Monthly Archives: November 2014

What’s in a Scene? Part 1.

When readers open a book, they expect to be enthralled by our writing. They want to become absorbed by the scenes, so that they find themselves in the middle of the fictional world you’ve created. However, sometimes writers miss the mark and readers are left standing on the outside, looking in.

If you’ve ever gotten feedback that sounds something like this, “Nothing really happened in this chapter,” or, “I felt like I could put the book down at this point,” or, “There’s something off here, but I can’t put my finger on it,” or, sometimes, “I don’t remember what happened in the scene I just read,” then you’ve missed the mark and readers aren’t getting sucked in.

How do we, as writers, go about remedying this?

We need to make sure each scene has a reason to be there. If there’s no point to the scene, or the chapter, then it can be cut. (I know that’s a bit harsh sounding. We dedicate so much time to writing each scene that it can be a challenge to discard some of them, but doing so can make your novel better.)

The best scenes are those that impact readers and characters in diverse ways.

Here are some ways to create good scenes:

  1. Throw in a twist…as long as it makes sense. No random loopholes, please.
  2. Have a hope or a goal revealed, faced, challenged, turn into a failure, etc. This applies to fears as well.
  3. Increase the anticipation and/or up the stakes.
  4. Foreshadow. This is a great way to keep readers interested, just don’t go overboard. Too much foreshadowing can overwhelm readers or make them roll their eyes because the answers to the story’s main questions become obvious before they’re meant to.
  5. Incorporate events that move the story along. Have a big battle looming in the near future? What kind of things do you have to do to prepare for that battle? What obstacles do you face?
  6. Answer a few of the story’s questions…or raise a few more questions. You can always do both. By answering one question, three more may be brought to light. And those three may be tougher to answer than the original question.
  7. Bring in new, important information about the story or characters. However, if you’re going to do this make sure this information comes about in a natural way. The new information should feel organic to the story.
  8. Look at your characters. How do your characters change throughout the scene? Are these changes physical, emotional, both? How do the events within the story alter the characters’ perceptions of themselves and the world around them? At what moment(s) do these changes occur?

Creating good scenes is more than just having a goal dashed or learning to swordfight or getting your first kiss, it’s about flow. Without a natural flow, scenes can feel stilted and artificial.

Have you ever read a book where you just can’t put it down? You put off doing other things, or you forget about them altogether because you’re absorbed with the novel you’re reading?

If the answer’s yes, then that novel flowed well. The transitions between sentences, paragraphs, and chapters were so smooth you didn’t notice them. (When transitions aren’t smooth, readers get pulled out of the story because they stumble over those transitions. They lose their focus and have to find it again in order to get back into the story.)

In a way, scenes are a balancing act. You have to focus on various elements to pull off an engaging scene. If one of those elements is lacking, readers will feel something is wrong, even if they can’t tell you what they feel is off about that scene.

Next week, I’ll post about how to create smooth transitions.

What things do you do to create enticing scenes?

That Freaking Mountain: Plot Structure

In it’s most basic terms plot is what describes the structure of a story. It’s the arrangement of events within a novel.

Why’s plot so important? Well, without it, there’d be no story.

How about plot structure? If the plot isn’t structured correctly, then the story falls flat.

Many people describe plot structure as a mountain. That’s the best way to describe it. If you look at Freytag’s Pyramid, you’ll see his multi-point system. (I bet it’ll look familiar.)

*Gustav Freytag was a German novelist. He saw similarities in successful stories and diagrammed a story’s plot to reflect those similarities.

Here’s his pyramid:

freytag_pyramid

 

Below I’ve expanded on the points included on the pyramid:

  1. Exposition: Setting the scene. This is the start of the story, where the main characters and setting are introduced. Description and background are also provided. The exposition shows how things are before the action begins.
  2. Inciting Incident: Something happens to start the action. The inciting incident occurs between the exposition and the rising action. It’s a single event that starts the ball rolling. Without it, the characters would continue along in the exposition part of the story. Sometimes the inciting incident is called ‘the complication.’
  3. Rising Action: Where the tension increases. This is the series of conflicts leading to the climax, where the story gets more exciting and where the stakes keeping getting raised.
  4. Climax: Moment of greatest tension within the story. The climax is the turning point, the most intense moment of a novel. This is what the rising action was leading to.
  5. Falling Action: Decreasing tension. The falling action includes the events following the climax. Everything that happens in the falling action section is a result of the climax and readers know that the story will soon reach its conclusion.
  6. Resolution: The main problem is solved. The resolution is between the falling action and the denouement.
  7. Denouement: The end. This is the section of a novel where any lingering questions, secrets, etc. are answered. The denouement is often tied up with the resolution, but this concluding section is the final explanation of what happened. It’s the moment where the characters express their emotions about what happened, including events during the resolution, and their reaction(s) to how they’ve changed during the course of the novel.

There’s another version of Freytag’s Pyramid. This one is more commonly used today because it’s more effective. All the parts are still the same, however what’s changed is the length of those parts.

A modified version of Freytag’s Pyramid:

Fig._12

 

In this version of Freytag’s Pyramid, the rising action has increased, while the falling action has decreased. This difference is important because tension keeps readers interested. The more rising action you have, the better. You want the decreasing tension (falling action) to be less than the increasing tension (rising action). Once the climax occurs, nothing else can surpass it.

You can have false climaxes, where the characters are led to believe everything is over and has worked out in some way or another, but you want your true climax to be much closer to the end of the novel than the beginning.

Think of it this way, if you have a 50,000 word book, you want 40-45,000 of those words to come before the climax. Then, the climax itself should last for at least a chapter (depending on how long your chapters are). The remaining word count is left for the falling action, resolution, and denouement.

If this seems like a lot, don’t worry. Manuscripts are never perfect the first time through. Most aren’t ready by the fifth time through either. Get everything written down. Get your story onto paper. Let your madman (inner creative child) go wild. The judge (your inner critic) can come out later.

How much do you take plot structure into account when you write?

Narrative Structure: Diving Off the Deep End

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “narrative structure?”

For some of you, you probably equate it with a novel’s plot. I tend to like separating out the plot and narrative structure. With plot, you have the main events of a story. Point A leads to point B. Point B leads to point C…you get the idea.

But with narrative structure, you shake up the chronological points of a story. You manipulate the sequence of events to create a better novel.

Why do this?

Because not all events within a story are equal.

Some parts of your story will be critical, pieces that define your characters or that raise the stakes up to an almost unbearable amount of tension. Other scenes will still be important, but they won’t have the same emotional punch that the key scenes will.

Say you have a scene where a car explodes in the middle of a highway, and your protagonist is only three cars away from the explosion. What are you going to focus on? You might give a brief bit of information before the explosion, like your protagonist fiddling with the stereo (better yet, your protagonist just had a horrendous argument with her fiancé and she went driving to cool off), but your focus will be the moment of the explosion (or rather, the moment the protagonist is first effected) and the moments directly after the explosion – the chaos, the effect this event has on your character, your character realizing what happened, the thoughts she has, the decisions/actions she makes, etc.

In it’s essence, narrative structure controls time.

It foreshadows, deals with exposition, flashbacks, and shuffling the novel’s chronology around.

Foreshadowing: warning or indicating future events. Foreshadowing gives glimpses of what’s to come by providing hints. For instance, in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms the line, “The leaves fell early that year,” foreshadows an early death.

Foreshadowing is important in fiction because (1) it fosters tension and reader anticipation and (2) everything in fiction happens for a reason.

Exposition: introduces background information (the backstory). Exposition doesn’t advance the plot in the same way action does, but its role is vital. Without exposition it would seem like characters were born on the first page of a novel.

Writers rely on exposition to connect readers to their characters and their story. The essence of a novel lies not only in what will happen, but in what has happened before the novel began.

Flashbacks: a scene in a novel set in the past. Flashbacks accompany backstory and exposition. But while exposition is best given to readers in small pieces, flashbacks are for the moments in your character’s past where a few lines won’t be enough.

Flashbacks are dramatic. They’re the Broadway lights screaming at readers to pay attention because this past event had a monumental effect on the present state of the character or story.

Manipulation of Plot Chronology: Instead of having a novel’s events ordered from A to E, you can mix them up. Have E come first, or have B first. Playing with a novel’s chronological order can create a more interesting story. It can sometimes reveal more of a story. That being said, you don’t want to mess with chronology if you don’t have a deliberate reason for doing so.

Have fun with a novel’s narrative structure. Play around with it. You won’t know your novel’s full potential until you do.

How do you change up your novel’s structure?

How to Expand Your Novel

You’ve been working on your novel or your short story, but you’re stumped. There’s something off about your story, something that makes it hard to believe, not to mention your word count might be lower than you anticipated.

How do you go about remedying this? How can you expand your work?

One way is through narration.

  • Force your characters to do more, go bigger. You want to push them outside their comfort zone.
  • You want to make sure there are enough obstacles in your characters way to make what they’re doing have a big emotional and physical impact.
  • Find ways to reveal your characters’ internal states of mind – their thoughts, beliefs, ideals, fears– through their actions, or lack thereof.

Another way to expand is through description.

  • Find ways to show tension and movement through description.
  • Show what’s happening through sensory details. Make readers experience the same sensations your characters are. If your characters are blindfolded and bound, make it so your readers can only experience what your characters can. In this instance, that means both readers and characters can’t see what’s around them, but they can hear, smell, and taste, and though they have a lack of movement, they can feel the material of whatever is binding them.

Along a similar vein is exposition.

  • Sometimes a part of the story that’s told would be much more effective if shown. Think of it this way: instead of telling that the protagonist was in a car crash where her best friend died two years ago, show a flashback of it. It will have a much stronger impact and will cause your word count to spike.

Through dialogue you can also expand your writing.

  • What is said is just as important as what isn’t said.
  • During a conversation between multiple characters, shift back and forth between internal thoughts and spoken words. Give your protagonist – and readers – time to digest what’s been said, to process it. If the protagonist is called a very bad word, she’ll have a reaction. Show that reaction.

Speaking of reactions, the internal mind of a character is a wealth of information.

  • A character’s thoughts, feelings, hopes, fears, dreams – her memories – give insight into the character by showing what she thinks is important, how she sees the world, and lets readers know what she considers is at risk during different situations throughout the novel.
  • By showing the internal tensions of a character, readers get invested in the character and in the novel. Readers know that the character is at odds with the world around her, and they see her struggle to overcome both external and internal obstacles.

Expanding your writing might seem like a monumental feat, one you feel you may not be able to overcome, but once you know the techniques to expand your writing, you’ll find you can break your story down, and when it all comes back together, you’ll have a much richer piece of work.

How do you expand your writing?