I spent this just-past Thanksgiving weekend at the beach with a rotating cast of family members in attendance. It was a blast. And, I got some writing done. I woke up early every day and sat at the dining room table and wrote on my laptop. (It helped immeasurably that the house has no wi-fi.)
I’d been struggling with rewriting two chapters, the segments of which needed rearranging. I had looked at them every which way from Sunday and back again. I would get to a point where I thought I had it all figured out and then I would realize it wouldn’t work. So I’d go back to making notes and lining each chapter out and again, it would all collapse and go to that place where plots that don’t work go.
Finally I started writing. I went with my latest organizational scheme (because I thought I had it all figured out) and just freaking started writing. Which is when I realized that what I thought would work wouldn’t. Again. However, this time I found the answer in the writing. The arrangement of scenes flowed effortlessly, organically. No angst or wringing of hands.
While we were at the beach, we spread out a jigsaw puzzle, which turned out to be a very difficult one, so difficult that there was much cheering every time a new piece got fit in. That’s how I felt with my chapters. I figured out the order. Much cheering.
But here’s the main takeaway: START WRITING. It amazes me over and over again how the answers always lie in the writing itself. Why I forgot that and need to remind myself so often is a mystery.
Years ago, as a freelance writer, I wrote a lot of articles about art. One of them was about the Makk family of artists, who lived in Hawaii. The big thing I remember from this article happened while I interviewed the Eva, the matriarch of the family. She told me how when she was a young artist she had images in her head that she wanted to paint–but it took her a long time to figure out how to get those images onto canvas.
I could relate. As a fledgling fiction writer, I often had trouble translating the stories in my head onto the page. And even now, after writing fiction a gazillion years, sometimes I just can't quite get what I'm writing to work right. I have the idea in my head. I can see it. But when I put it on the page, it is dead and lifeless. Something about it doesn't work, and I moan and groan and wring my hands and decide I'm going to sell yarn for a living. Or get a job in a restaurant. Or something, anything, other than writing. At times like these, I need to remind myself how to write all over again.
But the great thing about writing for so many years is that I've figured out a few things about how to get myself out of these situations. And so I offer them to you.
1. Write a scene. Often, deadly boring prose is written in narrative summary, which is, as the name implies, words written in summary. She spent the afternoon reading on the couch, is an example. Or, six months later, the baby was born. You glide over a short or long amount of time or compactly explain some information. Narrative summary most definitely has its place–it is a useful technique for all manner of things–but when it is used too often it results in big yawns. Writing a scene, which incorporates dialogue, description, action, and interiority, will be much livelier and it may be just what the writing doctor ordered.
2. Try a line of dialogue. Have one of your characters say something. This can often lead you into a full-blown scene, or a half-scene, which is a bit of narrative summary with a line of dialogue as its anchor. This link has great definitions of half-scene, scene, and narrative summary.
3. Copy exactly. Take out your favorite novel or memoir, prop it next to your computer, and copy a scene word for word. You know, of course, that I offer this as an exercise only and you aren't going to use this plagiarizing for anything but your own learning purposes. This is kind of an amazing way to get the cadence of writing into your brain and heart and is a great learning tool. Try it. You'll be amazed at how much you glean from it.
4. Copy and rewrite. A variation of the above. First complete #3, then take the scene or paragraph and rewrite it in your own words, maintaining the same idea and actions as the original. Another surprisingly fabulous learning tool.
5. Read. Take a break from your struggles and go read a book. Nine times out of ten, this sends me running back to the computer. Its as if I just need to refill myself with words. Note: reading blog posts, gossip sites, news articles, or anything on the internet DOES NOT COUNT.
6. Take a class. If you are a true rank beginner, a class is going to be your best starting point. If you are an introvert or don't have time for an in-person class, there's a ton of great offerings online, and many of them are self-paced.
7. Hire a coach. Like me. This would sound incredibly self-serving but for the fact that I'm not taking on new clients for the time being–unless you call and beg me on bending knee, in which case I'll consider it. But whether it is me or someone else you work with, a coach can point out your strengths and weaknesses and help you learn to implement more of the latter.
So there you have it. Oh, by the way, you might also be interested in my post on What to Do When You Don't Know What to Write, which inspired this one.
(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.
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:
the place where an incident in real life or fiction occurs or occurred.
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?
Reading a manuscript yesterday, I was reminded that, while most writing teachers (myself included) insist advocate that students write in scene, there are also instances when you should not write in scene.
Sometimes writers dramatize events that don't warrant a full scene. And then the writing just seems flabby. Not much is happening, but there's a full-blown scene written. I believe this is a subtle reason that many manuscripts fail.
But how are you supposed to know when to write a scene, then, for God's sake?
I have a couple of answers that should be helpful.
The first is a tidbit from an author and writing teacher whose name I've forgotten. Here it is:
Fast is slow and slow is fast.
What does this mean? It means that if you would experience the event slowly in real time, write about it fast (i.e., in narrative, which can be used to compress time). So, for instance, if your character spends a lazy Sunday morning reading the New York Times, dispatch that in a sentence or so. It it not an event that warrants a scene. On the other hand, maybe that character steps outside and notices her husband trapped under a car when the jack collapsed. In a split second, she races to the vehicle and lifts it from him in a rush of adrenaline. This is an event that you want to slow down and linger over, writing every sensory detail in a full blown scene.
The other helpful tidbit is actually several tidbits, or, a list of guidelines as to when to use scenes. This has been bouncing around in my mind for years, after reading it somewhere and putting it into use, but I also saw it recently in a discusssion of Sandra Scofield's book on writing scenes, called The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer.
Here are three reasons a scene should exist:
1. To advance the plot
2. To reveal character
3. To set up something that will re-occur later
Of the three, I think the first two are the strongest, though certainly the last has its merits as well. What do you think? How do you choose which events to put in scene and which to write in narrative? Any tips for how to write in scene?
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.