and stakes. I can’t tell how each element is tied together, they all feel disparate. What are the main character’s motivations for doing the thing, what is the thing, and what will happen if she doesn’t do the thing? Those are the main elements to focus on to write a really compelling query. Streamline the rest. If you do, I think it will be really successful!