If he begins with a person--say, he's writing a love song or a song about heartbreak--he knows eventually he'll also bring in details about where and when, as well as what happened.
He says that there's a cool alchemy that happens when all three of these elements are in place. They create synergy with each other.
If he leaves one out, the song just doesn't feel complete.
It might take him awhile to realize what's missing, but he uses these three elements to help him find what he overlooked. Then he writes it in, and voila. The lyrics work.
No big surprise this is also how book writers can create stronger scenes and chapters. Combining these three elements of people, place, and event (or conflict) makes an alchemy on the page. I use the same checklist as my songwriter friend. When a scene is missing something, and I can't figure out what, I'll look at these three elements first. Often, I've omitted one. I write "outside the story" to brainstorm ideas and then place them in the scene as I revise. It's really quite amazing how much this improves my writing.
Keep the Three in Balance
There's also a balance to consider. How much you have of each of these three elements makes a difference in the effect a reader will get from the scene.
Here's a formula I like to use:
1. If I want more momentum, I use a greater amount of event or action. I have things happening onstage. The faster they happen, the more momentum it gives, within reason--you still need to pace your action scenes so readers can follow them.
2. If I want to build tension or suspense, I work on people's reactions to something that is planned, going to happen, suspected of happening. I might use dialogue with a lot of subtext to hint that something's not right and it's affecting somebody.
3. If I want to bring more emotion to the page, I increase the setting details. Setting creates a pause and sensory details, a very important part of setting, is the fastest way to get an emotional response from a reader.
Your Weekly Writing Exercise
Take a scene or chapter that might be missing something. Consider each of the three essential elements above. What do you have in place, what is missing? Then look at the proportion of each. Are you getting the effect you want? If not, adjust the proportions.
On Friday, March 25, I'll be teaching a one-day workshop at the Loft Literary Center in Minnepolis on how to recognize, place, and adjust these three elements in your fiction or memoir. The workshop is called "Rule of Three: Character, Conflict, and Your Story's Container." For more information or to register, click here for the Loft's website.