Monday, 4 August 2014

Week Fifteen: Writing Scenes

Cut the waffle, and make something happen ...

This may seem obvious, but novels are made up out of scenes. Yet one of the problems even established writers can face is moving their characters in and out of scenes cleanly.

You've probably read examples of this yourself in published novels: the characters are talking, but nothing changes. Nothing happens. The reader is forced to gnaw her own arm off out of sheer frustration.

So what's gone wrong? The writer is 'between scenes' here, unsure how to manoeuvre her characters out of one situation and into another. So what you get first is an introduction scene - rather like a green room at a festival - where the characters wait before going on stage. Later you will have a debriefing scene where characters discuss the events of the preceding scene. The writer tells you what is going to happen; then shows it happening; then reminds you what just happened.

If you find yourself caught in this trap, the thing to do is take a leaf out of a scriptwriter's book and start writing in scenes.

Essentially, this entails imagining your story as a film. You create a 'storyboard' made up of scenes - the encounter scene, the kidnap scene, the campfire scene, the sex scene, the rescue scene - and then write straight in and out of them. No long intros, no faffing about with mundanities, no scenes of exposition afterwards that may leave your reader squirming with boredom. You cut to the chase, as they used to say in movie-making.

In media res ...
Most good writers know to start a scene in media res: in the middle of things. But I've seen this taken to extremes: no introduction at all, no scene setting, just a line of dialogue and bang, we're away. That's not the answer either. In film, there is usually an 'establishing shot' - the outside of a hospital or house, to let us know where this scene is set - and you need that in your novel too.

The establishing intro does not need to be elaborate. A simple one-liner like, 'Charlotte Street was empty and dark, except for a sickly pool of light under the one street lamp still working' may be all you need. Or if retelling Little Red Riding Hood, a neat jump cut from a terrifying encounter with Mr Wolf might be, 'Grandma's house is on the other side of the wood, and a good fifteen minute walk; today I reach it in eight minutes flat, my face hot with exertion. "Grandma?" I knock, but there's no reply.'

Then write your action scene.

A scene should be like a kernel, a seed that contains all the information - the DNA, if you like - about your story, but in miniature. If you can write individual scenes that mimic, in some way, the overarching action of your plot, you will be doing well. This should happen naturally when you are on top form, and struggling for it will not improve your novel, so don't worry too much. But if you see it happening, learn from that and see where else you can draw comparisons with other parts of your story or echo your theme in a scene's backdrop or action.

Gustave Dore's portrayal of the poet Dante, lost in a dark wood in the Inferno - this happens to us all!

To help with this, stay visual in your writing. Your creative brain is much cleverer than your conscious mind, so trust yourself to reach for a strong visual metaphor when setting your scene. Landscape and specific objects may seem to have arrived in a random manner, but if you're writing well, you may find they click perfectly with your story. The scary dark wood in Little Red Riding Hood is a common visual metaphor for when characters have lost their way or are faced with the unknown - see Dante for more details. Henry James knew about visual metaphor when he called his novel about broken relationships The Golden Bowl, as did Dashiell Hammett with The Maltese Falcon.

Objects like this may be brilliant visual metaphors, or they may be McGuffins, unimportant except in their value to the plot. Either way they provide a hook for the reader that makes a story truly memorable. In particular, they provide a pivotal point around which an action scene can swing, giving it added momentum on the way out.

Keep scenes as short as possible. Short scenes avoid the loose ramblings of a writer who is mentally on her way to the kettle, and they increase the pace and tension. Books can sag, especially in the middle. A series of short scenes, sharp in, even swifter out, can tauten your structure until it sings with tension.

Anything that goes over more than, say, six or seven pages, is edging into long scene territory and will slow your novel and lose you tension. If you can't avoid that, it's probably quite a complex scene, in which case, see if you can break the big scene into smaller units of action. This works best when there are multiple characters and you can switch between them, as a camera lens might do during a fight or confrontation.

For inspiration, see this classic scene below - using a musical pocket watch as a focal and auditory point for the scene - from For A Few Dollars More.

In general, avoid lengthy scenes - these easily slip out of your control and into unnecessary dialogue you did not intend to happen - especially those that remain in one location, like the interior of a car. Road trip stories are an exception, but even then, find a way to break up the monotony of a claustrophobic setting: force your characters into bars, up mountains, down holes in the road - anywhere but the passenger seat!

QUESTION: Have you ever found your characters talking aimlessly - maybe over a pot of tea - and been unsure how to move them on? What tips do you have for maintaining scene tension?

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Many thanks, Jane Holland