Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Scenes and Promises

Thanks to Gretchen for sharing her recipe yesterday. Anyone try it yet?

Basement update: We're waiting for the final inspection. The contractor hired someone to come clean, and it looks very nice, even if it's empty. The laundry room is set up (a mixed blessing), and we're looking forward to getting some furniture down there. We don't have much yet—a bed for the guestroom, and a futon which we brought with us from Florida. It'll serve as seating until we decide whether or not we want to move our old living room furniture down there and get new for upstairs.

When I'm writing, since I don't really plot much in advance, I think more in terms of scenes when I start. Just like I know I'll need to put a bed in our new guest room, I know I'll have to have certain kinds of scenes in my book. I might have a specific scene in mind, or a vague idea. Maybe I'll hear a song on the radio, and I know I want my characters to dance to it. But, like the furniture that might end up upstairs, downstairs, or not be used at all, but rather replaced with something new, I don't really know exactly where my scenes will end up.

If a scene is going to stay in the book, it needs more than one reason to be there. So, if we put the futon in the tv room, it can also do double duty as a bed should we have extra guests. I like to think of Alton Brown on Good Eats who campaigns against kitchen gadgets if they're uni-taskers. The same goes for scenes.

According to author Kathleen O'Brien, to justify a scene, the POV character must have something happen to alter the course of the story. There should be a change in behavior or attitude, or the scene should be there to set up the change.

And you owe it to your readers to follow through with scenes that deliver "promises", whether they're consciously made on your part. I touched upon this a bit in last Thursday's post. When you put anything on the page, the reader expects it to mean something. The classic example is Chekov's gun—if you show a gun in act 1, you'd better use it before act 3.

For example, in Nowhere to Hide, the hero enjoys cooking. You owe your readers a scene showing him cooking. If your character is a cop, you owe them scenes showing the cop on the job. But the scene also needs to be moving the plot forward. What if it's your cop who enjoys cooking? How can you incorporate a cooking scene with a cop scene with a relationship scene? (for an example, you can check out a scene that ended up cut when I re-edited Starting Over into Nowhere to Hide.)

In a romance, of course, there's a promise to the reader that the hero and heroine will meet, fall in love, and live happily ever after. In a mystery, there's the promise that the crime will be solved. When I write, I definitely think of scenes in terms of the mystery and the relationship. In the relationship, there will be 'push' scenes, where things are going well for hero and heroine, and 'pull' scenes, where things move them apart. In the mystery threads, there will be scenes showing the detective discovering clues, or catching the suspect, but there will also be scenes where he realizes he's on a false trail, or the suspect is innocent.

Scenes also grow out of conflict. Your characters have to confront their fears. Have a claustrophobic character? By bringing it up, you're promising your reader that it's not simply a quirk, but that you'll show him dealing with it. Trap him in an elevator. Have a character who's a single parent? You can't ignore the fact that there's a child in the book. You'll have to show scenes of her being that parent.

What about a character who abhors guns? Stick her in a situation where she has to deal with it. That's the basic premise for the scene. Then, as the story unfolds, I might find the right place to show it. Maybe she's trapped somewhere with the hero, in a situation where lives are at stake. The hero hands her his gun and says, "If someone comes through the door, shoot him." Will she? What if it's her child whose life is at stake? Will she use the gun then?

When you're writing a scene, or deciding whether or not it belongs where it does, or even in the book at all, remember that your scenes have to be multi-taskers.

Tomorrow, I'll give you some examples of types of scenes.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Great point! These scenes have got to earn their keep, whether it's through conflict, helping the plot toward resolution, or character development. Otherwise, we've got to axe it!

Tara said...

Awesome advice!

Glad to find your blog through Jemi's - she gave a rave review of WHEN DANGER CALLS. Romantic suspense is my thing; I'll be checking it out!

Terry Odell said...

Elizabeth - easier to give this advice than to get out the axe, but it's part of the craft.

Tara - thanks, and thanks to Jemi for her kind words about When Danger Calls. I hope you'll enjoy it too. Hope to see you around.

Melissa Murphy said...

Excellent advice, Terry. In my soon to be released book, the editor took out one entire chapter and part of another, and guess what? It didn't change the story all that much. In other words, it needed done.

Why didn't I see it before? lol

Melissa Murphy

Hart Johnson said...

I think this is how I need to start evaluating. I write a timeline and then sort of just write the story in between without this level of thought (though I do pretty good with planting those things that will come up later)--but the scene by scene evaluation seems like about the right level for me (I can't micro evaluate like some of these folks do--it would make ma homicidal)--but I am going to try this... Great post!

Terry Odell said...

Melissa - just shows how important it is to have someone without a vested interest in each and every word do the editing!

Hart - I've gotten better about being able to decide what the scene is doing before I write it, but I know I put in a lot of excess the first time through.

Maryannwrites said...

Great advice, Terry. I tend to do a lot of overwriting in the first draft. I know I can always cut the excess, and it is better to have too much, than too little.

BTW, I just finished When Danger Calls. Really enjoyed it. Loved the characters and all the scenes really belonged there. LOL

Terry Odell said...

Maryann - I think most of my editing tends to be cutting (Although there was that scene in When Danger Calls that my editor wanted me to add -- I'd originally written a time jump of seven minutes to avoid having to write a combat scene, and she said, "can you please write those seven minutes."

So glad you liked the book. Hope you'll share your thoughts with friends.

Margaret Tanner said...

Hi Terry, you raised some very good points, writing and furniture wise.



Kathy said...

Terry thanks for a great blog and interesting concepts. I should take time to print this out and use it when I begin to edit.

Terry Odell said...

Margaret, Kathy - thanks. Glad the post was helpful.