Monday, May 30, 2011

Layering a Scene -- Show, Don't Tell

We’ve been working at layering a scene, digging through the layers of a scene, like an archaeologist working on a tell in Israel. The first couple of blogs on this subject were about structure and how the scene related to the plot. Now we’re getting into the scene itself and how you actually tell the story.

 The next layer is what I call the “Show and Tell Level”. We’ve all been told by our critique partners, our workshop facilitators and all those how to write books, “Show, don’t tell.” But what exactly does that mean?

Telling skims the surface. Showing immerses the reader in all the minutia of the moment, gives it meaning, and weaves a rich, sensual texture full of emotion.

 It’s not always necessary to show. There are times when telling is more effective. Some of these are:
  • Summarizing action or dialog that has already been shown
  • Condensing time in which the events that happened during that time period do not significantly contribute to the plot, conflict or character arc
  • Condensing day-to-day or predictable activities that don’t contribute to the plot, conflict or character arc
  • Filling in back story
  • Filling in explanations (history, technical points, etc.) 
How do you choose which to use? Start by deciding how much emotional impact you want the information to convey.
  • Showing creates emotional hits for the reader
  • Telling conveys little or no emotion
It’s easy to see a “tell” when the manuscript says something like, “He hacked through an army of enemies and finally reached her.” We have no idea what the army looked like, what the hacking looked like, where she was and what she was doing (or feeling) and how he felt as he struggled to save the heroine. This is telling at its most blatant. It turns a whole scene, or even a chapter, into one sentence. The reader experiences little emotion, except perhaps a bit of relief if the reader has been worried about the heroine.

It’s a lot harder to recognize a “tell” when the words go something like, “He looked into her eyes and fell in love.” I mean, “looked into her eyes” does indicate an action that happens at a precise moment. So it’s got to be showing, right? All right, maybe you want to hear what colour eyes she had. Emerald eyes. There!

But what about “fell in love”? Here we have a crucial moment in the plot of every romance, and our author has left that moment to show something else (the next sentence of the story) without giving the reader any idea of the falling in love process. What was it that stimulated the falling in love? And what was his body doing while his emotions were transforming?

Another example, from my YA:

Tell (the original version):

         I got there a second before the bell rang.

Show (my rewrites): 

         I raced up three flights of stairs, taking them two at a time, my schoolbag banging at my back. Dodging around a locker someone had left open, I jerked open the classroom door.
        The room buzzed with what-did-you-do-after-school-yesterday chatter. Mr. Rebus was writing on the board.
        My hands and face slick with sweat, I slid into my seat. My heart pumped so loudly in my ears I hardly heard the bell. 

So how do you turn the “tells” into “shows”?

This could be a workshop unto itself. However, here’s a quick overview.

First, look at the action. Have you compressed it? Both hacking through the enemy and getting there before the bell rang are compressions of a series of moves. Start by decompression, breaking a bigger action down into its component parts.

Then take those actions and put them into what Dwight Swain calls Motivation Reaction Units.

Motivation Reaction units are the core of how we operate as human beings. It’s the concept that goes way back to Pavlov and Skinner, that a stimulus causes a response. In other words, we don’t just act, we react to something that we’ve just experienced (seen, heard, smelled, felt, etc.)

Successful writers, according to Swain, structure the action and emotions in every scene as a series of Motivation Reaction Units.

The first part of every Motivation Reaction Unit is a stimulus.

Newton’s first law of thermodynamics says “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” That goes for psychology, as well. Every stimulus has a response. Or, to put it inversely, every response MUST have a stimulus.

So if you’ve got your heroine doing, thinking or feeling something, start with “what caused her to do/think/feel that way?” 

Next you need the reaction. If it’s a simple stimulus, all it may need is a simple response, as in the following dialog run from my WIP, Exiled in the Sweet Land of Liberty:

     “What’s your name?”
     “Sophie Jaworski.”  

That was the first draft of that little bit of dialog. Simple stimulus and simple response. As I rewrote the passage, though, I decided that I needed to add a little tension, which I could do through adding my heroine’s thoughts (she’s being challenged).

     “What’s your name?”
     No use lying. “Sophie Jaworski.”  

Now there are two kinds of reaction. One is verbal – the answers to his questions. The other is internal – my heroine’s thoughts. There can, in fact, be several kinds of reaction, strung one after another. Here’s the falling in love scene in my YA WIP. It’s set in 1956. The hero’s been singing along to a love song on the Jukebox.

      He looks in my eyes as he sings. His voice has a husky catch. It wraps around me like the old horse blanket in my grandfather’s barn in Poland, full of prickly hairs that scratch my skin, but warm, body-soothing warm.

      I blush, shift my eyes away, wish Mr. Ellis would march over and pick up my empty glass. But he just wipes his cloth along the shiny, dark counter. Ignoring us just I ignore the urge to slide my hand across the short field of Formica between us and connect with the warmth of Joseph’s fingertips.
Let’s break the reaction (the second paragraph down).

The first reaction is Visceral. Sophie blushes. A visceral reaction is something the character can’t control. It’s an automatic physical reaction to a stimulus, such as the heart beating faster, palms sweating, stomach getting queasy, etc. 

The second reaction is an automatic thought or action. “I shift my eyes away”. Again, the character has little control over this. It just happens. Sometimes it can be a bit of dialog that’s an automatic response, such as “Ouch!”

Next, we get a rational thought. In Sophie’s case this is her wishing that Mr. Ellis, who owns the soda fountain, would come over, disturb them and get her off the hook of having to respond to Joseph.
Lastly, there’s the rational action (which can also be a rational piece of dialog.) At this point, the character has control over his/her action (or dialog). He/she chooses to do what comes next (the action or dialog.) Sophie chooses to ignore what she really wants to do.

There’s a pattern here, and it’s crucial to all responses. It goes:

     Automatic physical response – automatic thought. Controlled thought. Controlled action.

To help myself remember this pattern, I broke it down as follows:

    The big picture is: Involuntary first—then voluntary.

 Within each pair of reactions, however, the subgroup is reversed:

     Involuntary: physical first, then mental
     Voluntary: mental first, then physical

 If you’re an analytical person, this may help you remember the pattern. If not, just go back to memorizing the pattern:

       Automatic physical response – automatic thought. Controlled thought. Controlled action.

 This pattern is crucial, because it’s how humans operate. If you follow this pattern, your writing will ring true to your reader. If you don’t they’ll feel uncomfortable. The writing won’t feel credible to them, even if they can’t tell you exactly why.

 It's ok to leave out parts of the response pattern. In my earlier example, a lot’s been left out.
     “What’s your name?”
     No use lying. “Sophie Jaworski.”

The response consists of a rational thought followed by a rational action (dialog.) It works, however, because even though I’ve left out parts, what I’ve left is still in the correct order.

 The rule is this: you can leave out parts, as long as the parts that remain are still in the correct order.

Checklist for Show and Tell Level
  • Do you want to have the information convey emotional impact?
              No – might be ok just being told
              Yes – needs to be shown
  • Can the event/activity be broken down into smaller steps or stages?
  • List the steps/stages
  • Are the steps/stages organized into Motivation Reaction Units?
  • Are the reactions organized into the response pattern?
Next post: Layering the POV Level

Monday, May 23, 2011

Scene Layering -- Character Arc and Scene Structure

Last week I blogged on adding texture to your novel by layering each scene. The goal is to up the emotional impact of your novel – which is what readers want and editors buy. We looked at the top level, the Plot Level, and asked the questions does this scene either

  •  advance the protagonist towards her/his goal?
  •  or add to the conflict?

 If neither, then the scene isn’t pulling its weight. Either cut it or revise it to make it pull its weight.

This week we’re going to look at the second level: the Character Arc Level.

In most novels (there are a couple of exceptions), the story is essentially about how the character changes, in other words, the Character Arc. The character starts with one idea about him/herself and the world (Lori Wilde calls it the Mistaken World View). As long as he/she holds onto this philosophy or world view, it blocks her/him from achieving his/her goals, which includes a happy union with the love interest. The action of the story (i.e., the plot) is basically a series of experiences that steer the character into change. No change, no Happily Ever After ending. (For those of you who feel a little unsteady about developing a Character Arc, check out my blog post.)

So when you’re looking scenes on the Character Arc Level, you need to have clear, first of all what your Character Arc looks like, for both the hero and heroine. (In a romance, both have to change.)

Start by writing out for each major character (and any minor characters who have their own subplots):

    • Original character flaw (mistaken world view)

    • Change needed to succeed/have a HEA

Then look at the scene. How does it contribute to character development? Write out:

    • Character strength or weakness/vulnerability the scene reveals

    • What happens in the scene or sequence to upset the character’s equilibrium and move her/him further
        on the road to change?

Have you shown the change? (It should be a micro-change.) Is the micro-change justified by what just happened?

As you’re working through the rewrites of your novel, this is also a good time to step back and look at the novel as a whole in terms of the stages of character development.

  • Is each leap forward incremental?
  • Or has the character made some huge leaps forward that aren’t justified by the action in the plot? (This is one of the signs of melodramatic writing.)
  • Do you need to add a scene that shows the missing bit of growth?

One final, very important question to ask yourself: Does your scene work in terms both Character Development and Plot? In other words, does the plot point provide impetus for growth? Or did that growth come from something totally superfluous to the plot? If it did, then you’re in for more major rewrites, because the two have to connect.

Once you’re satisfied with how the scene works in terms of the book’s overall structure (Plot and Character Arc) it’s time to look more closely at the scene itself. I usually start with the internal structure of the scene – the Scene Structural Level.

According to Dwight Swain, author of Techniques of the Selling Writer, there are two kinds of scenes, which he calls Scene and Sequel. In the “Scene” something happens. In the Sequel, the character reacts to what has just happened (and its result) and formulates a new plan.

Both types of scenes have three parts, but what happens within those parts is slightly different.
In a Scene:

  • Character goes into the scene with a Goal (what he/she wants to accomplish in this particular scene.) For example, in the armory scene in my Arthurian novel, The Deadly Peace, my heroine’s goal is to figure out a way to get her father, the Regent, to set a date for her Coronation.
  • Something happens to block the character from achieving her/his goal. This is the Conflict. In my scene, my heroine and her friends come up with a plan, but it involves sending out invitations. None of them has handwriting good enough to write out official invitations, and everyone in the castle who does is in her father’s employ.
  • The character takes action or makes a decision and there is a Result (sometimes called the Disaster) which sets back the character or somehow causes him/her to change direction or try a different tack. In my scene, my heroine is forced to seek help from someone she considers her enemy. 
In a Sequel:

  • Character Reacts emotionally to the Result or Disaster. Swain suggests this should be a visceral response, which I’ll discuss more in a later blog.
  • Character considers his/her Options, none of which are particularly good. This sets up a hard choice, which creates more tension or conflict.
  • Character makes a Choice or Decision, which then creates the Goal for the next scene.

 Your scenes need to follow one of these two patterns. If they don’t, nothing is happening. Chuck that baby. (Or at least put it in the Outtakes folder). Scene and Sequel can be compressed into one scene, but all the parts need to be there.

In addition to the two types of scene patterns, there’s also an emotional structure experienced by the reader – that rising tension that makes a scene work well. No matter which of the two scene patterns you have, the tension of the scene itself is actually structured the same as a novel, with an introduction/set up building to a climax and culminating in a resolution, which is the hook for the next scene. As you read your scene to yourself, you should experience the same growing tension as you would in reading the novel as a whole.

More questions to ask yourself regarding scene structure:
  • Have I set the introduction/opening of the scene as close to the action of the scene as I can? Or is there time wasted doing things like getting the character into the room, making polite introductions, pouring tea, etc?
  • Does the scene build to a climax in which the protagonist is forced to take an action he/she may not have wanted to take?
  • Is there a disaster in the outcome? (This provides your hook.)
  • Did I get out of the scene immediately after that, or does the scene peter out and lose its tension?
OK, what if your character actually manages to achieve his/her scene goal, as happens in the chapter of my YA that I was revising today. It’s about three chapters from the end. I need for my protagonist to achieve this goal (it’s part of her character growth and a plot point) but the minute Sophie achieved her goal, the tension went out of the scene. Definitely not what an author wants happening right at the climax. The solution came from something I learned from Diana Gabaldon’s early books: turn a victory into a disaster. Sophie achieves her goal, but that puts her in a position where she now has no excuse not to do something she’s been trying to avoid. I added a final line of dialog that puts her on the spot.

Disaster equals a hook.

Margie Lawson, whose EDITS course (in fact all her courses) are must-dos for serious writers, makes a great point about chapter breaks. End it where you don’t expect a break and it will create a hook. Don’t have the scene where the debutant is rifling through the antagonist’s desk during his ball end with her having found the evidence she needs. End it with him coming into the room before she’s completed her search.
Next post: Scene Layering and Show and Tell

Monday, May 16, 2011

Layering A Scene

I’m in the middle of rewrites for my YA. I’m one of those writers who plow through a very rough draft, getting it down as fast as I can, so that I can get to the good part – the rewrites. For me that’s mostly layering the scenes to add texture and meaning.

Why layer? Ultimately writer’s goal is to achieve Maximum Emotional Impact, and layering your scene is one of the tools for increasing emotional hits. Also, how you layer a scene also helps create that elusive thing we call “your voice”.

Layering is something you work on after you’ve finished the first draft, primarily because it involves analytical/critical thinking. When you’re drafting, you should be in creative mode and stay in the mode. That means turning off the internal editor. (I have a piece of paper tacked over my computer that says, “I give myself permission to write crap.”) Layering turns the internal editor back on, so it’s best saved for after you’ve finished the first draft, though as you get more comfortable with the things you need to layer in, you’ll find yourself doing some of it automatically as you draft.

First some definitions:

A “scene” is a continuous piece of action that takes place in a single location and has a specific beginning and end. It covers a distinctive and usually short period of time.

A scene is:

  • Breakfast the first day of school in a household with teens. Teenage daughter comes down inappropriately dressed.
  • The entry of the heroine at a Regency ball and the reaction she gets. (That could be a complete scene, depending on how long the ball sequence is.)

A “sequence” is several contiguous scenes whose action leads up to a climax or turning point.

For example, in my novel The Deadly Peace, one of the sequences is:

  1. In the armory, the heroine and her companions discuss how to push the heroine’s Regent father into setting a coronation date for her. They formulate a plan, which the heroine doesn’t like because it involves the hero, whom she considers an ally of her father.
  2. In the infirmary. They bargain with the hero to help them.
  3. In the library. The hero is caught by the father giving help and grilled.
  4. In the father’s workroom. The heroine is brought to task for trying to go around her father’s back. The heroine gets an unexpected ally in the hero, whom previously she thought her enemy.

 We’re focusing here on scenes, not sequences. When you’re working on layering, each scene needs to be analysed separately and also for how it contributes to the sequence.

I go about layering level-by-level, starting with the highest level, which I call the “Plot Level”. Levels are my own arbitrary term. Working at layering this way helps me to keep my thoughts focused.

The Plot Level is about whether the scene is doing its job within the story. Today scenes need to pull a lot of weight. The length of the average single title has gone from 100,000 to 80,000 words. Author Beth Cornelison, in her workshop on sagging middles at the 2010 RWA conference, says that every scene needs to have at least three reasons to be there.

If you’re a pantser (a person who gets an idea and, trusting your Muse, starts writing without doing much planning), you’ve probably got scenes that don’t need to be there or that somehow got off track or aren’t pulling their load within the novel. I started as a pantser, but with my WIP Exiled in the Sweet Land of Liberty, I actually outlined the whole book, as I wanted to learn to be more efficient in my writing. As a result, I managed to draft the thing in about 6 weeks. But when I was stuck, I would just say to myself, “Write anything. Just write. You can fix it later.” So there are a number of scenes that have needed first aid.

The Plot Level asks the questions, “Do I need this scene? How can I make it work its butt off to move the story forward?”

To answer this question, you’ve got to start with the underlying conflict that drives the book. Michael Hague, in his scriptwriting workshops (one of which I took centuries ago when I was a selling playwright), suggests creating a 2 x 2 conflict grid in which you list
  • the protagonist and antagonist’s goals in the first column
  •  the actions which keep them from achieving their goals in the second column.

 If you’re having trouble visualizing this, Jennifer Cruise has it up on her blog. (The post is full of hints on how to set up the basic conflict, a great place to start if you're struggling with that.)
If you’ve got a strong conflict, the actions that keep the protagonist from achieving her/his goals should be the same actions that the antagonist takes to achieve his/her goals, and vice versa.

Once you’ve got that grid, look at your scene and ask how does the scene advance the conflict?

For example, in the sequence from The Deadly Peace I described above, my heroine’s overall goal is to be crowned as the Queen of Rhyged, King Arthur’s largest subkingdom. There’s a ticking clock on this, as an old prophesy says that if the Heiress isn’t crowned by her eighteenth birthday, she never will be. My heroine’s father, the Regent, wants the crown for himself and his sons (traditionally it passes down through the female line, but the times, they are a-changing). So he has done nothing about the coronation. My heroine’s goal for this sequence is to get the date set for the coronation. The first scene sets up the problem, presents a possible solution – go around her father’s back and set the date herself – along with complications, and reveals the heroine’s character flaw (more on this in my next blog.) In other words, it sets the heroine on the first step of her journey to get her crown. It advances the plot.

In the example of breakfast scene with the single mom trying to get her kids off to school, the appearance of the inappropriately dressed teen daughter could send the story off in a number of ways:

1) Argument over clothes. Mother fails to assert herself and teen wins. If Mom is the heroine of a romance, this could set up a whole book in which Mom’s failing to assert herself leads to unhappiness and disaster.

2) The phone rings in the middle of the argument. It’s Mom’s father who says in a tense, frightened voice, “Don’t send the kids to school. Put them in the car and get out of town. Don’t pack. Don’t do anything. Just go.” Before he can explain, there’s a horrible sound at the end of the line that sounds like something’s happened to him. Now the argument with the teen is forgotten. And Mom is thrown into an adventure in which she and her kids are running for their lives – or she is struggling to find and save her father. Or both.

3) Argument over clothes. Mother wins. Daughter changes. Kids get off to school on time. Ho hum. Yes, there’s conflict, but this scene isn’t pulling its weight. Unless you can figure out a way to tie it to the overriding conflict of the book, this is a scene to cut. And don’t tell me you’re just trying to show the protagonist’s Ordinary World. In today’s novels, that can be incorporated into the Inciting Action – the event that sets off the conflict and puts the heroine on her journey.

If you’re waffling back and forth and really don’t want to kill that darling, here’s a tip: I never hit the delete button when I cut a scene. I cut and paste it into a separate file and put it into my Outtakes folder. I may want it back. Or possibly I might use it as bonus material on my website when the book gets published.

Rhay Cristou (her YA novel Color of Truth made it to the semi finals of the Amazon Breakthrough competition in 2010 and her current WIP Bliss is in the 2011 semi finals) sent me this titbit that helps me focus on whether the scene is advancing the plot:

“One of the questions that my advisor Norma Fox Mazer always asked me in grad school: "Rhay what does your character want and how does this scene move her/him to or away from obtaining that want?" I know it's a basic question but one that I think we often forget to ask ourselves when living our stories. Once you keep asking yourself that question-- What does she want and more importantly how does this scene move the character to that (and yep you have to be able to write out that answer) -- then you'll know if these scenes are really doing the job you want them to do.”

“What does your character want?” leads to the next level of layering a scene: the Character Arc Level. Which is the topic of next week’s blog post.