Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Science of Scenes

Science? Blick. What we create is art, right?

Well, yeah. Sorta.

But just like the formulas we learned in our science classes, there are formulas that work like magic in writing.

If you feel like your scenes are coming off like trying to ride a bike with square wheels, consider trying a proven technique that will round out those straight edges and give your writing momentum. Even if you don't feel you have a problem, there's a good chance your scenes don't all have the health they could. Pull on a white lab coat for a few minutes, and let's see if we can run a few diagnostic tests.

All of the ideas presented here are rooted in Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain. If you don't have this book in your craft library, you'll want to remedy that situation pronto. Another valuable online resource is Randy Ingermanson's site. He's got lessons for writers up the wazoo.

What are the books you've enjoyed the most? (For additional thoughts, see an earlier post based on Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass.)

I love books that put me in the action. Whether it's falling in love, or ferreting out the murderer, or chasing down terrorists, or finding the magic potion to save the realm, I want to experience the emotions. I want to Be There.

The most proven authors put me there by putting on their lab coats and taking care of business. Artfully.

Scenes are either the originating scene, or they are a sequel (also a scene, but for the sake of diagnostics, we call it something else. A lot like stuff in medicine). An instigating scene, if you will, and then the aftermath sequel.

Instigating scenes have three distinct parts:

Goal: Just like in real life, your POV character's goal must be specific. She's after something and everyone knows exactly what it is. She may be after something good or something bad—doesn't matter. What matters is her goal is clearly understood by the reader.

Conflict: Life for fictional characters is never easy. That's why we don't get bored. Give them obstacles that get in the way of them achieving their goal. Your readers will love it.

Disaster: In real life you would never do this, but in fiction you must. Make something awful happen to your POV character. Never, never be nice. Give your reader a reason to turn the page.

Aftermath sequels conveniently have three distinct parts:

Reaction: Your POV character just went through a disaster. She's bound to have some kind of reaction to that, right? Pour the emotions on. She's reeling. She's hurting. The trick here is to use strong verbs (well, you should ALWAYS use strong verbs) but don't wallow. No one likes to hang out with wallowers, and that includes readers. She needs to reflect and get a grip. But she runs into a problem . . .

Dilemma: She is in a dilemma. There is no clear answer to her disaster. The choices are awful. Let her chew on her worry for a bit. Let your reader worry with her. It's all part of the emotional roller coaster. Which is what your reader's love.

Decision: You want a strong POV character, right? Strong people make decisions. Let her make a good decision. One that makes sense to your readers, as perilous as it may be (and it should be perilous), but one she could pull off . . . maybe.

Do you get the page-turning thing here?

And now, your POV character has a new goal. Amazing, huh?

Since we are responsible and thorough, like our favorite medical counterparts, we have a few more details to check—those lovely "Motivation-Reaction Units." Without MRUs, your lovely scene could end up in ICU. (sorry)

Here's how MRUs are supposed to work in a healthy scene:

The motivation is external. What does your POV character see? What does EVERYONE see? It's objective. Everyone sees the same thing. There is nothing internal going on when you create the motivation.

Example: The shadow split and a gun barrel glinted under the streetlight.

Clear. Simple. On-screen.

The reaction is internal. How does your POV character experience what just happened—emotionally? This is completely subjective . . . within the mind of your POV character. Here's your opportunity to bring your reader into the skin of your character. Awesome.

There is a timing thing to consider with reactions. A motivation happens. It's there. It's immediate. A reaction takes time to develop. And it ALWAYS develops in this order:

With a reaction, there's an immediate feeling. How does your POV character feel when she sees the shadow split?

Second, there's a reflex. What is the instinctive spin-off? This takes a split-second longer than that first feeling.

And third comes some kind of believable action and speech. Usually in that order.

Motivations and reactions are always separate paragraphs. This keeps things clear.

Here's the deal: keep the pattern going. A motivation. Then reaction. Another motivation and its reaction. When you're done, so is either your instigating scene or your aftermath sequel.

Every scene and every sequel is nothing but a series of well-connected MRUs. If you've written something that isn't either a motivation or a reaction, introduce it to the Delete key. Be hard. Be ruthless. Be a good practioner of your craft.

One more thing about scenes . . . come in late and leave early.

And one more thing about our art. Lay the diagnosis aside. Turn the internal editor off. Write with abandon. Feel the wind beneath your wings. Soar. Dive. Slice the air and ride the currents. When you're finished, let it rest.

Then put on your lab coat.

It's all better with friends.

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