Here's a September story about Mitchell, Eve and a dead deer, told in seven scenes:
1. Mitchell meets Eve at work. He admires Eve, who seems daring, adventurous and outdoorsy.
2.Eve suggests they go deer hunting. On a misty late-September morning they drive through the countryside in Eve’s truck.
3. In a tangle of forest Eve spots a deer, and together with Mitchell they approach.
4. Eve shoots the deer.
5. Then she approaches the deer’s body and shoots it again, needlessly, another six times.
6. Mitchell realises there is something seriously wrong with Eve.
7. They get back into Eve’s truck. Eve chats casually as they drive home; Mitchell is silently terrified. It’s awkward.
This sequence of events, adapted from an example in Jerome Stern's Making Shapely Fiction, is a really useful way of drawing a distinction between the story as it happened and the story as it's told. We know the story as it happened - we have it there in seven bullets. Pun very much intended.
But what about the story as it's told? A useful activity with first-time writers is to ask what the opening scene of this story might be. Which number would make a good starting point? I've had writers give compelling reasons for why it should be 3. Or 4. Or 7. Other numbers, by contrast, are rarely suggested. 1, for example. Or 5 - perhaps because, to quote Stern again, "tension is the mother of fiction."
I might finish by discussing which scenes can safely be omitted altogether or referred to only obliquely. What are you putting on the cutting-room floor, folks? There are certainly two contenders here, possibly more. Sure, there are no wrong answers. Though Stern might agree with me when I contest that some answers are certainly... wronger than others.
For more on story shape and structure, check out Storycraft, available now from wherever you get your books.