Strengthening your scenes

Strengthening your scenes

Gwynn Scheltema

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:

Is this scene dramatic?

Image by Isa KARAKUS

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?

Is the setting right for the scene?

Important 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.

Sometimes 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.

Is this scene repetitive?

Image by prettysleepy1

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?

Is 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.

Can I up the stakes or make things harder?

Can 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…

Is 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.

Did 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.

Image by Frauke Flohr

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.”

Last Word

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.

10 Ways to Increase Tension

10 Ways to Increase Tension

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.

Tension is a huge part of engaging your reader with the story. And it helps to engage you, the writer. No one wants to read a book where the Big Problem is solved in chapter one, or where a character has nothing to overcome, no challenges to face. The cat sat on the mat vs the cat sat on the dog’s mat. Challenges drive a story.

Your job is to create the right amount of tension at the right time to keep readers wanting more. Here’s ten ideas on ways you can inject needed energy whenever your story begins to slow down or fall flat.

1. Raise the stakes

The greater the risk of loss or danger, the higher the tension. If at the start he stands to lose his job, but then his life is threatened, we have rising tension. If his life was in danger at the beginning, but that dissolves and all he stands to lose is his job—rising tension? Not so much.

2. Let your character fail

Each time a character attempts and succeeds at solving parts of the “big problem,” he moves closer to a successful resolution. But if he fails at some of the attempts, he has fewer options to succeed, and often less time in which to accomplish his goal.

3. Escalate threats and obstacles

If the character has just succeeded in winning a major sword fight, having her beat a sparring partner at practice will have no tension. Presented in reverse, both happenings carry tension.

4. Let readers know something the character doesn’t

If we know that a character is being stalked, but she is unaware, we have tension. If we see him get closer or cock a gun and she still is unaware, tension rises.

5. Play up emotional strain

It’s easy to add physical danger, but psychological strain is just as important. A decision to make; guilt over an action, fear of discovery, a secret suppressed.

6. Balance high dramatic tension with calmer scenes

High tension scenes all the time is exhausting for a reader. Let them breathe with quieter paced scenes so that when the next high-tension scene arrives they get the thrill of rising adrenalin again.

7. Change up the source of tension

If suspenseful scenes only happen when the antagonist is on stage, predictability sets in and tension is lost. If the reader never knows who will instigate the next conflict, threat, misunderstanding, mistrust, dislike or complication, tension is always tantalizing, just on the cusp.

8. Keep characters active

Passive characters who wait for things to happen to them rarely create tension. Characters who act, react and are proactive keep things fresh and moving when they become the source of tension.

9. Limit backstory

While backstory is essential to understanding why a character does what he does, it’s all past action and stops the active story from moving forward. Keep backstory short and meaningful to the active story event. Or save it for areas where you want a break from high tension.

10. Make writing craft work for you

In addition to “just telling the story”, consider the power of setting to create a suspenseful mood. Use loaded symbolism and word choice to heighten what is happening.

Like what you’ve read? You can have 10 on the 10th delivered to you each month by sending us your email in the comment section. You can unsubscribe anytime. You’ll also receive The Top Drawer our Wednesday blog with tips, resources and inspiration for writers. To see past posts, visit: writescape.ca

Power Up Your Dialogue

Power Up Your Dialogue

Ruth E. Walker

Excerpt from “Shooter”, award-winning Young Adult novel by Caroline Pignat:

I meet his eyes. Hold them for a moment. “Thanks…Hogan.” He shrugs it off like it’s no big deal. But it is, for me, it’s huge.
“Okay–but your brother is definitely dead,” Xander blurts at Hogan. “That I know because–.”
“Xander!” Isabelle cuts him off. “Geeze, don’t you have a filter?”
“No.” Confused, he looks down at his camera. “I never use one. I’d rather see things as they really are.”
We sit in awkward silence, looking everywhere but at each other.
“He’s right. It’s true.” Hogan lets out a deep breath. “It’s been two years. I should be able to at least say it.”
But he doesn’t.
Xander tilts his head and stares at Hogan. “But it’s true that you killed him?”

In fiction, well-crafted dialogue like Pignat‘s can take my breath away. But what if your dialogue is so over-written, unrealistic or dull that your reader wants your characters to stop breathing? Or at least, stop talking.

I get to read a lot of dialogue from writers at all stages of their writing career. For example, I read and assess self-published works from potential members of a national writers’ organization. I’m also a coach and editor working closely with writers seeking to polish their manuscripts. And I teach workshops that focus on crafting excellent dialogue in fiction.

I’ve read some fantastic and engaging dialogue. And I’ve read dialogue that felt like listening to someone recite the nutritional contents of a milk carton. Believe me, you want the words your characters speak to be fantastic and engaging. No 19% of vitamin D for you.

Dialogue has work to do

I’m always surprised when writers miss opportunities to make dialogue work for them. Dialogue is not filler, nor is it secondary. It’s a multi-tasking powerhouse and writers would be wise to remember that.

But even more important, there are technical effects that support and enhance your story. The following are just a few examples of the potential for spoken words:

Plot:

  • propel your narrative forward with action: “Get up! They’re swarming the gates.”
  • foreshadow, suggest, nudge: “Are you sure the doors are all locked?”
  • establish setting, time, era: “Mistress, your limbs are showing ‘neath your petticoat!”

Character:

  • convey emotional state: “Every time I look at you, I see her, alive again.”
  • highlight personality/idiosyncrasies: “Beans can’t never touch meat on my plate. I won’t eat it!”
  • establish culture/social background: “Ach lass, will you no’ be getting down from there?”
The art of character-speak

If we wrote dialogue like true, normal conversations, we wouldn’t have readers. Most real life conversations are a jumbled mess, peppered with ums, ers and ahs, interruptions, half-finished sentences and the shorthand of shared experiences.

For readers, dialogue is the illusion of active listening, of looking from person to person as a conversation unfolds. Readers also enjoy an increase in white space to ‘rest’ their eyes. Conversations create the dynamic that excites readers and keeps the story moving forward.

The job of the writer is to put words in the mouths of our characters and make it all sound natural while making sure it does some of that multi-tasking work we want it to produce.

Here are two approaches to consider.

1. Take out words to give a more natural flow. Start with a basic conversation.

“Did you see that cat get run over by the bus?”
“What cat are you talking about?”
“Frank’s old tabby cat, Tibby.”
“I didn’t see a thing. I guess Frank will be a mess.”

By taking out a word here and there, and giving a bit of a tic to one of the speakers, we also get a bit more flesh on the character.

“You see that cat get runned over by the bus?”
“What cat?”
“Frank’s ol’ cat, Tibby.”
“Didn’t see a thing. Guess Frank’ll be a mess.”

2. Use surprise or the unexpected to up the tension. Real life is often surprising when our conversations with a neighbour or colleagues go off to places we didn’t expect. Do the same thing in your dialogue because there is nothing like potential conflict to tempt your reader.

“Hi, Andrea.”
“Janice? It is you.”
“It’s so good to run into you, Andrea. You look amazing.”
“Why did you hide him from me?”

Knowing when to bring in dialogue

If there is a formula for when and where to use dialogue, I’d love to know what it is. I can say this much: When I look over my fiction, I see that I use dialogue most often when I need to raise the stakes or create conflict or tension in the story.

I don’t mean that the “conflict” or “tension” needs to be dramatic verbal combat. There are gradations and shades to tension and conflict, so sometimes that means being subtle in how I construct those conversations between characters.

Brushstrokes can be more effective than a gallon of paint. With those big scenes of a major reveal or emotion, I will often default to dialogue. But I also use dialogue for subtext and quiet discoveries.

Choosing to write scenes primarily through dialogue, action or narrative, is intuitive for most writers. But when looking at your second or third drafts, pay attention to where you’ve made those choices.

It could be that what you’ve shared in a long, explanatory passage of mostly narrative just might be better delivered through conversations between your characters.

Did You Know?

We were recently asked what a writing coach does. A writing coach supports writers at different stages of the creative process. At Writescape, we often work with writers who just want to know if they are on the right track.

Sometimes a writer needs help with specific techniques like Point of View, dialogue or story structure. And sometimes, a discouraged writer just needs someone to prompt or encourage them.

Coaching services should be tailored to your unique needs and timetable. Writescape’s  coaching services combine online, mail and telephone or in-person communications — depending on geographic, time and similar circumstances.

Contact info@writescape.ca for more information on our coaching and editing services for writers.