Man Booker, BBC2 & Robert McKee: scene structure by the pros

This blog first appeared on November 15th, 2017, in An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, the blogging site of the Scattered Authors’ Society.

Last week, as I was explaining to a local writing group a selection of approaches to self-editing, I basically talked myself into a corner and reaffirmed (at least to myself) a truth about revision.

That is, after the big development overview, when you nail down that elusive concept of the “heart” or soul of the story, and decide, for example, whether you’ve got too many subplots or characters, the natural focus for re-writing is the scene.

Not voice, not sentences, not even structure as such. The scene.

From their expressions, I’m not sure I convinced my students, perhaps because the example I used of an ideal scene was old and rather lame (and taken from Robert McKee’s Story, which is brilliant in my opinion, but rather too rooted in black-and-white films to be self-evidently relevant to today’s novelist).

Then, later than week, cuddled up with our cat on the sofa, watching the BBC 2 drama, Effie Gray, written by Emma Thompson, “Bingo!”

From now on, whenever I need to define “the scene”, it will be the climax to that story, with Derek Jacobi standing on the doorstep of the odious John Ruskin (played superbly by Greg Wise), about to bring his entire world crashing down with one word.

Before looking at that one word, and how the scene built up to it, here’s some context from George Saunders, winner of this year’s Man Booker prize. He has been interviews all over the place, but these quotes come from this article in The Guardian:

In it he says, “We often discuss art this way: the artist had something he “wanted to express”, and then he just, you know … expressed it. We buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same. The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully … An artist works outside the realm of strict logic. Simply knowing one’s intention and then executing it does not make good art.”

His self-editing method is a binary process, which he describes as a meter in his forehead flicking from positive to negative as he imagines how each passage he’s written will be received by a first-time reader, and then editing his work “so as to move the needle into the [positive] zone.”

He describes this process as repetitive, obsessive and iterative: “watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose … through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments … Falsehoods get squeezed out of it, lazy assertions stand up, naked and blushing, and rush out of the room.”

Beautiful prose, isn’t it? I’m really glad he won this year’s Man Booker prize, and I look forward very much to reading Lincoln in the Bardo over Christmas.


What if you don’t have time to steer your ocean liner through a thousand incremental adjustments? What if you have a full-time job and/or a family to raise, and no milk in the fridge and a deadline to meet, and… and… and..?

In other words, what if writing isn’t your whole life?

For me, in the trackless oceans of imagination, structural advice books are star charts, and the solid possibilities of a well-crafted scene as essential as a life-raft.

So, back to Effie Gray … via Robert McKee.

If I had to keep just one book from my library of writing advice guides, McKee’s Story would be it. Despite his focus on film, the understanding he’s given me about storytelling is unequalled.

In a nutshell, what he says about scenes is this: every scene should build, beat by beat, to a Story Event, by which he means a meaningful change from positive to negative or vice versa in a fundamental human value (or a Story Value as he terms it).

Examples of changes in a Story Value include: cowardice to bravery, hope to despair, fear of commitment to commitment, happiness to sadness etc.

For McKee, such switches should be achieved by pitting a protagonist with a clear objective against an equal or more powerful force of antagonism with a diametrically opposed goal. Via progressively escalating confrontations, the scene should culminate in an unexpected pivot point that alters this Story Value for a central character.

All of which the climax scene in Effie Gray does to perfection.

SPOILER ALERT: Do watch the film first if you want to experience the deliciousness of the denouement in full. It is available on iPlayer for the next few weeks. I’ve skipped over some elements of the plot for the sake of brevity, which does a disservice to the richness and complexity of the sub-text, but anyhow, here goes.


Events Structural beats
Effie Gray’s lawyer gets out of a carriage and opens his legal document case. Earlier scenes have established Effie’s desire to escape from her unconsummated marriage with abusive & sexually-repressed John Ruskin. The protagonist’s objective is established: to deliver a legal letter. In this scene, the lawyer is both Effie’s proxy and also a representative of Victorian social values & the law.
Inside the house, the interfering parents of self-satisfied grandee John Ruskin excessively admire a new portrait of him by an eminent pre-Raphaelite painter. The antagonists’ objective are established: the Ruskin family seek to enhance John’s social standing via the portrait.
Servant George enters with news of an unexpected caller for John. The inciting incident. An external force interrupts the domestic status quo.
Effie’s highly respectable male lawyer, kept waiting on the doorstep, announces he has a citation to court for John. John’s parents stand between John and the lawyer. The lawyer communicates his scene objective. The parents, by blocking the doorway, form a physical barrier between the lawyer & his objective.
John & his mother question the purpose of the citation; when the lawyer says it is a petition for divorce from Effie, the father snatches the letter. A force of antagonism strikes directly back at the lawyer.
The lawyer insists the letter must, by law, be delivered to “the defendant”. The father reluctantly relinquishes the letter to the lawyer, who gives it to John. While taking it, John remains composed, and questions Effie’s grounds for divorce. The protagonist’s proxy defeats the father’s desire to protect John by calling up the power of the law, i.e. society’s power over the family. Effie wins round one, although John’s disdainful pride & self-confidence remain apparently intact.
When the lawyer refuses to answer John’s questions, citing the delicacy of the matter, John presses him for an immediate explanation, culminating in his demand for an answer. In response to this demand, the lawyer states that her grounds for divorce is John’s impotency. This beat of questions and rebuttals builds to the pivot point of both the scene and the entire story.

The word “impotency”, delivered in Derek Jacobi’s magnificent voice, challenges John’s manhood. Effie is calling down on him not only the full weight of the law, but also Victorian society’s expectations of a man and his sole duty to his wife. With one word, she has countered all of John’s malicious threats to ruin her reputation through false allegations of wantonness.

The horror of the impending scandal slowly dawns on the mother, but more quickly on the faces of John and his father. As their expressions turn from shock to comprehension to shame, the father shuts the door in the lawyer’s face. John’s cold, imperious pride (his Story Value throughout the film) is quenched. Henceforth, he will be humiliated, while Effie’s Story Value switches from enslavement within their marriage to the freedom to live as she wishes and to love another. Well done, Effie! And well done to the film makers. A fantastic scene.


Author: Rowena House

ROWENA HOUSE spent years as a foreign correspondent in France, Africa and then again in Europe before turning to fiction. Her debut novel, a First World War coming-of-age quest called THE GOOSE ROAD, is published by Walker Books (2018). Her fascination with the Great War, the trenches, and the appalling artillery battles of the Somme and Verdun began at school when studying the war poets, Wilfred Owen in particular. As an adult, she experienced war first-hand as a Reuter’s reporter in Ethiopia, and saw its terrible impact on civilians. Now settled in the English countryside with her husband and son, she holds a Master’s degree in rural economics and another in creative writing, and mentors fiction writers alongside her journalism and storytelling.

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