When Narrative Summary Takes Over

Hi there.

Your writing will be as flat as these lines if all you write is narrative summary

Yes, I know it is Friday and for the last couple of months I’ve consistently been cranking out Five on Friday posts, wherein I cheerily catch you up on what I’ve been doing all week and drop in a few brilliant helpful writing tidbits.

And today I started out with the same intention but one part of my usual Five on Friday post, wherein I tell you what I’m reading, consumed my brain.  And I wanted to share it with you. So here goes.

I’m reading a novel I can’t tell you about. This sounds way more glamorous and mysterious than it really is.  I’m judging a contest for a group I belong to and so I can’t reveal details.  The novel has a pretty good story line, some well-drawn characters and a compelling theme.

And yet I am struggling with everything I have to finish it.

Why?

Because it is mostly written in narrative summary.  And while narrative summary is a handy tool, when used too much it becomes boring.

Remind Me About Narrative Summary?

Let’s do a quick review.  Here’s a definition of narrative summary:

Narrative is made up of summary, and description.  It is broadly known as telling.  Narrative compresses or expands time—for instance, gliding over years in a paragraph.  There’s no action in it, only descriptions of action.

That bit above about there only being descriptions of action is key.  I’m sure you can imagine how page after page of that gets draining.  This is why we put action in scenes, people. Because it is more immediate, more engaging, more, well, dramatic.  And it is a lot more fun to read.

Speaking of fun, I thought it might be useful to read some reviews of this book.  While many of the are positive, focusing on the things I like about it, many others are not. They say things like “boring” or “flat characters” and so on. These aren’t professional writers who are doing the reviewing so they don’t quite have the words to explain why the book isn’t doing it for them.

But I do:  too damn much narrative summary.

And Then There Are Scenes

Of course, you can go too far in the other direction and write too many scenes as well. (Though in all the gazillion manuscripts I’ve read over the years, I’ve only seen this happen once. Most of the time I’m imploring writers to write more scenes.)  The trick is knowing when to use each one.  In the broadest of fashions, you can think of scenes as showing and narrative summary as telling and use accordingly.

We probably don’t need to see your character on her daily run to the grocery store–unless she meets the love of her life there one day.  You can dispense with her trip in one sentence: Delilah went to the grocery store.  But if she does meet the love of her life there, that’s when you put it into a scene. A scene occurs in real time, and contains dialogue and action.   It could theoretically be acted out, though many scenes contain interior monologue as well.

The Middle Ground

The best novels, in my opinion, use a combination of scene and narrative summary, with the ratio canting in favor of scenes.  If someone has critiqued your story and mentioned that things drag in places, examine those spots and see if you’ve got too much narrative summary going on. Is there something you can put into a scene?

The smart use of narrative summary and scenes can help you in pacing.  You might utilize more scenes and fewer summaries as you near the exciting conclusion of your novel, for instance. Or you might use a lot of narrative summary as you’re familiarizing the reader with a character at the beginning. Just aim for a balance.

Okay, that’s my rant on narrative summary.  Please do share with me your thoughts.

Oh, and somewhere in my vast files I have a couple of great handouts with definitions and examples of scene and narrative summary.  If you would like to receive them, just email me at charlotte@charlotterainsdixon.com and I’ll send them your way.

And don’t forget my new program, about which I am SO excited.  You’ve got a goal you don’t seem to get done? Join me for Do That Thing.

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.

An Approach to Writing Scenes

During one of the free sessions I did last month, I talked with a writer about foreshadowing and how sometimes getting it in is really clunky.  Like, you might as well scream it from the rooftops, "I'm foreshadowing something important here," clunky.

And since I went right from that session to working on a chapter for a novel, I thought about how sometimes writing a scene is like that, too.  Sometimes everything is just too obvious: your dialogue is informational, and the point of the scene might as well be written in neon.

But sometimes if not always, you've got to let obvious rule the day, knowing that you can come back later and smooth it out, tamp it down, and make it less obvious.

As I was writing and pondering all this, a sort of seat-of-the-pants framework for writing scenes occurred to me.  Actually that makes it sound like it was a new idea, and it wasn't.  Rather, it was a discovery of my process, which occurred to me might be helpful to you.

So here it is (and this applies to all kinds of scenes, fictional and non-fiction, as in a memoir):

1.  Note the elements of the scene.  You can do this on a notepad or in your head, but I'm so visual I like to write it down.  This is just a list of the things that you know have to happen in the scene, plain and simple.

2.  Trust yourself and begin writing.  Plunge in, the water's fine.  Actually the water is probably a bit cold and scary at first, but shortly you'll get used to it and wonder why it took you so long to jump.  And here is one of the most important things I can impress upon you (and remember myself): more nuances of the scene will come to you as you write.

3. Use the concept of the placeholder.  Sometimes you know you need to get something in but there's no clear way not to make it clunky.  Just put it in, as noted above, knowing that you can come back to it and make it work later. 

4.  Write the scene all the way through.  The writing can be bad, the dialogue stilted, the descriptions laughable, but you'll have a finished scene.  And now you've got, on paper, all the elements of it (and you've probably discovered more as you followed #2).

5.  Rewrite and move on.  I'm a big believer in writing the discovery draft from beginning to end and then starting on a second draft, but I also like to do a rough rewrite of chapters as I'm writing the discovery draft.  This feels like part of the shaping of the story to me–so much comes out in this process that it's good to hone it a bit.

So that is my process for writing scenes, what's yours?  Do you tear your hair out over getting all the elements in or is an easy thing for you?  Please comment!

And don't forget the upcoming Authenticity + Creativity class that is coming up next Tuesday.  Woo-hoo!  Square-Peg Karen and I are going to be rocking and rolling this topic.  Just click the snazzy button to the right for more info.

 

Elements of a Scene

Yesterday, I wrote about the problem of flat scenes (not to be confused with flat screens) and how they can be very dull and boring.  As I emoted about the dullness and boringness of flat scenes and planned to write about how to avoid them, the thought occurred to me that this might be a good place for a recap about the elements of scene.

Writing in scene is one of the most common things that new writers do not do. Chairs_home_stage_265084_l

In general (and you can argue with me on this), a scene:

  • Takes place in one location
  • Is confined to the viewpoint of one character
  • Has a specific purpose in mind (or at least it should), such as showing character, creating conflict, advancing plot

The best scenes work hard and accomplish several of these things at the same time.  The basic elements of scene are:

  • Action
  • Dialogue
  • Description

This is as opposed to narrative or exposition, which is straight writing, with no action or dialogue.  Again in general, a scene shows while exposition tells.  A scene is actable  (goofy Hollywood term for you) which means you could watch actors play the roles.  The only way actors could act exposition is in a monologue.

Now that you've had this handy little reminder of what a scene is, the next step is to write an effective one, which is way more complicated than just putting words in your characters' mouths.  An under-appreciated way to make scenes work hard and keep your reader's interest is to make sure they turn. 

And that, dear reader, is the topic of the next post in this series.

Awesome photo of chairs onstage by Mazartemka.  I found it on Every Stock Photo.

When The World, Or Your Scene, Is Flat

Elmundo_latierra_earth_738682_l
I've been having issues with flat scenes. 

Flat scenes are problematic because you may not even know that they are flat.  You have a vague notion that something is wrong with the scene or chapter.  It is boring, or it just doesn't work for some reason.  You struggle and struggle to improve them, to make them interesting, and still, they just lie there, dead on the page, like a limp noodle.  You poke and prod and give up in exasperation and let the poor flat scene lie there until next time, why have to face it again.

I recently dealt with this issue in a chapter of my novel.  There's always been something about this chapter that has bothered me, though I've rewritten it many a time.  It is a relatively static chapter, but it is important because it gives a lot of information about the characters, particularly our heroine, and so it can't be deleted.  I've brought in other characters, invented phone calls, tried everything I could think of to make the scene more lively.

And still, in its dullness, it resisted me.

This weekend I had a brilliant idea.  I chopped the chapter in half.  After all, I'd just done that with chapter one, and it worked, well, brilliantly, with the two chapters that were formerly one now snapped to attention and toiling much harder on their own.

So I tried the same thing with chapter five.  It didn't work.  Now I had two flat, lifeless chapters.

Yesterday, I went off to a movie (Twilight, which I liked a lot, if only for the gorgeous Northwest shots and the views of my beloved Columbia River, which you can see in the trailer) and as I watched the previews, an epiphany occurred.   300px-Vistahouse

The scenes were flat because they had no rising or falling action.  None, nada, zip, zilch.  They ended in the exact same emotional terrain in which they began.  Flat line from start to finish.  No ups, no downs.   Once I got home and took another look at the elements of the scenes, I could rearrange them so that there's a dramatic moment–a high point–at the end, one that makes you want to turn the page to the next chapter.

And then it occurred to me that not only would this make a good topic for a blog post, its such an important topic that it was probably worthy of several blog posts.  So stay tuned, because tomorrow I'm going to talk about the elements of a scene.  And the day after that I'll discuss rising and falling action, or, making a scene turn, in more detail.

Photo of the earth by Jaime Olmo used under Creative Commons license.