Let’s say in this chapter I’m writing Jurgen discovers he is the father of ex-girlfriend Maria’s teenage son. That revelation at the end of the chapter is dramatic and emotional and vital to the rest of the story.
Let’s say the rough outline of this chapter is Jurgen bumps into Maria out shopping, he offers her a lift home, she invites him in for coffee, he sees a photo of the kid and there’s no mistaking the resemblance. Cue major drama.
It’s very easy to consider the reveal a big enough deal that everything else before it becomes very direct and simple. They bump into each other, say hellos, polite chatting, an offer of a lift etc. The big dramatic moment coming up is so omnipresent for the writer that everything else seems to take on added meaning. However, for the reader, that isn’t true.
A series of bland, mundane events in the life of two people will read just like what it is. When the moment of realisation comes for Jurgen, its meaning and implication will be clear, but the experience of getting to that point won’t be a particularly enjoyable one.
Not every scene is going to be a high-octane ride where the momentum keeps the reader glued to the page. Some scenes need to set stuff up, slow things down, and even portray normal life. So how do you do that without boring the reader to tears?
Every scene needs something going on that’s more that what is literally going on. You have to look at a scene, for example the initial moment when Jurgen and Maria bump into one another, and ask yourself, what’s the story here? If this was the only thing that happened, two old lovers saw each other after many years, what would make what happens next worth repeating to a third party?
The fact it is an important part of the larger story (they have to meet so that the rest of the story can take place) is irrelevant. The writer knows it’s an important step in the overall journey, the reader does not. They have to be interested in the scene being played out on the page for its own sake. Think of it as a piece of micro-fiction that has to hold the reader’s attention and its true purpose (as the first in a sequence of event) is a bonus that will only add to the reader’s engagement levels.
How you go about making that mini-story satisfying to read is more or less the same as how you would make any story interesting, but it doesn’t have to be an epic tale or overly involved. A single line that makes it feel like things aren’t as they appear can be enough to spark an idea in the reader’s head.
If when Jurgen and Maria meet she tells him she never married and has no kids, and her trolley is full of Frosties, Ben 10 chocolate bars and a football shirt, that’s enough to get the gears working. If, as they chat, she starts eating the junk food trying to act like it’s her normal diet, the idea she’s desperate for him not to know the truth will start to seep through what could be a very funny scene.
On the other hand, if Maria is shown to be doing normal shopping, establishing her as a normal shopper while filling in what she looks like, how she’s dressed etc., even though that provides useful information, it will read as flat and generic.
It’s that moment when ideas start occurring in the reader’s head that haven’t been stated in the text that 'stuff happening' becomes a story. And that can be very minor and concise.
It is also possible to use simple, literal actions to build an interesting scene. This is more of a cinematic device, similar to montage theory, but can be used for literary purposes too. A woman puts the kettle on. She takes out a mug, tea bags, sugar, milk and a box of poison. The kettle boils, she pours it into the mug with the teabag. While it brews she pulls a mousetrap out from under the bottom cupboard and puts some rat poison in it. She takes the teabag out of the tea and reaches for the sugar. A man shouts from the other room, “Where’s my tea, you old cow?” The woman closes her eyes and takes a breath. The woman brings the cup of tea, with a plate of cookies, to her husband watching the TV. He takes a sip and makes a face. “Is this milk off?”
Whereas the previous example of Maria shopping was taking a simple activity and making it more complicated, here I’m actually taking what is a complicated scene and breaking it down into simple steps. From the perspective of the reader it seems to be quite straightforward at first, but my advantage as the writer is that I know everything and the simplicity is an illusion I can create because I can work backwards from the end, using implication and misdirection to generate interest until the true meaning becomes apparent.
It is one of the disadvantages of pantsing (writing by the seat of your pants) that they often don’t know where a scene is going so can’t set things up in this way in the initial draft—they have to go over what they’ve improvised and shape it later—which is why I think of a pantser’s first draft as more of a Draft Zero. Any pantser's out there see it differently?
The other technique that allows a very dry and straight up say-what-you-see method of writing a scene is if the thing the character is doing is something people find innately interesting. If a character finds himself in the private wing of Buckingham Palace and just describes what he sees, readers would be interested in getting information they aren’t normally privy to.
Or if a woman in a rush has an original way to hide a ladder in her tights, I imagine a textbook description of how she goes about it will be of interest to a lot of people. Although, what constitutes ‘innately interesting’ is obviously a matter for each writer to decide for themselves.
Ultimately that’s what story is. The literal depiction of life is just a tool (among many) to create a metaphorical narrative, where what you get is more than what you see. It’s the creation of an idea in a person’s mind that wasn’t put there by anyone, it just emerges by itself through the clash of various scenes, that lifts a story off the page.
And the writer has the great advantage of knowing where things end up going, so instead of thinking there’s good stuff coming up, I can leave this dull scene as it is, you can actually use the good stuff (the revelation, the dramatic moment, the next piece of the puzzle) to boost the earlier scenes, and link them into the larger narrative.
In Maria’s case, I know she has this son, and I know the reader won’t find out until the end of the chapter. She certainly won’t mention him to Jurgen. And I could totally make the cute-meet between her and Jurgen an interesting one without ever referencing her kid. But I know what this scene is about and putting the box of Frosties in the trolley allows me to provide a link to that larger narrative. Of course, there are numerous other ways to do that too.
These techniques are also very useful when you have to work in backstory and exposition into a story, something that is treated very critically. Not because backstory and exposition aren't necessary (they're an essential part of any story), but because it’s usually done in a very uninteresting fashion.
Since it’s a difficult thing to really get to grips with, especially if everything in your own story seems interesting to you (it’s very difficult for a writer to see his story the way a reader does), in my Thursday post I’m going to do a follow-up, using The Hunger Games (a story with huge amounts of backstory and exposition dumped all over the place) to show how these techniques can be put to good use. Hope you’ll come back for that.
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