Tag Archives: Raymond Obstfeld

Writing “In Scene:” Part 2

In Part 1 of this post, I outlined the basic elements of a scene in a novel: one or more characters, usually with the presence of conflict or tension, set in a time and place or moving from one place to another, action/narrative/dialogue, and something happens that must advance the story. Those are the basics, but an effective scene must go deeper.

One of my favorite bloggers, author KM Weiland, did a 12-part series on writing scenes. I highly recommend it. She devoted a lot of space to the concept of “scene and sequel.” What this means in basic terms is that the first half of the scene should contain action (goal-motivation-disaster) and the second half or sequel is the main character’s reaction to what happened. Weiland breaks it down into three parts: reaction (processing what has happened), dilemma (what does the character do now?) and decision (the character must figure out a solution).

Let’s look at the goal-motivation-disaster part of the scene, because this is essential to a scene’s success or failure. The goal is simply what the main character wants. The motivation is why he wants it. The disaster is what is preventing the character from reaching the goal. Simple enough in concept, but getting the goal-motivation-disaster right is much more difficult in execution.

The reaction-dilemma-decision is frequently overlooked, but equally important. It is what gives meaning and emotional resonance to the goal-motivation-disaster part of the scene.

Randy Ingermanson, who came up with the famous Snowflake Method of designing a novel, speaks about two levels of scene structure: large-scale and small-scale. He believes readers read fiction because the writer provides them with a powerful emotional experience. The large-scale follows the structure Weiland advocates (scene/sequel). The small scale consists of what Dwight Swain calls “Motivation Reaction Units, which alternate between what the Point of View (POV) character sees (motivation, which is external and objective) and what he does (reaction, which is internal and subjective). The writer should devote a separate paragraph to each.

Plot expert Martha Alderson, in a guest post on Jane Friedman’s blog, outlined the seven layers of a scene.

Note that Alderson’s final layer of the scene is its thematic significance. “The key to the theme lies in your reasons for writing the story and what you want your readers to take away from it,” Alderson wrote. “When the details you use in the scene support the thematic significance, you have created an intricately layered scene that provides meaning and depth to the overall plot.”

Another key element of an effective scene that is implied in each of these structures is stakes. Scene stakes must be meaningful, either on a micro or macro level.

This topic is impossible to cover in two blog posts. There is no single way to approach or structure a scene. There are, however, a number of questions a writer should ask before beginning a scene:

• What is the purpose of this scene? What am I trying to achieve?
• How is the main character challenged or changed in the scene?
• What are the stakes? Are they important?
• What is the proper pacing for the scene?
• What is the appropriate balance of action/narrative/dialogue? How does the setting, dialogue and action advance what the writer is trying to achieve?
• How does the scene advance the story?

While I cannot adequately cover the topic of scene crafting in so few words, I highly recommend Raymond Obstfeld’s excellent book, The Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes.

It is a comprehensive and enlightening guide to writing effective scenes and I refer to it often.

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The Mean Editor

As an author I have a split personality. The writer side of me has the imagination and curiosity of a small child. I enjoy putting together the first draft. It’s like taking out a box of building blocks and experimenting until I build something beautiful. It’s fun to try different things, write scenes from different characters’ points of view, invent alternate scenarios, and different endings. When I’m finished I stand back and admire what I’ve created.

Then the editor side of me takes over. If the writer is the child, the editor is the adult. He’s a mean SOB. The editor takes the small child’s wonderful creation and tears it apart. If a chapter is too long, cut it. If a scene doesn’t work, out it goes. If a character doesn’t move the editor, the editor moves the character right out of the manuscript.

Info dumps? Back story? Don’t even go there. Adverbs? Forget it. Cute dialogue tags like “she opined?” Not a chance. Stick with “he said” and “she said.”

Through numerous rounds of editing the manuscript of my first novel, Small Change, it shrank from an unwieldy 126,000 words to 103,000 words. And the paring down process wasn’t just about getting the manuscript down to a publishable word count. There were scenes and chapters that I thought were clever when I wrote them. Upon further review, the clear-eyed editor decided to delete them. I reworked the first page and the opening chapter at least ten times. And then I lopped off the first four chapters after deciding the book started in the wrong place. The opening scene in my final draft wasn’t even in the first draft. I added it because it foreshadowed the first dramatic event in the story.

I cut anything that smacked of telling or rewrote it in a way that “showed” the scene to the reader instead.

What did I learn? These are some of the “big picture” (macro) issues to look at when editing:

  • Pointless dialogue. Dialogue should either reveal something about the character, the relationship among characters, or move the story along. Asking about the weather or how the other person is doing doesn’t belong in a novel.
  • Unbalanced scenes. Readers get bored with scenes that consist exclusively of dialogue. The same with scenes that are non-stop narrative. Writers need to strike a balance among narrative, action, and dialogue. Raymond Obstfeld’s book, The Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes is a great resource on balance in scenes.
  • Subplots that don’t connect to the main plot. Fiction writing experts say the longer a subplot goes on without connecting to the main plot, the greater the chances the reader will lose interest in the subplot, the main plot or both. Bring the two together.
  • Unnecessary scenes. Ask yourself this: what does this scene achieve? Is it really necessary to the story? Does it add anything? If not, it has to go.
  • Research dumps. You’ve heard the admonition against info dumps. Research dumps are just as bad. You may conduct exhaustive research on how a nuclear submarine works, but you will quickly lose your readers if you describe it in every detail. Include only those details that are central to the story.
  • Fantastic coincidences. Dean Koontz warned against this in his book on writing. Here’s one: a guy has a crush on a girl in high school and always regrets he didn’t pursue it. Years later, he finds himself divorced. On a trip to China, he runs into his old crush from high school, they hit it off and get married. Not likely. That’s what the reader is likely to think.
  • Bad endings. This is a broad category that includes the following: So what? endings, Happily ever after endings, Too neat resolutions endings, didn’t you (main character) learn anything? endings.

Often the writer feels so strongly about his prose that he cannot let anything go. That’s when the editor has to step in. You may read this and think to yourself, ‘Wait a minute. I’m the writer. I’m in charge. I make the final decision.’ I respect that opinion, but as far as I’m concerned, the editor side of me is the boss. He makes the final decision.

This dynamic changes when you submit what you think is your final manuscript and your publisher tells you to make some changes. In those instances, your publisher is the boss, though you should stick up for yourself if you feel strongly about your work.

Are you a mean editor? When there’s a dispute between your writer and editor sides, which one wins out?

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Crafting Scenes: What’s Too Much or Too Little?

Crafting scenes presents the novice writer with a number of daunting questions: What is a scene? How long should it be? How do I know when to end a scene? How does a scene differ from a chapter?

Years ago, I attended a fiction writing workshop at a local library. Author Dan Pope gave a piece of advice that stayed with me. “Always start a story ‘in scene,’” Pope said. A story can start with a detailed description of a beautiful mountainside or a breathtaking castle, but you will
quickly lose the reader if there’s no scene or action taking place to sustain interest.

We talked about plot and story in the previous post. Think of a scene as the smallest unit of your story. Scenes have many purposes. Chief among them is to advance the story. Other purposes include:

  • Introduce characters
  • Define motivations or goals of the main character
  • Create suspense
  • Develop the theme
  • Portray conflict among characters
  • Relate important information to the reader

In his book, Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes, Raymond Obstfeld writes, “The word ‘scene’ comes from theater, where it describes the action that takes place in a single physical setting. This same principle holds true in fiction: A scene might begin when characters enter a location and end when they leave, or it may take place in a single location regardless of how many characters come and go. The emotional power of a scene depends on not distracting the reader from what’s going on.”

Regardless of the purpose of a scene, Obstfeld writes, “[w]hat’s important is that the writer (1) knows why that scene exists and (2) justifies its existence by making it memorable.” Obstfeld recommends writers ask themselves when they finish reading a scene, “So what?” Does it matter to the reader what happens? Is the scene really necessary?

Where do you begin a scene? Some favor beginning a scene in media res, that is, in the middle of the action, or the most dramatic part of a dialogue or narrative. Others take a linear approach; they begin the scene at the beginning of the action and carry it through to the end. Wherever you start a scene, the key is to draw the reader into the scene. Hook the reader. If the physical setting plays an important role, you can begin with that, but I am leery of long descriptions of setting. Keep it short and relate the setting to the theme. It’s a snapshot, not a photo album.

How long should a scene be? As long as it takes and not one word longer. Again, the purpose of the scene is a critical factor in determing its length. A suspenseful scene may need to be longer to set up the suspense and build the tension. A scene with the purpose of establishing a character can be shorter.

Another aspect of scenes is selecting a “point of view” (POV) character to relate what is happening. Unless you choose to write in the first person, every scene is told from one character’s point of view. The POV should be selected to maximize the impact of the scene. Let’s say you have a scene wherein everyone in the room knows a secret except one person. You could maximize the impact by relating the scene from that character’s point-of-view.

How does a scene differ from a chapter? There are a number of different viewpoints on what constitutes a chapter. Some say each chapter should end when there’s a shift in the story. Others like “cliff-hanger” chapter endings. Some structure chapters around POV characters. A chapter could
contain just one scene or multiple scenes. My first novel included a deathbed scene that continued over several chapters. My view on chapters is that they should contain a specific element of a story. Some writers don’t add chapter breaks until they complete a first draft. There’s no rule on the number of scenes per chapter, but when I read a novel where each chapter consists of just one scene, the story has a choppy, disjointed feel.

Crafting scenes is a topic too complicated to be covered in a single blog post. For more detail, I recommend Raymond Obstfeld’s Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes.

What is the ideal length of scenes? How do you approach crafting scenes?

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