Monthly Archives: August 2013

Writing “In Scene”: Part I

One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever received came from author Dan Pope, who offered this nugget: “Always write ‘in scene.’” This gem has stayed with me to this day. Why? If story is the most important aspect of the novel, the scene is the building block upon which writers construct the novel.

An 80,000-word novel may need as many as 40 scenes, assuming an average scene length of 2,000 words. That’s a lot of scenes. To come up with 40 scenes, a lot has to happen. Understanding what a scene is and how to craft one are vital skills for the writer. But what does “writing in scene” really mean? Here’s an example off the top of my head of a beginning to a novel:

Ben always feared snakes. It was an irrational fear, really, but it went back to his childhood. If he lived on a farm surrounded by wild animals, he might have felt differently about snakes. But he didn’t. Ben grew up in a typical suburb. One time a snake escaped from his neighbor’s garden. He ran and got his brother, who took a heavy shovel and killed the snake. The snake may have been dead, but the fear remained in Ben. The only thing Ben feared more than snakes was girls. The thought of picking up the phone and asking a girl out on a date sent waves of terror through Ben.

This is a badly flawed start to a story. First, it’s all telling and no showing. Secondly, it is not set in any time or place. Typical suburb? Where? What part of the country? Did he live in a ranch house or a colonial? Who were his parents? His friends? The killing of the snake lacks detail. What does the neighbor’s garden look like? How big was the snake? What color? Did it writhe toward Ben? Did Ben run away screaming? How did his brother kill the snake? Did he chop it into pieces? This bland description doesn’t tell the reader what emotions went through Ben’s head. The transition to his feat of girls is abrupt. There is no timeline. The reader can assume Ben is much older when he reveals his fear of girls. Is it related to his fear of snakes? The reader has no idea.

What we have here is the start of a character sketch, but it’s not the start of a novel. So what do we mean when we say to “write in scene?” Here are some of the basic elements of a scene:

• Interaction among one or more characters, usually involving conflict and tension.
• Set in a specific time and place, or in some cases, moving from one place to another.
• Something happens or is about to happen.
• Contains action/narrative/dialogue.
• Advances the story.

But a scene must go much deeper than these basic elements. Scenes need one essential quality–what author and blogger KM Weiland refers to as “scene and sequel” – or action and reaction.

In the next installment, I will explore the deeper meaning an author must embed into each scene.


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Blockbuster Implosion: Formulas Fail Writers

Screenwriter Damon Lindelof knows a thing or two about movie scripts. The noted script doctor described this summer’s cinematic fare as “summer disaster porn flicks.” This prescient observation followed comments by Steven Spielberg, who predicted in June that Hollywood was headed for an “implosion” because an industry that only makes mega-movies cannot sustain itself.

Lindelof’s insights, given in an interview with Vulture, were right on target. “We live in a commercial world where you’ve gotta come up with ‘trailer moments’ and make the thing feel big and impressive and satisfying, especially in that summer-movie-theater construct. But ultimate I do feel—even as a purveyor of it—slightly turned off by this destruction porn that has emerged and become very bold-faced this past summer,” he said.

“And, again, guilty as charged. It’s hard not to do it, especially because a movie, if properly executed, feels like it’s escalating.”

One could substitute the word “ book” for “movie” in this commentary. Lindelof went on to say, “Once you spend more than $100 million on a movie, you have to save the world. And when you start there, and basically say, I have to construct a MacGuffin based on if they shut off this, or they close this portal, or they deactivate this bomb, or they come up with this cure, it will save the world—you are very limited in terms of how you execute that. And in many ways, you can become a slave to it and, again, I make no excuses, I’m just saying you kind of have to start there. In the old days, it was just as satisfying that all Superman has to do was basically save Lois from this earthquake in California. The stakes in that movie are that the San Andreas Fault line opens up and half of California is going to fall in the ocean. That felt big enough, but there is a sense of bigger, better, faster, seen it before, done that.”

This is evident in literature, when one looks at the best-seller list. It’s filled with proven commodities and genre fiction. It can feel formulaic, just as in screenwriting some claim the movie formula was laid out in Blake Snyder’s screenwriting book, Save the Cat.

Nathan Bransford blogged about this trend recently in this post.

As usual, Bransford has nailed it. I would urge writers to resist the temptation to follow a proven formula. That doesn’t mean a writer should not learn about formulas. Formulas are really story structures and there are many that are tried and true. The three-act structure is as reliable and sturdy a formula as there is out there. Structure is fine and necessary, but when the story becomes a slave to a formula, the writer is robbed of the creative tools to shape it to its unique potential. If a writer envisions a story in which the inevitable conclusion is for the main character to die due to his own sins or weaknesses, it makes no sense to change the ending on the mistaken belief that readers want a happy ending.

So what is a writer to do, when there are formulas that enhance the chances of success? Here are a few ideas:

• Know the rules and then don’t be afraid to break them. The old adage, “You have to know the rules before you can break them” is true. Learn about the different types of story structures and the craft of fiction. Understand the importance of character development to the overall story.
• Own your story. A story is the writer’s creation. It belongs to the writer. The arc should be determined by the writer’s vision and execution, not by some arbitrary rule that dictates a particular event must happen by page 75.
• Read unconventional novels like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and watch cutting-edge programs like Breaking Bad, which takes the tired “send ‘em home happy” dictum and gives it a swift kick in the butt.
• Write from the heart. If the writer doesn’t feel passionate about the story, the reader won’t, either.

Are you tired of movies or novels that follow a formula? What examples of unconventional stories can you name?


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Why Introverts Make Good Writers

Writing is a lonely calling. Solitude and reflection are integral parts of the writing process. Writers need to spend a lot of time alone. Though I could not locate any scientific data to back this theory, I believe most writers would call themselves introverts.

In her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, author and former corporate lawyer Susan Cain promotes the virtues of introverts in a world that seems to favor the qualities of extroverts. “The business world and much of American culture is skewed toward extroverts,” Cain said at a recent conference. Introverts are widely misunderstood. Seen as lesser contributors and even as anti-social by some, introverts “simply process knowledge and engage with their surroundings in a different, quieter context.”

While extroverts draw energy from being around other people, “introverts feel their most alive, their most engaged, and their deepest sense of equilibrium when they are in environments that are less stimulating,” Cain said. These periods of solitude allow introverts to be at their most creative, she said, citing among other examples, the best-selling author JK Rowling.

Author John Green, who has penned a number of acclaimed Young Adult novels, puts it this way: “Writing is something you do alone. It’s a profession for introverts who want to tell you a story, but don’t want to make eye contact while doing it.”

Here are some of the qualities of introverts and how these are beneficial to the writing process:

• Listening. Introverts are generally good listeners. They prefer listening to talking. While one would think extroverts can mine more rich material for their stories because they are out in the world more, introverts in social situations do a lot more watching and listening. I like to sit in a coffee shop and watch people, listen for snatches of conversation that I can use or adapt in a story.
• Watching. Introverts are keenly aware of their surroundings. They may not feel comfortable going up to a stranger and starting a conversation, but they can spot clues from a person’s body language or choice of clothing. I’m not suggesting extroverts don’t have this trait, but I believe its more acute in introverts.
• Reflection. As Cain said, introverts have a deep need to process knowledge, rather than to react quickly or make snap judgments. It’s this quality that is one of the most essential to any successful writer. Giving meaning and context to a set of facts and emotions is crucial to the storytelling process.
• Solitude. Introverts crave periods of solitude. They are not at all uncomfortable about being alone for long periods of time. This “alone time” is like gold to a writer. Achieving 1,000 words per day requires several consecutive hours behind a closed door or hunkered down in a library or a café with your nose in your laptop. Extroverts get jumpy when they have to spend that much time alone. Introverts thrive on it.

What about you? Are you an introvert? If so, has it helped or hindered your writing process?


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Character Study: Breaking Bad’s Walter White

Memorable characters in fiction possess one essential quality: complexity. Fiction writers can draw valuable lessons from watching the progression over five seasons of the main character Walter White in the AMC Emmy Award-winning series, Breaking Bad. Characters don’t get more complex than Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston.

White’s evolution from a down-on-his-luck high school chemistry teacher with terminal cancer to a drug kingpin might strain credibility, but series creator Vince Gilligan pulls it off brilliantly. At first, the viewer sympathizes with Walter’s plight as he goes into business with a former slacker student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) cooking and selling methamphetamine. The motivation behind the meth business is Walter’s desire to pay for his medical treatment and leave a nest egg for his wife and family after he is gone.

In his excellent craft book, Plot and Structure, author James Scott Bell discussed the three-act structure. Bell stated that writers at the end of Act One must thrust their main character into the main conflict by having him walk through a door through which he could never return. This is manifested by key decisions the character must make that put him to the test. For example, a character must kill another person to protect himself, even though it violates his moral code. Walter White walks through many such doors and each time, he loses much of his former self.

What viewers discovered as the series progressed was that there were two Walter Whites: the downtrodden school teacher and faithful, nebbish parent, and the bright, driven chemist who hungers for power and respect. This hidden side of Walter is embodied by his pseudonym, Heisenberg, which came from the physicist whose uncertainty principle meant that the presence of an observer changed what was being observed.

For a period of time, Walter White leads two lives: the dying parent struggling to keep it together with his family and the grim, determined drug lord, decisive and cunning. It’s an absorbing character study. As the drug trade puts Walter and Jesse in increasingly dangerous situations, Walter’s true nature emerges. The meek high school teacher becomes a ruthless, win-at-all-costs maverick who still wants to hold onto his family, though his activities put them in grave danger.

As the New York Times critic A.O. Scott points out in a lengthy piece on Breaking Bad, Walter White justifies his monstrous behavior again and again. “Walter is almost as good at self-justification as he is at cooking meth, and over the course of the series, he has not hesitated to give high-minded reasons for his lowest actions,” Scott wrote. “In his own mind, he remains a righteous figure, an apostle of family values, free enterprise and scientific progress.”

It’s a fascinating character study that every fiction writer should examine.

What characters from contemporary television and film do you find most memorable?


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