(Sorry for the quality of the video. It may look better on your machine at https://youtu.be/wOri4-GHOFY)
Ever notice how in “The Sopranos” that things don’t always go as planned? There’s a reason for that.
The primary building blocks of every story are scenes. There are two types of scene. In his book, “Techniques of the Selling Writer,” Dwight Swain referred to them as “Scene” and “Sequel.” The terminology is confusing, so people have given them other names. Action/Reaction; Head/Tail. Whatever you call them, they serve the same purpose and have the same structure.
In an action scene, the character has a goal, there is conflict, followed by an outcome, which should be something other than what the character wanted.
An action scene must be followed by a reaction scene. The character reacts to the outcome, has to think about what to do next the dilemma), and then decide what to do (the decision).
The decision becomes the goal of the next action scene.
To see this in operation, take a look at the scene in one of the Sopranos episodes where Christopher and Paulie go to the Russian’s house to collect money. That is their goal. Sounds easy. Walk in, pick up the envelope, thank the man nicely, and leave.
But that would not make an interesting story. There has to be conflict. Fortunately, Christopher and Paulie are sociopaths.
Paulie is playing with the Russian’s universal remote. The Russian tells him to put it back on the docking station. Being told what to do pisses Paulie off, and he drops the remote on the floor, breaking it into pieces. The Russian calls Paulie a cocksucker, and Paulie breaks a bottle over his head. A struggle ensues and they think they’ve killed the Russian.
As a result of the conflict, there is what Swain referred to as a “tragedy.” Again, the terminology has caused confusion. A better way to put it is that the outcome is not what the character wanted. It can actually be a tragedy, or it can be something simple, like not getting the right flavor of ice cream.
In the Sopranos scene, Paulie and Christopher think the Russian is dead or dying. This is classic scene structure:
Goal: Collect money from Russian
Conflict: Fight with Russian
Outcome: Kill/injure Russian
Every action scene is followed by a reaction scene, and this one is no exception. It’s brief, but it’s there.
Thinking that the Russian is dead, Paulie and Christopher have to figure out what to do with the body. No problem. Wrap him in a rug and take him out to the Pine Barrens and bury him.
Reaction: Oh, fuck, we killed the Russian.
Dilemma: How to get rid of him?
Decision: Bury him in the woods.
Burying the Russian in the woods is the goal of the next action scene.
They drive to the woods (Pine Barrens) and open the trunk. The Russian ain’t dead. One could argue that the action scene is over. The goal was to bury him, but he’s still alive. Now what? They could clip him right there, or they could let him go. After all, they didn’t go to his house to kill him, just to get money. All he did was get mad over his remote.
Goal: Bury dead Russian
Conflict: Russian ain’t dead
Outcome: Russian ain’t dead
Reaction: They get him out of the car
Dilemma: Do they still kill him? (unspoken)
Decision: Yes. At least now he can walk and dig his own grave
But Christopher and Paulie are still dedicated to killing him and burying him. In fact, they don’t even discuss what to do. It’s a given that they’re going to kill him. I’m not sure it makes any sense, really. They were only in this situation because they thought he was dead and they needed to cover their asses. Since he’s not dead, why kill him? Maybe they thought he would kill them, I don’t know.
In any event, they decide to go ahead and kill him, so they march him into the woods with a shovel so he can dig his own grave. The Russian hits Christopher and Paulie with the shovel and runs off. They shoot at him and hit him, but they can’t find him.
Goal: Have Russian dig grave and then kill him
Conflict: Russian escapes
Outcome: They lose the Russian
I suppose you could consider the scene when they arrive in the woods as one big scene:
Goal: Bury dead Russian
Conflict: Turns out he ain’t dead, but that’s okay. He can dig his own grave. But they’re too stupid to stay far enough away so he can’t hit them with the shovel.
Outcome: Russian gets away.
If you look at a video that continues the scene, they get stuck in the woods in freezing weather and Tony has to come save them
And so it goes in this repeating pattern in every novel and every movie there is.
Side note: I found it interesting that they were going to dig a grave with in frozen soil with a snow shovel.