Archive | September 2011

Is Your Scene Working Hard Enough?

Every now and then, a scene won’t work and my guiding principle here is that if a scene is boring to write, it’s going to be deadly dull to read. Which means time to rethink and revise. Over the years I’ve found–and have learned from others–that scenes need to have more than one thing going on in order to have that spark that keeps a reader’s attention. So here’s my checklist for all the heavy lifting that needs to happen in a scene:

1-Increase conflict.

If there’s no conflict in a scene, you might as well be writing down a recipe. Conflict can be as simple as she wants a glass of wine and he thinks she should have a beer. Or it can be deep and major. But it all boils down to making sure that every character wants something, and not everyone’s going to get what they want out of that scene.

2-Heighten tension.

This one is a little different than “conflict” — tension comes from the reader not quite being sure what will happen next. The reader may have an idea, but if it’s obvious how things will work out, there’s no tension. Sometimes you have to leave room for the characters to surprise you, meaning they’ll also surprise the reader and set up that tension. But you also have to stay away from cliches–there is nothing more predictable than a cliche. And this means do not push your characters into acting a set way to make a plot go a set way (as in the heroine who sees the hero with another woman and immediately assumes he’s cheating on her, which allows her to storm off and do something stupid, allowing the bad guy to kidnap her, so the hero can save her — just don’t do it).

3-Add complications.

Things have to get worse. Particularly, the relationship issues between a hero and heroine in a romance. And more obstacles have to crop up for the main character who is trying to reach  a goal.

This can also be called “plot twists” or “turning points” or there are a lot of other terms, but the guidelines I like to follow is that you cannot resolve one conflict or issue for the main character without introducing two new ones. So this is where its time to look at the scene and ask: How is this making it harder for the main character to get to his main goal? This can be with little things that add up, or a big old nasty complication, but it’s got to get worse.

4-Develop characters.

This can be posed as a question: What new side of the main character does this scene show to the reader? In other words, a song doesn’t play the same note over and over. You want your main character to stay fresh and keep developing. New conflicts means your character needs to be faced with having to make new choices. And new people in the story means you’re able to reveal new sides to your character since we all act differently with different folks. So each scene needs to show fresh angles on your main characters.

5-Show the world.

Scenes always need to take place somewhere. Ideally, the setting is as much a character as anyone walking or talking. The setting provides mood, it can be a contrast, can help heighten tension, can add in more conflict, it can enrich the reader’s feeling of being in another world. Too often I see setting skipped over, when it should be made into a vital part of the scene.

One big note here–I can write dialogue or I can write description. Meaning I can focus on the characters or the setting. Doing both at once–not an option with my brain. So I’ll do a draft that is only dialogue, and then go back and layer in the setting. Or I’ll get the setting right and then go back and lay in the scene. I have to do both, but they have to be done in different drafts.

6. Layer Subtext.

This one takes some work, but it’s one of my favorite things to do in a scene. I always want a scene to be about more than what’s obvious–there’s the surface text, and under that is the sub-text. This is where what characters want in the scene becomes very important–so does how a character goes about getting that desire. This is where you have characters talking at cross-purpose–one person talking about topic A while the other person thinks they are talking about topic B. This is where, as the writer, you can have a lot of fun, both with the characters and readers.

7. Raise the stakes.

This one seems a lot like conflict or tension, but it’s really about how a character comes out of a scene. This relates more to consequences. Every goal needs to come with consequences–what happens if you succeed and what happens if you fail? If the character’s life does not change, there are no consequences. Obviously, the worse the consequences, the greater the tension and conflict. But it’s even better if scenes can keep raising the stakes. It’s like a poker game–you want to keep making the pot bigger. Meaning, the main character has more to win–and more to lose. So how can the scene raise those stakes by offering the main character more, or by leaving the main character with a need to “ante up” to stay in the game?

8. Hit emotions.

This comes last on the list, but it’s perhaps the most important element. Readers need to feel something in a scene–if I’m crying when I write, that’s a good thing. If I’m starting to laugh, that’s great. If I don’t feel anything, that scene needs to be taken apart, scrapped, or totally rewritten. I’d rather come out of a draft with rough scene that has emotion, than perfect writing that’s flat. And if the emotion is there, I’m very, very careful with the editing — you can revise the emotion right out of a scene.

There’s also an obvious note is that scenes have to have something to do with the plot or subplots–don’t laugh, I’ve written great scenes and realized afterwards they didn’t have a damn thing to do with this book. (However, save these–they’ve found their way sometimes into other stories.)

And the final note is that scenes should be about forcing the main character to make a choice–and these should become tougher and tougher choices. The choices that someone makes reveal that person’s character. So scenes need to set up bad and worse choices–tough and tougher choices.

Now all of this is hard to get right in every single scene, so my goal is to get as many of these things right as possible. It’s my checklist. If a scene is only doing one or two of these things, that’s a scene that could be cut and the book won’t suffer for it. Or that scene needs to be revised and rewritten so that it’s doing more work.

If a scene is doing five or six of these things, cutting that scene is going to damage the story–that scene HAS to stay (and now I have good arguments if any editor even thinks of cutting it). It’s all about making sure every scene is working hard to help create a strong story.

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A Sexy Synopsis

The synopsis–we all hate writing them, and yet, it’s one of the most valuable tools a writer has. And it’s not just about condensing the story–for me, it’s really more about if I have an idea for where the story is going and  a clear handle on the conflict. It’s a place where flaws shine big and bright, which means I need to fix them in the book, too. But, oh, have I written some very, very bad synopses.

What set me on the course to learn how to do a better job of this was my first synopsis. Like many writers, I just wrote. And then I heard about RWA’s Golden Heart contest. Ah, ha–a way to get to an editor faster than through a slush pile. But I needed a synopsis to enter. So I wrote one–twenty pages of details about the book. Thank heavens, this was a time when you still got feedback from this contest, and some kind soul pointed out I really needed to condense my synopsis and do a better job of just telling the story.

With that in mind–and now as a member of RWA–I set about to learn how to do a better job.

One of the best tools came to me through Dwight Swain’s book Techniques of the Selling Writer.

I still reference his book when it comes to writing a new synopsis. His advice is to boil your story down to some immediate, big picture information.

  • Who is the main character, and what is the situation this character is coming out of?
  • What does this person want?
  • What’s keeping this person from his or her goal?
  • What are the consequences–the bad outcome–from this character not getting his or her goal?

This was great. This allowed me to write an opening paragraph for each of my characters in the romance. The next year I went on to final in the Golden Heart–but I still wasn’t satisfied. Yes, it was progress, but it wasn’t a win and it wasn’t a sale (my ultimate goal). So I kept at it. And I kept learning. I’d go listen to anyone talk about writing a synopsis, and gradually I learned I not only needed a good synopsis, but I could use that to show me if I had weaknesses in my book (if the middle of a synopsis is vague, the real problem is probably not enough conflict to keep the story going).

I was happy with the book, and the synopsis I wrote for A Compromising Situation–and the book won the Golden Heart and sold. That was a huge win.

A Compromising Situation

The synopsis then turned into a sales tool for me. From it, I was able to pick out possible cover scenes–because I knew by then that you needed a couple of key scenes in the synopsis to show the relationship developing. I was able to help focus cover copy, and also to write promotional copy that I could use on my website.

Now I realized just how powerful–although still painful–a synopsis could be.

Here’s the opening for that synopsis for A Compromising Situation.

After breaking her heart once years ago, MAEVE MIDDEN now only longs to find a position as a governess in a house full of young girls, where she might have a permanent position and a place to belong.  But can she settled for that after she falls in love with COLONEL ANDREW RICHARD DERHURST, now LORD ROTHE, a man far above her in station, a man who is supposed to be her employer, a man who may not be able to return her love?

And here’s how it fits into Dwight Swain’s advice:

Who is the main character, and what is the situation this character is coming out of:

  • After breaking her heart once years ago, MAEVE MIDDEN

What are the consequences–the bad outcome–from this character not getting his or her goal?

  • …now only longs to find a position as a governess in a house full of young girls, where she might have a permanent position and a place to belong.

What’s keeping this person from his or her goal?

  • …far above her in station, a man who is supposed to be her employer

What are the consequences–the bad outcome–from this character not getting his or her goal?

  • …who may not be able to return her love?

Notice the consequences are not world-ending. This was (and is) a story about people and so the consequences are deeply personal–and, for Maeve, a woman who has experienced rejection before, this type of rejection is deeply wounding. This would be a loss that would scar her.

By this point I’d learned how to stick to the main plot points in the synopsis, to focus on the conflict and the relationship since this was a romance, and I’d learned how to be very picky about each word used in the synopsis so that it was crafted to convey a tone and feel for the story (there’s no sense writing an action-packed synopsis if your story is a character study).

And I’m still learning.

Which is also why I’m still giving the synopsis workshop. Except these days a synopsis has to be even shorter, and even more able to catch someone’s interest. Which is why I call this a “sexy synopsis“. It’s got to be like a little black dress. It’s got to be something you can wear anywhere, and that’s useful as well as sexy–but it has to cover all the vital parts.

Just like the perfect little black dress,  a synopsis can take a lot of work to find all the right parts–the parts that flatter as well as fit. So if you, too struggle with your synopsis, head on over to the workshop at ORIW to pick up more tips and help for learning to get a synopsis that’s more than just something you need for writing contests and queries.

Showing More, or Lessons from Your Favorite Actors

The old adage given to most young (and I mean young in writing years, not in age) is: “show don’t tell.” Good advice, and while there’s a place for story telling in any story, showing is important enough to get top billing. You can see this in action in any decent film with good actors at work.

Actors have to show more–telling in a movie gets you boring exposition or, even worse, the deadly monologue from the bad guy as he explains evSilent Film Becky Sharperything. When you’re working in a visual media, telling ends up being talking heads. So movies have to show more–and actors have to put their characters into action. But novelists get to cheat.

In a novel or short story, the writer can just put down the words: “He was angrier than he’d ever been in his life.” Not great prose, but the reader gets the idea. Give that to any actor, and you’d end up with an actor struggling how to show that on the screen. So that’s one way a novelist can switch over from telling too much to showing more–imagine your favorite actor in the role.

What would an actor do to show this character’s anger on the screen? Would his jaw tense, his fists bunch? Would he hit something? Or would he smile, pull out a gun and shoot someone. Would he turn away, and turn back with a punch? Or would he offer up a cutting remark? It’s those little bits of business that an actor uses to better show their character in action–to put the characterization on screen. And it’s just those bits of business that a novelist needs to create to make a character come to life on the page.

Years ago, I took some improve classes. They were fun, and I was going out with an actor–and it was a great way to meet other cute guys, too. It was also great to get my head wrapped around thinking like a character, instead of myself. I had to start thinking about “how do I get this emotion across” or “how do I show this better?”  And that’s a great exercise for a writer, too–to act out your scenes.

Silent Film Star Theda BaraAnd this is where I study my favorite actors, too. How is he underplaying this scene–getting everything across with just a twitch, or a tilt of the head, or a slump of the shoulders? How is she making me see and feel the sorrow her character is dealing with–and not just with tears? I look for the honest performances–the ones that seem effortless, but which have had all the hard word done before the actors show up in front of the camera. I look for the actors who may know how to overplay a scene for farce, but who also know how to pull back and let their characters listen and react in ways that help me start to understand their characters.

All of this has gone into the Show and Tell workshop I teach–and which I’m giving for OCC RWA chapter this September (starting Sept 11). And it does seem to be the show part that most folks are working on, and which gives them the most trouble.

But narrative is a part of any story or novel–the narrative is often the stitching that holds all those great “showing” scenes together (which is why the workshop is called Show AND Tell).

Regency Actor GarrickHowever, next time you’re watching a favorite TV show or movie, or at the next play you go to, start to watch like a writer (or another actor, or the director). Look for those little bits of business that put a twist on the dialogue, or which reveal a ton about what the character is thinking or feeling. Would you have done something differently in that scene? Chosen to play it another way? Study the pros–and then write a scene that would earn the undying love of your favorite actor if you were to give them such a juicy, emotional scene with so much character hidden in the actions that show us the real person.