Before You Write that Scene

What are the things you should be thinking about before you write a scene in your story? Pantzers and Plotters will approach this question differently in the first draft, but in subsequent drafts, the questions will be the same.

Whether your work is a novel or short story, it is a sequence of scenes. A novel’s chapter can have one or more scenes, as can a ‘part’ or ‘section’ of a short story.

I’ll look at two approaches today, and you can combine them or pick the one you like. When I researched the topic, I found an approach used by Larry Brooks and a different one used by Dr. Randy Ingermanson. I’ve mentioned Ingermanson before in connection with his snowflake method of writing.

Larry Brooks’ View

My picture of Larry Brooks’ method shows the story as a sequence of scenes. If written well, each scene serves an important purpose in the story. If written poorly, a scene can seem out of joint, or even seem like a side-trip out of the story.

Scene Structure -BrooksI’ve drawn a single scene as a system with inputs and outputs, but Brooks hammers home the importance of having a mission for the scene, a mission that advances the plot somehow. The scene’s mission must also support the overall strategy for the story.

He discusses ways to choose the point to start the scene—the cut-in point. He suggests you think about sub-text to put in the scene, those unstated inferences that show the reader a character’s true thoughts, or make some metaphorical thematic point. Brooks says that all scenes should develop or reveal characters, but that should never be the sole point of the scene.

In Brooks’ view, a writer must align every scene with one of the four parts of a story. These parts are the Set-Up, the Responder, (where the protagonist is responding to the First Plot Point), the Warrior (where the protagonist grapples with the main conflict), and the Resolution.

Lastly, the scene has to end in a way that urges the reader on.

Randy Ingermanson’s View

Randy Ingermanson takes a more structural and prescriptive approach. He encourages writers to view scenes at a Large Scale and a Small Scale. In discussing the large scale view, he uses terminology from Dwight Swain and suggests that all scenes are either scenes or sequels. (I prefer to use the terms tension and relaxation.) These alternate in sequence, to allow the reader to catch a breath between points of high drama or action.

Scene Structure - IngermansonThe tension (scene) scenes each include a goal, a conflict, and a disaster. The relaxation (sequel) scenes each include a reaction, a dilemma, and a decision. That sets the write up for the next tension scene.

Turning to the small scale, Ingermanson says good writers construct each scene from a series of MRUs – Motivation-Reaction Units. The motivation is some external happening sensed by the point-of-view character. The reaction is the internal emotions or thoughts experienced by the POV character as a result.

Final Thoughts

I’ve condensed the thoughts of both Brooks and Ingermanson, and I encourage you to read each of their full posts. There is much to learn from both views, and they are not contradictory, so it’s possible to do both.

If you consider their approaches before and during your first drafts of any scene, and during the rewriting and editing of subsequent drafts, I’m betting your stories will be more focused, more readable, and more enjoyable.

Time to split this scene and return to the other never-ending duties of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Starting With Pen or Keyboard?

Do you write your fiction stories longhand before typing them? I do, and I’m not alone. There are several great blog posts touting the benefits of the pen, by Lee Rourke, Patrick E. McLean, Melanie Pinola, Chris Gayomali, and Julianne MacLean.

LonghandWhy do we pen-wielders do it? Why do we eschew the fantastic technology of the modern era, designed specifically to make writing easier, and choose instead the old-fashioned, obsolete, and outmoded pen and paper?

Are we Luddites? Are we afraid of, and angry about, those newfangled machines with their pushbuttons, glowing screens, and word processors?

Maybe some are, but not me. I love my laptop and am quite at home with its wizardry. I type at a competent speed, and am adept with word processors. No fear there.

While working on this post, I thought hard about my reasons for preferring the age-old writing stick over more recent digital marvels. There are many reasons why people still pick up pens in a computerized world, but these are not my reasons:

  • There are fewer distractions; I’m less likely to pause to look up things, research, respond to e-mail, etc.
  • It’s easier to ignore my inner editor and so I write better first drafts.
  • I get a better sense of accomplishment when I see the cross-outs, arrows, insertions, etc. rather than pristine text.
  • I can reconsider deleted text since it’s still visible.
  • My speed of writing longhand matches my thought process better  than my typing speed.
  • Longhand evokes the spirit of writing as a craftsman’s task, writing books the way all the great classics were written.
  • I prefer the tactile sensation of my favorite pen scratching out words on paper to the frenetic pushing of dozens of identical buttons.
  • I write my first drafts faster in longhand.
  • Pen and paper are far more reliable than computer or tablet.
  • Studies have found that, in people who are equally skilled in longhand and typing (children), that longhand produces better writing faster.
  • Other famous writers like Truman Capote, Tess Gerritsen, James Patterson, and Susan Sontag write (or wrote) longhand.

True, some of the above reasons resonate with me. But if I cited them, I’d really be rationalizing a decision made because of a different factor. Here’s the real reason I use a pen:

  • It’s the only way to make my commuting time effective. I commute to my day job by subway train, and I cannot bring a tablet computer to work, so writing longhand is the only way to do it.

I still have to transcribe my inky scribbles to a computer. But that becomes the first revision process for me. Writing looks different when it’s clean and pristine on the screen rather than the unplanned dreamland of longhand. The act of transcribing therefore becomes the creation of a second draft. Often I’ll print that out double-spaced and do further editing of follow-on drafts on the train, with a pen.

When I’ll retire from the day job, I’ll have to rethink my writing habits and might retire my pen. Old habits die hard, though. We’ll see.

What’s your preference, pen or keyboard, paper or display screen? What are the reasons for your choice?

Now that I think about, I have another reason for using a pen. If I didn’t, I couldn’t very well call myself—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Upcoming Anthology – Hides the Dark Tower

My short story, “Ancient Spin,” will appear in the anthology Hides the Dark Tower, scheduled to appear in October. It’s a new publisher, Pole-to-Pole Publishing, and I think this is their first anthology.

Hides the Dark Tower-Purchased_Artwork_72pxThe anthology’s editors, Kelly A. Harmon and Vonnie Winslow Crist, have been great to work with. They’ve selected a stunning piece of artwork for the cover, don’t you think?

The anthology features stories involving towers. There’s just something about towers. They represent man’s attempt to reach the heavens. Viewed from the ground, they’re mysterious and imposing. From the top, they provide a view that makes you feel commanding and godlike.

By now, you’re wondering where that title, Hides the Dark Tower, comes from. Glad you asked. It’s from the poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” by Robert Browning. Here are two of the 34 verses (italics are mine):

What else should he be set for, with his staff?
What, save to waylay with his lies, ensnare
All travellers who might find him posted there,
And ask the road? I guess’d what skull-like laugh
Would break, what crutch ’gin write my epitaph
For pastime in the dusty thoroughfare,

If at his counsel I should turn aside
Into that ominous tract which, all agree,
Hides the Dark Tower. Yet acquiescingly
I did turn as he pointed: neither pride
Nor hope rekindling at the end descried,
So much as gladness that some end might be.

Browning, in turn, spun off his poem from Shakespeare’s King Lear, so maybe all literature just builds on other works, like bricks upon bricks. Like a tower.

As I mentioned, the anthology comes out this fall, and I’ll provide more details and reminders as the date nears. Looking down upon you all from the newly constructed, sky-scraping, world-record-holding tower here at Poseidon’s Scribe Enterprises, I’m—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Writing and the Black Swan

My question is, once you understand how the Black Swan relates to writing fiction, will you be so dejected that you’ll abandon any idea of becoming an author?

black swanNassim Nicholas Taleb wrote The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable and it was published in 2007. A statistician, the author was trying to get readers to think about low-probability events and our estimation of their risk.

He defined a black swan event as having three properties: (1) it is very rare, to the point of being almost impossible; (2) it has a huge impact on people, either positively or negatively; and (3) people do not (or cannot) predict it in advance, but after it occurs, everyone sees that it should have been predicted since it was obvious all the time.

By the way, Taleb chose the metaphor of a black swan because most swans are white, and black ones are very rare. In fact, people were convinced that all swans were white, until proven wrong. That’s part of Taleb’s point. If a rare event hasn’t occurred today, or yesterday, or for your entire life, you come to believe it cannot happen. Since black swans have a massive impact when they do occur, there is a huge difference between impossible and improbable.

I read the book about two and a half years ago, but I recall Taleb discussing success in writing as a black swan event. For our purposes, let us define success by the amount of money earned from writing. Success in writing, therefore, is rare, has a huge impact on a few writers, and is difficult to predict in advance but obvious afterward.

Taleb would conclude that if we could compile the relevant accurate statistics, the resulting graph would look like this:

black swan and writingThe vast majority of authors earn very little money, while very few earn a large income from writing.

Why is that? I believe Taleb would say that an author’s income is related to the popularity of his or her books. That popularity is determined by readers when they hear about the book, learn that their friends like it, and when they read it and recommend it to others.

People hear about books from various media outlets, so the media plays into book popularity. Luck has a role too, since poorly written books sometimes become bestsellers despite the writing quality.

Let’s say you’re an aspiring author, and let’s assume all the above is true. Does it depress you to know how much the odds are stacked against your success? Does it make you want to give up on your dream?

If you truly are writing for the money, there are things you can do to position yourself for the black swan. You can become really good at marketing; you can seek out (or pay for) media attention. You can practice your writing until you become more skilled at it.

No guarantees come with any of that, but your odds of success will improve a bit. The trouble is, you could strive for years, doing everything right, and still not achieve success because that intangible luck eludes you. That’s disheartening.

Alternatively, you could redefine what success means for you. You could decide you’re not after money, but seeking the pure enjoyment of writing, or the thrill of seeing your name in print. That’s a much more probable event, not a black swan at all.

Still, it’s my hope that the black swan of financial success from writing pays a visit soon, to both you and—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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When Good Authors Turn Bad

Arrogance is today’s topic. It seems to me that authors generally start out their career with a tentative and uncertain attitude, but sometimes become more conceited with time. Is this a bad thing? If so, is it inevitable?

No, I’m not naming names. If you follow any author blogs, you may have seen the pattern, and can think of examples yourself. You read an author’s early fiction books, or read their blogs or essays, and they seem unsure, qualifying their statements, admitting they might be wrong.

good - bad authorAt some point later, that same author gives more decisive, unqualified opinions. He or she makes some controversial statements, occasionally deriding some other authors, or publishers, or editors, or society in general, etc.

In the last phase, the author becomes insufferable. Conceited beyond measure, she or he has a provocative opinion on every topic. Protagonists in the author’s later books are always dogmatic firebrands, and they’re proven right in the books’ conclusions.

Why does this happen to writers? In my view, authors aren’t the only ones susceptible to it. The phenomenon of turning to snobbery occurs in every field, but is probably more noticeable for those in the public sphere, such as sports, politics, news, and entertainment.

My theory is that it’s part of human nature to believe your own hype. If you’re surrounded by people telling you how great you are, and you have statistics (book sales, blog followers, etc.) to prove it, you’re likely to start thinking you’re pretty special.

Is this egotism a bad thing? I have mixed feelings about that. The most important thing readers want from authors is well-written books. If that need is satisfied, readers can put up with a fair number and degree of personality quirks. There’s a saying that goes, ‘bragging’s okay if you can back it up.’

Of course, if we had our choice, we’d prefer our heroes not only super-competent, but also humble. But we’ll settle for the former, if that’s all we can expect.

Speaking of that, is it really too much to expect, that top authors display a bit of humility? Is it impossible to resist human nature, to retain some measure of unpretentiousness during your rise to fame and glory?

Of course it’s possible. There are many great authors who remain modest and unassuming, who resist the lure of becoming a pompous jerk. Such people earn extra credit points in our hearts. We’re comforted when we hear it said of our favorite authors, “He’s such a great guy in person,” or “She’s so down-to-earth when you meet her.”

The main thing, I believe, is what I mentioned earlier. Concentrate on writing well, on producing great prose. If you become famous for it, your personality won’t matter much. Should you change into an intolerable blowhard along the way, you might lose a few readers who care about such things, but those lost sales will be in the round-off error of the huge fortune you’re amassing.

What about me? If you look back over the span of my blogging and story-writing career, do I show the signs of turning into a stuck-up, opinionated braggart? Am I already there? That’s for you, my readers, to decide.

This is one of those blog posts I might regret later, at some future point when I’m a Famous Author being driven in my limo to my mansion while smoking a fat cigar I lit with a $100 bill. I’ll take that risk. After all, making bold, provocative statements is one of the most loveable traits of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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