Unless you have been living in seclusion up until now, actively avoiding all forms of writing advice and instruction, you should have encountered the phrase Show, don’t Tell. The question of writing in scenes, (rather than simply summarizing some character action) falls under this Show, don’t Tell umbrella.
(If you want the larger picture on this idea of Show, here are links to a couple excellent entry points:
http://fictionmatters.blogspot.com/2009/10/writing-workshop-show-vs-tell.html and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Show,_don%27t_tell )
For the moment, though, I’m going to home in on the idea of scene writing for two reasons:
- In my reading of hundreds of student manuscripts, I have found that the most frequent beginner problem I encounter is writers who summarize the key moments of a story, rather than dramatizing them.
- It is my passionate belief that summaries are almost never stories: they do not succeed artistically or commercially. It may not feel entirely comfortable at first, but if you are serious about learning to write fiction, you must learn to write in scenes rather than just implying that they’re happening.
Let me start, first, by addressing a question that will inevitably arise in some of your minds: do I mean that you should never summarize–that every single word of your manuscript should be devoted to real-time action? Of course not. Quick mentions of certain types of story information can be revealed to readers if they meet a few criteria.
- They must be important enough to merit inclusion at all–in other words, they are not so trivial that they ought to be cut.
- They’re simple details, things that can be conveyed fast and elegantly.
Here are some examples of perfectly legitimate “tell” sentences:
- She wrestled with the question of clothing and settled for her most conservative suit. (This shows “she” has a meeting, but isn’t quite sure to expect.)
- Dithering about which route to take made him late. (The dithering doesn’t matter; the tardiness is what is important).
- Ma’s attitude when she saw him off was frosty; there would be a scene at dinner. (This is a promise to the reader that there will be some conflict, onstage, at suppertime.)
- They had spent six years competing for a promotion… (Obviously you aren’t gong to play out all six years of cut and thrust. Equally obvious, I hope, is that whatever is happening now is the key moment in that conflict.)
- He had bluffed his way through the last bounced chck, and sweet-talked that collections guy yesterday. (Here what’s established is past character action, setting up what is probably going to be a failed attempt to get away with it the third time.)
See how each of the above examples is setting up some action to come? The meeting, an event that some poor fellow is late arriving to, a parent-child fight in the evening, work conflict, and so on? Summaries of this sort can be used to get readers to the meat of the story–the important thing. And that important thing–to belabor the obvious–is the scene.
Contrast the above sentences with ones where the quickly-referenced action is obviously important:
- She wore her most conservative suit to the meeting. . . and everyone showed up naked, causing her considerable embarrassment.
- They had a relationship-shattering argument about which fork in the road to take.
- Everything he had fought for for six years came crashing down in flames when Ms. Jones brought the stolen Powerpoint presentation to the meeting. Nobody believed it was his work. She got the promotion and he got fired.
The above examples describe pivotal events within your conflict–events that should unfold as we read. We want to hear every word of that relationship-breaking fight, and be there in the room when ‘she’ is the only person there in clothes.
What are the characteristics of implied scenes?
- Generally, they are short.
- They reference character interaction but have little or no dialogue.
- They address important choices, character actions, or conflict in a few sentences.
- They may tell us what characters are doing or feeling, using s/he felt, s/he thought, or I verbed-type sentence structures.
- They have little in the way of sensory detail or setting description.
- In tone, they may sound a bit like a somewhat dull book written for younger readers.
Here’s a somewhat longer example based on a classic horror situation:
Halfway there, they argued about which fork in the road to take. Bob favored the shortcut; Jane wanted to stay on the road clearly marked on the map. Bob teased her for being scared of the short-cut, which was creepy looking. Feeling embarrassed and hurt, Jane let him have his way.
The first thing to notice about this fork in the road tiff is that it is a plot point. Obviously, this choice is going to have consequences further into the story. (If it doesn’t, then the whole thing is a waste of a paragraph.)
Second, there’s character conflict going on in it, which is potentially interesting.
The third is how little we learn from the above passage. The fork is described as creepy. Jane is sensible but a bit wimpy, and Bob is, perhaps, a bit mean.
Perhaps you’re thinking that’s not bad. Anyone who’s seen a few crime dramas or suspense/horror films can easily fill in the blanks, right? This scene always plays out the same way.
But you aren’t writing, I hope, simply to encourage our audiences to cobble together a story out of remembered bits of their late night TV viewing. You want to put them in the car with the quarrelling couple. You want to raise the hairs on the backs of their neck when Jane peers down the shortcut. Maybe you even want to play against their expectations.
So how do you do that. . . especially if you are still trying to get comfortable with scene writing?
Step One: Talk it Out. This may seem awkward the first few times you try it, but the simplest, most mechanical approach for getting into scenewriting is to start with dialogue–write it like a script for a radio play.
Bob: Hey, there’s the shortcut I mentioned.
Jane: It’s not on the GPS.
Bob: Come on, I know where I’m going.
Jane: My experience with shortcuts is they take longer and the roads are worse.
Bob: Who was going 90 a minute ago? You said being late would be a disaster. Why are we late now? Because you hit the speed trap.
Jane: Exactly. Haste makes waste. Going off road now, down some. . . there aren’t any lights or signs.
Bob: Honey, it’s daytime.
Jane: For now. And look, up there . . .
Bob: Oh, like there’s never any roadkill on the highway? We should ask the GPS to steer us clear of every squashed gopher between here and–
Jane: Gopher? That carcass is huge! Whatever it is, it probably would show up on satellite.
Bob. And it stinks, granted, but if you’d just put it in the rear view…
Jane: Fine, have it your way!
My point with the above example isn’t that it has the depth and subtlety of Shakespeare. What the above does have going for it is conflict and immediacy–it is playing out as we read it, in other words. Even without description, dialogue tags or action, it is already more specific than the summary.
Left with the summary and informed by the tropes of television and cinema, a typical reader will put the man in the driver’s seat and set the stage at twilight or night. Instead, we have a brightly sunlit strip of road with a mangled corpse of some unknown, largish animal on it. What’s more, the woman arguing against the short cut is literally in the driver’s seat. If they take the ‘bad’ fork, the responsibility rests with Jane, not just Bob. For good or ill, just putting words in our characters’ mouths has moved at least a few paces away from standard Hollywood fare.
Step Two: Flesh it out. Writing just the dialogue for a scene puts the characters onstage and gives you the bones of the conflict; now fill in the rest. This isn’t a radio play, after all, it’s prose fiction. So start with those details that aren’t delivered elegantly in conversation.
Let’s tweak a couple lines.
Bob: Oh, like there’s never any roadkill on the highway? We should ask the GPS to steer us clear of every squashed gopher between here and–
“Gopher?” Jane said. “That carcass is huge! ”
She was right–in fact, whatever it was was probably big enough to pick up on satellite. A deer? Moose? Bear? Hair and hamburger, warming in the sun, and all of it obscured by a shifting murder of crows. . . Bob cleared his throat. “Let’s make up our minds one way or the other, okay? Whatever it is, the smell’s getting in the car.”
What have I done here?
I’ve added dialog tags, correct punctuation, a little description and some sensory details: namely fur, birds and stench. If I was to go through the entire scripted conversation, making the same changes, I’d have transformed this exchange from a summarized bit of action into the fully realized scene it obviously wants to be.
Make sense? Want to add your own two bits? You know what to do.
As of today, I still have two or three slots available in my upcoming UCLA Extension Writers’ Program course, which has the unwieldy name of: Novel Writing II: Writing a Novel the Professional Way. The course description can be found here, and this is the syllabus, subject to last-minute tweaks.
The weekly discussion questions in the syllabus should give you a good idea of how we’ll go about the workshop: I want to put your book under a microscope in a directed fashion, so each week we focus on a specific aspect of your storytelling: the setting, the prose, the characters, the plotting. The idea is to ensure that all the likely points of writing success or failure get looked at, with each book.
The other important thing to consider about me as an instructor is that I am friendly to all genres. Put in the simplest of terms: I don’t consider science fiction to be either superior to or inferior to something like literary fiction, or paranormal romance, or splatterpunk. I will read each book with care and respect, whether or not it’s something I’d buy for pleasure reading. I expect my students to learn to separate what they prefer–the stuff they like to read, in other words–from the issue of bad or good writing. This is more easily said than done. It takes practice… but I also think it’s important.
Someone always asks, so I’ll say up front: It is totally okay to register for Novel II without taking Novel I as long as you already have a good idea of what you’ll be writing. Novel I is essentially a book development class that takes you through the process of building the groundwork for a book: figuring out setting, choosing a protagonist, working through a basic outline of their journey. If you’ve done that and are ready to write fifty pages, or if you’ve written that much already and are ready to write fifty more, you can take this class.
I’m teaching Novel III next quarter… for that, you do need Novel II.
Needless to say, I’m not the only game in town at UCLA–there are dozens of great courses, dealing with the long form and the short, in prose, poetry and in screenwriting. If you’re looking for a course this winter, you can probably find something delightful and challenging in our catalog.
Let me know if you have any questions; I’ll be happy to answer them.
There are those who would have you believe that great fiction is written, primarily, by tormented, half-starved, garret-living addicts who weep out their epics, word by word, in random fits of Muse-fired productivity that alternate with binges, orgies, getting dumped, going through withdrawal, and embarking on the occasional sordid, scorched-boudoir battle with head lice, bedbugs, and despair.
I don’t really buy into this idea, myself. I’m far too invested in my comfortable, three squares a day plus Internet lifestyle. But I will say that there are things about writing that can make you absolutely bonkers. And by bonkers I mean a little obsessive, a lot frustrated, and plenty convinced that everyone’s writing more, selling more, and having an easier time of it.
My problem with this is that while you’re doing all that, you’re probably not writing fiction. You’re probably not being happy about the fact that you have the opportunity to do so. Having the leisure to make art is a privilege, a kind of wealth, and like all such things it’s not allocated equally to all the people of this world.
I should say up front I don’t think writers are especially different from other people in this regard. Most of us have some ability to ignore our lives’ myriad blessings, while whipping ourselves into all-consuming frenzies over car repairs or our love lives or stuff about work or our favorite TV show. But with writers, there are some standard things we chase around the mouse-wheels of our minds:
–I didn’t write 2000 words today, and Joe Scribe does twice that daily!
–I just realized my plot is a direct lift from Much Ado about Nothing!
–I checked my Amazon Sales Ranking forty times today and it was five, then nine, then seven, then four. . . how did it fall to nine?
A lot of the time, the things we obsess over have to do with publishing.
Writing and publishing are two different activities. Yes, they’re inextricably bound, unless you’re filing your manuscripts in an online archive for an audience of you and you alone. As writers, we’re looking to communicate. To tell stories, evoke emotions, to create memories of people and places that exist only in the minds of ourselves and our audiences.
When we’re writing, those stories and the people in them belong to us. When we finish a piece and do the publishing thing to it, we’re offering our work up to editors and audiences. Publishing your work is sharing it, basically, and that makes it less than 100% your own. And somehow this sharing process involves entangling creativity–the making of art–with the business of getting that finished creation to other people.
There’s collaboration involved, and money. The success you achieve in the sharing of your work is often seen as a measure of how well you’ve written it… even though we all know about great books that have been commercial failures, and bad ones that had roof-busting sales. (This is another thing you can make yourself bonkers over, if you choose.)
A thing about publishing is there’s a lot within the process that’s outside of author’s control.
–You can’t affect a magazine’s per-word rate for fiction. What they pay is what they pay.
–You can’t affect how fast someone will get back to you on a submission.
–They’re either gonna say yes, no, or perhaps rewrite it and we’ll see.
–Illustration? Design? Cover art? Decided by others.
–You can’t make a reviewer like you.
You see what I mean, right? Here you are, writing a novel, in total control of every aspect of each character’s life: how they look, what they wear, whether they lost their parents in a tragic Yurt fire or crashed a car into the Thames. And then you finish the book and offer it up to the world, and from there… well, it’s easy to feel like a leaf, ripped off a tree and aloft on uncaring winds.
Some of us deal with this well, others less so.
What’s the answer? Some say it’s self-publishing. And, indeed, there’s a lot more in your hands there: you get to say how the finished product looks, when it comes out, set the price point, figure out who handles which of the thousands of tasks within the production process . . .
. . . but who reads your book, what they think of it, whether they’ll shell out for your sequel or devote a few minutes of their precious time to putting up the ever crucial user review?
That’s still out of your hands.
So as you embark on publishing, learn to identify your own personal bonkers-making buttons. As far as you’re able, find genius ways to not push ’em.
Artists get into the creative racket, I hope, out of a deep impulse to experience the joy of creation. For writers it’s love of story, language, wordplay, the thrilling challenge of figuring out how to pull off beginning-middle-end or perfectly sketch out a hero’s journey. We want to thrill, scare, entertain, communicate–we want to reach out with our imaginations and and write new information into strangers’ brains.
And I hope most of us enjoy the hell of out of doing it.
So, in the vast, muddled-seeming mix of wondering what’s hot now, angsting over your daily word count, wondering if an agent will take you, and wishing that short story submission you put out six months ago would come back with an acceptance on it, what can you control?
–You can decide what you want to write.
–You can decide how much time and effort you spend on it.
–As much as possible, you can find ways to enjoy the process of creation, from the first glimmerings of a novel idea, on to the parts where you bounce up against the wall of “Damn! Writing is Hard!” and from there to the point where you get to write “The End.”
–You can push through the tough stuff to the rare, life-changing, purely revelatory moments. (And there are revelations, I promise–searing moments of clarity, about craft and yourself and the nature of human existence–times when you’ll know in your marrow that you couldn’t possibly be doing anything better with your life.)
If there’s no joy, if you’re not having fun, at least most of the time, what are the chances you’re making anything worth reading?
Thus endeth my pitch for not buying yourself a garret and a year’s supply of your favorite addictive substance: write often, try hard, stay healthy and one way or another please yourself. Write things you think are so damned cool you can’t wait to tell someone about them. Invent characters you love, pit them against clever, committed, backbreaking adversaries, beat the hell out them and cheer when they come out on top. Sketch out scenes that work perfectly well, only to decide you need a few lines of candy. . . and then go write in that clever bit of character interaction your writersoul is craving. It can come out in rewrite if it must, but just see what playing gets you.
Art is a pristine and endless beach, covered in multicolored sand. Go make yourself some sparkly pink castles.
I’ll tell you up front: this essay is really just a big pitch for putting some variety of tone in your fiction.
Imagine a smooth downward line, the kind of thing you’d see on an easy ski hill or a kiddie slide. If your main character starts out a little discontented on page one and their situation eases ever so slowly downhill as things get worse–and I do see novels like this–a book can get fairly tiresome to read. No matter how interesting the slide is, four hundred pages of prose can be wearing if they are mostly all the same flavor, if the story moves at the same speed.
(If the kiddie slide analogy doesn’t work for you, put on a favorite movie, close your eyes, and just focus on the soundtrack for a few minutes. Listen to the way the music changes from scene to scene and, when you’re thinking about the tone and pace of your work, imagine imbuing your writing with the same variation. Some writers even listen to soundtracks, or make up soundtracks for their books, just to ensure this.)
As with much writing advice, it’s sometimes easy to make a big proclamation: “Put variety in your writing style!” and harder to bring it off. But whether you have an outline or a finished manuscript in front of you, here are some concrete elements of the story you can examine to see if you’ve got a good mix of events, moods, and tones:
Mood: You can think about this, if you wish, in a very mechanical fashion. Look at each scene and jot down the main character’s primary emotional state. Use simple words: angry, happy, content, anxious, tired, confused, heartbroken, afraid, sad, surprised, delighted, blissful, etc.
Once you’ve got this list, go through again and just attach a number from 1-10, indicating the intensity of the emotion. How content are they? How angry? Ten sad? Two blissful?
Once you have this information, whether you’ve got a finished draft or are in the outline stage, it’s easier to assess what kind of balance you’ve achieved. If all the moods are upbeat, maybe there aren’t any big character lows. If the emotional intensity of every proposed scene is 9-10, you may be risking reader burnout.
A chart like this can also be handy for later reference. If something’s not working, you can go back and see: is the scene as intense as you meant for it to be? Are the emotions appropriate for what’s going on in the plot?
Over time, you should develop a sense of your project that will make this kind of charting unnecessary, but if you are inexperienced, overwhelmed or trying to get your book off to a great start, give it a try.
Action: The same principle that applies to character moods–change it up, in other words–can be applied to the ‘what happens?’ of the plot. And you can make a similar chart. This time, instead of mood, use simple verbs to describe what the characters are doing: walking, talking, driving, arguing, fighting, making love, giving birth, mourning, dying etc. Then use the numbers to describe how fast they’re moving, to assess the intensity of the action.
Lots of novels play out on a sort of contained level of intensity: they’re examinations of the human condition or relationships between a small group characters. Not every book has a car chase or a bank heist in every other chapter. But if you find yourself writing “Talking – 2” for every scene, consider how many books of this type you’d be willing to read. By the same token, if your action-adventure scene list boils down to “Fistfight – 10!” “Bomb blast – 10!” “Rescuing Kitty from the Train Tracks – 11.2!” … well, you know you’ve got something on your hands that may overstimulate us all.
Physical setting and sensory detail: Does every scene in your book take place in the same heavily curtained, dimly lit, cobweb-infested room? Give a little thought to how the mood and action of a given scene can be enhanced by the details: time of day, the quality (or lack) of light, interior versus exterior settings, the number of people around as the scene plays out, the degree of physical comfort offered by furnishings or terrain, and even tiny things like temperature.
Voice: do you have more than one point of view or point of view character? Can the sound of their narrative voices vary? Even if the overall narrative voice is consistent, a little nuance here and there within POV can add a lot of texture to a novel. The uneducated intern at your fictional hospital might perceive and relate things just a wee bit differently from the hospital director, the ten-year-old patient in room 3D and the nurse who immigrated to the big city from the West Indies three years ago.
By now you can probably see how all of these elements tie together. The ultimate goal isn’t just to collage a bunch of moods and tones together: it’s to unify your story elements to produce a specific emotional effect in each scene.
Think of all the times you’ve been reading so fast you’re almost breathless, because you have to know what’s going to happen to a given character next. You might have been scared for them, or excited, or hopeful, or upset–the point is, you felt really invested–there was a lot of suspense.
Then whatever immediate conflict you were reading about would have peaked. Ahhhh! I bet the next scene considerably calmer.
We’re in this to give the reader a bit of a ride. Some of us want to take them on a pleasant, thought-provoking and thoroughly engaging sail through the undusted corners of the human heart. Some of us want the full-on upside-down rollercoaster ride of emotion. Whatever effect you’re trying to achieve, give us some ups and downs. The result will be a book that’s not only fun to read.
Because, I promise, it’ll be more fun to write too.
I seem to have finally won a long, frustrating, anguish-inducing war against the hackers who kept slipping malware onto my site and trying to infect people with same as they came in to learn about my books. I had to bring in mercenaries: specifically, the fine folks at Sucuri Sitecheck, who run a service that scans your site for you for free, and another service that keeps it uninfested for $90 bucks a year. After weeks of flailing attempts at DIY and instructions from my site host that were so simple they required a computer programming degree to comprehend, and promises from same host that now the site really was clean, honest, when it just friggin’ wasn’t, Sucuri had me squared away within twelve hours.
Now that I’m not dumping my non-existent free time into fighting the malware wars, I have taken the advice of a couple extremely savvy friends (writer Matt Youngmark and artist Racheal Ashe, if you must know) and started a newsletter. The Join button is on my site and my plan is to issue chatty notes that you’ll all enjoy reading–the sort of stuff that goes into the letters I write, all too infrequently, to all the lovely peeps I aspire to keep up with. Plus, also, whatever photo I’ve taken lately that I’m most proud of, exclusive sneak peeks at works in progress, bragging about my UCLA students who’ve sold fiction and links to the latest courses and me stuff. Try out the join button or just let me know if you’re interested.
And when I get an issue out, if you think it’s missing something, let me know that, too.