Saturday, January 25, 2014

Novel Craft: When to Cut a Scene

Hi, folks. This is the last in a series about writing scenes.

This week I'm going to focus on cutting scenes. This is a tough procedure for writers. You worked hard to create that well crafted scene, and now you are going to toss it. How do you know you are making a good decision?

I hope to offer some easy guidance.  But here is the first thing you need to know. Cutting scenes hurts. There are some tender moments in there. There is action and drama. I see some sparkly dialogue and deep heart. There is some of your blood.

Take a deep breath. You can do this.

Over time I've developed a method that helps me decide whether to keep a scene or not.  Here are my questions.

1. Is this an essential scene?

Some scenes are essential to a story. You know the opening scene, the turning point scene, the darkest moment, the climax. These scenes may need improving but you never cut them. Yay!

2. Is this scene extraneous?

Extraneous scenes are like cup of extra icing on top. Gross. When I need some time or have to travel in a story, I end up with extraneous scenes. Scrutinize these scenes.  Did you just travel across the mountains so we could watch some big mountain monsters fight? I would cut that. Did you just hang-out at your house for five scenes because you needed five months to pass. Cut that back to a line: five months passed.

3. Is this scene boring?

Whoa, I am snoozing while reading my own book. Does anyone but my knitting crazy friends care about a knit/purl sequence with excessive counting of stitches? Are your characters talking about the weather? Do your characters write a cute story about some children and you have just used up three pages recounting it?  I just skipped that scene while reading. Boring.

4. Is this scene a bunch of chitchat? 

Prattle, babble, and blather. I mean is this whole scene just two or even more characters talking about absolutely nothing. The conversation isn't offending or injurious.  It's rather nice, pleasant even. OK, you can revise it and make it offending and injurious. That might help, but often the only answer is to just cut the scene.

5. Is this scene repetitive?

Oh, yes, for the fifth time you have decided to reiterate that these two characters really don't get along. Please consider that your reader may actually have some intelligence. This logic does not work: one scene clearly shows these two characters are at odds, then three scenes that do the same thing is probably better. NO.

6. Is this all about some other than your main character?

You have wandered into the dark land of this book is "not about Jack and Jill but it is now." The book was supposed to be all about Miss Muffet and the spider.  I think you have just spent two chapters worth of scenes on Jack and Jill. Cut those chapters and give those cuties their own book! 

7. Does the scene move the plot forward? 

You remember, the plot, you know from here to there and back again. I get it. Your character has issues with her hairdresser, but this book is about her trip to Saturn's moon, Titan. I don't understand why you have just spent three pages with the hairdresser.  Isn't your character wearing a helmet anyway?

Whenever you cut a scene, put it somewhere handy. Occasionally you will need to resurrect some portion of a deleted scene. Once in a blue moon you will put the whole scene back.

Thanks for dropping by.  I hope this little series has helped you out!  

Here is this week's doodle: "Yoda was wrong. Try there is."

And finally a quote for your pocket.

Take him and cut him out in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine. That all the world will be in love with night.
William Shakespeare.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Novel Craft: 5 Useful Scenes

Hi, folks.  Scenes serve as the building blocks of story. This is the third in a series about scenes, and this week I am going to go beyond the basic scene and discuss  a number of specialty scenes that will help produce fluid stories. This is not a complete list but these five scene types will help you expand your repertoire.  The more types of scenes you use, the more complex and texture your stories will be. As always, this is a working writer's perspective.

1. The Flashback -- This scene is similar to the basic scene but is framed. It is a jump into the past and will reveal something about the character. Use sparingly and with purpose. The frame around the flashback allows the reader to step into the past and then return to the present. The elements of this scene include  a lull, a trigger, and a memory.  Flashbacks interrupt the flow of the story and don't work well in the middle of the action.  Find a lull in your story to insert a flashback. Often the character is alone.  Next, trigger the flashback. This usually is accomplished by a sensory detail that invokes a profound feeling. Finally, recall a memory. This shoots us into the flashback, which is often a basic scene. The flashback ends with a transition line, where the character makes a decision in the present about the events of the flashback.

2. The Chase --This scene moves characters through a number of settings in rapid succession. This scene is the staple of mystery authors and action/adventure authors.  Authors must work hard to orient readers through rapid setting changes. Emotions and thoughts are clipped in this type of scene. If you see long blocks of dialogue in a chase scene, break it up.  This best way to make this type of scene work is to block it out in the physical world. Pretend to be your character and run around your backyard, leaping imagined fire pits and ducking into secret rooms. It's tons of fun and it will give you the information you need to the places for dialogue, emotion, and thoughts with finesse.

3. The Realm -- This scene moves characters through a threshold from one space/time to another. This is important in fantasy writing and historical writing. This type of scene is also a framed.  Sometimes you may stay in the alternative space/time several scenes.  Some writers like to use dates and/or setting names to help orient the reader. If you do have many space/time jumps, this convention is very helpful. If you plan to stay in the realm for a long period the convention is not necessary. This kind of scene require extra description to help the reader make the jump through space/time. So a realm scene is similar to the basic scene but pays particular attention to detail that will orient the reader, lots of sensory input. 

4. The Gag -- I love the gag scene. This type of scene is totally written to make the reader laugh.  A gag scene has all the elements of a basic scene, but also has a set-up and a pay-off.  Repeated gags can lead to big laughs. The set-up puts the reader on edge, like a bucket of water over the character's head that will be tipped at the end of the scene.  A gag involves something that will really embarrass your main character. It is about going there. Up the stakes of embarrassment three times in all gag scenes. The power of three is important here.

5. The Conversation I affectionately call this type of scene -- the talking heads.  You see lot of these scenes in literary and romance fiction. These scenes can go for up to three pages. It about quips, internal thoughts, eyes, lips,  swirling spoons and the banter between two characters.  All the elements of a basic scene are here, but the dialogue is extended. The setting is very bland and it is all about what these two people are saying. I find it handy in these scenes to give characters prosaic tasks like knitting, writing a letter, or perhaps taking a turn around the room.  You better be about to toss witticism, double-entendre and boiling emotions to do this. This one is tough to master and is akin to poetry -- either you have an ear or not.

Enough all ready! You have tons to think about. I hope that awareness of these types of scenes will help you create better stories because I am always looking for something to read. I will see you next week with more about scenes.

No doodles, I'm on the road to Rockwall, TX visiting relatives.

Here is a quote for your pocket. 

Only one who devotes himself to a cause with his whole strength and soul can be a true master. For this reason mastery demands all of a person. Albert Einstein.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Novel Craft: 5 Common Scene Problems

Hi folks, I'm continuing my series on scenes. Last week I discussed the basic scene. You must be able to produce it in fluent way to create viable stories. This week, I'm going to discuss common problems that I've encountered reading and writing scenes.This is a working writer's perspective. Here is a list of 5 common scene problems.

1. The author understands who is in the scene but fails to communicate this to the reader.  Five or more characters in a scene are rattled in succession and the writer expects the reader to get it. The author offers little or no explanation to the identity of Rocket, Apple, Kal-el, Blue, and Ocean. Very few authors are competent with multiple characters in a scene. This is a complex skill. If you are struggling, (i.e. beta-readers read your book and say, I don't know who all these people are) allow only one to three characters per scene. If you want to bring someone into a scene, send someone out to more easily manage characters on scene.

2. The author uses specific but unimportant details to orient the reader which provide no sensory input.  Scenes are riddled with: this is on the left, this is on the right, five minutes later, seven minute after that, up there, over there. Take a lesson from the masters of art. Focus on the important  physical and sensory details. The shiny knife, the eyes, the sound of the voices, the smell of the pancakes (because that is always important). Smudge everything else. 

3. The author creates stilted dialogue. Every line is self conscious and unnatural. This happens for a number of reasons.One problem is forcing information into the dialogue that readers need to know. Take it out and hide it in the exposition or delete it altogether. No one wants a conversational info dump. Another problem that hampers scenes, dialogue goes on too long and the reader snoozes. Remember, things need to happen in books at least occasionally. One more problem is lack of texture between the characters. The author fails to create a unique voice for each character in the story. This is wholly annoying. You know who I'm talking about -- put a "cheesy author name" here. 

4. The author repeats characters' interior thoughts over and over. Oh, this is a scene killer. Your main character might internally wail about the 37 reasons she doesn't like her life. The reader got it the first time. Totally.  Look for duplicating thoughts and back down to one. And, oh, your scenes will be much, much more authentic if you do this. Also watch out for divergent thoughts that flip and flop like oxygen starved minnows. The main character thinks one thing -- Rocket makes my world go around -- and then another -- Rocket has destroyed my universe -- and then yet another -- Rocket doesn't know I'm alive -- and then  -- Rocket reminds me of a doodle bug.  Cohesiveness, folks. The main character is unreliable and not in a good way. The reader rolls her eyes and skips ahead in the book. She never buys another book by this author.

5.  The author is in love with the description. Yes, I know there are a few writers that are masters of description, but  generally loads of description just make the scene a muddy mess. It hurts to cut twenty beautiful lines and only leave one. I understand, but  no one wants to wade through all that description. Stick to the action, the dialogue, the emotions, the interior thoughts and decisions.  Your scene will thank me.  Note, you do need some description. No one wants floating talking heads either. Use the description sparingly, like salt.

Okay, there you go, some real life scene problems. Think about your scenes. Tighten them up. Your story will thank you. I will be back next week with more about crafting scenes.

Here is the doodle: "Sleep Walkers"

Here is a quote for your week: I hope you feel this way about story.

I was born with music inside me. Music was one of my parts. Like my ribs, my kidneys, my liver, my heart. Like my blood. It was a force already within me when I arrived on the scene. It was a necessity for me-like food or water. Ray Charles

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Novel Craft: The Basic Scene

Hi folks, welcome to a brand new year. I'm looking forward to it. My new book PLUMB CRAZY comes out in May. Here is the link at Goodreads if you wish to add it to your to-read shelf.  I can't wait to see what happens next. I hope you feel the same way.

In January, I like to explore an aspect of novel craft, and this year I'm going to chat about scenes. I'm not writing from the literary perspective, but from the working writer perspective. For me, scenes are the engine of story. Each scene drives the story forward and upward. Here is a visual picture. Have you seen a lift going up a mountain? The gondola moves from pole to pole along a wire.  The wire is the plot. The gondola is the main character, the mountain is the setting, and the distances traveled between the poles are the scenes.

The basic scene works like this. Something happens. A hottie guy enters the crowded lunch room at the same time as your mc (main character) girl.  Next, your mc girl emotionally reacts to the thing that happened. She might blush or throw her broom at him or maybe she steps back and slips on a banana peel, tossing her lunch tray into his face. Next, the boy says something emotionally charged to the mc girl. The mc girl says something emotionally charged back. These two can go at it for up to three exchanges with the mc girl's internal thoughts and bits of the setting mixed in. The emotional stew bubbles over. The mc girl has a thought about what all this means.  Like: Oh, hot guy hates me. Oh, hot guy will now date my worst enemy Mad Minnie. Oh, hot guy will never ask me to the prom now. Finally, the mc girl  makes a decision. I'm not just getting out of the lunch room, I'm going to skip school. She acts on that decision.  And off we go to the next scene.

The basic scene is all about showing the story. Your reader is brought into the action and dwells inside the mind of your main character. Think about this, basic scenes are an exchange between two or more characters. If you put more people into your scene, you have just made your storytelling job much harder. Most scenes have two or three active characters in them. The rest of the characters are part of the setting.

A long basic scene is the length of a chapter. Often chapters have two basic scenes. Sometimes, a chapter might have three scenes, but most of the time only two of those scenes will be basic scenes. The other scene will be a transition scene which is generally some narrative to pass the time or move from one place to another. Or it might be some mc internal dialogue that expresses the deep feelings of your mc -- I call these soliloquy scenes because they remind me of soliloquies in Shakespeare. I'll cover these scenes in a later post, so check back.

I did not invent the scene. I read many novels and got in the habit of noting where scenes begin and noting where they end . I also studied. Elements of Fiction Writing: Scene and Structure by Jack Bickman is my go-to handbook for scene writing. This is one handy book. You would do yourself a favor to read it.

You must become an expert of the scene to effectively write novels.  There is no way around this. You can have grammar, plot, setting, and character down 100%, but if you can't write scenes, you can't write a novel. This is important, folks!

I will be back with more next week about scenes. I will see you then!  Seize the day!

Here is the doodle: Thunderhead.

And finally a quote for your pocket.

For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.

(Little Gidding) T.S. Eliot