4 Strategies for Crafting Scenes (You Know, the Things Stories Are Made Of)

28 Feb

One of the regular questions writers and teachers are asked is about the difference between literary and genre fiction. There are differences, but one of the things I found while putting together The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction was that both literary and genre writers were doing a lot of same things. This shouldn’t be surprising. A story is a story, and any distinctions almost certainly fall into what an author wants to focus on as opposed to any difference in quality.

This is especially true when you start looking at the basic building block of any story: the scene. Characters act, those acts have immediate consequences and possible effects down the line, and tension is built or released. In the chapter on writing scenes, I included four incredibly different writers–no kidding. No book has ever before paired the master of East Texas horror and mystery Joe R. Lansdale with Teju Cole, a writer whose work represents the height of meditative literary sophistication. And, the chapter includes not one but two Texas writers, including Bret Anthony Johnston, who recently moved from Harvard to the University of Texas to direct the famed Michener Center for Writers.

(If you’re in Austin, Johnston will be a special guest at the book launch for The Writer’s Field Guide this Thursday, March 1, 7 pm, at BookPeople.)

You can check out parts of the writing exercises based on their work, plus one based on Rachel Kushner’s award-winning novel The Flamethrowers. You’ll find that not only do the writers use similar strategies, they also work together to create a cumulative effect that can be used in a single work.

You can buy The Writer’s Field Guide at BookPeople and also here.

A Short Preview of the Exercises

Each excerpt is accompanied by an essay on the craft within it and an exercise for adapting the strategies to your own work. Here are one step from each exercise:

Give Your Characters Space to Be Themselves, inspired by Honky Tonk Samurai by Joe R. Lansdale

DISTILL YOUR CHARACTER’S PERSONALITY TO ONE OR TWO TRAITS. Some writers may resist this; their characters are too complex to be distilled to a few words. And yet we do this all the time in real life. We say, “That so-and-so is such a ____.” People who subscribe to astrology will say, “He’s such a Virgo.” Try filling in the blank. What sort of temperament or personality does your character have?

 

Use Repetition to Increase Tension to an Unsustainable Level, inspired by “Encounters with Unexpected Animals” by Bret Anthony Johnston (which appeared in The Best American Short Stories)

FIND A DETAIL THAT CREATES SOME EFFECT. This is a good strategy to use in revision. Read through a scene and find some detail that is charged negatively or positively. In Johnston’s story, a father doesn’t like his son’s girlfriend, and so he decides to force them to break up. But to make that story work, the reader needs to understand why he doesn’t like the girl. The reader needs to feel the father’s dislike, which is shown through details. In your scene, what makes your reader happy, sad, or angry?

 

Write Action Sequences with Minimal Choreography, inspired by The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

SUMMARIZE THE ACTION. While you don’t want the final scene to resemble a transcript of Mortal Kombat, you do need to know what happens. It can be involved (numbers of kicks and punches) or general, as it probably was with Kushner (motorcycles ride through the streets, out of sight, and then return). Also, action doesn’t only mean fights and chases. If a character walks from one place to another, that’s an action sequence. Washing dishes, building a fort, and shining are also action sequences, as if anything that can descend into a list of actions: cast, reel, cast, reel, etc.

Make Interiority the Focus in Action Scenes, inspired by Open City by Teju Cole

CHARACTERIZE THE MENTAL STATE. Cole does this plainly: “I was unnerved.” A line like this is helpful for a couple of reasons. First, it offers a filter for the thoughts. Aimless contemplation risks losing the reader. There should be a goal, an aim, a point. A character who is unnerved, angry, stunned, thrilled, relieved, or anxious has an end or desire in mind. Secondly, the mental state sets the stage for the action. Cole’s narrator is unnerved for good reason, as it turns out. He’s unnerved, and so are we.

 

Good luck.

You can buy The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction here.

 

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