Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Designing Scenes

I thought I’d talk about designing scenes a little bit since I seem to be doing an awful lot of it lately. It’s not something I do all the time, but it comes in particularly handy when I’m under a deadline and have to produce pages at a certain rate.

For me, scene design is a way of nailing down the structural support beams of a scene so that I can begin filling in around that. It’s also a way for me to get a handle on what a scene is about, both internally and externally, so I don’t have to write as many versions of it.

The traditional idea of outlining a scene talks in terms of identifying a characters goal or objective in a scene. What does the character want, who is standing in her way, and how does that get resolved.

However that doesn’t really work for me for a couple of reasons, one of which is my own limited ability to see beyond the nose to nose type of conflict that creates. Also, my characters tend to be reactive rather than proactive. Part of that stems from them being kids moving in an adult world; their ability to devise concrete goals is greatly curtailed. I deal with this by having them have concrete emotional goals; wanting to keep their family safe, longing for their old life, etc.

However, once an external event happens, they have a goal in how to deal with that, but I seem constitutionally unable to write a book where a character starts out with a concrete goal and pursues it until the end of the book.

So when brainstorming or designing scenes, I tend to think more in terms of:

What has to happen in this scene?
What sort of event has to take place in order to force the character out of her comfort zone and get her to take action?
How does her action further the plot?
How does that decision and subsequent action affect her internal arc/growth?
Is it a huge step forward? (And if so, how does that feel for her?)
Or is she falling back on old behaviors?
Does anything in this scene change her world view? Change how she views the people around her?

Then of course there are the fundamentals:
Where will the scene take place?
Is there a location that would give it more drama?
A time of day that will create even more tension?

Often a lot of that has to be researched. Usually, in that research, I will find some hidden gems that add to the scene or plot.

An Example: Theo has to sneak out and do X.

So the stuff I have to figure out before I even write the scene might include:

Where is she going to sneak to?
Whom does she have to evade while sneaking?
What sort of travel is involved, and what sort of complications does that bring? i.e. How hard will it be for her to hire a carriage on her own, walk the three miles, etc.
Will there be someone waiting for her when she gets there, either friend or foe?
What physical challenges will she run into? A locked door, being followed, not knowing where she is going, needing directions, etc.
Then once she gets to where she needs to be and completes X, how does that make things worse or add complications?
If it doesn’t, is there something I can do so that it does?
Does the scene ending create a false sense of completion? Or does it tumble the reader directly into the next scene? (And I think you need a variety of both in a book.)

Another, less dramatic scene might evolve this way:

Theo is in Egypt with her mother, having been allowed to come along on a dig. Being on the dig is a big part of Theo’s Egypt experience, but it’s not where the heart or heat of the action of the book is. Still, I need to include some of it because it’s a fundamental part of the book.

Scene: Theo goes to excavation sight with Mother

What are the physical characteristics of the sight?
Do they lend themselves to complications or revelations?
Is there a way to connect any of those complications or revelations back to the major plot going on? Can her actions in this scene lead her to an epiphany she can use later in the book?
Do they encounter anyone unexpected at the sight?
What other characters are in this scene?
Can I use those relationships to echo or contrast with the main plot?

Et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum, you get the picture.

One last important element for me in scene design is to sit down and figure out what the other off screen characters have been doing and how their off screen actions might impact what’s going on in the scene. It’s also where I check to see how Theo’s actions might be affecting other aspects of her life. It’s surprising how much stuff I can dig up that way.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Of Writing and Training Wheels

I’ve been thinking a lot about story beginnings lately, fueled in part by the two books I’m working on, but also on my reading and television watching. There is such a fine art to beginning a story. My son and I have been watching The Wire, and it is great TV. However, we almost stopped watching the first season after the first two episodes because we were so lost. It was only the huge amount of praise the show had garnered that kept us going.

As I mentioned before, the second season opened with an entirely new milieu, which was surprising, but refreshing. So many audiences (reading and television) connect with the community of the story that it is always a risk to mess with that. But without risk, staleness can be a short step away. So even though the second season opened with such a giant side step, I was immediately hooked because I had a good sense of where the story was going.

The third season, however, went back to the world of the first season. In theory, this should have been a great move because its taking the audience back to what they first loved about the series. But I have to tell you, it was about five episodes of watching disparate story threads and plot lines and having no idea where they would intersect. It was frustrating and if I hadn’t already invested two seasons worth of my time, I might have given up.

Lastly, I’ve been reading a book that I’m really enjoying, but the first 60 pages are all backstory. And you know what? It totally works. Part of that is because this is a masterful storyteller, but also it seemed necessary to me because without this information, the rest of the story wouldn’t have been a story. Let me see if I can explain that.

Conventional wisdom says that we should start where the trouble starts. But I tend to balk at that because I think it’s better to get a sense of the character first and show their emotional wound or scar so the reader can bond with them. The other piece of it, the piece that this book drove home, is that trouble isn’t Trouble without context.

A parent dying isn’t necessarily where the trouble starts, unless that death propels the character into something else: sets them free, or casts them adrift. And as a reader, unless I’ve witnessed at least some of that relationship, I won’t recognize that it is, indeed, Trouble.

Which is a long way of saying that I am constantly surprised by how much time I have to spend unlearning the rules. How much time I spend telling the Rule Monitor in my head to shut up. The problem is, I was an obedient child and a good girl. Breaking rules feels so, wow, I’m searching for the right word here. Reckless. Daring. No, more irresponsible than that. Maybe that’s the word: irresponsible.

But lately I’ve been trying to think of Writing Rules as Training Wheels.

When we’re first starting out, we absolutely need them or our writing would be an unformed, sloppy mess and never achieve the proper momentum. But once we have achieved that momentum, a certain level of efficiency, then those training wheels simply get in our way. They keep us from daring to try new things or execute amazing feats; popping a wheelie or a radical slide.

But in order for us to become better writers, we have to ditch the training wheels. Not with wild abandon, but in those moments when we know, deep in our heart, that the story needs it, and we also know we’re ready to try it. That’s when those training wheels need to come off.

I know, I know. I go away for weeks on end, then when I return I write a ridiculously long entry. Sorry about that. You can read it in installments if you’d like. ☺