Friday, August 25, 2006

Finding the heart of a scene -- writing 101

i'd planned to post writing tips this week while the contest was going on at clarity of night. here it is friday and this is my first writing post. :( part of it is that i'm not very good at explaining the nuts and bolts of writing. i tend to look at things in a more zen way, and how do you explain that? it's kind of like learning to play an instrument. you learn chords and notes, but after you get them down you don't have to think about where you put your fingers.

here's something i put together, and now i don't even know if it's anything, but i'm calling it finding the heart of a scene. rambling! it's just rambling!!

If a scene isn't working, I always look for the heart of the scene. Often it isn't what's happening on the surface, but what's going on underneath. Once you find that the scene will often take off.

One real-life example of how this can work:

Say you're going to the grocery store. A simple chore. But a trip to the store is never just a trip to the store, because you are bringing your brain along with you. Hopefully. And your brain is processing and worrying and dwelling on a lot of things that have nothing to do with groceries.

This is also where you can use character and POV to enhance a scene that might really just be what I call a bridge. A way to get from one place to the next. Maybe you need to reveal a piece of information. Of course you don't want to overdo this either. Balance, pace, mix it up.

This kind of thing can really backfire. I've seen writers put a character is extreme danger and suddenly decide to have him take a little mind stroll. This is a HUGE pet peeve of mine in romance. If two people are in danger, gunshots going off all over, the heroine really shouldn't be thinking the guy has a nice ass.

does anybody else have any tricks for finding the heart of a scene?

okay, the grocery store was a bad example. argh. i'm not suggesting you send a character to a grocery store and let his mind fill in the backstory. the actual scene has to have purpose to begin with. it has to drive the plot forward externally as well as internally.


does any of this make sense?



Sandra Ruttan said...

This is similar to my 'What's the point' rule.

Every scene should contribute to the main storyline in some way. It's either advancing the plot, giving us character development that's essential, or it's probably the author's baby that they just don't want to give up or cut out.

One of the things I got asked about a few of my scenes during critique was, "What's the point?" And most of the time, either what I said had been addressed better elsewhere (and it was the old overkill problem us newbies have) or there wasn't a point.

But for a few, I'd muddled something important and failed to convey that key idea. So, it's like you say - you have to get to the heart of it. What's it really about? What are you trying to accomplish here?

Then it's a lot easier to bring it into focus.

Made total sense to me. Either because we're both brilliant, or equally warped. Careful what you say Anne...

Christa M. Miller said...

I've been dealing with this in my revision. I know my scenes *have* points... they are simply buried in my brain somewhere, because they were obvious to me - but upon a reread, I can see how readers wouldn't see them.

Personally I look at what each character wants, and how these motivations drive them toward the climax. Two characters working at cross-purposes will make each other make decisions that lead to what happens next.

For me the problem isn't seeing the big picture - it's making the tiny little details work toward that goal. Word choices about mannerisms, actions, etc. drive me crazy!

anne frasier said...

sandra, i think it's a bit of both. ;)

thanks for elaborating on what i was trying to say. i don't know why i struggle to get those kinds of thoughts across.

christa, i know exactly what you mean. the point is there, but i haven't brought it into focus until i stop and put the question to myself. it's almost like when i walk into the bedroom, stop, and wonder, "what did i come in here for? i know it was something."

and i think the answer can be found in different ways for different situations, characters, and scenes.

Kelly Parra said...

Yes, it makes sense! I write scenes and I think I know what I'm trying to do with tehem, but the story doesn't form a really story for me until I have the whole thing drafted out. Then I go back in and try to tie everything together. It's a process that's really tough for me. =D

anne frasier said...

kelly, i'm quite a bit the same way. i'm amazed by those people who write a finished chapter, then move to the next chapter.

Christa M. Miller said...

Anne, I wouldn't know what other solutions there are - only ever written the one novel. ;) I tend to gravitate the most toward character-driven works, though, so my natural focus is on scene as a function of character.

Kelly, do you outline? I have a few scenes drafted for two sequels I have planned... for one novel, they fit into an outline, but for the other, they're little more than rough ideas. I am going to have to outline to make them fit - otherwise they'll drive me crazy too!

Anne McAllister said...

Sometimes when I write I know I'm going from Point A to Point B and I have certain things I think I want to accomplish. But when I go back after the whole book is finished, I find that sometimes those purposes aren't what the scene ends up being there for at all. Sometimes I have to recast everything to clarify and get my point across better. But sometimes I see that the book itself seemed to know the "heart" of its scenes even better than I do. Disconcerting to know my book is smarter than I am!

Later scenes, though, are clearer than earlier ones because I know the characters and the story so much better. At first I'm just stumbling along finding my way. THOSE scenes always need clarification.

anne frasier said...

christa, i've moved back and forth. i started out writing character-driven books, then switched to plot-driven, now i'm back to character and enjoying it!

anne, oh yeah! i know what you mean about later scenes being clearer. the first third of a book usually requires more character editing for me.

bekbek said...

But what if the guy has a REALLY nice ass?

angie said...

I got what you meant. I work on a similar principle, constantly asking myself, "what does this scene buy me?" If the answer is "not much," or "I'm not sure," then it gets chopped.

I can also relate to the "but I know what it means!" thing - this is where other readers are invaluable. Obviously I know what I mean, but the point of writing is to communcicate with others. If I'm not doing that, I really need someone to point it out so I can fix it!

Tami said...

Great post Anne. Right now I'm just writing my novel by the seat of my pants. I have a general idea where I want it to go, but I sit down every day not knowing where my characters are going to go with each scene and how they will get to that final general idea. I write what I feel each day, knowing that probably half of it could be cut into smaller scenes and plot ideas. The rewrite is going to be tough, but I look forward to it because I know that I will have every possible scene to work with to then make it tighter and flow stronger. Hopefully a descent novel will emerge in the end!

anne frasier said...

bek, well that's different!!! then they should find some way to have immediate hot sex.

angie, i can really relate to this:

Obviously I know what I mean, but the point of writing is to communcicate with others. If I'm not doing that, I really need someone to point it out so I can fix it!
yep, and it almost always can be fixed. that's the other thing. more and more i'm beginning to think it's often better to fix than toss.

tami, i used to be more of a seat of the pants writer, and from what i'm read on blogs it seems many writers start out that way. it's obviously something that works well for a lot of people.
we're rooting for you!

Bernita said...

~feeling my way here~
There are those scenes that are logically part of the narrative but not necessarily a dramatic part of the narrative.
Is that what you mean by a bridge scene, Anne?

anne frasier said...

bernita -- yes! exactly. i'm not positive, but i think that's just something i came up with. but maybe i picked it up elsewhere. i can't remember.

Jaye Wells said...

Bridge scenes are important if used judiciously. Otherwise they become pages that the reader skips over to get back to the action.

Linda Fort-Bolton said...

I liked this. A lot of great ideas on here for some of us beginners. Thanks for taking the time.

anne frasier said...

jaye, i agree. sometimes it depends on the writer's style, and you want to go for balance. my books tend to move pretty quickly (some might argue that) and i sometimes need those bridges for pacing -- to slow things down and give the reader a small break.

linda, thanks for the kind words, and thanks for stopping!

Daniel Hatadi said...

I like reading stuff like this every so often. It can be a good way to unlock some of your own problems.

For instance, my novel is stuck at what you refer to as a 'bridge' scene. The very labelling of it this way has given me some perspective. I can't say I know what to do about it, but it's true. It's just a bridge scene. What's the point of it? Must find its heart.

End ramble.

Brandon said...

To Anne Mcallister's point about her feeling that her book is smarter than she is, how do you know when you've put a point into the story that is just obscure enough to make the reader think about it and understand? I find that sometimes I try to subtly make a point through parallels or metaphor, and it is missed completely by the reader. In other words, how obvious should the point be for the mainstream reader? Thanks.

anne frasier said...

sheesh. i've been trying to comment here all morning!!

daniel: sometimes if i know what's happening next i will skip the scene i'm stuck on and just move on. when i go back to it later, it doesn't seem as overwhelming because i have everything built up around it.

brandon: what a fantastic question. that's something i deal with almost daily, so it's strange that i never thought of discussing it. it would make a good blog topic because there are so many layers to it. first of all, a book can appeal to people on different levels. i have kids who like my books because of the gore, and then i have more literary types who like them...well, i'm not exactly sure why, but they are getting something completely different out of them. and that is perfectly fine with me. in fact, it's great. but of course there are some things you want everybody to get and understand without hitting them over the head. that's where another reader is so important. but even that reader might have a different opinion. i recently worked with someone who liked for me to repeat important plot points and really make sure they were spelled out. i didn't feel that way. i don't like putting up signs, and yet i've had some books that repeated those notes too much, and others that didn't hit the notes hard enough.