Thinking of a Scene In Paragraphs

(yes, this blogpost is going up ahead of Tuesday morning, but that’s because Tuesday is a travel day for me, and I won’t have internet access for 15+ hours of it)

Last week I did a tweetstorm about treating sentences like cameras.  Today on the blog I want to go into more detail about that, and show you want it actually looks like.

Yes, I understand that our particular writing styles and choices are going to be (and should be) different, but I’m hoping the point comes through to you all the same. I believe very strongly in the idea that you have a responsibility to put the clearest broadcast of your art into the mind of the other person and that no matter what your art is, it will be filtered and affected by not only your biases and experiences as a creator, but by the biases and experiences of the audience. The best way to pierce this chain mail of expectation and perception is through clearly getting the idea out and across.

Don’t confuse clarity for simplicity or brevity. You don’t need to be simple or brief to be clear. And don’t mistake this for an argument about having more ‘tell’ than ‘show’, because it isn’t. Show and tell work together as concepts to help deliver the art into the person’s head. But that’s for another tweetstorm and another blogpost.

While today I’m using a scene from a movie, for your own work, I want you to picture it as visually and completely in your head, as if you’ve paused it and like some bad CSI CG scenes, you can fully walk around and through it.

To start off today, we need a scene. Let’s go grab a screenshot from whatever I’m watching on Netflix.

We’re gonna use this one. I like this scene.

This is a moment in Rogue One that I particularly like, though I chose it for the combination of dialogue, numerous things in the frame to describe, and its staging.

To get you thinking like a camera, here’s how I teach it.

  1. Make an inventory of things (not characters) you want to definitely write about in the scene.
  2. Make a list of all the characters you want to write about in the scene.
  3. Make a list of actions that happen in the scene, paying attention to both who does what, but also the order in which these actions happen.
  4. Make a list of stakes, goals, and things risked in the scene
  5. Make a list of all expectations each character in the scene.
  6. Write the scene.

Now if that sounds like I’m asking a lot of you for simple paragraphs, I don’t mean it to. But for those of you who have never done it like this, or you’re looking for a better road map so that you can better at it, I’m purposefully breaking the list out so you see how these things weave together to build something narratively sound.

Inventory of non-character things

This is objects in the scene that aren’t people. These can be the things held by people, but they’re also things like what’s in the background or furniture or the ground. Just so that there’s no confusion about my handwriting, here’s what that inventory would look like typed out.

Not a complete list, but it works for the example

Remember, these notes are just for me as the writer. No one’s going to check them out, and really I’m writing them down to keep myself on track as to what I definitely want to say either as components of a sentence or as a sentence entire.

No, the order I write this list in doesn’t matter, and no, the order I write them in doesn’t translate into the order I’ll write about them in the text. I’m just making a list, stop overthinking it.

List the characters

Again, just a list, no special order or attention. The paragraphs and the choices I make about how to write it will dictate where I put attention. Right now, I’m just corralling all the possible beings I could talk about.

I’m sure each trooper has a name, but this is my example. You go do your own.

It’s worth pointing out here that you can do this list before the item list. The order isn’t super critical, so long as by the time you get to the writing, you’ve got all the components organized. I tend to do the item list first, because I tend to skip over things in early drafts and don’t like having the “why did I leave this out” conversation with myself during later drafts.

Some of you are thinking, “Is it just a list of names?” and no, it doesn’t have to be. It can be whatever character associated information you need or want, but since this particular example scene happens well into the movie, let’s assume I’ve already covered the physical descriptions and traits elsewhere.

If this were the intro-to-the-characters scene (and you can argue that this moment in Rogue One is, but you’ve previously seen Chirrut one scene prior), then I’d attach to each item in the list a descriptor or two so that I can establish the details about the characters when they come up.

List the actions

Now that we have all the physical objects of the scene listed, we can figure out what’s going on with them. In a scene, nothing happens without affecting the time and space around it, and nothing happens that doesn’t somewhere have a documentable reaction.

I’ll break that down. If you’re going to have a character do something, the world around him and the characters around him will react in some way, even if that reaction is “nothing changes because of what’s happened.”

For instance, if the Hulk throws a building at you, presumably you’d be crushed by the building and the space where the building was would no longer have a building in it.

Actions are about what happens and what results because of the things that happen

I tend to write this inventory in the order I want the events to happen in the scene. This is the first time I start making decisions about the structure, since the later items on the six-part list will cover things like tone and atmosphere.

What this does not mean is that the first things listed will naturally take more focus or line-space than the later things. In every paragraph in a scene there’s at least one key piece of information that you want to get across to the reader. In this case it’s the Chirrut dialogue and the fact he just straight walks out among them.

The second item “no one shoots him” is a reaction to something else that happens in the scene. Reactions are actions too, so don’t exclude them. I’m sure someone will say they should go on their own list, and yes, I can see how that helps, but action and reaction will likely end up being their own blogpost, so for now, let’s stay on what we’re doing.

Stakes, goals, and things risked

For the next two items on the list, we have to get past the physical objects of the scene and look at the emotions and psychology of the moment. No one walks into a scene without having a goal and risking something to get that goal. No one gets out of a scene without some element(s) of the scene affecting them. Characters take their past forward, every time.

Every character or group of characters has a goal.

I know expectations are the next thing on the list, but don’t include the expectations into this list. Goals are objective, expectations aren’t. A goal of “I want a sandwich” is impacted by the expectation that I have the means to make a sandwich. Actions are bred more from expectations than goals, since they’re more immediate and more variable.

So why don’t expectations go first in our list? Because stakes are derived based on the situation and goal(s) colliding, which means expectations are the character’s assessment of how likely the goal is based on the situation.

What we choose as the goal is part of the overall character arc, since no arc is introduced and resolved in a single scene or beat. And yes, every character has a goal, even if they go unstated at a particular point in the story.

Expectations

Expectations are subjective because they’re the factor in character development where the skills and perceived risks come into play. I might be a fantastic golfer (skill) but I’m not sure I could play my best when my clubs are made of snakes (perceived risk), so my expectation might be that I won’t win the championship in this snake golf tournament.

Here in my Rogue One example, I’m going to make a clear decision as to what the scene is about based on what expectations I list and which ones I don’t.

Expectations shape actions because they’re the fluid influencers to achieve fixed goals

Write the Scene

Armed with all these pieces, we can write a scene.

The smoke and dust had barely settled when his voice filled the post-explosion silence. 

“I am one with the Force, and the Force is one with me. And I fear nothing.”

Odd, thought Stormtrooper C, that this blind man, this blind fool, could just walk into this moment, his moment, and start yapping. So he watched. 

Chirrut moved in a balletic way, The soft footfalls and the crunch of gravel and sand underscored the sort of grace that stood against the explosion. There were still the smells of burning concrete and flesh. But Chirrut seemed to not notice. Or if he did, he wasn’t letting on. 

And no one seemed to fire on him. It would make sense to, to flood the air with blaster fire and turn this blind fool into swiss cheese. But no one did. Not C with all his bravado. Not B with her itchy trigger finger. Not A with their eagerness to please. 

There was just this guy, standing there, talking at them.

It’s not a great moment when I write it out. It’s an example, and I could do a lot more visually with it. I could frame the explosion while slowing down time. I could take more space to talk about C and B and A individually.

There are loads of choices to make, and that’s one thing I want you to remember – the decisions you make matter.

Practice this. Watch things. Pause it and try to describe it in whatever way you’d rewrite it.

 

Happy writing

 

InboxWednesday -Epilogues, Prologues, and Immediate Series

It’s Wednesday, so pull on your waders and let’s head out into the inbox and see what we can find. Today we’ve got 3 questions: 2 about writing technique, and 1 about a publishing concept. Remember, if you have a question about anything writing, publishing, story, or really anything, you can get it answered on InboxWednesday, you just need to ask it.

I’ve written a dystopic MG love story set fifteen years after the melting of the ice caps. It’s sort of like Castaway meets When Harry Met Sally, […] if there were cannibals and pontoons. It’s nearly complete at 190k, I’m just writing the ending now. Any thoughts on an epilogue? – Mark

Hi Mark. Thanks for writing in. Before we talk epilogue, I want to point out that you’ve written 190,000 words, and that’s before you’ve written an ending. It’s possible that your ending could take your MS over 200,000 words. There’s an older rule that says anything over 110,000 qualifies as an “epic” novel. Ulysses is 265,222 words. Order of the Phoenix is 257,045.

I’m calling your attention to it because you’ve identified your work as MG, and middle grade generally falls between the 22,000 – 55,000 word range because it’s aimed at tweens. Even upper middle grade fiction is about 40,000 – 55,000, so be careful that the size of your story doesn’t do you in.

But that wasn’t what you asked me.

An epilogue is “the final chapter at the end of the story that reveals the fate of the characters that may or may nor occur some time after the novel’s events and possibly hint at sequels or loose ends.” Now whether you interpret “final” to be the last chapter you write after you write the chapter where you resolve the plot or whether it’s just the last chapter in the book, that’s up to you. However, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you need to advance time after you resolve plot so you can Harry Potter-style fill us in on our now-older protagonists. You don’t.

It’s okay to have some stories just end with a satisfying conclusion. Yes, even with the loose ends from chapter 12 still untucked. Yes, even without hinting that you’re going to crank out 6 other books with this main character. Sometimes a book is a single book, and that’s okay.

I’m not a fan of epilogues just for the sake of adding a nice smile and sigh at the end of an already satisfying story. It’s always struck me as sort of indulgent, maybe even a little flash and smug to have the need to keep demonstrating how talented an author is by giving an extra portion of character and content when we’ve already been sated.

So, Mark, my answer to you is tread carefully. How much resolution do you think is necessary? How much would a reader think necessary? Get the MS out to a beta reader and see how they feel with the story’s conclusion. (And seriously take a look at the word count, please.)

John, I’ve got a 46,350 word fantasy novel that I’m about to query, but I’m thinking I need a prologue, because a lot of books I’ve read this month all had them. Do I need a prologue? – Elise

When I wrote the first draft of this answer, I was sort of in a mood, so I said, “Take some of Mark’s words and add them to your MS”, but that’s kind of a dick answer, so instead I’ll mention that 46k is on the lean side for fantasy novels (most in the genre range from 90k to 110k), but there are a lot of venues who want novellas, which range from 20k to 52k usually. Now I don’t know where you’re querying, but you might want to look at calling it a novella and finding novella specific resources if you’re not getting much novel traction.

The prologue you asked about is an opening to a story that “establishes setting and gives background details.” In fantasy and science fiction, the prologue doesn’t feature the characters we’ll follow for the other chapters. Time is a factor, some prologues take place prior to the main story (as in Lord of the Rings, when you learn about Isildur and Agent Smith in the war), or they involve lesser characters who are just around for a few pages to set up the fact that we’re on a distant planet in a remote solar system and today’s taco day.

There’s no reason why you can’t do that world building in the beginning of the story. And frankly, even with a prologue, you’ll often need to do more building and setup in addition to whatever’s in the prologue if you do write one. And no, you can’t fit all the worldbuilding and setting into the prologue and expect the reader to understand it all before you get into the substance of the story.

Like epilogues, I don’t think you need a prologue every time, and especially not every time you dive into the SF/F waters. Often I read an MS with a prologue that sets up there being a prophecy and a single character fated to create massive story upheaval. Sometimes prologues are a few pages where the nigh immortal badguy sets up his reign of terror that will span generations. What I’m saying Elise, is that prologues often cover the same well-walked ground, and they can be mighty dull.

The solution? If you’re going to prologue, go with the amuse-bouche approach. Give us a little world building so we see how you work your craft. You don’t necessarily have to tease the plot, you don’t have to tease the characters, but take a few pages to show your writing chops in the created world-space and vibe of your story. make it a place where you show your technique, giving us an appealing entry point to the more specific story.

Good luck Elise.

John, what’s an immediate series? I read about it on a message board and didn’t understand what it was. – Karen

Karen, an immediate series is an old idea made new, but it didn’t always have that name. A long time ago, a lot of publication was done serially, with monthly installments showing up in periodicals like Collier’s or Black Mask, depending on genre. This episodic breakdown was good for publishers since it meant readers had to buy issue after issue or subscribe to follow a story from start to finish. It was also good for writers, in that it called for stories to be divisible into publishable chunks, and that work on craft helped form the foundations for how we produce stories today.

Serialization often focused on chapters. The immediate series focuses on more than chapters, often looking at novellas or near-novellas in length, that can be quickly published with very little lag time (because they were already written, it’s just a matter of getting them out the door). For instance, you may write 3 novellas about anthropomorphic samurai appliances and then self-publish one every 21 days in the Spring.

It’s about taking a shotgun approach to the reader’s shelf – get a lot of material out there, so that there are a lot of purchasing options, which can build an audience and financial base.

Doing that is not bad or wrong Karen, it’s one of many perfectly feasible approaches to publishing and marketing. For some people, it works, thanks to the strength of the first book, or the series premise. For some, it’s just emetic, you deluge the reader maybe too hastily and the books aren’t as strong, so a reader can skip any of the 15 you throw out there and you don’t build that audience or base.

Hope that answered your question Karen, thanks for it.

*

Looking at the inbox today, I think Friday’s post might be about MS length, which is sort of a contentious topic, but it’s worth weighing in on. See you then.

 

Happy writing.

Realism, Created Realism, and Creative Liberty

While you’re reading this, I’m a doctor’s appointment. But since almost anything is going to be better to hear about than my thrilling adventures paying $11 an hour for parking and shuffling from exam room to exam room, let’s talk writing. And we’ll start by talking about my dad.

I seldom paint my father in flattering lights, because at times our ‘relationship’ (loosest possible air-quotes there) ranges somewhere from cruel to cold to hostile to indifferent. I think this story falls in the indifferent region.

My dad has an obsession with realism. He wants to know things that really happened, he will comment loudly and often as to how realistic something is or was, and generally be dismissive of anything that isn’t grounded in hard verifiable fact. I think this ties into his obsession with honesty, since the minute anyone says anything different than what has been said previously (even as a correction) he will label them a dishonorable liar, and state that nothing they say can be believed. This proclamation lasts anywhere from twelve to forty-eight hours and dogs them long after, and is not limited to people. Movies and books are also held to this scrutiny.

He’s called out a movie like the Hobbit for both obvious reasons (there aren’t wizards in the world, and that guy isn’t a dwarf, he’s an actor he saw in another movie) and the not-so-obvious (a dragon would have just burnt the entire town, not saved one wooden tower from where someone could fight back). He’s sighed and grumped his way through comedies like the Naked Gun because a pratfall would lead to actual injury. Even media he likes (James Bond, Civil War movies and books) aren’t immune from this, because he’ll make a point of telling you that while it has things he likes, “you can’t really believe the author, because they weren’t there and they might be lying just to make money, because that’s what people do, make things up for money.”

This happens so frequently that I now avoid any opportunity to watch television with him, outside of football. But, I tell you this story because there’s an important creative point buried in among all my father’s obsessions – realism is subjective, malleable and under the author’s control.

We accept a certain amount of realism if we’re not outright told about it. A thriller about a Washington insider uncovering a conspiracy is assumed to have Earth-based gravity and physics, for instance. The high fantasy war between clans of elves is going to involve some weapons or terms you can see actual pictures of like castles, longbows, or catapults. This realism is the foundation for whatever we do change when we write, and we count on the reader passively agreeing to a base amount of uncommunicated information before we get too far, even on Page 1.

And we use that realism because to detail all the things that are the same as the reader’s experience would eat up pages and likely be lethal boring. Even in a simple expositive paragraph or point of narration like “And many things were exactly as they were on an average Earth day.” (Go on, read that in Stephen Fry’s voice, I dare you.) is kind of dull sentence that can clog up whatever momentum you’re building. Yes, narration confirms tone, but every sentence confirms tone, even when it isn’t explicit.

In light of the assumed commonalities the made up stuff has with our real life stuff, we’re free then to talk about what’s different. It’s the differences that make the story not only stand out when compared to other stories on the shelf, but also distinguish the writer’s efforts and craftwork.

The fiddly bit here is that while the differences are made up by the author, they’re real within the context of the book. There’s a fancy I-went-to-school term for this (one I actually like) called created realism.If you’re writing a space opera and you decide that the currency of your space realm is a cube of some precious metal, and you name them blortblatts, then blortblatts are a thing in your story, as real as the trignominium that powers your FTL drives and the quantodecaoscillators that fire your space soldier’s graser shotgun.

Maybe this is something you’ve always understood, but didn’t know there was a name for it. Maybe you didn’t realize how critical this is for all storytelling, from children’s books (it’s how the animals talk) to bestsellers (a secret government program of assassins exists, and one has amnesia). This concept is limited only by our decision making-process (remember Rule 1 – writing is the act of making decisions).

This is a good spot to point out that judging a story (book/film/tv show/whatever) on how realistic is can make for a disappointing experience. What my dad does, discarding or disregarding media because it’s not so deeply and almost inflexibly rooted in real life stuff, means he doesn’t let himself enjoy things as much as he could. From a production standpoint, taking this idea on means you can paralyze yourself in trying to make the fake stuff you made up while writing notes in that coffee shop last week sound as real as the stuff you saw at Costco yesterday. You can grind yourself to a halt trying way too hard to do a thing you don’t actually need to do.

Lack of realism isn’t always a bad thing. Just like anything else, if you take it too far, then yes, it can render anything you make hard to follow, but used effectively, you can make made up stuff sound just like a real thing. Here are some examples:

A brand of gun or car someone uses; a corporation; the CEO of that corporation; a brand of cereal; currency; slang used by characters; names of battles or maneuvers; landmarks within a region; species of animal or plants; type of drinks; fast food offerings; television networks; people; places; things

See what I’m getting at? It’s through created realism that we draw creative liberty. If poetic license is where you take an existing thing tweak it just a little so that it suits your need, then creative liberty is where something is made up entirely, even if it has real world models or references.

And it’s okay to do that. It’s completely fine. It doesn’t make you a bad person, a bad author, or a bad creator. Yes, my dad might never read your stuff, but my dad doesn’t read a lot of stuff, and he certainly couldn’t be bothered to write a review either way (because, surprise, you can’t trust anything on the internet … though the man does trust television news … hmm)

Take liberties. Make stuff up. Design and create what you want to, and do it the best ways you know how. You’re the boss of your writing, so you can do whatever you need to do to get the story from Point A to Point B, or point Q in your head to point Z finally on paper.

Keep writing. Keep going.

Personal Note: Hopefully today’s trip to the doctor has more good news than bad. Cross appendages. We’ll talk soon. Follow me on Twitter for loads more writing info, especially next week while I’m traveling.