Monday, 2 January 2012

Inside A Story, Lots Of Little Stories

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.

If you found this post of interest please give it a  retweet. Cheers. 


Anonymous said...

You have to let the reader stop and catch their breath from time to time. So character development is a good way to accomplish this without wasting the reader's time with fluff and data dump.

Michael Offutt, Visitor from the Future said...

That is the creepiest picture. A guy pulling apart his chest and letting his innards spill out.


mooderino said...

@Stephen-yep, but the way you do it can still be fun adn angaging for the reader.

@Michael-took me ages to build, very hard finding that many yellow lego bricks.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Complicated scene into simple steps - check!

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

The idea of thinking of the scene as a piece of micro-fiction is excellent! Especially for someone like me, who writes a lot of flash/hint/twitter stories.

Anonymous said...

Great post mooderino! I'm a pantser and I definitely have to go back and massage scenes and make sure I have a hook for each scene and micro tension and nuanced layers... This has helped me look at it in another way, thanks!

Clarissa Draper said...

Sadly, not everything in my story is interesting to me. However, if it's not interesting to me, it's not going to be for my reader. But, sometimes those parts are needed in my novel. That's why I like your thoughts on adding other stuff to the scene to make it interesting or to add tension. Thanks for this post.

mmshaunakelley said...

Sometimes writing style has to carry you through. With the right tone, descriptions, and control, you can keep something at least engaging if not interesting through the mundane.

mooderino said...

@Alex-and simple scenes into complicated steps.

@Madeline-glad to be of service.

@angela-you're welcome.

@clarissa-I think any kind of scene can be made to work, even info dumping. i don't think of it as the right way to tell a story, I think of it as the best way to tell your story.

@shauna-true, but how you write should come from choice, not necessity. If you don't have the ability to write any other way, chances are your writing style won't be enough to disguise that fact.

J.L. Campbell said...

It's a challenge all right, but good sense and experience will help the writer decide what to keep and what will bore the reader to sleep.

Heather said...

I have to say, I am a pantser and I could not believe the twists and turns and setups for later reward I worked into my NaNo novel! I freaked myself out as it was flying out of my brain to my fingers and onto the screen, so I would argue that pantsers are capable of the set up for later reward you speak of. That's just me, so maybe I'm not the norm? My husbands been telling me I'm one of a kind for 15 years! ;)

julie fedderson said...

I'm still trying to figure out how to fit a ladder in my tights. Great post.

Donna Hole said...

I am a panster, and I don't consider my first draft "draft zero". Yes, I have to go back at times and re-write or even write in details. And sometimes those detail change what happens a few scenes or a few chapters later.

But I don't consider that any different than a plotter who outlines the entire novel, then returns to "fill in" all the details.

Since I write scene by scene towards an overall plot concept, I don't feel I'm wasting any writing or planning time by going back and filling in a few extra details here and there. I actually enjoy the editing process though. I feel thats where my actual writing starts, and all "plotting" phase has ended.

I know what you're saying about keeping the reader's interest while getting to the major event. I think both plotters and pansters get there diffently, but in the end, the necessary story building is accomplished.

If not, then as you say, the book is very boring with a few exciting scenes :)


LD Masterson said...

Another of your posts I'm adding to my save folder. Thanks.

mooderino said...

@JL-I agree, but then that's true of all aspects of writing.

@Heather-I think anyone who has a story to tell can find twists and turns popping into their heads. Which is great. It's those times when that doesn't happen that a little craft comes in useful.

@Julie-has to be a very small ladder.

@Donna-the plotter's outline and the pantser's initial draft can serve similar roles, but the outline doesn't take as much time to create. The outline would be the plotter's draft zero. Of course, there are times when a pantser can come up with gold first time out, as Heather can attest to.

@LD-you're very welcome.

Melissa Sugar said...

This is a very informative article. I loved the examples given. I learn best by example. I always considered myself a panster and I was until I started working with plot consultant, Martha Alderson (awesome lady). I now see that my first draft, while I would not call it "draft zero" accomplished the same thing for my writing as a detailed outline. The biggest difference is that the draft took much longer to write. I am plotting my second book on a huge plot diagram that follows my outline and I have accomplished more in one month than I did in nearly a year with a first draft.

Happy New Year and thanks of sharing. I will definitely be back on Thursday to learn more.

nutschell said...

These are great tips for making our stories more interesting. God knows I need it! Sometimes in order to fulfill my designated word count for the day I just continue to write chapters even if my mind isn't exactly having a creative streak. So my chapters turn out to be excruciatingly boring. These are certainly techniques I'll try to use to spice them up in my rewrite.

By the way, a very Happy new year to yoU!


Mark Noce said...

Great question to post. I find that real life is pretty complicated, but that can translate to confusion on the written page. So I try to keep things simple (at least at first). Neat blog:)

The Golden Eagle said...

Interesting idea, considering them all as mini-stories. I suppose that would relate to the idea of each chapter standing on its own and having structure; only on an even smaller scale.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

This is a brilliant post. Even though I plot before I write my first draft, I still go back and add those details that I hadn't thought of before.

Lydia Kang said...

THat kind of subtext is hard to do, but when done well, is a joy to read.

Julie Daines said...

This is exactly what I needed to hear this morning as I sit down to major revisions for my editor. Thanks!!

mooderino said...

@Melissa-I think most panstsers end up with a detailed outline after their first draft, but for some it's th eonly way to get their creative juices going. It is much quicker the other way.

@nutschell-i think it's better to keep going and fix things later, than get stuck in one place. And happy new year to you too.

@Mark-Hello. A comlex, interesting idea doesn't necessarily have to be convoluted and rambling (like life). Simple is good, simplistic, not so much.

@Golden-yes, and then also intertwining so they play off each other. Like refrains in music.

@Stina-glad you liked it.

@lydia-agreed. I hope to demostrate it better using The Hunger Games on Thursday.

@Julie-you're welcome.

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