The Fundamental Units of Story

For a long time, scientists believed the atom was the fundamental building block of matter, until they realized even the atom could be broken down into something smaller.

My writing improved significantly a couple years ago when I made the conceptual adjustment from the practice of asking of each story, “What is this story trying to say?” to instead looking at each scene separately, and asking, “What is this scene trying to say?”

A story isn’t a unilateral movement, or a single tone. Looking at a story in aggregate, it can be difficult to answer the question “What is this? What am I trying to accomplish with it?” Breaking it into scenes makes this easier, and that change in approach really helped me to write more effective fiction.

Increasingly I believe the fundamental unit of story is not the scene, but a “sub-scene” unit I refer to as the “beat” or “movement.”

When I break my stories down into scenes (working in Scrivener makes this simple), it’s easier to make sense of what each scene is meant to accomplish — where it’s headed, what kind of emotional tenor would work. Even then, a scene might contain two or three separate movements, each with a distinct impetus and effect, or a different tone.

I’d like to write more about this, possibly give examples of how breaking up stories into “beats” or sub-scenes has helped make my writing more effective. Yes, it’s possible to look at smaller blocks of text within a conventional word processor, but it’s harder to view them as distinct units of story, separate from what comes before and after. For me, this is the primary advantage of working in Scrivener.