Tag Archive | scenes

Write Your Novel: Scenes and Sequels

What is a scene? It is a part of the story that contains action. Each scene in your novel should set up a conflict, preferably one that builds on the previous one, like a series of steps. Step one is the basic story problem. The second step builds on that and ups the ante. The third builds on those two, and so on until you reach the highest step – or climax – of the story.

A scene puts the reader in the here and now. The action unfolds as they read, not in the past, where backstory takes place. Scenes contain setting details so the reader knows where he or she is as well as what is happening. They also contain action that is usually shown through dialogue between two or more characters. A scene contains three parts: goal (something the main character needs or wants), conflict (why s/he can’t have it), and disaster (a new problem as a result of the conflict). Each of these elements is important to a scene. And it’s important to keep upping the ante (the disaster), but remember to give your reader some breathing room too – a sequel.

A sequel also contains three parts – reaction (to something that happened), dilemma, and decision(what to do next). You can think of sequels as standing on the step of the staircase just before you take the next step up. You build the tension and action up, then give the characters a little rest. Let them catch their breaths for a couple of pages, then go back into the action. Sequels contain emotions, retrospection, or analysis. They are where the character has to step back, look at what has happened, and make a decision what to do next.

One thing you don’t want to do is overdo the narration part of a sequel. Though it is introspective, it should not be long or boring. Often authors go into what’s called an “info dump” where they tell the reader what’s going on, what has happened in the past, or what is going to happen. Narration slows the action down, but you don’t want to slow it down so much the reader gets bored and stops reading.

By utilizing scene and sequel, you control the pace of your story. Pacing is the rate at which the story proceeds. In a romance, your hero and heroine need to occasionally get out of bed; in a murder mystery, the detective needs time to look at the clues and figure out his or her next step. Even the characters in an action/adventure novel need a little time to regroup and reload.

There are two important aspects to check when looking at your pacing. One is the use of flashbacks, the second is called an information dump.

A flashback, also known as backstory, is simply the character thinking or talking about something that happened previously, either before the book started or in a previous section of the work. Usually, it is a bit of background information that is necessary either to understand the character or situation. If it shows up on the first page, or even in the first chapter, you may find yourself losing readers. Backstory rarely contains any action or tension. It is information, period.

The transition between the “now” time of the story and the flashback needs to flow smoothly so that the reader isn’t jarred. If possible, use dialogue to introduce or present backstory information. Dialogue keeps the passage more immediate. But be careful you don’t “info dump”.

An information dump is when you’re using dialogue or prose to present information the reader should have in order to understand the character or action. Yes, giving vital information is good. Giving it all at once, in large gulps, isn’t. Go through your story. Do you have long paragraphs of nothing more than explanations? Get rid of them. Break the info up into smaller bites and scatter it through the scene(s). In that way, you’re still giving the reader the information but not a lecture.

 

Try answering the following questions to see if you’ve got your scene and sequels heading in the right direction:

  1. What is the event that sets off the rest of the action in the book?
  2. Where does the story start? Try to start in the middle of the action or with “ordinary world”, but with something happening. If you start too soon with filler, you’ve lost your readers before you’ve hooked them.
  3. Have you started the first chapter with a bang – something interesting and important that draws the reader on?
  4. Have you avoided overloading the beginning with back story?
  5. Will the reader care what happens to the hero/heroine? Why or why not? If the reader doesn’t care, s/he won’t read the book.
  6. Do the events in each scene lead logically from one to the next, like a chain?
  7. Is there variety to the scenes?
  8. What complications have you thrown in to make reaching their goals difficult?
  9. Where in the book does the reader know the hero/heroine will reach his or her goal? If too soon, you lose readers, if too late, scenes may need to be cut.
  10. Do you have something important happen every three or four chapters?
  11. Have you allowed for areas of downtime?
  12. Have you ended any chapters with someone going to sleep? (not a good thing)
  13. Have you used enough detail to let the reader know setting, character, events, etc. but not so much as to bore him?
  14. Do you establish the main character of each scene at the beginning of the scene?
  15. Have you wrapped up all loose ends by the end of the book without being too predictable?
  16. If a mystery or suspense, do the clues you’ve given throughout the story support the ending?
  17. Do you have a catchy or unique title that is appropriate for the story?
  18. What makes your story unique? What gives it an edge over other stories?
  19. Do you have more dialogue than narration? Dialogue keeps the reader with the characters.
  20. When you read your story out loud, are there areas you tend to skip over? If you find them boring, so will your readers.
  21. Have you varied the length of your sentences? Too many long ones slow down the action and too many short ones lead to choppy reading.
  22. How much “white space” do you have? If you have areas where paragraphs run a half page or longer, can you break them up? There needs to be a balance between short and long.
  23. Have your characters played Hamlet? If they are prone to long, windy speeches, break them up. Have something happen while they’re talking.
  24. Have you devoted the right amount of space relevant to the character’s importance? Major characters get more page space, minor characters get less.
  25. Does the opening introduce the main characters and setting without being an information dump?
  26. Are transitions from “now” to “then” (flashbacks) as smooth as possible? Do you make them feel as if they are happening now

Write the novel: Sequels

This lesson will concentrate on sequels, which is nothing more than a transition that links two scenes, like a hallway between two rooms. It can be long or short, but, like a scene, it consists of three elements: reaction, problem, decision. It is an area of the story where the reader finds out what the character is thinking and trying to decide. It can also be the place for flashbacks (areas where the reader is let in on something that happened in the past that has an impact on what is currently happening.).

Sequels provide reasoning to your story. They let readers know WHY a character is doing what he’s doing, as well as how s/he reaches his/her decision. Sometimes, a character will decide something in a sequel, then do exactly the opposite. This can only work if we find out in the next sequel why he did what he did. It is a part of human nature to do what is contrary to what we should do, but there should be a valid reason. This is what is shown in a sequel. This can be powerful and dramatic, but the reasoning – the logic – has to be there. Sequel is aftermath. The state of affairs and the state of mind that shapes your character’s behavior AFTER disaster has knocked him down.

With sequels you can also control the pacing of your novel. Dwight Swain, in TECHNIQUES OF A SELLING WRITER, tells us that long scenes equal big interest and long sequels indicate strong plausibility. He also emphasizes that if your story tends to drag, you should strengthen and enlarge the scenes, add and build up the conflict. On the other hand, if it is moving too quickly, you can use sequel to back things off, give the characters, and the reader, a chance to breathe.

Jack Bickham (who was a student of Swain’s) wrote in SCENE & STRUCTURE some tricks you can play with in your sequels which will add to the reader’s pleasant discomfort:

  1. Set a clock ticking so the character has only so many minutes to reach a decision. Some other character may set this time limit, or the viewpoint character may set it himself.
  2. In the thought segment of the sequel, have the character realize whole new dimensions of the previous disaster and his present plight that he hadn’t thought of before.
  3. Consider having the character’s emotional reaction overwhelm him, so that he plunges back into the story battle with insufficient thought.
  4. Devise a way to insert a “roadblock” scene in the early stages of the action segment so that the viewpoint character must, in effect, have a sidebar fight of some kind to find his way back to the next scene which he sees as relating directly to his long-term story goal.
  5. Hold out on the new decision. Write something like, “Then she knew what she had to do.” But don’t tell the reader.
  6. Stage an interruption – an outside stimulus – which forces the character to “stop sequelizing” and meet the new threat.

Bickham says that you will find as you work more with dramatic narrative structure that some of the devices mentioned here can often be spotted in published stories. You’ll also notice how some authors “mix and match” their techniques, using a hint of one trick and parts of one or more others.

Homework: Look at your scenes from last week. Where do you need sequels? Be sure to include the three parts of a sequel: reaction, problem, decision.

REFERENCES:

Swain, Dwight, TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER, University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, ISBN 0-8061-1191-7

Bickham, Jack M., SCENE & STRUCTURE, (Elements of Fiction Writing Series), Writer’s Digest Books, ISBN 978-0-89879-906-4

Write that novel: Scenes

Dwight Swain, in his popular book TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER, defines scene as a unit of conflict lived through by character and reader. He tells us the big moments in our stories should all be in scene form. If something important happens to your characters or if you want some incident or part of the story to loom large in your readers’ minds, they must be in the form of scenes.

A scene moves your story forward while providing something interesting for the reader to read. It is action. It’s not flashback or back story or reflection, it is something happening. It’s physical and immediate. It’s the hero saving the town. It’s not him sitting in a bar telling everyone what he did. It happens here and now, on the page, not offstage.

Scene structure is simple, according to Swain. It consists of three elements:

a. goal

b. conflict

c. disaster

Swain tells us that in every scene, the point-of-view (POV) character (the person through whom we are experiencing the scene) should have a goal. That goal should be one of three things. He should want possession of something, relief from something, or revenge for something. If the hero wants something, and it is easily given to him, there is no conflict. This makes for a boring story – which is not what you want. You want your readers to be engaged in your story. Thus whatever the character wants must be difficult to obtain (conflict) and something has to happen that will keep him from reaching his goal (disaster).

For instance, suppose our character wants to buy a house in town so he can tear it down and build a condo(goal). He could just go up to the owners and offer them a boatload of money and hope they bought, but what if the woman living there grew up there, it was a family home (conflict) and she didn’t want to sell, especially to him (disaster)?

A scene is made up of action, reaction, action, reaction revolving around one central character, though there may be other characters in the action with him. That’s the way to include dialogue and move the story forward faster. Plus, it’s a little difficult to have a fist fight with yourself. Adding other characters adds conflict and action. But the central problem of the scene should still be what the main character wants. It should be whomever has the most at stake, the most to lose. But it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes, it can be a quirky character who will give the reader a different, but more interesting perspective.

Just remember to end your scene with a disaster. According to Swain, this is a hook – “a device for catching, holding, sustaining, or pulling” the reader in. It puts your hero in jeopardy. Makes things worse. Ups the ante (okay, any more cliché’s here?). You get the idea. It upsets the hero and the reader and gives him a new goal to aim for.

Once you’ve figured out your scene, you start to write it and get bogged down. There are several ways a scene can fail:

  1. No focus character – your reader needs to know whose head he is in
  2. The goal is weak – there has to be a short-range goal and it has to be something important to the character
  3. The character is weak – if the goal is important enough, he has to be willing to fight for it
  4. There is no sense of urgency – a scene has to be immediate. There needs to be a time constraint (either real or imagined)
  5. The opposition is too vague – there has to be something for the hero to fight against
  6. The opposition is weak – like #2, there has to be something the villain is willing to fight for
  7. The scene is trivial, monotonous, or boring – there has to be trouble, and a lot of it

And now you know.

Homework:

Start writing down ideas for scenes – major events in your story. Don’t worry about sequels – we’ll fill them in later. Right now, just hit the high points.

 

For further reading, I recommend: “Techniques of the Selling Writer” by Dwight V. Swain. It’s an oldie, but a very goodie.