5 Tips (Plus a Bonus) For Writing More Dynamic Scenes

(I've been working on this post for a few days.  I planned to publish it yesterday and then things happened.  Like having my granddaughter here.  And getting a tattoo!  Yes, you can tell me how brave I am!  It is wonderful!  I will post a photo when it is all healed.  But, anyway, here's the post at long last.)

I have discovered the secret to enduring long, overseas flights, and no its not paying for business class, though that would likely be the ultimate answer.

It is to watch movies.   Above_floating_flying_229463_l

On my recent flight home from Paris, I watched three, count 'em, three, movies.  I usually prefer to read on flights, so I couldn't believe how this made the time pass quickly.  The movies I watched were: The Other Woman (so-so but funny), Chef (wonderful–my favorite), and, for some odd reason, Maleficent.

One of the things I noticed watching Maleficent is how concise the scenes were–they used the smallest bits of time possible in order to move the story forward, sometimes showing an important bit in a line or two of dialogue. (I was interested to read an interview with the director, Robert Stromberg, who said of the writing, ""I met many times with Linda Woolverton, the writer. We did lots of roundtable discussions and sort of cut out the fat as much as we could and sort of purified the storyline as much as we could …")

And this made me think about scenes.   They are the building blocks of fiction writing, the discreet units that comprise a plot.  You've heard the advice to "show, don't tell," five million times by now–and writing in scene is one surefire way to do that.

Just because I have to be thorough, here's the Google's definition of scene, though I know you know it:

  1. the place where an incident in real life or fiction occurs or occurred.
     
  2. a sequence of continuous action in a play, movie, opera, or book.

We are, of course, talking today about the second definition.  

One of the problems I see most often in my travels through student and client manuscripts are issues with scenes.  Often they go on way too long.  Sometimes they seem rather flat–nothing much happens in them.  And sometimes, though not as often, authors write scenes when a quick bit of exposition would do better. 

So here are some of my tips for writing scenes:

1. Make them work as hard as possible.   A scene needs to accomplish at least one thing–show character, move the plot forward, or reveal crucial information, but if it can do more than one thing at a time, that's even better.

2.  Start late, exit early.  Sometimes I read (and write) a scene that goes on and on, when all it really needs to do is get in and get out. It can help to start as late as possible in the scene.  Don't show us your main character driving to work and then getting fired, start the scene in her boss's office.   This is one way the creators of Maleficent were able to use such concise scenes.

3. Have something happening in the background.  A hazard of scene writing is the talking heads scenario.  You have something to tell the reader, and wisely, you choose to do it in dialogue. But your characters just sit there and talk.  Alas, this gets a bit boring to the reader.  A simple way to avoid it is to have something going on at the same time.  In the movie Chef, the main character is constantly chopping or preparing food, or doing something.  It's a wonderful way to keep things interesting.

4.  Put your characters at cross purposes.  If all your characters want the same thing and agree with each other, there's no conflict.  And if there's no conflict, there's no story.  So put your characters at odds.  Give each of them a desire and make those desires conflict.  This can be very simple, such as two characters driving, one wanting to stop for a break and the other wanting to reach their destination as quickly as possible.

5.  Start and end in different places emotionally.  You may hear someone say a scene is flat. This is often when the characters start and finish the scene in the same emotional space.  They start sad and end sad, for instance.  Or vice versa.  It's much better to either move the character to a higher space emotionally or a lower space.

Bonus tip: Slow is fast and fast is slow.   This is a little saying I picked up somewhere along the way and I find it quite helpful.  I've mentioned it before, but it bears repeating.  If something would go slowly in real life, it can be dispatched with a line or two in prose.  For instance, a lazy picnic at the park.  If something would happen fast, write it slowly.  For instance, the propane tank on the grill at the lazy picnic blows up.  

Okay, that's it, that's all I got for now.  Do you struggle with writing dynamic scenes?  How do you approach scene writing?

Photo by Glen26.

Soaking It In

As you may have noticed, things have been a bit quiet around here.  I've been in France, as some readers know.  France, people! Two weeks in the south and several days in Paris. 

And I have been soaking it all in.

So much so that my brain feels ready to explode and I can't wait to get on the plane and have time to write.  (But given a choice, I'd stay here longer in a hot second.)

To back up a bit:

The first couple of weeks in September, I wrote a lot. I took a class about fast drafting, and managed to write 80 pages on a brand-new project before I got on the plane for Europe.

The third week in September, I was in Pezenas, co-leading a writing workshop.  And, since all the participants were writing every day, I wrote, too.

Then my husband arrived in Pezenas.  And a group of us stayed on a second week.

There was no writing.  Instead, there were adventures.  Like a trip to Sete, where we rode a boat in the canals and harbor and got drenched in a rainstorm.  (None of us even had coats on.) A visit to St. Guilhem-de-desert to see the old houses built up a ravine and the Cloisters.  A journey to the beautiful and lively city of Montpelier.  And lots of time spent wandering the town of Pezenas, which has an historic core that is fun to get lost in (and get lost you will, the streets are very curvy and narrow).  And now, of course, Paris.  Just, Paris.

About mid-way through the first week I bought a journal.  (Buying paper goods is one of my favorite things to do here.) And I wrote in it a few times in the morning.   I thought for sure I would write delicate, important words about Paris in it once we got here.  But I haven't.

And for once, I'm not worried about it.

Because I am filled up with the sights and sounds of my time here.  And the flavors, let us not forget the flavors: macarons from Laduree, foie gras with fig jam in a small cafe in Pezenas, leg of lamb at a cafe on Boulevard Montparnasse after walking all day.  And the wine! Vin rouge, from theLanquedoc, the best wine in the world.

It really doesn't get any better than this.  Even if you're not writing.

So here are my recommendations for going with it and just letting it soak in:

1. Take insect repellent.  Les moustiques Francaise love me.  I was covered with bites the first two weeks, and they would suddenly activate in the middle of the night and start itching.  Once I bought insect repellent, my sleep improved dramatically.  The moral of the story? Be prepared.  I think being prepared in writing is related to soaking it in.  Being a sponge for every sensual experience is preparing yourself to disgorge words on the page.

2. Try.  I speak French haltingly.  But I find if I at least attempt a few words in French, people laugh and talk to me in English.  It is nice to try, though.  Same thing with writing.  Try putting some words down on paper.  When you're blocked, just try it and see what happens.

3.  Be willing to be uncomfortable.  I've written about this before, but on my table it is way too complicated to find the link.  Part of the experience of travel is a willingness to be embarrassed because you did something wrong in a different culture.  To get lost.  To have to walk 2 miles because you missed the bus.  To be uncomfortable.  And is this not also the essence of writing?

4. Have fun.  Every time something goes a different way than we anticipated, my husband and I look at each other and say, "Who cares? We are in Paris!" And then we soak in some more of wherever we find ourselves.  If you're not having fun with your writing, you might want to consider another career.

5. Use the toilet wherever you find one.  This is excellent travel advice.  Alas, I find I cannot relate it back to writing.  Maybe you can. 

As is so often the case with writing, I find that now I am to the end of this post I finally get what the true theme is.  And that is what I said in #4.  One should always live life, and approach writing, with the idea that wherever you find yourself is the most wonderful place on the planet to be.

Bon jour.  I promise that next week I'll be back to normal on my blogging.  In the meantime, what's up with you?  How's the writing going? Please report in the comments.

 (Alas, posting photos is too complex at the moment and I only have one day left in Paris so I am off to explore.  If you want to see some images from my trip, follow me on Instagram.

 

Writing in France (Or Anywhere)

Bon jour.

I am in Pezenas, France, down near Montpelier and Beziers (where we stayed Friday night and had an experience on the free bus trying to find our hotel that still makes me laugh out loud every time I think of it).  We–six of us–are staying in a house that could more accurately be called a mansion, with three floors and a grand marble entry on the inside, and a koi pond and swimming pool with a swag of oleander dripping above it on the outside.

Every morning at 9:30 we meet to workshop attendee's stories and discuss our book in common (Me Before You, by Jojo Moyes).  Our subject this year is character, so everything is viewed through that lens.

And every afternoon we write.  (I got in five pages yesterday).  Then at 5:30 we meet for wine, olives, pate, cheese, and bread–lots of bread.  (Paleo people just have to put aside their thing about carbs.  Besides, the wheat is better here.  And so is the butter.  And the eggs.  I'll stop now.)

In between, when the writing is done, there are walks into town (curvy streets barely wide enough for cars, restaurants tucked into every alley, shops and art galleries and lots of people smoking) or into the country side (vinyards and big old stone houses).

But notice I said, when the writing is done.

Because that's the point of being here, after all.  And it is surprisingly easy to get writing done, even in paradise, when you've got a whole houseful of people doing the same thing.

Between this experience and the Book in a Month class I took before I left (which entailed writing 20 pages a day for 14 days, thus finishing a draft, and then rewriting it the last two weeks of the month)I've come up with new knowledge of how to get words on the page and, as always, I am here to impart this wisdom to you.

Are you ready?  It's a multi-part process, so it is imperative that you pay close attention to the very end.  Here we go.

1.  Write

2. Write some more

3. Take no longer than one minute to ring your hands about how bad the writing is and then get back to it.

4. Write more

5. Notice you are writing utter crap and charge ahead anyway

6. Write, write, write

7. Finish your goal of pages or words for the day and breath a sigh of relief because you did it.

So, yeah, I'm being a bit tongue in cheek here (ya think?) but the gist of it is true.  I'm come to realize that we (myself included) make the act of writing way too complicated and emotional, when really, it all boils down to one thing: getting words on the page.

It doesn't matter how good or bad those words are, your only job is to throw them at the page.  To sit your butt down in the chair and write.  Because the wonderful thing about writing is that it can always be revised–and revision is ever so much easier when you actually have word on the page to work with.

What about you?  How is your writing going? What tricks do you use to get yourself to the page?

10 Takeaways from France

CobblestonesI flew home from Paris last Sunday, and as I write this, I'm still a bit jet lagged.  One of these days I'm sure I'll get back to a normal sleep schedule.  I now seem to rise at 4:30 every morning–at least it gives me time to write.

But I'm not complaining.  Because travel–any kind of travel, but especially international travel–is good for the writer's soul.  Really good.  So herewith is a round-up of some of my impressions of France, and how I see they relate to writing.  (Because, you know, everything relates to writing.)

1. Potato chips.  You gotta love a country that is as obsessed with potato chips as France.  Nearly every bar or cafe brings you a little cup of them with your wine or Orangina (my new obsession).   It's offering a little something extra–a habit we writers would be wise to emulate, don't you think?  Take the time to go deeper, to go back and rewrite that scene you've never quite been able to get right.  Take the time to give a little extra in your writing and your life.

2. Fantastic wines from the Languedoc Roussillon region.   Oh man, we loved the wines from the area we stayed in.  (It was the south of France, but very close to Spain.  Big Catalan influence with many signs in both languages.)  What can I say?  Setting is important. Bring yours to life with details from the location you're setting your story in.

3.  Water follows a natural course.  In Ceret, the sides of the narrow, cobblestones streets have gulleys in which water flows all day and night.  (See photo above.) The sound of running water and church bells chiming the hour (starting at 7 AM–no sleeping late there) are a constant backdrop.  Hopefully, your writing flows, too.  It does when you just let it, go I've learned.  And it doesn't when you force it.

4.  You will get jet lag.  And that's a fact.  The best way I found to cope  was to go with it.   The first few nights in France, I awoke every night and stayed awake
for a few hours, but I was so excited to be in Paris (and have a 360
degree view of the city, including the Eiffel Tower and Sacre Coeur)
that I just got up and admired the vista.  You will get writer's block at some point, too.  My advice?  Quit resisting and go with it.  Take a break.  Refresh yourself.  You'll get back to the work, trust me.

5.  French women do have more style.  They just do.  And I think its because they make an effort to put their best selves forward in every situation.  Even if they are running to the corner boulangerie, they pay attention to what they're wearing.  Do me a favor, would you?  Check over your manuscript one more time before you send it out to anyone.  Make sure its formatted correctly (double spaced, please) and that there are no typos. I've seen a lot of manuscripts lately wherein the writer seems to have forgotten this crucial step.  Put your best self forward.

6.  If you don't speak the language, try anyway.  My high school French is rusty, very, very rusty.  But a smile and a sincere effort to communicate always did wonders.  Funny, because this was one of the things I worried about most but I always muddled through.  So maybe its time for you to try writing that personal essay you've been mulling?  Perhaps you really do have a novel in you? (And by the way, if you decide you want to learn a language, there's a fabulous free website called Duolingo that can help you.)

7.  In Ceret, there's a boulangerie on every block.  (Kinda like there's a coffeeshop on every corner here in Portland.)  Every morning, I'd take a walk and swear I would not return home with chocolate croissants.  I'll leave it to your imagination to decide how successful I was.  But this baked goods abundance made me think about ideas, and how we live in a rich stew of them.  An idea on every corner!  And many more in between.  We just have to become aware.

8.  Tourist areas are fun–but many other areas offer delights as well.  I traveled through Paris on my way to and from Ceret.  My first couple of nights in the city, I stayed in the home of a wonderful woman named Diane (this was where I had the amazing view of Paris).  I rented this place through AirBandB.com.  On my way back, I stayed in a fancy hotel on the Champs Elysses (thanks, Marlene).  Two very different experiences.  Is there a different area of your creativity you'd like to explore?  Painting?  Line dancing?  Fiber arts?  Head off the beaten path and see what you create.

9.  A community of writers is crucial in so many ways.  Our hardy band of retreaters read and commented on each other's work every morning as part of our workshops.   Not only did they enjoy the support and trust that sprang up, but they spurred each other on to new heights in their writing.  No kidding.  You wouldn't believe some of the amazing work that got put on the page! Find your community, whether it's a physical or in cyberspace.  (And I have one word for anyone interested in going on retreat with us next year: Italy.)

10.  All roads lead to Perpignan We took the bullet train (that baby really is fast) from Paris to Perpignan, which is a bit of a hub.  It's where Salvador Dali reputedly had a psychedelic experience that led him to declare that Perpignan was the center of the universe.  This may well be true.  As we were out and about on the countryside, we discovered that no matter which direction we traveled, there would be a sign saying we were on the road to Perpignan.   For me, this is true of writing as well.  All roads lead back to my writing.  All experiences, everything that happens, are reflected in my writing one way or another.  I wouldn't have it any other way.

What about you?  Does travel, foreign or domestic, inspire you?  What exotic locale would you most like to visit?

***The above photo was taken by moi.  I had planned to add a bunch more images to this post, but major wonkiness is going on with Typepad and photos.  I took tons of pictures, some blurry, some crooked, some actually halfway good, and you can see them all on my Instagram stream.

 

Four Writing Lessons Travel Taught Me

Please welcome my friend and fellow writer Beverly Army to the blog today, as she makes us drool with envy over her vacation in France–and gives practical tips on how to maintain a writerly attitude while away from home.

Four Writing Lessons Travel Taught Me

by Beverly Army Williams

Beverly1862Ahhh, summertime. The season of slowing down, of
garden-fresh veggies, of tart lemonade, bike rides, and salty beaches. The
season of lofty writing goals. And traveling*.

I don’t know about you, but my guilt-o-meter bounces
about when it comes to writing and traveling. On the one hand, there’s all that
beautiful time yawning ahead of me, ripe for setting word after word after
word. On the other hand, the adventures to be had! The extra sleep to sleep!
The long, luxurious dinners to eat!

What is a creative person to do? How can a writer make
the most of vacation without losing the groove, enraging the muse, ignoring the
story gods?

I returned recently from three weeks in France.
Originally my plan was to work two hours a day on my novel. But then I didn’t
want to carry the keyboard for my iPad. And then the days were filled with
adventures and late, late dinners that left me too tired to work. Instead, I
gave myself permission to use the three weeks to fill my creative well.  Let me share what I learned:

Embrace Being an Outsider (this isn’t permission to be an
obnoxious! Manners matter! See the next paragraph!) I spent weeks before the
trip planning what I would pack, checking the weather, reading posts from
fashionable expats in Paris. I did not want to stick out as a tourist. I wanted
to blend, to see the country as though I belonged. 

But, here’s the wonderful thing about traveling: we do
not, in fact, belong. When we travel, we are outsiders. We are foreign, whether
we travel to the next state or another continent. We may have mastered the
manners of a region (always, always say “bonjour” when walking into a shop in
France), still, we don’t quite fit in.

During this trip, I realized that the not-fitting-in was
like a pebble in my shoe. Awareness of my surroundings—the glow of the church
in Auvers after it rained, the smell of the Canal St-Martin in the early
morning, the taste of cheese (oh, the cheese!), the sound of a language I could
just barely understand—filled me with new ways of seeing and describing.


Beverly2171Try a New Medium
My observations and experiences were one
way to do just that. For years I’ve messed around with paint, but the
I’m-a-writer-not-a-visual-artist self talk limited me. I packed a watercolor
journal and a small box of paints. While I didn’t journal every day, I did make
efforts to paint frequently and to add little ink and wash images to the
narrative pages. Journaling in a new medium helped me to see better and made me
think about my observations in a different way. Score another one for filling
the creative well!

Quiet Time Can be Lively Even the most adventurous,
active vacations have some quiet time built in. I spent many hours on planes
and trains during my trip. If I’d been home, I would have felt obliged to fill
that time: run errands, write a new scene, or clean the house. But five hours
in the quiet car of a train left me with little but my imagination. Sure, I
read, knit, and wrote in my journal, yet I also indulged in staring out the
window, imagining the inhabitants’ lives as we zoomed past farms and villages.
The conductor didn’t scold me for being too noisy, but he might have if he’d
been inside my imagination!

Love Every Language I can read French passably. I can be
polite in French, even if I can’t converse about more than the weather. I
embraced being an outsider, and at the same time, I wanted to communicate. That
is, after all, the goal of every writer. I pulled out my high school French,
and I made efforts. I bought and struggled through French fashion magazines. I thought
ahead about what I wanted to say and practiced it. I asked my French-speaking
pals to repeat words so I could understand the nuances of pronunciation. I
listened with great care to conversation before I admitted how little I
understood.
Beverly1901

By loving the language of the place—which might mean a
different language or simply a dialect or regionalisms—a writer can learn about
her own language (ah, so that type of sentence construction is common in
English, but not in French) and develop an ear for authentic dialog (a French
speaker “takes” a decision; an English speaker “makes” a decision).  Everything we learn about language
emerges in our writing.

Travel and vacation are meant to recharge, and if that
means not writing every day, accept it, and find your own ways to fill the
creative well.

*humor me and let “traveling” and “vacation” mean the
same thing. Even a staycation can be an opportunity to travel outside of
regular routines! 

What have you learned about writing from travel?

BeverlyBeverly Army Williams blogs and coaches writing at PoMo
Golightly
. You can follow her on Twitter.

 All photos by Beverly Army Williams.  Top to bottom:

–View of Albi from the Toulouse Lautrec museum

–Journal page

–A Nutella crepe, enjoyed during the French tradition of "taking a pause."