How to Turn Information into Scene

2 Aug
Amy Gentry's debut novel GOOD AS GONE "draws our attention to the self that’s forged from sheer survival, and from the clarifying call to vengeance," according to a New York Times review.

Amy Gentry’s debut novel Good as Gone “draws our attention to the self that’s forged from sheer survival, and from the clarifying call to vengeance,” according to a New York Times review.

When I was a MFA student, one of my professors liked to hold up a story and rip out the first three pages. “This is where it ought to begin,” he’d say, and he was almost always right. Our openings tended to be general information and backstory. The story started when the first scene arrived. If this is true, though, it poses a challenge to writers. How can you start in scene and introduce the basics of setting, character, and situation?

Amy Gentry does an excellent job of doing both in her novel Good as Gone. If you haven’t heard of it yet, you soon will. It’s getting a big national marketing campaign and big-time reviews—for good reason. The book is a thriller that is also thoughtful, with well-developed characters. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

The story is set in Houston, which is information that must be conveyed quickly—not just the name of the city but the particular details of what the city is like and how it feels to be there. That information and more is introduced in the first paragraph of Chapter 1:

Julie’s been gone for eight years, but she’s been dead much longer—centuries—when I step outside in the steaming air on my way to teach my last class of the spring semester. The middle of May is as hot as human breath in Houston. Before I’ve even locked the door behind me, a damp friction starts up between my skin and clothes; five more paces to the garage, and every hidden place sickens. By the time I get to the car, even my bent knuckles are sweating up the plastic sides of the insulated travel cup, and my grip sips as I climb into the SUV, throwing oily beads of black coffee onto the lid. A few on my hand, too, but I let them burn and turn on the air conditioning.

Here is the information delivered in this paragraph:

  • The situation (“Julie’s been gone for eight years”) and how that absence feels (“dead much longer”)
  • The temperature (steaming)
  • The narrator’s job (college instructor)
  • The month (May)
  • The city (Houston)
  • How the weather feels (“a damp friction”)
  • The exact location of the scene (outside the narrator’s front door and then in her SUV)
  • Something about the narrator’s mindset (“I let them burn”)

This is a tremendous amount of information, and one thing that beginning writers tend to do is dump it onto the page. Such info dumps are almost always tedious and boring—but this paragraph isn’t because it’s in scene. As a result, the passage has a sense of movement. Because it begins with situation, we want to know more about what’s going on. Because the setting is made palpable, we feel the narrator’s discomfort along with her. Because the narrator reacts to a detail in an unexpected way (“I let them burn”), we want to understand what’s going on in her head.

In short, Gentry manages to include an info-dump’s worth of detail and make it feel like story because of how she weaves it into the scene. If Gentry can make such mundane information come alive, you can imagine how exciting the book becomes once she’s working with the twists and turns of a thriller plot.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s turn information into scene, using Good as Gone by Amy Gentry as a model:

  1. Prioritize the basics of setting. For Gentry, this means city, month, and weather, but this is because those details are impossible for her narrator to ignore every time she walks out of her house. So, put your character into motion. Move her from one spot to another and find out what part of the setting affects her most acutely. If your character doesn’t notice the weather, then the weather doesn’t matter. What does the character notice about setting? What is the character’s attitude toward this noticeable detail? It doesn’t matter whether it’s positive or negative, only that it’s charged.
  2. Give the character some necessary task to do. Gentry sends her narrator to work. The job isn’t pressing; it’s not like she’s a fire fighter rushing to a burning building. But it’s necessary for the narrator to go. This tethers the narrator to the world. Too often in drafts, characters are left floating in infinite space, thinking big thoughts. It’s almost always the case that no thought—no matter how deep or well-stated—is interesting if it’s not given context or background. So, before the character thinks, let the character do something she has no choice but to do. This task could be a job, or it could be some other essential task (household, community, family). You’re connecting the character to other characters and institutions, and these connections reveal small, yet important information.
  3. Be specific about setting. Gentry’s scene is set in Houston, but it’s also outside the narrator’s front door. Without that detail, we wouldn’t know if the narrator was leaving an apartment, a doctor’s office, a super-secret spy agency; we’d only know she was outside.
  4. Be aware of your character’s state of mind. Perhaps the best detail in the paragraph is the one about letting the coffee burn her skin. We begin to read into such a detail, making guesses at why the narrator would act that way. Once the readers begins to do that work, they’re hooked. So, put yourself in your character’s head; what is the single most pressing emotion or feeling in it? What is the source of that feeling? We already know that Julie is dead and gone, and so we can begin to connect that piece of information with the unexpected action. You can do the same thing. Let your character’s state of mind affect how she reacts to some small detail.
  5. Introduce the situation. The state of mind and reaction from the last step will make more sense if we know what’s going on. In this case, what’s going on isn’t the narrator going to work but the fact that Julie is gone. The situation is ongoing, not acute. The advantage to clearly stating the situation and how it feels (as Gentry does in the first sentence) is that is quickly orients the reader. Every new piece of information will be read in relation to the situation. I made this the final step because writers often don’t know what the situation is until they’ve gotten into their character’s head and seen the character react to the setting. Then, as writers, we’re like, “Oh, that’s what’s going on.”

The goal is to make basic information about setting and character interesting by putting it into scene.

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One Response to “How to Turn Information into Scene”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. An Interview with Amy Gentry | Read to Write Stories - August 4, 2016

    […] To read an exercise on turning information into scene based on Good as Gone, click here. […]

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