Saturday 4 May 2013

How to Write Scenes (JuNoWriMo #2)

Okay my darlings, we’re going back to basics on this one. We’re talking about scene structure. There is never any harm in just going back to school and getting a refresher  - or learn something new. This might also help those of you who are still formulating a plot in your head. How many of you have ideas for your novel?

I have a premise and two characters loosely outlined, still have a ways to go. Oh and if anyone’s interested, I’m going with the notecard method for this JuNoWriMo.

Alright, let’s get to it.

First of all, you’ve got your basic scene elements. That’s the Beginning, Middle, and End. Every scene has one so it’s important to know some of the key things that go into each section.

Beginning: You need a hook line. That’s your very first line that hooks the reader and compels them to keep reading. The best way to do that is to start your story in medias res (in the middle of things). Start in the middle of a scene either with a line of dialogue or an action. Just sitting down and saying “this is my main character; they are doing this. Blah said this.” Very boring. So first things, first: hook your reader. You can start with description or setting or some philosophical debate but it has to plunk the reader into the middle of the situation otherwise they lose interest and start to skim. The other important thing to remember is that every scene has characters. Hook the reader and give them people to interact with. Check.

Middle: The middle is the real meat of every scene (and story). It’s about establishing what the character wants, how they’re going to get it and what’s standing in their way. This is where all the action happens. It’s were conflict happens. A story with no conflict isn’t actually a story so make sure your characters have (plausible) obstacles for the really important things they want. Your characters are real people and should be treated as such. Nothing comes easy, sometimes bad things happen to good people and sometimes ‘happily ever after’ comes with a price – sometimes, not all the time. The middle is for introducing desire, conflict, and consequence. Basically, the end of the middle should be your climax; the highest point in the novel where everything is at stake. The ultimate cliffhanger. Check.

End: Not every scene has to end definitively (except for the last scene in your novel; you need to give your readers some closure) but it’s the place to step back and give everyone a little breather before jumping into the next scene. Even if you end on a cliffhanger – especially if you end on a cliffhanger – you need to finish the scene with just enough intensity that the reader has to turn the next page. The trouble with ending a scene is that, unless you know the goal or purpose of the scene it’s a bit hard to know where the scene will or should end. So that’s your number one priority before you end any scene: ask yourself if you achieved what needed to be done in this particular scene. If you haven’t, that probably means you’re still in the middle. Compel the reader to move on. Check.

Next section I’m going to try and get through quickly. Types of scenes. There are dozens (probably) of scene varieties but these are just the essentials. I, like a lot of writers, have strong and weak scene types so that just means I need to practice. What are your strong and weak scenes? What do you do to strengthen them?

Internal: This encompasses a lot of sub categories but basically an internal scene is one that takes place inside the character or narrator’s head. It’s your character’s thoughts and emotions (or the narrator’s thoughts about the character). These get divided up into a number of genres:

Setting/Contemplative is where you use setting to portray the character’s emotion. Like when a character is sad and it’s raining or they’re happy and so even though there’s a hurricane coming there is this lighter, happier air to it. It expresses how the character is feeling as well as how the character views the world which is very important in establishing the reader/character relationship. Don’t go overboard on this one but it’s a classic ‘show don’t tell’.
Emotional is very much the same as the contemplative where you describe the character’s emotion without saying “he was sad”. Instead of using the elements, just use the character. It’s like when you’re acting. You can’t just say your lines and assume the audience is going to know what you’re talking about. Instead you add physicality to the character and use body language to get the message across. It’s so much more powerful to make your reader feel rather than rely on their imagination. Imaginations are fickle creatures, they must be led in the direction you want them to go.
Indirect Thought/Interior Monologue is a bit tricky in my opinion. They are a direct link between your character and your reader where the character’s thoughts are directly written down rather than hinted at or assumed. The reason I say they’re tricky is because you can’t let monologues get away from you. If you stick with this scene too long you start to ramble. Rambling is bad. Very bad.

External: As important as the inner thoughts and emotions of the characters is, you can’t have a novel that is all in your character’s head. They need to get out, interact with people and nature and be active in their own story. That’s where external scenes come in:

Dialogue is something I could go on and on about because I think it is so very important. You have to nail your character’s voice or the audience will never believe it. By voice I mean everything from their accent to their attitude – the things they choose not to say or the things they blurt out. Internal scenes are all about ‘show don’t tell’, I think external scenes are all about proving rather than showing. It’s one thing to describe your character as a shy, demure princess but if the first words out of their mouth are cuss words, then we’ve got a very different story on our hands. Know what your character says and how they say it.

Action is not just about car chases and blowing things up (though that’s fun, too). It’s all about moving the story forward. Action encompasses all movement (anything from walking down the street, to sitting at a bar stool drinking, to doing some crazy martial arts move, to grabbing a piece of paper off a shelf); that’s the most generalized way to put it. You use your monologues and emotional scenes to describe the character’s emotion but the best way to prove that is to make them do something about it. Action scenes are the best way to plow the plot forward – this is where they take action toward getting what they want. This does not mean you don’t get to use all those emotional-sensory details, in fact they’re very important. They’re always important; never leave a scene (no matter how fast you’ve plowed through – without bringing your readers along for the ride.

Dramatic is similar to action scenes in that they move through a scene and propel the plot forward but these are a bit slower. They have more of a balance of emotion and action. But be careful not to make these scenes melodramatic – unless you’re writing a soap opera –drama does not mean epic reveals and crazy, unrealistic plot twists; drama in this case is the slow exploration of a character’s emotions through action and heightening tension (remember climax is all about the tension but you can little pockets of tightness all over the place).

The key to all these scenes with their beginning, middle, and end is balance; too much of any kind of scene in a particular story is boring for the reader. Though, as I said before, every writer has their strengths. For me, I love dialogue scenes and emotional scenes but my action scenes *shakes head* not so much.

What about you guys? What do you do to strengthen your weaker scenes and what are your favourite to write?

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