Saturday, 30 March 2013

Constructing Scenes - Part 1


Well constructed scenes perform a multitude of functions for the writer.  Not only do they help to support the narrative, they also help bring the story into focus, they help stitch together the story arc, but more importantly, they help relay the story for the reader.

When we refer to ‘scenes’, it usually means key scenes – the important and often significant ones that help break up the narrative into palatable chunks for the reader to understand.

But how do you construct such key scenes, and how do you make them work? 

It’s important to stress that any scene should form as a natural progression of the story arc.  It should come about because the story requires it, not because the writer forces it in order to try to make it appeal to the reader in a contrived or overt way, because readers can easily spot scenes that seemed forced or don’t quite belong to the story.

If the story is a good one, and the writer has done some planning, then these key scenes should come about fairly easily.

‘Key’ scenes are made up of smaller scenes that have various functions within the narrative.  When combined, these different types of scenes make up whole scenes:

·        Conversational scenes
·        Action/emotion scenes
·        Descriptive scenes
·        Transitional scenes
·        Flashback scenes

Some, if not all of these types of scenes, will help stitch the narrative together.  Remember, they should focus on key scenes rather than the superfluous ones.  I will use simple examples to show how this is accomplished, then in Part 2 I will demonstrate how they come together to form whole, cohesive scenes for the reader.

More often than not, most scenes in a novel will involve dialogue between characters, but these have a dual purpose – important conversations between push the story forward and they also impart necessary information to the reader.

Example:

‘Don’t expect me to help you out of this hole,’ John said.

‘Just this once,’ Dan said.  ‘I promise I won’t ask again.’

‘Yeah, you said that last time, remember? I’m still paying. I could have got caught.  I was that close.’

‘But you didn’t get caught.  We got away with it.’

‘There’s only so many times people can get away with it. You’re asking too much this time,’ John said.  ‘It’s just too risky.’

‘We get a good pay out,’ he said.  ‘Don’t tell me you aint interested in that…’

The dialogue, while simple, sets up the scene as it plays out, but it also imparts information to the reader that Dan is attempting a bank robbery further into the story, and there is a hint it or may not go to plan.

Action scenes, if well written, can help transport the reader right into the heart of the story.  They can increase or decrease the pace as necessary and like dialogue scenes; they can move the story forward.

Example:

John pushed harder against the accelerator; the noise of the engine purged the strained atmosphere inside the car, but all he could hear were the sirens screaming in his conscience, and growing closer.  He pulled hard on the steering wheel, hit the kerb as the car veered left, then he quickly changed gears, but he didn’t see the car to left pull out of the side road until the screech of metal against metal broke his thoughts…

The pace increases slightly here, as John drives the getaway car, but it also focuses on what he is feeling during the chase, so it also creates immediacy for the reader.

Descriptive or emotional scenes are a visual stimulus for the reader and their importance should not be ignored. They add specific sensory information for the reader – background and foreground information, they add tension and atmosphere where required and they can also alter the pace of the narrative etc.

Example:

John glanced in the rear view mirror, saw perspiration on his brow, thick like honey.  Then he peered ahead and closely watched the doors to the bank.  The engine hummed, waiting, the sound almost soothing and soporific, but it had felt longer than four minutes since Dan went into the bank that John contemplated driving off without him, anything to get out of growing dangerous situation.  Minutes ticked like an echoing clock in John’s frazzled mind…

Description scenes like these help to regulate the pace of the narrative; it slows it down and allows the reader to reflect on the wider story.  It gives them breathing space before the next action scene

In Part 2, we’ll look at using Transitional scenes and Flashback scenes. And then we’ll see how these different types of scenes are put together to form what we call ‘key scenes’.

Next week: Constructing scenes Part 2

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Writing Action Scenes


We tend to think of action scenes as the kind we see in movies – fast paced, furious, violent and with lots happening etc, but in reality, action scenes can encompass many things in fiction, and are not always so fast and furious – they can be single character scenes providing action, or slower paced scenes between two characters which still contain action, for instance sexual scenes.
Action scenes don’t necessarily equal violence and chases.
Action scenes occur when there is a significant shift in the narrative – an argument or disagreement between characters for instance, or a character discovers a secret, or something is revealed.  Perhaps a food fight breaks out, or you might have a character competing in a race. Perhaps your characters have fled an aircraft with parachutes.  And action can take place without your characters even moving.
Many new writers assume they have to have lots of action scenes in order to maintain the reader’s interest and keep up a fast pace, but this isn’t always the case.
The key to writing good action scenes lies in the way they actually relate to the narrative.  In other words, action scenes should form naturally through the story and because of preceding events within the story. This is because action is directly related to reaction.  Characters act and react to other characters and situations.
Never force action when it isn’t necessary – the result will be artificial and stilted.
Writing Action scenes
They should happen because of the story, not because the writer thinks the reader wants them.  More importantly, they should also allow readers to feel as though they are part of the events unfolding in the story.
Many action scenes rely on description to support dialogue, and vice versa, so any key action scene should always ‘show, not tell’.
The pace can vary the narrative from slow to fast, to slow again etc.  This helps to vary the tension in the scenes in order to match the action. Creating atmosphere also helps action scenes because you are making the character act under pressure, you’re making them make quick decisions, backing them into corners and not letting them have it all their own way.
Handling Action Scenes
Writing action scenes is not always easy.  Some action scenes are written so badly that they prove difficult to read because they are so clumsy.  They inadvertently slow the momentum of the story, or they make the narrative stutter.
Think how the scene should play out in real time. Action means immediacy. If you have to convey a sense of panic or swift action – like a chase scene for instance – then the narrative doesn’t require detailed and long-winded descriptions of every movement. Instead be brief and to the point. 
To get an idea, try performing some actions that your character would do, and how they might react.  Quick actions require short, staccato words and brief descriptions, for example:
Dan grabbed Sam’s collar, pushed him hard against the door.
Sam swung his arm and caught Dan in the jaw, rocked him. As the big man stumbled back, Sam rammed a tight fist into Dan’s torso…
On the other hand, action scenes that rely on sensory details use longer words and a little more description. For example:
Dan raced down the corridor - heard footsteps behind him, loud across the cold floor, but he dared not look back.  He grabbed the doorknob, slammed against the door, hoping to God it would open…
The observant would have noticed something about these two examples.
They make use of verbs.  Action loves verbs; they’re the best words to use because they give your action scenes impetus.   
Another thing to remember is to keep some realism and don’t make your characters into macho superheroes who perform incredible feats of strength and agility just at the right moment.  Most main characters are ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances, so don’t have them perform beyond their capabilities.  The result can be ridiculous.
If in doubt, as a writer, put yourself in your character’s shoes – could you do the kind of things that your character does? 
During my research for a novel, I undertook karate lessons to understand it and feel what it was like to practise it.  The character had to perform it proficiently; therefore I had to understand the movements and actions in order to realistically convey them.
How Many Action Scenes?
Be careful with the amount of action scenes you create. Too many will kill the story, whereas too few might not adequately support it. Combine the action scenes with slower, reflective to allow the reader to relax a little and contemplate the events before gearing up for the next action scene.
Remember that action scenes should be a natural result of the character’s actions and reactions to situations – the character’s ultimate goal should drive the story forward and thereby setting up proceeding scenes as it gathers pace. Each subsequent scene should be more dramatic than the preceding one, thus building up the pressure and tension until the conclusion.
The most dramatic and biggest scene should come at the end of the story – the denouement, the end game, the battle royale, so to speak.  Always save the best ‘til last.
Resist the urge to be self-indulgent with action scenes.  Instead think carefully how you want to write them.  Think in real-time, think realism, think immediacy, but most of all, make sure your action scenes evolve naturally.

Next week: Constructing scenes

Saturday, 16 March 2013

The Art of ‘Weaving’ – Part 2


Continuing the theme of ‘weaving’, there are other elements that can also be weaved throughout a story, not just the usual suspects like characters and plot and subplots etc.
Weaving Dialogue
Every writer should come to understand just how important dialogue is in a story.  It’s not just about breathing life into your characters with their words, but dialogue can help move the story forward, control pace, and also act as a conduit for weaving information to the reader – the kind that is pertinent to the story.
To do this a character needs to share information or knowledge with other characters (and the reader), but it needs to be believable and relate directly to the narrative or be an integral part of the plot.
For instance, John and Sarah have bought an old house that they want to refurbish.  The writer needs to show the reader that all is not what it seems, and through character dialogue, certain snippets of information might be imparted, but in such a way that the exposition isn’t obvious, and doesn’t sound like they’re reading from a scientific journal. For example:
‘It’s amazing to think this is over a hundred years old,’ John said.  ‘It still feels lived in, even though it’s empty.’
Sarah turned from the ornate cornices in darkened corners.  ‘Original period fixtures, too.  In great condition.  Whoever owned this house must have loved it so much.’
John ran his hand over the carved panelling.  ‘The man who owned it took great care to keep it that way.’
‘Makes you wonder why it’s been on the market for so long,’ she said. 
‘Because the owner committed suicide in this house, almost forty years ago…’

Without the need to explain the house is old, or that it has original features, who owned it etc, it’s just as simple to weave that information in the dialogue, thus negating the need to have large chunks of narrative explaining things.
Of course, the writer should take care to make sure the characters don’t sound like robots reeling off information to each other while in the thick of action.  (Certain crime dramas do this).  Writers should never assume their reader is stupid.
A brief sentence or two about an event, or some kind of knowledge or information is all that is needed when working with dialogue.  Don’t bore the reader with an ‘info-dump’.
Weaving Theme
You might have several themes that you want to explore within your story – you don’t have to limit yourself to just one.
Themes are separate from plot.  The plot is the backbone of the story, what and who is involved and an ending.  The theme is the accompanying emotive subject matter, such as love or friendship, money and power, deceit, betrayal or survival etc.
You might have a story involving a protagonist trying to save his neighbourhood, but is thwarted at every turn by a notorious street gang who are terrorising the locals. Through cunning and bravery, the hero wins out in the end = this is the basic plot.
Into this you might introduce a love interest through a subplot involving the sister of one of the gang members = theme of love over adversity.
You might also weave the theme of power and control into the story, done through the antagonist – the gang leader.
Lastly, you might weave the theme of betrayal into the story when the reader learns that the gang member and our hero were once close friends, but one betrayed the other.
All the themes in a story are easily woven into the story through sub-plotting, dialogue and narrative – and as the simple example shows, they are directly relevant to the plot.
Weaving a Backstory
Every character has a backstory.  In other words, it’s the events leading up to the moment the character’s life changes (and the moment the story opens).
But how do writers weave that into the story?
By far the easiest tool for a writer to reveal information that happened in the past that is relevant to the present is a flashback.  This can be done through description of past events, or by a character directly remembering the events, or through dialogue of the past event.
Weaving the Setting
Every story needs a setting.  Whether a modern day busy metropolis, a glamorous beach setting, or a desert, the setting shouldn’t be overlooked (but often is).
Think of the setting as the background to a painting.  It’s there to provide support to the foreground, to accompany the colours and textures and provide depth – a picture without a background is rather bland.
The story is no different.  There is always something in the background of the setting.  That could be anything from the character of a place, the colours, the people, or the layout etc. 
By weaving little morsels of the setting through the narrative, the reader is able to picture themselves in that setting; they feel as though they are there.
This is achieved through description, perhaps through a character’s eyes and thoughts, maybe through dialogue or even a few lines of direct exposition for the reader to get a feel of where the characters are.
Weaving your Research
Exposition in huge amounts is like reading an encyclopaedia or a history book.
The idea is that all the research you’ve done in order to add flesh to the story finds purpose and achieves the desired goal of educating and explaining things for the reader, without them realising it.
The research is basic background information to support the narrative. This can be achieved by weaving it into directly into the description – such as a specific place in history or time, like a war or a significant world event. 
It can be done through the actions of characters, such as a character using machinery or equipment that the reader won’t be familiar with.
It can also be divulged effectively through dialogue – such as a character’s knowledge of a subject of object – while communicating with another character less knowledgeable.
All it needs is small, digestible snippets for the reader to consume and ponder, rather than huge amounts of boring information and ‘telling’ dumped onto them like a concrete slab.
If there is an element in writing that needs to be in a story, then it needs to be woven into the fabric of the story, as seamlessly as possible, like the fibres that make up our clothes.
That’s the art of ‘weaving’.

Next week: Writing Action Scenes

Sunday, 10 March 2013

The Art of ‘Weaving’ – Part 1


What is ‘weaving’, what exactly does it mean? 
All the elements in writing are interconnected – they’re like atoms, they’re needed, and so the structure is considerably weakened without them.

Theme, plot, characters, story arc, setting, subplots, research, backstory and so on make up those interconnected elements, and they have to be connected, otherwise there would be no story.
But the strength of any story relies entirely on the writer’s ability to bringing all of those elements together in a complete and cohesive manner.

Weaving has been used by writers since the human race could learn to tell stories; it’s not a new concept at all.  Most writers do it without realising, even first time writers.  Experienced writers, on the other hand, will use it to their advantage, with exceptional results.
Weaving information, characters, subplots, themes and so on is a universal necessity for any story, and should be done in a seamless manner.  Not only that, but they should be relative to the story, it all has to make sense, it has to be part of the story.

Why do we need to do it?
We need to do it because the reader constantly needs information.  Whether it’s about a character, a plot twist, a revelation, or a clue, the writer must allow the reader to be privy.  The writer is letting the reader learn as the story unfolds, and that means the writer has to share the narrative and exposition.

It’s about allowing snippets of crucial information into the story without dropping huge chunks of boring, indigestible narrative to stop the reader in their tracks (and put the reader off completely).
These little bits of information can be shown through characters, dialogue, backstory, subplots and so on.  It is therefore possible involve the reader by letting them in on certain information whilst keeping the story moving forward.

So let’s start with the main elements all writers should be weaving into their basic story framework:

Weaving the Plot
The plot is the nub of the story – what the story actually entails.  Into this, a writer has to ‘weave’ ideas and events, situations and scenes that make up the whole story. 

The writer has the opportunity to create depth and complexity by ‘weaving’ information into the plot.  This is achieved by the writer adding a story arc for the characters to follow – in other words the character’s journey within the story, from beginning to end and which contain all the main events of the larger story.
Writers weave the plot into the story, and other elements are then woven into the plot. (Hence you can see why all the elements are interconnected).

Weaving the Subplots
It works the same as working the plot around characters and their situations and building up the story.  They should form from the natural progression of the story (rather than forced in to form a dramatic effect).
By placing or ‘weaving’ subplots connected to the main story to run parallel with the main plot, the writer is enriching the story and giving it greater depth. 

Again it is about sharing certain information with the reader, the subtle snippets or clues, the hints in the narrative or dialogue that makes it possible to interlace subplots with the main plot.
The writer should allow the subplot to grow with the main story.  It should also follow the main story arc and therefore allow it to interact with the main plot.

Weaving Characters
Characters are woven into the plot as a necessity, and therefore they’re also woven into the narrative, the very fabric of the story.  But how do you do that?

Firstly the writer introduces characters into the story – this is weaving at its most basic.  Then as the story progresses the writer allows the character to grow with the story and to follow the story arc, and interacting with other characters, while at the same time weaving fragments of information about the characters and their surroundings into the narrative to allow the reader to be involved and gain a greater understanding of both the story and the characters.
And the trick with this is to only place information that is necessary.  Think about it - it’s just not possible to weave huge chunks of description, narrative or information.  That is more of an info-dump.

Also, all writers should use a character’s senses to enable the description of a scene, rather than simply ‘telling’ the reader.  This act of weaving senses into the description via the character is a subtle but effective way of letting the reader in on certain bits of information.
Whether it is a piece of information, something new for the reader to learn, a clue to the plot, a revelation in the story, an introduction to a new character, a twist in plot or a new subplot, by sneaking them seamlessly into the narrative and letting them form part of the story, then that is what weaving is all about.

In part 2 we’ll look at weaving theme, research, setting, backstory etc

Next week: The art of weaving – Part 2

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Is it bad to have autobiographical elements in stories?


The truth is, whether we realise it or not, there are many autobiographical representations in our stories. 
This happens because we draw on our own experiences which we use to either layer the stories or our characters, and this is particularly true for those embarking on their first novel.
In essence, it’s not a bad thing at all – writers often project themselves into stories and characters because we all have to work from something.  The only negative is that when it happens too much, and a great deal of ‘ourselves’ find a way into the stories, the strength of the story may be diminished.
As with everything in fiction, it is about balance.  Remember, fiction is just that – most of it should be fictitious.
Usually our first creations – the characters we choose as first time writers – are often a facsimile of ourselves, an ‘alter ego’ with a few embellishments.  Most writers would admit they’ve done so, and it lends to the learning process. 
When I first started writing, there was a lot of me in one of my very first characters, albeit a little taller, but she was feisty and strong like me, and she had many of my darker personality traits, because that’s the kind of character I felt at ease with – someone like me.
There was nothing wrong with that, but I did have to ease back on just how much of me crept into the character, and at the editing stage it made me realise I was writing a fictitious story with a fictitious character, not a life story about me.  I realised I had to find a balance of the two – the real and the fictitious, otherwise the story would feel somewhat stilted.
As already pointed out, this happened because as a first time writer I didn’t really know how to create a character from scratch – so many elements of writing were daunting at that time – so it was easier to place myself in the story as the character and then mould the character as I went along. 
This happened many times, whether the character was female or male.  Eventually, through experience, I was able to create characters with their own personalities and traits, people who bore no resemblance to me whatsoever.  They became stand-alone creations.
That said, there are certain elements that I can borrow from my own personality and implant them into my characters if I think it necessary, to add that extra flavour and dimension.   
The same is true of our experiences – which the last two articles looked at.  The things we have done or accomplished or experienced will always find a home in our stories because they all lend to the essence of the story, but again make sure that they form part of the story arc. 
Of course, there is a negative to this too – don’t deliberately create scenes just so you can manifest your experiences in great detail i.e. you write a scene with a character visiting a city just because you’ve been there and you want to show off your knowledge.   
Settings and scenes should always come about naturally within the story arc. 
It’s better to set the story against a certain place to begin with rather than have your character magically appear there in chapter 14 when it bears no real correlation to the story.
I’ve often said that stories are like paintings – they are made up of many layers and colours and textures, with foreground and background and characters etc.
So let’s go back to the initial question: Is it bad to have autobiographical elements in stories?
No, not at all, as long as you have a balance of the real elements and the fictional ones.  Lend too much of yourself to the story and you could end up ruining it.  Remember, the stories are not about you, they are about the characters you’ve created.  It’s their story, their life.
The best way to avoid such negatives is to pay attention at the editing stage.  If you think that too much of yourself has crept into the character, then pare it back.  By all means lend some elements of yourself and your experiences, but don’t overdo it!
Checklist:

·        Look for balance in a character – a lot of fictional with a touch of realism.
·        Make sure the story arc lends itself to the settings and plot – don’t create them willy-nilly just because you want to show off.
·        Real life experiences should provide a touch of realism and depth and should form a natural parallel with the plot – never force them into the narrative.
·        Don’t deliberately set out to write about yourself as the character.
·        Always be aware of these elements when editing.

Next week: The art of ‘weaving’ situations, plots and characters into your stories.