Thursday 15 March 2012

Writing The Other Scene

In every story there are scenes, maybe whole chapters, where it’s all happening. Action, drama, twists and surprise revelations. Hearts are broken, villains behave in dastardly fashion and a hero triumphs. You love writing it, and you know the reader will love reading it.

And then there are the other scenes.

The scenes that serve a purpose. Necessary. Connecting. Functional. Making those scenes come alive is not so easy. In fact it often feels like the best thing to do is make them as plain and straightforward as possible, so you’re in and out nice and quick. Which is an excellent way to bore the reader. 

So how do you make sure you don't do that?

Every scene is imparting two things, where we are in the overall story, and what’s happening right now.

When what’s happening in the scene is closely tied to the overall story (the President’s daughter has been kidnapped and in the scene the hero is chasing the kidnapper) things tend to take care of themselves.

However, when the scene is only tangentially connected to the main storyline (our hero is thrown off the case for speaking out of line and has to go home and wait until he’s needed) then the story can become slow and meandering.

Even though what’s happening in the scene may be a necessary event (it’s only when he’s at home watching Animal Planet that he realises there’s a mole in the team), the fact that the scene is a key part of the main storyline does not excuse it for being dull or lacking narrative complexity.

Each scene or chapter has to be interesting. The fact it’s important isn’t going to be enough to carry it, especially as its importance may not be immediately obvious. Even if the scene is about the character feeling bored or frustrated or unsure of what to do, you can (and should) make those types of scenes engaging for the reader.

How you manoeuvre characters into position, or get them to go where you need them to be, will not be judged by how things turn out at the end. For the writer, who knows where things are going, it may feel like getting to the good bit is the important part, but readers don’t judge a story by the excellent parts they haven’t got to yet, they judge it by the quality of the part they’re reading right now.

If, for example, you have a great sex scene planned, and you want it to happen in a barn full of haystacks, and you know that’s going to be a really great scene with lust and passion and imaginative uses of pitchforks. So you havethe characters decide to spend the weekend in the countryside on a whim, get in the car and drive up to a farm and then have them go for a walk and get caught in the rain and have to find shelter in a barn etc. It's all very reasonable set up, but the whole trip is the story for the reader, not just the bit the writer is excited about.

Every step of the way (why they decide to go to the country, how they go, what happens on the journey, what happens when they arrive, how they end up in the barn) has to be looked at from a narrative point of view (what’s interesting about this, how does it reflect the characters views and attitudes, where’s the tension, where’s the emotion, is there conflict, is it obvious and predictable).

You have to keep the reader engaged and entertained on the journey between the good bits. A simple breakdown of what they’re doing (driving a car, walking down a street, thinking about  what to do next) isn’t going to hold anyone’s attention.

A good way to think your way through it is to imagine the scene as a standalone story, like a flash fiction piece. If you ignored the overall purpose of the scene within the story as a whole, does it hold up as an engaging story? 

Like flash fiction it doesn’t have to be complete or obvious or fit any particular model, it just has to have something that holds the reader’s interest. There are plenty of flash pieces I’ve come across that feel like they don’t tell the whole story, leave stuff unsaid, but they still have enough going on to make an impact. 

And if you can approach the less involved sequences in your story the same way, you’ll create a momentum that will make those scenes good, which will change the scenes they lead into from good to great. 
If you found this post intersting, useful, or of a reasonable length, please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Laura Josephsen said...

Well put, and very helpful for what I'm working on right now. Thanks very much!

In Which We Start Anew said...

Very helpful, thank you! You've given me some really good things to think on!

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

You had me at sex scene in a barn. I haven't really come across the "other scene" in my mind because what I've written has been interesting to me. But I have several chapters of play-by-play hockey that might not appeal to everyone that dislikes sports. Those (I guess) could be a real turn off to some people but I thought they were exciting. Especially the part where a guy gets his wrist cut open by a skate and blood gushes all over the rink.

Botanist said...

That's a good perspective to keep in mind. Thanks.

mooderino said...

@Laura-glad to be of some small help.

@Jo-my pleasure.

@Michael-blood on the ice, who could resist reading that?


Beverly Diehl said...

You know, looking at that photo of Jane Russell, I'm thinking a roll in the hay is prolly more fun in fantasy than reality. Might get pricked in some vulnerable spots.

Good points as always, moody.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

We need to view each scene like the reader - for the very first time and not knowing the ending.

Anonymous said...

Found your blog via retweet from Roz Morris - and very glad I am too! Very useful for what I'm working on right now (final rewrite of first novel), looking forward to coming back and finding out more.

mooderino said...

@Beverly-the gun might be a little uncomfortable.

@Alex-and boy it ain't easy.

@joanne-great to have you here.

Andrea Dail said...

Nice post. The comment about comparing individual scenes to flash fiction was an especially helpful and concrete example. Thanks!

mooderino said...

@Andrea-you are very welcome.

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guillermo said...

In all stories there are scenes, perhaps complete chapters, where it’s all trendy. You can go for it and find much more. There is action, drama, turns and surprise revelations. Emotions are broken and anti-heroes behave in shameful fashion and a hero conquests. You love to write about it and you know that your readers would love to read about it.

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