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 Tips for Writing Dialogue

10 Tips for Writing Dialogue

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.

As an editor and writing coach, I’m always surprised by some of the dialogue mistakes some fiction writers make. This list should help eliminate those punctuation and style errors and keep your manuscript in the “clean” status editors and publishers value.

1. Quotation marks cradle the words spoken out loud by a character. They don’t go around any narrative that isn’t spoken out loud, like the attributive (dialogue tag) Manuela advised in the example below:

“Think of quotation marks like a blanket, containing a character’s words,” Manuela advised.

2. Punctuation that belongs to the words spoken out loud are also contained inside quotation marks, and not tacked onto the attributive or dialogue tag in the examples below:

“That’s incredible advice!” Jerry replied.

“Why are you surprised?” she asked.

3. Attributives or dialogue tags help readers know who’s speaking. But once those speakers are established, there’s little value in constantly using them. In fact, they can get in the way of the conversation and bore the reader, so drop them whenever you can.

“I guess I’m always surprised by how much I still have to learn.”

“All of us writers are always learning, Jerry. It’s part of developing our skills.”

4. Adverbs in dialogue tags are rarely needed.

“Skill development? It’s why I’m here. Make way for Super Skill Development Man,” Jerry shouted excitedly.

5. Beats or business placed before dialogue can set up the tone of the spoken words.

Manuela took a deep breath before answering. “While I appreciate your enthusiasm, Jerry, please take your seat and get ready for today’s class.”

6. Beats or business placed after dialogue can set up the next speaker’s tone.

Manuela took a deep breath before answering. “While I appreciate your enthusiasm, Jerry, please take your seat and get ready for today’s class.” She took a step back just as Jerry punched the wall, his knuckles now scraped and bleeding.

“I hate myself. I’ll never be a writer.”

7. Start a new paragraph with each different speaker. This clues in the reader to switch characters, like watching a tennis match.

“Don’t be so dramatic.”

“Can’t help it. I never wanted anything so bad.”

“Even so, you need to learn to channel that passion onto the page. Here’s a couple of bandages. Head to the washroom and clean that up. Then, if you’re serious about writing, come back, take your seat and get ready to write.”

8. Let your reader know when someone else joins the conversation.

A quiet voice from the back of the room piped up. “I guess he used to take drama, so he’s using Method Acting to develop his characters.”

Manuela searched the room for the speaker and found Angelique’s grinning face next to the back door. “Thanks for your input but next time keep it to yourself.”

9. Interior thoughts are not dialogue, not spoken aloud, so they are not placed inside quotation marks.

A quiet voice from the back of the room piped up. “I guess he used to take drama, so he’s using Method Acting to develop his characters.”

Manuela searched the room for the speaker and found Angelique’s grinning face next to the back door. “Thanks for your input but next time keep it to yourself.” Oh great. Class clown in the making.

10a. Some writers use single quotes for interior thoughts but they shouldn’t. Single quotes are only used for dialogue that is quoted inside spoken words.

Manuela faced the rest of the class. “The next one who offers up a comment like ‘I guess he used to take drama’ is going to find themselves out of my Writers Craft class. Understand?” Now that, she thought, should shut down the nonsense.

10b.Some writers use italics for interior thoughts but italics makes words and phrases stand out, like attention-seeking banners. Hi there. I’m an interior thought. It’s also more difficult to read and downright deadly when you write whole paragraphs of interior thought. Consider creating interior thoughts without any italics. Think about ways for you to craft thoughts in a way that doesn’t need to draw attention to itself.

And that, we think, is a valuable skill for all writers.

  10 Quick—and effective—Edits

  10 Quick—and effective—Edits

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. To kick off the celebration, we’ve launched 10 on the 10th. This series of monthly resources will bring tips, advice and inspiration directly to your inbox. 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.

Here are your first 10 tips:

 1. Get the action going

Replace passive, weak verbs, especially forms of the verb “to be”

  • Before:      It was a dark and stormy night.
  • After:        The storm raged through the blackness. 

2. Keep things moving forward by reducing the use of “had”

“Had” refers to “completed’ action. It has no forward movement. Use “had” once or twice at the start of a section/paragraph to establish the time period, then revert to simple past tense.

  • Before:      She had been the only one in the house, and had paid the rent faithfully each month. She                                   had taken care of the place and had put up drapes and painted.
  • After:        She had been the only one in the house, and paid the rent faithfully each month. She                                          took care of the place and put up drapes and painted.

3. Keep the action going

Delete empty words like very/somewhat/really. Energize the word being modified instead.

  • Before:      Despite the very hot afternoon….
  • After:        Despite the afternoon’s sweltering heat…

 

 4. Keep your actions strong; beware the “-ly” adverb

Can you replace it with a stronger active verb?

  • Before:      He went quickly
  • After:        He ran – or dashed, charged, bolted…

 

 5. Change up the senses you use in description.

We default to the sense of sight. Try replacing visual details with ones of another sense.

  • Before:      Anita set the gold-rimmed tea cup  on the lace cloth…
  • After:        The tea cup rattled in the saucer as Anita placed it on the lace                             cloth…

 

 6. Take your reader deeper into the world of the story

Look for named emotions (happy, sad) or physical states (fearful, tired) and replace with concrete and sensory detail.

  • Before:       She felt disappointed
  • After:        She sank onto the bench and hugged her knees

 

 7. Keep your writing fresh

Look for tired and overused clichés. (Microsoft Word’s grammar checker notes clichés with green squiggly lines.) Create visuals that add to the story or your character.

  • Before:      His beard was as white as snow
  • After:        His beard was as white as his lab coat

8. Eliminate repetition. Eliminate repetition.

Identify any “writer’s tic” that you know you have. Phrases, descriptions, gestures and so on, rapidly  lose their energy when they are overused or placed too closely together.

Example:

  • How many times do your characters “roll their eyes” or “take a deep breath?”
  • How many times have your told readers it’s “a red car?”

 

9. Keep your tricky words tamed

Are there words you constantly mispell…um…misspell? Are you working with strange names or technical terms? Keep them correct and consistent by adding them to your software’s dictionary or AutoCorrect function.

How to:     Right click on the word. Choose either Add to dictionary or AutoCorrect

 

 10. Know your country

Is it color or colour? Are they good neighbours or good neighbors? Writing for American readers, Australian readers or British readers? Incorrect spelling won’t please your publisher. Make sure your  software is defaulted to the “right” English.

How to:     Most MSWord programs have the language default on the bottom info bar. Left click to select your language.

 

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