Life Is Lived Scene by Scene

I was nine years old when I first fell in love. His name was Bond, James Bond.

Since lockdown began, I’ve steamed through over a dozen Bond films. Most I’ve seen at least ten times before, but never from the perspective of somebody immersed in studying how stories work. And if you’re looking for incredibly clear examples of the principles of story design, look no further than the James Bond series.

Cubby Broccoli et al. have spent over 50 years now making these things blindingly obvious, and subsequently a joy to study. Well, what I’ve been nerding out over this week is the twin ideas of the super-intention and the scene-intention. Very similar, but not the same. I’ll explain.

The super-intention is the “spine” of a story – it’s the thread that runs from beginning to end, and follows the hero trying to accomplish one very specific thing. In some stories, they succeed; in others, they fail. In a Bond film, the super-intention is very simple: “Stop the bad guy.”

They’re easy to spot. In The Great Gatsby, it’s “Get back with my old girlfriend, Daisy.” It’s Jaws, it’s “Kill the shark.” In Kill Bill, it’s… “Kill Bill.”

But the crucial thing – what makes a super-intention a super-intention – is that it cannot be accomplished in one fell swoop. If it could, it’d make for a remarkably dull story. Instead, stories are built by the characters taking actions that slowly build towards their ultimate goal. These are called scenes.

The scene-intention is what the character is trying to accomplish in this specific one scene – one small piece of their super-intention. And again, in some scenes, they succeed. In some scenes, they fail. To go back to Bond, his invididual scene-intentions might be “Go visit Q and collect some gadgets,” “Make love to this beautiful woman and then try to extract information about the villain from her,” or “Escape from the compromising position the villain has put me in.”

Each one is a step on the path towards his ultimate goal.

And anyway, because I can’t bloody help it, when I went for a run the other day, I had a mini-epiphany when I realised that this is just like real life.

Life is lived scene by scene.

We all have things we want to accomplish today, this week, this year, or at some point in our life. And when these things are small enough, we don’t even clock them. Brush your teeth. Get to work on time. Write a blog post for today. These are scene-intentions – we can accomplish them in one go.

But – hopefully – at least some of the things you want to do are bigger and grander than those things, and cannot be done in one fell swoop. That’s the spanner in the works – how do we make progress, when it’s rarely very clear what exactly needs doing, let alone in which order? Well, that’s where super-intention and scene-intention comes in.

These big dreams are the super-intentions of your story. And how does the hero of a story achieve his super-intention – or at least try to? Scene by scene.

They want something. Scene by scene, they try to do things that will move them closer to it. Sometimes their actions move them closer, but more often they move them further away. But they keep trucking on, and by the climax, they either get the thing they wanted, or they don’t. But they can at least say that they gave it their all.

So when you’re facing something that you can’t get “done” today, and you’re frustrated because you don’t know even know what to do to get closer, step back, take a breathe, and realise that this is just a scene – your job today is not to get your super-intention done. Give yourself an intention for this scene, and for this scene only. Perhaps give yourself something clear that you can accomplish in the next hour. By all means keep your eye on the prize – know what your super-intention is – but let your measure of success for today be how you tackle this scene.

Now, don’t expect everything to go smoothly. Does everything James Bond tries work out the first time? Of course not. Frequently his efforts put him in far more danger than he started in. But because he is aware of his long-term goal, and he keeps adapting scene by scene to where he currently finds himself, he eventually finds a way to accomplish his mission.

In fact, think about Bond again. Just when is Bond at his lowest ebb? At what point in the story, if you were him, would you think “Well, fuck, this really isn’t going well, is it?” Isn’t it always at the same spot in the story, just before he manages to emerge victorious? Like Bond, it’s when you feel furthest away from your goal that you’re probably a hell of a lot closer than you think. Relax, and give yourself a scene intention.

This isn’t something I’ve been working with for very, but over the last couple of weeks I’ve found it really useful. Rather than obsessing over what the perfect course of action ought to be, I’ve been trying more to decide at the beginning of the day what I can actually do about it today. What one step can I take that I think will bring me closer?

The curious thing is that the days where I make a “bad” choice – where the thing I do appears to push me further away from my dream – I still feel a big sense of accomplishment.

It feels good to be on the right path, even when all you seem to do is trip and fall.

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