Famously, “It was a dark and stormy night” is one of the worst ways to start a scene. Many writers take that to mean that you should never start with the weather, or indeed setting or description in any form. I disagree. I write from setting all the time.
A powerful workhorse
anchor the story in time, both historical time and time of day
define geographic place – in general (urban/rural) or specific (a particular building or room)
give a clue to character by what the character notices and reacts to in the surroundings.
use all five senses and more (colour, quality of light; temperature; texture) to create verisimilitude and increase reader engagement.
affect pacing: visceral senses of smell and touch increase tension; word choice for a description guides emotion (pierces vs chirps)
Walk with me
Come on. Bring along a notebook. We are going to allow
setting to guide the start of a scene.
First anchor the main characters in place and
time with an image. Present at least one reader question.
I turn back down the dirt track once the school bus has passed, jiggling its crumpled group of toque-topped children. It’s a long ride for young Jimmy—more than an hour before the bus spills him into the school yard at Campbellford Elementary. But he’s a country kid. Used to rising before dawn.
Now a wide angle visual shot that also sets the
mood of the narrator. Use sentence structure that supports that mood.
The eastern sky struggles to draw back the fog blanket that hovers above the tree line, as reluctant as I amto face the day.
A shot of colour without mentioning the colour.
Something that re-enforces the mood.
The last of the autumn leaves nip at my ankles.
a different sense (sound) that develops character or moves the plot.
My cell pierces the quiet morning. It’s Conrad. Shit. I let it ring. Fourteen rings. He doesn’t give up easy.
Now a wide angle again, include another sense
(touch/ texture) and continue to develop character or advance plot. Consider
pacing here. Speed up or slow down with sentence structure and word choice.
The clapboard farmhouse crouches on the hill, as if ready to pounce. “Been in my family for six generations,” Tom always boasts. Like that scraggly-beard had any part in it. Bastard!
Step into a direct action that launches the
story. Stay away from the sense of sight. Use a more visceral sense to lend
weight to this moment (touch).
When I reach the porch, my lungs burn from running, my mouth so dry I can hardly form the words I croak into my phone, “Chrissy? It’s Annie. Please, I need you to pick Jimmy up from school today and keep him overnight. Something’s come up. I’ll call tomorrow to explain.”
Not a formula
That scene is not a formula, just a sample. It’s sinister,
moody and hints at danger. But it could have just as easily been more upbeat:
First anchor the main characters in place and
time with an image. Present at least one reader question.
I watch the school bus lumber down the dirt road, jiggling its crumpled group of kids and backpacks and baseball bats and water bottles. It’s a long ride for young Jimmy—more than an hour before the bus spills him into the school yard at Campbellford Elementary. But he’s cool. A country kid. Used to rising early.
Now a wide angle visual shot that also sets the
mood of the narrator. Use sentence structure that supports that mood.
The sun is already high in the eastern sky, warm on my shoulders. Today will be a good day. I know it.
A shot of colour without mentioning the colour.
Something that re-enforces the mood.
I scoop up a posy of feathery Queen Anne’s lace and field poppies from the roadside bank.
a different sense (sound) that develops character or moves the plot.
My cell chirps like a pocketed bird. It’s Conrad. He remembered. I take a deep breath and fumble to answer before he rings off.
Go on. Your turn. Take setting on your writing journey today.
Dialogue is not filler, nor is it secondary. For readers, dialogue is the illusion of active listening, of ‘looking’ from person to person as the conversation unfolds. There are technical effects from dialogue that support and enhance your story. The following 10 on the 10th blog shares some examples of the important work of dialogue:
1. Develop Plot: To ensure you’re not writing “filler”, give your characters dialogue that moves the plot forward, develop scenes.
"Pete, meet me at Crawley's barn at sunset. I'll bring Billy." "Want me to bring a gun?" "Nah. If I find Billy before sunset, we won't need one."
2. Move in Time: When the story needs to shift into a new scene, or you want to cover a period of time without going into detail about that period of time, offer a line that sets up the new scene:
“Good then. I’ll see you next week." or “So it's settled, we leave at dawn.” or "Give me an hour or two and I'll call you back."
3. Reveal underlying tensions: Characters, like real people, have emotional baggage and secrets. Dialogue can give a clue that a character has something they’re hiding.
“Just what did you mean by that?” she asked. He shrugged. “Nothing. Now let’s just move on, okay?”
4. Enrich themes/mood: Characters can help readers pick up on the mood of a piece by what they say.
“I hate this damp and cold. And those dark clouds can only mean we're in for more rainfall.” or "Come on, Charlie. Let's jump in every puddle we see."
5. Echotime/era/culture: Dialogue can add authentic details to bring out the story’s genre, culture or time period.
“Ach, lass. Will you no be gettin’ down from there?” or “My lady, 'tis unseemly to be about at this late hour.” or "Golly. Is that one of them new tellyvisions?"
6. Establish setting: Setting a scene through description alone can turn into a laundry list of what can be seen. Let dialogue do some of that work so that readers get enough detail to fill in the rest. More importantly, let dialogue help readers to stay connected to characters by “seeing” what they see and with the emotion they see it.
"Zargon! Power up the hyperchute—enter that wormhole!” or "Bring me that beautiful leather bound volume from the top shelf." or "Careful now! Mind you don't step in that stinking muck."
7. Imagine geography: Not all stories need large scale world-building but many fantasy, science fiction or quest stories will involve creating a world that readers can believe in. Dialogue helps to make it real because it’s real to the characters.
“Wait. I think I see a body of water through the trees.” or "This map doesn't show......." or "That desert's got to be five day's walking or more. And not even stones or scrub for cover."
8. Reveal facets of character: Dialogue is an active way to reveal character emotions, backstory and motivations.
"Please don't leave me alone with him; I can't go through that again.” or “How amusing. You dare to speak. Guard—kill him.” or "I'm going to tell you a secret...."
9. Focus on dynamics: How chracters talk to each other reveals not only clues about each character but also about their relationship with one another.
“You just can’t leave me alone, can you?" “Ah, but if I did, you’d start to hate me all the more.”
10. Show don’t tell: Dialogue is one of the easiest ways to give tired prose an energy lift, and turn “Tell” into “Show”. And that includes the body language and action beats in between the words. It’s dramatization that the reader can be immersed in, can “hear”, “see” and therefore feel.
Tell: Her father was abusive, but she had long since stopped caring.
Show:"Jesus girl. What's this slop ya call dinner?" Pa swiped the dish from the table. Ma's best china plate shattered against the door. "And look what ya made me done now, ya good-for-nothing..."
Mary scooped up a shard and turned to face him, looked Pa square in the eyes. "You can break me all ya want, Old Man, but ya'll never touch another thing what belonged to Ma."
This past weekend, Gwynn and Ruth spent some time at the Spirit of the Hills Festival of the Arts. We’ll have more to say about this great festival next week but wanted to share some insights we gained from each taking a writing workshop.
Ruth attended The Captive Moment with author K.D.Miller where she spent time with the haunting paintings of Alex Colville. K.D.’s Governor General’s Literary Award-nominated collection of short stories were inspired by 12 of Colville’s paintings.
Gwynn attended Your Journey, Your Story with Cynthia Reyes and Ronald Mackay. Both published memoirists, their workshop covered the structure and purpose of writing a memoir.
Both Gwynn and Ruth are seasoned workshop facilitators. They both spend a great deal of time researching the topics they teach and discover new ways to inspire writers to keep their pens moving and their imaginations engaged.
So why would either of them want to take workshops?
To be better writers
More than just wanting to learn new things to bring into their workshops, they are both, at their core, writers. As such, they need their pens to keep moving and for their imaginations to be engaged.
Ruth left The Captive Moment with two new poems and one story idea. Gwynn left Your Journey, Your Story with a workable plan for focussing the story aspect of a memoir.
Of course, they both left with new ideas to bring into their own workshops. But that was simply a bonus. For Gwynn and Ruth, carving out time to devote solely to their craft, to stretch, experiment and explore always fills their own creative wells.
That makes them better workshop facilitators AND better writers.
Workshop with Gwynn and Ruth
On Saturday, November 2, join Ruth at Blue Heron Books in Uxbridge for a creative writing workshop, A Recipe for Great Characters. This hands-on morning session is part of Blue Heron’s inspired Book Drunkard Literary Festival. Cook up a new character or add spice to an established character in a fun and creative way.
On Sunday, November 10, Gwynn is at the Writers’ Community of York Region’s monthly meeting. Drawing on her expertise as a professional accountant, Gwynn is sharing Touching on Taxes, helping writers identify the different kinds of revenue associated with writing and how to report it.
While our first response to fall might be thoughts of harvests, colourful leaves, Thanksgiving and delicious pies, for a writer, the symbolic meanings of fall are more profound—and useful—than you might think. In our writing, a reference to a cold winter day or a ray of sunshine can allude to more than its literal meaning.
Throughout history, cultures, science, and astrology have linked the seasons to the human life cycle and to nature’s influence on our lives. This connection is in our bones and it is universal. So writers can use seasonal symbols to express, heighten, or even play against feelings and the passing of time and age. And readers will pick up on those symbols and their meaning.
Think of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. At the beginning of the novel, it is spring. Nick Caraway is at ease with the wealthy people he meets. As summer progresses, the heat intensifies and tensions start to rise. As autumn arrives, Gatsby dies and Nick’s warmth of feeling and his dreams wither.
What are the traditional symbolic meanings
fall, the growing cycle gives us ripeness and maturity. The harvest is
associated with abundance, prosperity and wealth. Humans too experience an
“autumn”. If spring represents new birth and childhood, and summer symbolizes
youth, autumn represents adulthood and maturity.
Girls on Fireby Robin Wasserman is set in damp, shadowy, late-autumn woods haunted by literal death that symbolizes the end of girlhood.
Falling leaves symbolize change and even though they are brilliant
in colour, we know what is soon to follow—winter. Fall brings a certain
melancholy. We must prepare for an end. Our symbolic human autumn of maturity
must prepare for the winter of old age and death.
In Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. This story takes place during fall with the town experiencing grief over the death of Ichabod Crane and as chilly autumn progresses, so do their fears of death and the Headless Horseman.
Preservation and reconnection
approach of winter, animals store food and create cozy hibernation spaces. We
preserve the harvest and retreat indoors. We stop wandering and stay home. We
tend to look emotionally inwards too, reconnecting with ourselves and those
important to us. We consider the choices we have made, and the options still open to
Jacques Poulin’s book , Autumn Rounds, is a tale of love that arrives in the autumn of life. A man sees a marching band from his Quebec City apartment window, and motivated by his realization that life is slipping away makes a choice to join them.
Because day and night are the same length
on the autumnal equinox, ancient cultures associated this day with the concept
of balance. Astrologically, the sun enters Libra, symbolized by a pair of
balanced scales. As we slow down after the business of summer, and with the
harvest in, we take time to tap into the balance within us.
InOctober by Richard B. Wright, a man accompanies an old acquaintance on a final, improbable journey searching for answers in the autumn of his life.
doesn’t have to be all about sadness. Instead, we can think of death (and
ultimate renewal) as a kind of letting go. We can look to our inner egos and
patterns of behavior and let go of destructive attitudes. The idea of letting
go also stresses the temporary nature of everything around us.
ways to use seasons as a writing device
Passage of time: Passing seasonal setting details running in the background of your story will help the reader know how slowly or quickly we are moving through time.
Mood: Although all emotions occur in all seasons, we tend to connect spring with hope/renewal; summer with joy/exuberance; autumn with melancholy/acceptance, and winter with sadness/loneliness. Using images, metaphor or setting details that evoke the appropriate season for the emotion, will heighten the mood.
As the horse crossed the line, Jim’s hopes fell like an entire tree of autumn leaves.
An hour passed and Mary did not
show. Adam shifted on the cold bench, wished he’d brought a warmer sweater.
Subversion: Playing against the four seasons we know by having five seasons or only two will help readers accept that your story is set in another world.
Plot device: a body drowned in fall can only be discovered when winter ice melts. It gives the murderer time, but sets up a deadline for tension.
Irony: a couple fall in love in the dead of winter and break up in the summer.
Upset expectation: a character declines in spring and comes into their own in winter. This affirms that although humans are part of nature, they are not necessarily enslaved by its patterns.
Motifs/themes for a character. Amy is a “spring” character: optimistic, always learning something new; growing constantly; dresses in bright colours. Astrid is an “autumn” character: melancholy, always anticipating that something dark lies ahead; has red hair and wears a lot of brown.
Reveal emotions. In Beverly Cleary’s Emily’s Runaway Imagination, the story begins with spring and a feeling of welcome change. Almost exhilaration:
It seemed to Emily that it all began
one bright spring day, a day meant for adventure. The weather was so warm Mama
had let her take off her long stockings and put on her half socks for the first
time since last fall. Breezes on her knees after a winter of stockings always
made Emily feel as frisky as a spring lamb. The field that Emily could see from
the kitchen window had turned blue with wild forget-me-nots and down in the
pasture the trees, black silhouettes trimmed with abandoned bird nests
throughout the soggy winter, were suddenly turning green.
Everywhere sap was rising, and Emily
felt as if it was rising in her, too.
Steven King’s Different Seasons is a book made up of four novellas. The stories themselves are not connected, but they each follow the symbolic meanings of the seasons to form a cohesive whole:
Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (Hope Springs Eternal)
Apt Pupil (Summer of Corruption)
The Body (Fall from Innocence)
The Breathing Method (A Winter’s Tale)
The Dragonlance Chronicles trilogy by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman also follow the natural cycle of nature:
Book 1. Dragons of Autumn Twilight. The protagonists unite and become aware of the growing evil in the land
2. Dragons of Winter Night the heroes are separated, and not all escape unscathed.
3. Dragons of Spring Dawning, the heroes reunite and restore the Balance between Good and Evil
How do you put the seasons to work in your writing? Let us know in the comments below.
This week we welcome Seana Moorhead’s thoughts on writing the second book in a series. Seana is a Writescape retreat alumus, a lawyer and a fine writer and blogger at Ascribe Writers. She’s also a fun person to be around.
Guest Post from Seana Moorhead
I’ve been struggling with the second novel of my planned trilogy. I have all the words but it doesn’t feel like it holds together and I have no idea when or how to end it. My two main characters split up and I don’t know how to structurally deal with that. I try to console myself that the middle book of a trilogy is supposed to be the hardest to write.
Here’s my theory on why that is: a common problem with any novel is that the middle can sag. We spend so much time developing a great beginning and the perfect ending that the middle often drags. Magnified into a trilogy, the middle book struggles to compete with the fantastic first book and the final resolution of the third. Like a “middle” child, it can feel neglected, having neither the attention of the first child nor spoiled like the youngest.
This distresses me, since I am a middle child. I am personally invested in having my middle book soar. But here’s the hard truth: I feel like I am failing it. I have read many trilogies where the second book is weak; even with trilogies that I love, I often suffer through the middle book. Their flaws can be many:
(a) often second books read like they have been rushed (which is most likely true in today’s market where a sequel must come out as soon as possible; thus my anguish now before I have even managed to publish the first)
(b) second books read like a rehashing of the first book (in my opinion, book two of the Hunger Games is guilty of this)
(c) they wander, lack structure, have no focus because the middle is treated like a bridge between one and three with no real purpose of its own
(d) In an attempt, to “dark” or “deepen” the conflict of the characters, there tends to be a lot of whining by characters or characters acting poorly towards each other, gratuitous violence, often with torture as a way to “ramp” up the stakes but without any other clear purpose.
I like a well structured book. My first novel is like a well-stitched dress, with its darts and pleats in all the right places, everything hanging properly. Currently my second is like a Raggedy-Ann affair made from patchwork pieces. Typical of a second child, only getting hand-me-downs. Poor thing!
When in doubt, I research.
First, I tried to research how to write a good trilogy. I will summarize the common general advice as follows: an overarching three act structure in the trilogy with each book containing its own three act structure. It helps to add new characters in book two.
Although all very good, but I need more. Why do second books so often fail? Or maybe I should turn this question around: Are there any middle books that outshine their siblings? If yes, what creates this magic?
Since I am writing a fantasy trilogy, I focused my research in this genre. There are likely different answers if you are writing in other genres or a series (instead of a trilogy with an overarching storyline). Two examples came through in my research, one from film: The Empire Strikes Back; and one from the classic book, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
Note: spoiler alert ahead in case of the rare possibly that you haven’t actually read or seen the movie versions.
A side note: often Book 4 of the Harry Potter fame, also came out as an example of a middle book that works (although being in a seven part series). However, I wasn’t as fond of book four myself (my fav is still book 3 but that might be because I fantasize about having the cool hour glass time piece featured in book 3).
What is interesting about both Empire Strikes Back (ESB) and The Two Towers (2T), is that neither fit well into the classic three act structure (although you can impose this structure on them). The Empire Strikes Back is often cited as being one of the better films in the Star Wars trilogy. Unlike the first film (the original Star Wars), which followed a classic three act structure complete with a clearly defined inciting incident and climax, ESB, doesn’t fall as easily into that structure. One commenter even suggested that ESB does have a 3 act structure but in reverse order (with the big battle scene at the beginning). I have read analysis that show it has a 6 act structure maybe because one difficulty with ESB is that it quickly divides into 2 subplots – one following Luke as he goes to find Yoda and learn the ways of the Jedi and the other, following the Han Solo’s and Leia’s storyline. It doesn’t have a definite end as Han is left frozen in carbonite and things looks very bleak when the movie ends. I also read a very interesting analysis that shows how the ESB does have a perfect symmetrical structure with mirror scenes between beginning and the end (look this up if you’re curious).
The Two Towers, the middle book of the Lord of the Rings, is divided into two books (“Book III and IV”) and also involved multiple subplots – one of Frodo and Sam as they travel to Mordor; one of Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas and their travels in the Rohan and the battle of Helm’s Deep; and a third subplot with the other two hobbits. Instead of going back and forth between the story lines, Tolkien spends most of book III with the latter two plot lines and then in Book IV, shifting back to the Frodo and Sam plot line. Arguably, each sub-book separately has a 3-act structure within it, but when you examine The Two Towers, as whole, it is hard to impose the classic structure on it. I did notice how spending time with each subplots (instead of the more modern trend of leaping back and forth between chapters in subplots), allows the reader to appreciate the rise and fall of each subplots instead of being yanked back and forth.
Another thing I noticed immediately about ESB is that it does have a clear midpoint / mirror moment. It is the scene when Luke is in a cave and has a battle with a vision of Darth Vader. Luke severs the head of the specter but when Luke pulls off Vader’s helmet, he sees his own face. It’s an omen that Luke could be lured to the dark side. It symbolizes the theme of the story; the struggle between the light and the dark. Also it hints at the big reveal at the end that Vader is his father. In the 2T, I would argue that the midpoint is when Gollum decides to let his evil side take control and betray Frodo (note, this comes a different point in the movie but in the books, this is the midpoint of book IV). This is an important plot point in the books since it is this decision that sets up the plot sequence for the rest of 2T and through to the third book.
The other thing I take from these examples, is that both focus on developing the characters, deepening the readers compassion and connection. Although both also have more dark moments, they are done purposeful. There are also good moments; in 2T, Gandolf returns; there is a celebration of the victory of Helm’s Deep. In the ESB, there is lots of moments of humour; the romance between Han and Leia blooms. All is not doom and gloom. Although there is a tendency for a writer to want to “deepen” the conflict and make the second book all gloomy and black like a rebellious Goth teenager, there must be balance against this darkness.
Finally, both stories lack a solid ending but it’s okay. It’s a middle book and if your readers have stuck with you through another 100,000 words, take them with you to the third book. I am not a big fan of a cliffhanger ending (such as leaving Han in cardonite) but I also don’t have to try to tie up loose strings at the end of book 2. That’s book 3’s job. At the end of Two Towers, things do not look good: although there is victory at the battle of Helm’s Deep, the characters know there is a bigger war to come; Frodo and Sam’s fate appeared completely doomed. For Harry Potter, at the end of book 4, things look very dreary; Cedric is dead, Voldemort is back and powerful. There may not be a cliffhanger but there are many unknowns and we clearly need to pick up the next book and find out what happens.
What does this mean for my problematic second book and me?
Maybe I need to stop trying to find the three act structure (Oh, rebellious second child!). I have two subplots and I should embrace them, allow each their own breathing space.
I need to find the crucial midpoint, the centre tie that will allow it to hang properly without sagging in the centre.
Add humour and celebration as well as creating greater odds.
I can let the ending hang loose, like a thread to be pulled later by book three.
Off to write!
Seana Moorhead is an aspiring writer and is working on completing her first fantasy novel. She moved to Grey County in 2002, having a passion for outdoor adventures, including kayaking and wilderness camping. Suffering from a book addiction, she will read almost anything that will grab her attention, lead her into another world or teach her something new. Seana lives in a bush lot near Owen Sound, Ontario with her partner and three dogs.
Have you ever read a section in a novel and then skimmed or skipped pages to get to the next interesting bit? Have you ever got frustrated over having to plough through screeds of internal character soul searching before anything actually happens? How about being confused and frustrated about where the story is taking place or who the character is and only finding out pages later?
In my recent blog, “What is a scene” I examined what a scene was and its function in a story: namely it is a building block in your story that moves the story forward, actions and tension that result in a change of some kind, either in the growth of the characters/relationships or the course of the plot or both.
If you are including these elements and your scenes still feel flat or confusing, how can you up the energy? Ask yourself these questions:
this scene dramatic?
I don’t mean: is there violent action or overwrought
emotion happening? I’m talking “show don’t tell.” Make your reader a witness to
what happens. Is the reader “hearing” the character actually speak the words in
dialogue or merely being told that the character said them? Is the reader being
told that a character is angry or actually witnessing the physical or verbal reaction
of that character that shows the anger? Is the reader observing the setting
through the eyes and emotional perspective of the character, or being given a
dry listing of the stage set?
the setting right for the scene?
news delivered in place from which there is no retreat or where expression of emotion
is difficult will add tension. A child being told they are adopted on the
school bus. A wedding engagement broken off in a busy restaurant. Being
followed at night versus in the day.
just changing the weather helps. If a marriage proposal takes place on a cliff,
a lovely sunny day makes things easy (and likely boring). What if there’s a
high wind? (element of danger or resistance) Rain? (negative feelings). Even
proximity to the edge of the cliff can change the feel of the scene and either
heighten or play against the emotions being expressed.
this scene repetitive?
Because we write novels over long periods of time, it’s easy to forget that we have already mentioned something earlier. Did the reader already witness a scene that showed the tense relationship between siblings? If so, is this new scene showing something different in the relationship, like an escalation or de-escalation of that sibling tension?
this scene in the right place in the novel?
Would it help to move a scene closer to the
beginning or end? Perhaps if the reader knew that a character hated her father
early in the novel, her negative reactions to other male characters would seem
more natural. Finding out early in internal dialogue that Amy really loves
Jimmy despite her actions to the contrary might deflate the tension. If the
reader believes like Jimmy that she hates him, the later realization and revelation
of her love for him would be a more dramatic moment.
I up the stakes or make things harder?
you inject extra complications, or greater emotional or physical strain?
Anything you can do to make things more difficult for your character helps.
They don’t have to be big things. Rushing up a hill rather than on flat ground;
running out of time; car trouble; interruptions…
this scene important?
If it’s important, slow it down. Our natural tendency as tension mounts is to go
faster and faster, but the opposite maxim applies to good pacing in scenes. If
your action is over too quickly the readers don’t get to enjoy the excitement.
If the moment is high tension, give readers all the details, all the reactions,
all the choreography.
I “Get in late and leave early.”?
I don’t know where I heard it, but I use this advice
all the time to examine my scenes. Excessive internal thought, long description or
exposition, or purposeless action or dialogue is a killer of tension at the
start of a scene. It’s what one of my writing mentors refers to as “throat
clearing”. Get to the action as soon as you can.
Consider this: The scene begins with a groom stuck
in traffic. His cell phone is dead and he’s getting more angry with the taxi
driver who moves him slowly though the traffic so that they finally arrive at
the church just as his tear-stained bride is leaving on the arm of her father. —OR
—The scene begins as a taxi screams into the church parking lot with the groom just
as the tear-stained bride is leaving on the arm of her father.
And the same for leaving early. When a tense action
scene has finished, don’t deflate the whole thing with a page of internal analysis
or angst from the character. Yes, we do want to know how the character is
affected and what they are going to do next, but use that page turning tension to
start the next scene.
You might even consider ending mid –action. Now there’s a page
turner. Or perhaps end with a character epiphany, or a promise of further
revelation, a discovery or a threat. As they say about so many things: “Leave
them wanting more.”
Tighter, richer and more textured scenes make for a tighter,
richer more textured novel. Examining individual scenes and making them as
strong as you can is worth the effort.
I was with a group of accomplished writers last night, discussing emotional shifts in scenes. Part way through, one of the group said, “I understand all this, but my problem is, I can’t get my head around what a scene is in the first place.”
Of course, we all
offered up our version of “what a scene is”, but they were somewhat vague
definitions and all different. I know for my part, I had to really think to put
what I know instinctively into words. Hence this post.
A dictionary definition describes a scene as “a sequence of continuous action in a
play, movie, opera, or book. Synonyms:
section, segment, part, clip, sequence”, but when faced with dividing up pages of
fiction, that doesn’t really help.
In the film and video world, a scene is generally
defined as “the action in a single location and continuous time.” Again, in
fiction, that leaves questions. Is a run of internal thought a scene? What if
the location changes during a single action? What if the whole book takes place
in one location or in one single time unit?
Scenes are capsules in which compelling
characters undertake significant actions in a vivid and memorable way that
allows the events to feel as if they are
happening in real time. (Make a Scene by Jordan E. Rosenfeld.)
scene is a sequence where a character or characters engage in some sort of
action and/or dialogue. Scenes should have a beginning, middle and end (a
mini-story arc), and should focus around
a definite point of tensionthat moves the
story forward. (Teach Yourself How to Write a Blockbuster
by Lee Weatherly and Helen Corner )
scene is a
unit of story in which something changes. It has a beginning, a
middle, and an end, and at the end something is different than it was at the
beginning. It may be a character or a situation, or just our understanding of a
character or a situation, but whatever it is, it’s changed when the scene is
over. (What’s a
Scene (And What’s A Chapter?), Timothy Hallinan)
mind the definitions
All of these definitions make good points, and there’s likely no perfect definition that works for every circumstance. It’s largely instinctive, so if it feels to you like a scene, treat it that way.
I think the easiest
way to decide if a scene is a scene is to know that every scene must have
purpose. Every scene should do these two things:
the story forward—the reader learns new things about the character or the plot events
dramatic tension —something must change: events escalate, or relationships grow
or emotions become heightened or diffused.
building blocks. Most often, they involve an action undertaken by the
characters. The reader watches the action unfold “in real time” like watching a
movie. They hear what the characters say, they witness the movements they make;
they see the setting; and— they learn something new about the plot or the characters.
Action and reaction.
description of a setting is not a
scene— but a character moving through and noticing that setting in a way that triggers
a memory that we then witness as back story played out before us is a scene.
A summary history
of a fantasy world is not a scene—
but a character discussing that history with another character in dialogue is a scene.
A strong scene is
one that has drama (action witnessed; movement and/or dialogue- internal or
external); emotion (character reaction that reveals character development), and
a sense of time and place (feels real and keeps the reader grounded.)
How long a scene
is, or whether it involves only dialogue or only physical action is irrelevant.
My test is to ask myself these things:
Does this segment have a purpose? If I removed it would the story be lacking?
Does this segment have energy (show don’t tell) or will the reader skip over it?
Does the dramatic tension change in some way over the course of the scene?
This post just skims the surface, but it’s a start. Explore these links to learn more.
Inspirational quotes are great for lifting the mood or motivating us to get back into our writing. But today, we give you 10 quotes from creative people that resonate for the craft of writing.
Good writing is remembering the detail most people want to forget. Don’t forget things that were painful or embarrassing or silly. Turn them into a story that tells the truth.―Paula Danziger
Dimension means contradiction: either within deep character (guilt-ridden ambition) or between characterization and deep character (a charming thief). These contradictions must be consistent. It doesn’t add dimension to portray a guy as nice throughout a film, then in one scene have him kick a cat.—Robert McKee
Theme vs. Message
Theme is also not the same as message. A message, by my definition, is a political statement. It is a principle that concerns people in a particular situation and is not universally applicable to any member of the audience.—Michael Hauge
Get out of your own way
It took time to learn that the hard thing about writing is to let the story write itself, while one sits at the typewriter and does as little thinking as possible. It happened over and over again, and the beginner learned—when you start puzzling over an idea, and slowing down on the keys, the writing gets worse and worse.—Richard Bach
When you insert a hint of what’s to come, look at it critically and decide whether it’s something the reader will glide right by but remember later with an Aha! That’s foreshadowing. If instead the reader groans and guesses what’s coming, you’ve telegraphed.—Hallie Ephron
Get right in there
…if you’re intruding too much on a character or the voice of a character, [or] if you find that you’re stepping back from that character and that situation and you’re commenting on it–you’re not doing your job. You need to be as true and as empathic to that moment as possible. You can’t be at a remove.—David Margulies
Realism vs. Verisimilitude
Is realism what people read novels for? No. A novel must have verisimilitude, that is, the appearance of reality, within the context of the world created by the book. —William Bernhardt
The road to hell is paved with adverbs.—Stephen King
Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.—Kurt Vonnegut
Writing Like No One is Looking
…write without looking over [your] shoulder. Write it as if no one is going to read it. That’s what frees you. If you can stop thinking about critics, and your editor, and whether your book’s going to make it into the Times, and how long it is going to be on the list, I mean, that can totally free you up.—Terry McMillan
Last week several Facebook posts about author Naomi Wolf’s interview on BBC had my writer’s heart missing a beat and a whirl of thoughts spinning through my head: OMG! How awful for her. I’m so relieved it wasn’t me. How could that happen? How come no one caught it?
I’m not going to do a post-mortem on what Naomi did or didn’t do. You can read the myriad of articles about it on the Net. What I wanted to draw attention to was what chilled my spine even more than the thought that it could be me—the paragraph in the attached article where Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the book’s publisher in the U.S., told the New York Times that while it
editors, copyeditors and proofreaders for each book project, we rely ultimately
on authors for the integrity of their research and fact-checking.”
The reality is, Naomi’s nightmare could easily happen to any one of us.
I believe, however, that not all errors are created equal and understanding why we make errors helps us minimize them.
I have a hard time calling lack of research, lack of fact
checking, lack of all levels of editing “an error”, except in terms perhaps of
judgement. Every writer (and publisher) should strive to present as perfect an
error-free manuscript as possible.
That said, errors do happen even when we’ve been as careful
as we can.
The most obvious and most frequent errors are what you might
call technical errors: typos, format errors, omissions. Despite numerous pairs
of eyes, and excellent proofreaders they can still happen—and do.
Some can be funny: In Ruth’s book Living Underground, she noticed that the room she was describing
had scones (not sconces) on either side of the fireplace.
Some are embarrassing, like the project I worked on at the
Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities that went through at least 4
levels of proofing, but when it went to the Minister’s office for final
approval, someone there pointed out that we had spelled university wrong in the artwork that was repeated throughout!
And some typos, as we well know, can change the meaning of what
we write, as my favourite example here shows:
In this modern communication age, it is easy to rely on the most popular pages on the internet for research. The golden rule of research, however, is to get as close to source and prime documents as possible. By all means begin your research on the net, but sooner or later, try to use source documents, experts, diaries, photos etc. And understand that Google doesn’t list results based on authenticity and truth. Learn how to choose reliable sites.
Much like the lyrics we sing incorrectly believing all the
while that they are correct, we all have other “quirks” that surface every now
and then. For years I wrote that one thing “jived” perfectly with another. It
should, of course, have been “jibed”, but my mind had a mental picture of two
people dancing a fast intricate dance and “jive” made perfect sense to me.
Similarly, memory plays a cruel joke here. We “remember” the
“facts” so clearly that when someone with the shared experience corrects us, we
are genuinely astounded (and usually highly defensive). My family have always
talked of a certain great-grandmother Emma Thomas. One of my hobbies is genealogy
and in my documented research, it turns out she was Emma Williamson. (I still
don’t think they believe me.)
Entrenched misunderstandings also come from cultural
teachings: the same opinions or viewpoints passed down through generations
until they become “fact.” I hardly need remind you of the age-old green and orange
feud in Ireland or more recently the historical events that have come to light
through increased interest in the Indigenous view of our country.
“The dominant sense of any word lies uppermost in our minds. Wherever we meet the word, our natural impulse will be to give it that sense. When this operation results in nonsense, of course, we see our mistake and try over again. But if it makes tolerable sense, our tendency is to go merrily on. We are often deceived. In an old author the word may mean something different. I call such senses dangerous senses because they lure us into misreadings.”
This is the kind of error that Naomi Wolf fell victim to. In her book Outrages she refers to dozens of men being executed for sodomy in Victorian London. She based this on research that showed that men accused of sodomy (a capital offense) had been given a sentence of “death recorded”.
Interviewer Matthew Sweet pointed out that beginning in
1823, a sentence of “death recorded” meant that the judge was abstaining from
voicing a sentence of capital punishment in cases where he anticipated a royal
pardon would have been be forthcoming if a proper death sentence were issued.
So in short, “death recorded” meant “pardoned” (the opposite of what Naomi
Many on social media have been quick to ask why she didn’t look up “death recorded”. But be honest now—would you have? This is a perfect example of what C.S. Lewis was talking about. She was researching individuals accused of a capital offense. The sentence written in the records said “death recorded”. The dominant sense of those words is that “a notation of a death was made”. I think I would have made the same assumption Naomi did.
So how can you prevent, or at least minimize these different
kinds of errors? Be aware. Understand where and why errors arise, and look for
next week’s blog for practical suggestions.
The age-old plotter vs. pantser debate always ends with the
acknowledgement that there are as many ways to write a novel as there are
novelists. So to stir the pot a bit this week, I thought I’d throw in the idea
of outlining backwards.
Not a new idea
Plotting in reverse is
not my idea, and it’s not new. Novelist
John Irving uses this method and even takes it a step further:
“I don’t begin a novel or a screenplay until I know the ending. And I don’t mean only that I have to know what happens. I mean that I have to hear the actual sentences. I have to know what atmosphere the words convey. Is it a melancholic story? Is there something uplifting or not about it? Is it soulful? Is it mournful? Is it exuberant? What is the language that describes the end of the story? And I don’t want to begin something – I don’t want to write that first sentence – until all the important connections in the novel are known to me. As if the story has already taken place, and it’s my responsibility to put it in the right order to tell it to you.”
Now this may sound overly
dramatic, but I can see how knowing that “atmosphere” would be helpful. If I
know that ending as I’m writing the beginning, I can make sure all elements
support that ending from the start.
Supporting the Message
a novel is a lot like making an argument. Knowing the conclusion of the
argument or the essence of the message you want to convey means that everything
that comes before can contribute in some way to that final message.
Say for instance that I’m writing a book that involves a love affair and
instead of the two lovers getting together in the end, the guy decides to go
home to his wife, so his lover shoots him.
can give hints of her jealous nature, or her tendency to do rash things. I can
set up the evidence that she is capable of taking a life. And as for him, maybe
I need to heighten his inability to make decisions or insert scenes where we
see him back out of commitments.
story world: It would be helpful if guns were normal part of her life so that
grabbing a gun in that final scene isn’t contrived. And we would know she knows
how to use it. Perhaps she works as a park ranger or her father and brothers
are all hunters. Maybe she’s a biathlete.
The theme may now be betrayal or jealousy rather than self-acceptance or trust.
I can build this into subplots or other characters either to echo the theme or
And notice we are talking
here about knowing the ending only.
Not outlining the whole novel. Knowing
where you’re headed simply allows you to write a tighter and more focussed
The idea can be applied to smaller
segments of your novel too. Events
in a believable plot all hinge on cause and effect; on action and reaction.
Equally, you can think of it in reverse: he did this because she did that, or they
are in this situation because this happened yesterday.
Coming at it in reverse can be useful when you get
to a point in the story and don’t know how to link to a scene that you know
comes up in the future.
For example, if
I knew that Clara needed to arrive back at her childhood home just as it was
burning to the ground, but right now in the story she is happily away at school
with no intention of going home, I can visualize the fire scene and work
do you work backwards? Ask questions: What would have happened immediately
before this house burning scene to cause it? And what would have happened
before that scene to cause that? And so on like dominos to the point in the
story where Clara is at school.
Why is the house burning down? Who started it? How are they connected to Clara? Is there a reason they might be so angry or so depressed that they would want to force her to go home?
If the fire is not deliberate, what other things might make Clara come home in the middle of term? Is Clara or someone else ill?How did Clara arrive there………
with the scenes slotted in to the next point, I can write forwards again,
logically and with purpose. Instead of writing forward with a blindfold, I’m
just filling in the blanks.
Kurt Vonnegut said, “A step backward, after making a wrong turn, is a step in the right direction.”
It seems that a step backward in writing, when you don’t know where you’re going, is also a step in the right direction.