What is the core of this scene?

coppola4Francis Ford Coppola has published the notebook that he used while making The Godfather. This thrills me because I’ve repeatedly viewed a YouTube video of him displaying the notebook. Watch the video here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=awce_j2myQw

Years ago I downloaded the video so I’d have it if ever it was removed. That’s how much I love this clip.

Seeing the effort that went into a masterpiece always encourages me. We’re often led to believe that great works are immaculately created. In truth, most, if not all of our favorite things, resulted from diligent, hard work. That gives hope that by applying time, focus, and knowledge of craft, plus challenging my imagination repeatedly, then good–maybe great–works are possible. That’s the hope, anyway.

A few times, FFC has mentioned this guiding question from Eli Kazan: “What is the core of the scene?” I understand that this was Kazan’s mantra at the Actor’s School, which produced talents like Marlon Brando. It’s a useful question to keep in mind when one is writing.

For instance: A scene you’re writing might feel muddy, directionless, or purposeless. You’re lost. The story’s ruined.

When that particular feeling of dread settles in, look at what’s before you and ask: “What is the core of this scene?”

Other ways to put it:
1) What’s this scene about?
2) What happens in this scene to advance the story?
3) What makes this scene important to the overarching plot?
4) Why would the whole story collapse without this scene?

The scene’s core may be as simple as an apple in a pocket, or as grand as a collision of titans. Once you’ve identified the source, think outwardly from it. If it’s an apple, then that fruit somehow better be crucial to the story as a whole. Maybe you’re writing a tale about temptation, and the apple is a tease; maybe you’re writing about the last apple on earth, and in this scene, it’s guarded in a pocket.

Here’s the point: if you were dragged into court and a judge demanded that you explain the purpose of the scene you’re writing, what is the most convincing argument that will save you from the gallows? If you can’t think of it, then stop writing, rewind, ask questions, and start again.

An exercise, if you will. Take a book, either your favorite, or just one that’s handy, but make sure its by a bona fide writer. We want someone who tells / told well-constructed stories.

Read any scene. Then in a notebook, summarize the passage in bullet points (e.g., the key actions, dialogue, descriptions).

Re-read the scene. Now, strike out your scene summary’s non-essential bullet points. Then the less essential items. Continue until you have identified what seems to be the singularly most important item of the scene.

Did you pick the right one? Imagine the whole book without this core idea. Does the story fall over without this pillar beneath?

If you’re an overachiever, here’s an additional exercise. Take a scene from one of your less-successful pieces (we’ve all got ’em). Pare that scene down to its absolute core. Does the idea warrant such importance? Should it be replaced? Firm up the core idea, then build outwardly to re-write the scene. Afterward, ask if the scene is improved. Has the story improved? Do other scenes need this same treatment? Let us know what happens in the comments below. Good luck!

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