Friday, May 6, 2011

Write Scenes Rather Than Reports


They're the anchors for your characters,

allowing them to experience adventures undreamed of. Scenes are the visual elements that, strung together, make navigating your story entertaining and logical.

Scenes are the pulse of your novel. With each successive beat, characters discover more, reveal more, and live more. And readers feel that life. The pulse, the heartbeat of your story, resonates in them, and if the beat is strong enough, it will keep them connected, not wanting to leave. Not wanting to cut off that heartbeat that has become part of them.

We all know what it’s like to be interrupted when we’re at the good part. Make your story pulse with the good part from beginning to end. Give the reader not only a vivid character, but vivid scenes that will echo in his mind and heart. Scenes that will keep him attached to your tale.

Scenes. Not descriptions. Not a reporting of events. Scenes.

Write them. From page one, write them.

They’re what’s vibrant about your story.

They are events happening in a specific place.

Don’t tell us Max did this and Sally did that and Mortimer did a little of both. Don’t give us diary entries or a school report. Don’t even give us a letter to a pen pal. Putyour characters into a specific time, a specific locale, and give them a task.

And once you write your scene, don’t fill pages with delay, describing the route to an event and then the dĂ©cor once we get there.

Get to the point.

Dump us into action. Event. Happening.

Paint us a picture of someone doing something somewhere.

Think of a series of events, as in a movie. Write those events. Connect them with narrative. And then write more events.

Yes, thinking can be an event. So can dialogue. But events also include someone robbing a house, a teen learning to drive, a woman kissing a man.

Give your readers events and action they can dive into. Give them places they can see, objects they can touch, sounds to hear and wonder over. Write for the senses and the emotions and the mind. And put your characters in a location.

Don’t forget that people move and touch and see while they’re interacting.

If you’re going to use a scene with a lot of thought and/or dialogue—either one person thinking without interaction with another or multiple characters speaking back and forth—make sure the reader knows the where and when of the scene. Don’t write disembodied thoughts for two pages. Put us in a place, show us why the character is having these thoughts, and then go at those thoughts.

Think place. Passage of time. Events happening while the character ruminates or reminisces or cogitates.

Don’t give us only talking heads, existing independently of all else. (When Elsie was young, she always brushed her teeth five times a day. Not six. Not four. She . . . ) If you choose to throw in back story, first show us where the character is and what brought about these deep thoughts of the past. Does the character walk around randomly thinking of the past? Or is there something in the story—related to plot, of course—that drives those reminiscences? Unless your character is naturally crazy, go for something that sets him off. And don’t forget to let us know what’s happening while the character is off remembering. Ground the character—and the reader—in a place and then do your thing with deep thoughts.

Use description in scenes, but don’t only describe. Have your characters interact with their locale, other characters, and their own demons.

Don’t try to narrate scenes—she did this and that and then she cried. Make the story events real. Make the reader live those events, feel those emotions, quiver with pain and gasp with shock.

Scenes are only one element of good fiction; we still need exposition. Stories made up of all scenes without a break would be tiresome and tedious. They’d be flat-out annoying.
Exposition can do in a few words what can take pages for a scene to accomplish.
My point is, however, when you do write scenes—and they should take up most of the page space in a novel—make sure you are actually writing scenes rather than reports.
I read many first manuscripts that have no scenes, especially at the story’s beginning. Think of ways to invite your reader into the story events. Show the reader those events as they unfold.
Don’t recite the events—bring the reader in to experience them for herself.

Some examples: (excerpts)

  • What I did on vacation—A school report
  • What I did on vacation—Fiction (exposition and scene)
  • What I did on vacation—Fiction (exposition and scene, a variation)
  • What Tessa did on vacation—Fiction (less exposition, more scene)


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Interaction! Got it. Working on it!

Jo said...

Yes, reality of a scene is important, I have periodically skipped exhaustive descriptions (reports?) and thought 'who cares its not real'

Kat Sheridan said...

Beth, you always give the most wonderful examples! I always have a hard time remembering to give my characters something to do with their hands--to pick up an object in the scene, or fiddle with their drink or anything that makes them more real.

Beth said...

Sia, thanks for inviting me back. I like how you linked the examples.

Jo, I've skipped long descriptions too, even if the writing's good. I want to read about what's happening to characters, Description is important to set the scene and establish mood, but it shouldn't overtake story events.

~Sia McKye~ said...

I love having you visit,Beth. I've learned so much about craft from you!

The examples are really good!

~Sia McKye~ said...

JO, I've done the same. Even with some bestsellers there are sections I find myself skimming.

VA said...

Beth you are a golden resource!

I have a tendency to write almost all dialogue and scene and not enough exposition. That usually gets plugged in after the fact to give the reader some bearings and a breather.

Beth said...

VA, except for those who began their writing careers with screenplays, I'm guessing you're in the minority. A lot of folks include too much exposition and not enough dialogue.

Anonymous said...

I love you, Beth. Good stuff.

Houston A.W. Knight said...

Hey, this was a great post...I just spent the weekend with my CP doing just this...working on showing a story, rounding out the Char's and making the scene come alive to the readers. Hard work but fun.