How to Use the Story Genius Scene Card to Write the Best Scene Ever
I’ve worked with many writers at Author Accelerator who use the Story Genius method (by the talented Lisa Cron) for planning their novel and one of the areas where I consistently see confusion is how to execute the Story Genius Scene Card and get the maximum benefit from it.
Once writers know how to use the Story Genius scene card, they are FLOORED by how helpful it is. It can literally change your whole writing life for the better.
(Note: To the pantsers who are trying to sneak out the back door right now--I see you! I WAS you a few years ago. I promise this method is helpful not prescriptive and it’s literally the ONLY method I found that works for the pantser inside of me who also needs some help telling a good story and not just lobbing ideas at my computer screen.)
In this post I will explain what the scene card is briefly and then I’m going to dive into how to use it correctly. I’m including super amazing examples that I made up just for this post to help you see how it works when you use the card correctly (which is evidence of how well this method works--I made this story up as I was writing this post. Talk about pantsing).
First, here is what the scene card looks like (see page 150 of Lisa Cron’s Story Genius book):
So let’s explain some of the titles here.
Alpha Point: The main point or focus of the scene. Ask yourself why this scene needs to be in the book (Oh! Because this is where she finds out her dad is still alive!--Bingo! That’s your alpha point).
_____ Subplot: This is where you list any subplots that will be involved in the scene. All you do is put the character’s name (Fred’s Subplot) and then a brief note about how the subplot will tie in to the scene (Fred will feel bad for telling yet another secret.)
Pro Tip: If you are filling out a scene card and there are no subplots, pause a moment. Can you layer something in to the scene? Are you overlooking something important? Don’t force it, but be open to layers. Layers are what makes a story complex and delicious--much like cake.
Okay, now here is where many writers get mixed up. The Story Genius scene card is laid out in the form of a grid. Many writers don’t know what the flow is--they don’t know what to put where and so it stops being effective and just becomes busy work. Here is the secret: Go left to right. Start with “What Happens” and move to “The Consequence” and on to “Why It Matters” and “The Realization.” Do NOT repeat yourself. Each box adds a new layer to the scene that builds off the one before it.
Begin with the “What Happens” box. This is where you say what happens in the scene. It’s action and dialogue based, though you may also reference some internal things.
The What Happens box:
Susan arrives to the restaurant late and grumpy. Fred seems nervous and spills his water, which irritates her even further. Susan makes a nasty comment about Fred not being a man. Fred says “That’s just what dad always says.” Susan, still irritated, says “You mean said.” To which Fred snaps “It’s not like he’s dead.”
Okay, now the scene is really moving. Most writers keep going here and try to fully flesh out the scene under what happens. But stop. You are entering consequence territory now. You can almost feel it as you are writing and the tension amps up. Time to move over to...
The Consequence box:
Susan’s jaw drops. Pieces start clicking in her head. The fact that they didn’t have a graveside service. Those cryptic comments of the strangers dressed in black at the memorial service. The feeling of someone watching her all the time. “What do you mean?” she asks Fred, white lipped. Fred tries to backpedal. His face flushes, he stammers, but Susan knows when Fred is trying to lie to cover up revealing a secret. She demands he tell her everything. So he does. He tells her how Dad told him he had to fake his death. That he couldn’t tell anyone, especially the family. He only told Fred because he needed someone to funnel money to him.
Aren’t you excited?! You can literally see this scene playing out in your head and it’s starting to write itself. You’ve switched from bland statements to semi-descriptive conversation. THis thing is writing itself!
BUT this is where writers hit the DANGER zone. They get swept up in the excitement of the scene and they forget what matters most. Um: Why do we care? Why do we care that a flat person made out of black words on white paper just found out her dad is still alive? You could keep writing down the consequences of this big reveal and totally miss the whole point of the scene. Or you could slide on over to the “Why It Matters” box.
The “Why It Matters” box touches on what Cron calls the Third Rail. The Third Rail is your character's internal struggle. It’s the core of the story--the thing that really keeps people reading even when they think it’s because they have to find out who the killer is or if Stella really does get her groove back. If you skip this box, your scene falls flat. If you fail to connect what is happening in EVERY scene back to the internal struggle of your character, then your story slows down, the reader’s brain starts wandering, they lose interest and everything wobbles on a rickety foundation.
Don’t make this mistake. This is why using these scene cards is so helpful. The pull to fill in the plot is strong. You will feel like you are making progress because we understand the cause and effect of life. But the story is lifeless when you don’t tie it back to the core. And we all need something to stop us in our gleeful, pantsing tracks and make us think: Okay, why does this scene matter again?
The Why It Matters Box:
[Quick note: Susan’s internal struggle is trust. She trusts no one, which originated from issues with her dad.] Susan suddenly feels the ground opening up beneath her. The brief stability she had been gaining from therapy after the death of her dad, where she felt she was slowly learning that some people can be trusted, is swallowed up in the pain of knowing her brother lied to her and her so did her father--again. She feels like she is back at square one.
Alright. Now we move on to “The Realization” box. This is the uniting of all of the other three boxes. You CANNOT fill this box out before filling out the other three. If you do, you will find yourself making stuff up. You don’t need to make anything up. This stuff is writing itself. We already know the massive consequences of Susan learning her father died. We know how it connects to her internal struggle. Now we need to ask “What does she realize because of all this?”
The Realization box:
As Fred talks, Susan feels anger and pain welling up inside her. She realizes that therapy is BS and she will probably spend her whole life unable to trust anyone--unless she goes straight to the source and faces this thing head on.
Pro Tip: The realization only needs to make sense to your character. It doesn’t need to be accurate or smart. It just needs to be true to your character. In this example, tracking down her dad to address her trust issues doesn’t seem too smart. The reader probably knows that her trust issues run deep and trying to get an apology or an explanation from her father won’t fix anything. But to Susan, this makes perfect sense. And as writers we want this gap--we want the reader to anticipate that things will not go well when Susan confronts her father, to worry that she will feel just as bad if not worse after she faces him. That’s called tension! And readers love it.
Pro Tip Numero Dos: The Realization is NOT an action. It’s all internal. The action comes after the realization in the “And So?” section.
Alright, so we know exactly where Susan is at internally. She just lost all confidence in the work she’s done to overcome her trust issues, she’s back at square one, she’s hurt and angry. Now that we have her realization, her next action becomes obvious. This is where the “And so?” part comes in. And so--she goes out and does something. In this case…
Susan grabs Fred by the collar and demands he tell her where dad is. Fred sputters out an address and Susan grabs her purse and leaves, determined to go find him.
And now you are done. You’ve mapped out your scene. And quite frankly, it’s almost written. All you have to do is sit down and string these pieces together like pearls on a necklace. Add in some setting, some detail. Flesh out the emotions and the tension. Have fun. Because you aren’t trying to eek out something, anything that makes sense and moves your story forward. You already know that it moves your story forward--on multiple levels. You can write forward with confidence.
Want more Story Genius tools? First, you definitely want to buy the book, which you can do here. (That’s an affiliate link, which means I get a small kickback for sending you over to buy the book. Woot woot!). Second, join the tribe to get the password to the Inkling Secret Library where I have a Story Genius checklist and an electronic Story Genius scene card you can download for free!