Monday, February 29, 2016

Wait. Where Are We?

A popular post from March 2011

by Annette Lyon

One part of writing that I love is when I'm really in the groove and the story simply flows from my fingers, through the keyboard, onto the screen. It's like I'm watching and creating a movie simultaneously.

Sometimes those great bursts of creativity produce good work. Other times, well, the section needs revision.

Remember: What's in your head and what's on the page aren't always the same thing.

A common problem I see in beginning writers' work is not grounding the reader at the beginning of a new scene or chapter. The writer knows what the new scene looks like, but they haven't put it on the page. The reader may end up spending a page or two figuring out who all is present, where we are, how much time has passed since the last scene, and who's head we're in.

A good writer can jump right into the story, keep the pace going, and not leave the reader in the dust. It's a balancing act of giving out enough information but not too much.

The key is to remember as you write that your reader isn't in your head. They have no idea where or when this new scene is compared to the last one. The story could have jumped two minutes, two hours, or two years. We could be in the same room, outdoors, or on another continent.

If the writer doesn't orient us quickly, we're liable to close the book, annoyed and confused. This is especially important for speculative works, where one chapter could literally be in another world or time.

An example: John and James have a conversation. With speech tags, they're both identified. So far, so good. They're talking along for a couple of pages, when John signals and turns left into a grocery store.

Wait, what? When did we get into a car? Last time we saw John, he was at work.

Shake the head to clear it. Create new mental picture: John and James are in a car. John is driving. He pulls into a grocery store parking lot. Got it.

They keep talking, go into the store, and as they reach the produce section, Jennifer adds her two bits to the conversation.

Whoa. Where did she come from? Oh, she was in the car with them? The writer didn't show us that. We redraw the entire scene in our heads, adding Jennifer to the car as a passenger.

And so on.

As the writer, you're seeing it all. You know who's present. You know what everyone is saying and doing. Heck, you probably know what they're all wearing and had for lunch. You know precisely what the environment looks like and could describe the sights, sounds, smells.

But if you don't describe those things, we don't know any of it.

A similar problem with a scene opener is when we're put into a character's head, thinking about the current situation and what to do next. But we're not in a scene. There's no location, no action. We're just floating around in someone's head. That's not only confusing, it's boring.

So create a scene from line one. A scene requires, at the very least, a character, a location, and action (and preferably conflict). Then we can get into someone's head and think. (But not for long, flowing paragraphs, unless you're looking at literary fiction.)

The tricky part, of course, is knowing how much to show on the page. You don't want to bog down the narrative showing every turn the car makes, every detail of the dashboard, or the color, style, and designer of each passenger's shirt, and every business they pass on the road.

But we do need to know we're in a car, driving somewhere. A few specifics about the type of car, plus a sight, a sound, or smell, are all great additions that help make a scene pop. Sprinkle those in with care.

Likewise, there's no reason to spend paragraphs on every character present, but the reader must know who's there. And make sure we are somewhere doing something.

Remember: set a scene, which means having both location and action.

You'd be surprised at how easy it is to open a chapter or scene without either. Don't.

By the same token, avoid simply stating who's present, plus where they are and where they're going. That's telling, not showing.

Fixing this kind of problem really comes down to show, don't tell (as so many writing problems seem to).

In our example scene, where John and James are talking (and we have no idea where they are), we have a "talking heads" situation. That means we hear voices that might as well be disembodied, because we don't have solid details that ground the "movie" in our heads. Talking heads = telling.

We can fix the dialogue by adding "beats," such as facial expressions, gestures, thoughts from the POV character, and more. That breaks up the talking heads, and it creates a showing environment. The movie in the writer's head is more fully on the page.

The reader figures out the location not by being told what it is but by watching how the characters react to and interact with their environment. If every character is reacting and interacting, we get no surprises when Jennifer speaks in the produce section.

Perhaps James nervously flips the lock/unlock button back and forth. John moves the visor to block the sun then gets annoyed at the guy in the Lamborghini who cut him off. Jennifer tells James to stop it with the lock button already, because it's driving her crazy. All of those details show us where they are (and we get a peek into their characters to boot).

A challenge: Open your WIP to any scene. Read half a page of the opening. Is it clear where, when, and with whom we are? For that matter, are we in a scene or just floating in a character's head?

Look at every scene opener in your story. Revise them as needed to be sure the reader will come away with a clear movie in their heads: the one you want them to be watching.


Gina said...

Oh my gosh. Such, such good advice. I just read A Density of Souls by Christopher Rice, and he did this endlessly. I found myself backtracking over and over to find out "Wait... why did he stand up... I thought they were walking... wait... why does this conversation look like it's more than two people..." So annoying.

Krista said...

Excellent post! Every aspiring writer needs to learn this part of the craft. And you're right, it is a balancing act, but also part of the magic of great story-telling. Thanks, Annette.

nutschell said...

these are awesome tips! I agree with you on all points. In my mind, the story is flowing so beautifully, but when I sit down and do revisions, I notice glaring errors and inconsistencies. I guess that's why writing is a craft--the story has to be molded and reshaped so many times before it's flawless.

Deborah said...

Great blog...I am writing my first fiction novel and the tips you give are great!

Randy F said...

Excellent advice -- something I really need to work on. I can't help but notice you posted this right after reading my manuscript :-)

Thanks for the tips.

Annette Lyon said...

Randy, I actually wrote it before I read your ms! Honest. :)

It was inspired by a published book I was reading, though.

Heather B. Moore said...

Lol, Randy. I thought Annette was writing about ME. She's edited plenty of my books, and that is one thing I am always working on.

Outlook Exchange said...

Nice post! Inspiring for upcoming writers! Thanks!