Killer Scenes, Part Three
I start this post with an apology. In it I’m gonna cite something from my own work. I hate it when writers do that. “Use Tolstoy, man, or Shakespeare! We want something good.”
But I gotta do it because in this instance I don’t have to speculate as to what the writer was thinking: I actually know.
The theme of today’s post is a continuation of the previous two: Killer Scenes and how to build them out into the global narrative that they imply. In this case, I’m going to address not a scene, but just two sentences.
The question we’ll be asking is: When we as writers have only one scene, or even just a fragment of a scene, how can we extrapolate from that the entire work? How do we build out the complete book from that single kernel? What mode of thinking do we employ?
First, let’s start with the Muse. I believe categorically that scenes and lines that pop into our heads come from some cosmic source. You may disagree. But that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. So when some electrifying scene or fragment suddenly appears in my consciousness, I take it as a penny from heaven, a clue in a mystery, a strand of DNA in a scientific experiment. Embedded in that microcosm is the Global Enchilada.
One day about ten years ago, two sentences popped into my head.
I knew immediately that these were the first two sentences of a book. And I knew I loved the book. But I knew nothing else. I didn’t know who the speaker was, or what the story would be, where it was set, nothing. Here are the two sentences:
I have always been a soldier. I have known no other life.
I let these sit for a couple of weeks. From time to time during the day I’d come back to them, always asking myself, “Who’s the speaker? Who’s saying this? What does it mean? What’s the book that these sentences are the start of?”
I couldn’t get an answer. Either nothing came or what came didn’t ring a bell. Then one day, I can’t remember exactly how, I suddenly knew with certainty: the speaker was Alexander the Great.
I didn’t know anything about Alexander the Great. I had never studied him. He was certainly not a figure I was preoccupied with. Nor did I have any conception of how a story about him would resonate with modern readers, or if they would even care. Would a book about Alexander sell? Would anybody besides me be interested?
Okay. Back to extrapolating. What can we as writers say from our two sentences out of the blue?
For sure we’ve got one thing: the identity of our protagonist. And we can deduce from the sense of the sentences two other critical elements.
First, the story will be told in the first person by Alexander. It has to be because “I have always been a soldier” is him speaking. The sentence is in his voice.
The other Big Thing we know is that the story’s slant will be military. Why? Because he, Alexander, says so. “I have always been a solider. I have known no other life.”
This last point may seem so obvious as to be barely worth noting. But it’s not. It’s absolutely critical. The subject of Alexander, keep in mind, can be addressed from many, many angles—political, psychological, historical. Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy was a first-person account of Alexander’s life told by his eunuch lover, Bagoas. Her other renowned work on Alexander, Fire From Heaven, was centered in the conqueror’s early life and the psychodynamics of his family. Oxford historian Robin Lane Fox’s Alexander the Great, which served in part as the basis for Oliver Stone’s movie Alexander, was an all-inclusive historical biography, as was classical scholar Peter Green’s Alexander of Macedon.
Clearly our book is going to be none of those. But what will it be? From our initial two sentences we have, so far, three key narrative elements: we have our protagonist, we have our narrator, we have our point of view.
And we have a fourth Big Thing: the actual historical facts of the protagonist’s life. If the book is going to be about Alexander, and if he is going to tell us his story as seen through the lens of a soldier, then implicitly we’ve got a number of real events that we know must be in his narrative. And, just as important to us as writers, we have other events that we know will be left out. Family stuff, politics, philosophy: we can probably jettison them. War and conquest: these we’ll keep. Alexander fought at least three world-altering battles—the Granicus River, Issus, and Gaugamela. Clearly these must be in the story, not to mention Chaeronea, the battle of the Hydaspes River in India, and the assault across the Jaxartes in Afghanistan.
Remember my post a few weeks back, “The Clothesline Method?” If we string our line from Story Start to Story Finish and hang on it just three or four of these battles, we’ve got, in page-count terms, at least half of our book already. Not bad.
What about theme? Let’s dig a little deeper into those first two sentences.
I have always been a soldier. I have known no other life.
Embedded in this phrasing is the idea of destiny. “I have always …. ” “I have known no other … ” The sense in these sentences is of a fate or calling established at birth or even before. These twelve words have a momentum as well, like notes in a melody. Here are the sentences I followed them with, trying only to sustain the tune:
… All that I know [of warfare], I knew at thirteen and, truth to tell, at ten or younger. As a boy I instinctively understood the ground, the march, the occasion, and the elements … the drawing up of troops came as second nature to me: I simply looked; all showed itself clear. My father [Philip of Macedonia] was the greatest soldier of his day, perhaps the greatest ever. Yet when I was ten I informed him that I would excel him. By twenty-three I had done so.
The Greeks had a word: daimon. The Roman equivalent is the Latin word genius. Both refer to an inhering spirit—divine in origin, all-knowing yet itself unknowable—which appears, twinned with us from birth, and guides and inspires our passage throughout our lifetime. If there ever was an individual whose career embodied possession by a daimon or a genius, it was Alexander.
What was Alexander’s daimon? Ambition? Lust for conquest? The passion for ultimate ascendancy to the point, even, of being called a god?
Could this daimon be our antagonist? Is this the real force that Alexander fought against, more so than even the physical kings and armies he conquered?
If the answer is yes (and my instinct tells me that it is) then we can safely say that from just two sentences, twelve words, we have identified our protagonist, our narrator, our point of view, probably two hundred pages of story, our theme, and our villain—with a lot more, we hope, still to be unearthed. The goddess, we must admit, knows how to pack a lot of dynamite into a very small package.
We’ll continue this investigation in next week’s post.
When words, sentences like that pop into your head you are truly obliged to write them down. When I picked them up and read them, I knew I had to read the book. It was the same for me in flipping through the pages of The Gates of Fire and finding my eyes stopped on the words you gave Leoneidas, “you must hate me.” What follows is for me one of the most powerful scenes in modern literature, one that I have read to my sisters and my daughters with a view of establishing the true nature of women’s role in the maintenance of a country, a culture, civilization itself.
I was excited to see today’s post. While I was reading last week’s “Killer Scene” installment, I kept thinking, “yeah, but what if you’ve just come up with a killer line – how do you extrapolate from a single line?” So thanks for going where I hoped you would.
I’m so glad you used your own work as an example for exactly the reason you said: you know what you were thinking. As you tell us, we can relate that to your process. This is one of my favorite posts of yours on writing. It starts out with mystery/muse and turns into flesh and bones already. Plus I can literally use this perspective right NOW so I thank you, Steven Pressfield–I love inspiration that does the work!
I’d pay extra for Steve to talk about his own work more often.
I think that everybody agrees!
steve–> this is why i consider your book on alexander as your being your best. our personal daimon, which i first encountered in college while reading rollo may’s work, is best understood if we are ever to have knowledge of our self. thanks again–xlnt article !
Lines are perfect starting points for works of any length. Like you said, they pack so much, and their small size allows the audience to fill in the rest, to put a mirror on themselves.
I think we see this all the time when a movie’s poster has a perfect log line, and the movie itself is a let down. I find myself saying “damn, if the director would have just stayed true to that one line it would’ve been good.” Then I remember that the poster is done by a whole separate group of people who specialize in crafting ONE good line haha.
You have always been a writer. You have known no other life.
I think that’s where your Muse got those two sentences.
I am attempting to do this with non-fiction: extrapolate from one moment,which occurred in a tiny Greek village on a freezing wet night when I was taken in and fed and warmed by a tiny widow dressed in all black, and when she asked me my name, I was unable to say it– and so I unwittingly broke an ancient covenant. I have been living with the consequences ever since.
Wow, great one, Lea. Good luck!
Ok, I’m still in the new fan stage as I read your blog about the craft of writing. How do you apply these “killer scene” principles to the creation of non-fiction? Where are the “killer lines” or “killer scenes” found in THE WAR OF ART or DO THE WORK?
In other words, what advice do you have for integrating your storyteller skills into a piece of non-fiction? How were the likes of Socrates or Pythagorus inspired by their Muse?
John-I’ve been a fan of Steve’s for a while, and I would LOVE to hear his thoughts on this as well. Great question!
Steve-your readers want to know. Please 🙂
Lemme think about it, you guys …
I recently blogged about what a useful and profound read The War of Art is for all artists and writers. For me, the killer line was the title. The title was so clever and subtle all at once, it got my attention. Whenever I recognize my resistance winning a battle with me, I remind myself that I am in a War of Art.
I would humbly suggest that the other killer lines in the book are your definitions of resistance.
“So when some electrifying scene or fragment suddenly appears in my consciousness, I take it as a penny from heaven, a clue in a mystery, a strand of DNA in a scientific experiment. Embedded in that microcosm is the Global Enchilada.” OH YES! I have field note books full of these musing from heaven. I am actually taking next week off to sit with each note and see where it might go into my novel. It is IMPORTANT to hold a conversation with these musings from the Great Unknown, otherwise, we let a unique opportunity and possibility slip away.
Global Enchilada is a cosmic phrase. On so many levels.
It made me really hungry for Enchiladas!
It took 25 years for the speaker of one of my first lines to show up at my door. He’d been living in that one line until I was old and wise enough to understand him.
Great post, Steve. You should definitely talk more about your own work! I think it important to take notice when the Muse drops gems into our laps. I shudder to think how many of those gems have gone unnoticed by people (including myself) because they are not listening. I’ve had whole books come from a single line or image that has popped into my head – if there is such a thing as magic, sure that’s it! Now I try to keep my eyes and ears wide open.
Cheers to you!
GREAT Writing Wednesday, today. Just so you know, Steve, I’ll be stealing these lines with your credentials of course. Love “I have always – I have known no other- the sense in these sentences of a fate or calling established at birth or even before.” And about the two words “daimon” and “genius”. “Both refer to an inhering spirit – divine in origin, all knowing yet itself unknowable which appears, twined with us from birth and guides and inspires our passage through out our lifetime. And last but first and most IMPORTANT when talking about The Muse. “You may disagree. But that’s my story and I am sticking with it.” What popped into my head was the line in Gone With The Wind. “Frankly My Dear, I don’t give a damn.”
OH Forgot: “I have always been a soldier.” I have known no other life.” I did change soldier to warrior when I stole the sentence for “the book”. Actually have stolen more than I have put in the Posts. 🙂
Many authors talk about the same thing, the unfolding of the work from a sentence or a phrase or an image. I don’t know how many of them consciously unpack the story as they write it, or just do so in the edit or retrospective stage. So glad you chose to use your own work. The story and the post deserve it.
I definitely agree with you, Steve, about scenes that just pop into your mind. That has happened to me a bunch of times in the fantasy I am currently working on. And if I can’t fit them all into that book, I know they belong somewhere. They didn’t come from me. Great post!
God bless, Anne Marie 🙂
This is an amazing post! I signed up to receive email updates after reading the “Clothesline” and “Killer Scenes, part Two” posts the other day. I’m so glad I did!
I just used this post to unpack a story from a line that popped into my head today. What’s awesome is that it’s a story I don’t think I would have tried to tell if I hadn’t read this post as it’s a genre I didn’t think I wanted to write in. Before this reading post, I would have tried to fit the line in with other ideas I already have instead of letting it tell me what story it belongs to. Now, I’m in love with my new protagonist and her journey, and I can’t wait to start working on her “clothesline.”
Thank you so much for sharing this with us!
Oops! Sorry about the typo. I meant “Before reading this post…” lol