Tag Archives: writing scenes

How to Know What’s Worth Showing

30 May
Dolen Perkins-Valdez's New York Times bestselling novel Balm follows three African-American characters who have moved to Chicago after the Civil War.

Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s New York Times bestselling novel Balm follows three African-American characters who have moved to Chicago after the Civil War.

When I was a writing student, a teacher in my program was famous for leaning back after a workshop discussion and saying, “Just tell me a story.” As a piece of advice, it’s almost absurdly on point. “Just tell me a story” is what readers across the country are thinking when they pick up a book. They are rarely interested in matters of craft and language. The problem for writers is that short stories and novels are far different from the stories we tell at bars: they’re much longer. Even if you transcribed the tale of that person you know who goes on and on, the result would be much less than 4000 words, the length of a medium-sized story. So what are all those words doing? That’s probably the biggest question that beginning writers ask. The answer is found in learning what information advances the story and what does not.

One of the clearest examples you’ll ever see of the distinction between story-advancing information and details that should be quickly summarized can be found in Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s novel Balm. You can read the opening pages of the New York Times bestseller at the HarperCollins website.

How the Novel Works

Early in the novel, there is a scene in which one of the main characters, Hemp, has moved to Chicago to search for his wife. He’s introduced to Mrs. Jenkins, a woman who takes boarders, and we’re shown their initial conversation:

She narrowed her eyes, wrinkling a scar across her face that had taken some of the bridge of her nose with it. “I don’t allow no riffraff in my house. That include liars and cheats and no counts, the don’t-want and the can’t-do. My husband and me is God-fearing people.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

This dialogue and scene serves two clear purposes. First, it tells the story: how Hemp found a room. But it also shows the reader a character, Mrs. Jenkins, in all her glory. The dialogue is terrific (“I don’t allow no riffraff in my house. That include liars and cheats and no counts, the don’t-want and the can’t-do”) and brings her character to life, so to speak. We can hear her voice. The rest of the scene continues that process of bringing-to-life for both characters:

“I cook once a day. In the morning before you go off to work, you and the mens sit down with my husband. You got to fend for your other eats.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Course I don’t allow for no loafing. You can’t sit round here all day.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Come on eat. It’s some hoecakes left. You look hungry as a mule. Then get yourself on out in them streets and get some work.”

“Yes, thank you,  ma’am.”

“You don’t say much, do you? That’s good. Ain’t room but for one talker round here. Haw!”

The conversation ends with Hemp explaining that he’s looking for his wife and Mrs. Jenkins promising to keep “an ear on it.” As a scene, it makes sense. We’ve been introduced to the characters and given a feel for their personalities; we’ve been drawn into their lives. We’ve also been introduced to the stakes of the story: Will Hemp find his wife? But look at what the novel does next:

Hemp got work loading ship a week later and earned his first wages as a free man. He bought a sack, shoes, pants, but even his first paying job could not help him shake the sadness. He asked everyone he met, but no one knew of a woman fitting Annie’s description. He decided it would be better for him to stay in one place. It did not make sense for both him and Annie to be moving around.

Before the month was out he knew that as nice as Mr. Jenkins was, he could not go on sleeping in that tight, dark room.

While the novel dramatizes and puts in-scene the initial conversation with Mrs. Jenkins, it summarizes a month of conflict: Hemp’s search for a job, his fruitless search for his wife, and his decision to find a new place to live. All of that could have been the subject of engrossing scenes, yet Perkins-Valdez summarized it. Why? The answer could tell us something about what is important in a story. In this case, what was important was establishing the characters, their voices, their desires. Once we understand those things—once we get a feel for the characters—we don’t need to see their every move. We intuitively understand how those summarized scenes might have played out, and we can skip ahead to another pivotal moment.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s dramatize character and voice and summarize action, using Balm by Dolen Perkins-Valdez as a model:

  1. Choose a pivotal moment in your story. By pivotal, I mean that someone acts, something changes, or a decision gets made. Our usual approach is often to put this moment in scene, but we’re going to try a different approach.
  2. Find or create an interaction that occurs before the pivotal moment. As in Balm, the interaction can be between two characters: a conversation or any moment that requires the characters to work together or against each other or do something at the same time. But the interaction can also be between the character and an object or place: think about Jack London’s famous story “To Build a Fire” and its scene with the man interacting with the wood that he’s trying to burn.
  3. Use that interaction to show off a character. The scene from Balm could easily come with a title: “This is what Mrs. Perkins is like and how newly-arrived Hemp reacts to her.” All of the dialogue and descriptions (“narrowed her eyes, wrinkling a scar”) actively build our sense of Mrs. Perkins. Hemp’s simple dialogue (“Yes, ma’am”) does the same thing. The goal is to give the reader an understanding of who these characters are. Once we have that, we will usually understand their actions. So, choose a moment that allows you, through dialogue or action, to show off the characters, to give the reader a sense for who they are.
  4. Give the scene purpose. In Balm, Hemp is looking for a room and for his wife. He’s not simply shooting the breeze with Mrs. Jenkins. In your scene, something needs to be at stake. The stakes can easily be resolved, as they are in Balm: Hemp gets a room but doesn’t find out anything about his wife. Not every scene needs a pulsing, Hans Zimmer drumbeat in the background. But every scene needs a reason to exist.
  5. After the scene is over, summarize the pivotal moment. Balm summarizes Hemp’s search for a job and his wife and his decision to find a new place to live. After seeing his conversation with Mrs. Jenkins, we can imagine him doing these things, and so it’s not necessary to show them. In the same way, you can dramatize a character-building moment and then trust that the traits you established will be clear enough to make sense during a quick summary of events.

The goal is to build a story that relies more on character and voice (which are inherently interesting) and less on minute-to-minute action (which can become tedious).

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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.

How to Know What’s Worth Showing

6 Oct
Dolen Perkins-Valdez's New York Times bestselling novel Balm follows three African-American characters who have moved to Chicago after the Civil War.

Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s New York Times bestselling novel Balm follows three African-American characters who have moved to Chicago after the Civil War.

When I was a writing student, a teacher in my program was famous for leaning back after a workshop discussion and saying, “Just tell me a story.” As a piece of advice, it’s almost absurdly on point. “Just tell me a story” is what readers across the country are thinking when they pick up a book. They are rarely interested in matters of craft and language. The problem for writers is that short stories and novels are far different from the stories we tell at bars: they’re much longer. Even if you transcribed the tale of that person you know who goes on and on, the result would be much less than 4000 words, the length of a medium-sized story. So what are all those words doing? That’s probably the biggest question that beginning writers ask. The answer is found in learning what information advances the story and what does not.

One of the clearest examples you’ll ever see of the distinction between story-advancing information and details that should be quickly summarized can be found in Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s novel Balm. You can read the opening pages of the New York Times bestseller at the HarperCollins website.

How the Novel Works

Early in the novel, there is a scene in which one of the main characters, Hemp, has moved to Chicago to search for his wife. He’s introduced to Mrs. Jenkins, a woman who takes boarders, and we’re shown their initial conversation:

She narrowed her eyes, wrinkling a scar across her face that had taken some of the bridge of her nose with it. “I don’t allow no riffraff in my house. That include liars and cheats and no counts, the don’t-want and the can’t-do. My husband and me is God-fearing people.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

This dialogue and scene serves two clear purposes. First, it tells the story: how Hemp found a room. But it also shows the reader a character, Mrs. Jenkins, in all her glory. The dialogue is terrific (“I don’t allow no riffraff in my house. That include liars and cheats and no counts, the don’t-want and the can’t-do”) and brings her character to life, so to speak. We can hear her voice. The rest of the scene continues that process of bringing-to-life for both characters:

“I cook once a day. In the morning before you go off to work, you and the mens sit down with my husband. You got to fend for your other eats.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Course I don’t allow for no loafing. You can’t sit round here all day.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Come on eat. It’s some hoecakes left. You look hungry as a mule. Then get yourself on out in them streets and get some work.”

“Yes, thank you,  ma’am.”

“You don’t say much, do you? That’s good. Ain’t room but for one talker round here. Haw!”

The conversation ends with Hemp explaining that he’s looking for his wife and Mrs. Jenkins promising to keep “an ear on it.” As a scene, it makes sense. We’ve been introduced to the characters and given a feel for their personalities; we’ve been drawn into their lives. We’ve also been introduced to the stakes of the story: Will Hemp find his wife? But look at what the novel does next:

Hemp got work loading ship a week later and earned his first wages as a free man. He bought a sack, shoes, pants, but even his first paying job could not help him shake the sadness. He asked everyone he met, but no one knew of a woman fitting Annie’s description. He decided it would be better for him to stay in one place. It did not make sense for both him and Annie to be moving around.

Before the month was out he knew that as nice as Mr. Jenkins was, he could not go on sleeping in that tight, dark room.

While the novel dramatizes and puts in-scene the initial conversation with Mrs. Jenkins, it summarizes a month of conflict: Hemp’s search for a job, his fruitless search for his wife, and his decision to find a new place to live. All of that could have been the subject of engrossing scenes, yet Perkins-Valdez summarized it. Why? The answer could tell us something about what is important in a story. In this case, what was important was establishing the characters, their voices, their desires. Once we understand those things—once we get a feel for the characters—we don’t need to see their every move. We intuitively understand how those summarized scenes might have played out, and we can skip ahead to another pivotal moment.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s dramatize character and voice and summarize action, using Balm by Dolen Perkins-Valdez as a model:

  1. Choose a pivotal moment in your story. By pivotal, I mean that someone acts, something changes, or a decision gets made. Our usual approach is often to put this moment in scene, but we’re going to try a different approach.
  2. Find or create an interaction that occurs before the pivotal moment. As in Balm, the interaction can be between two characters: a conversation or any moment that requires the characters to work together or against each other or do something at the same time. But the interaction can also be between the character and an object or place: think about Jack London’s famous story “To Build a Fire” and its scene with the man interacting with the wood that he’s trying to burn.
  3. Use that interaction to show off a character. The scene from Balm could easily come with a title: “This is what Mrs. Perkins is like and how newly-arrived Hemp reacts to her.” All of the dialogue and descriptions (“narrowed her eyes, wrinkling a scar”) actively build our sense of Mrs. Perkins. Hemp’s simple dialogue (“Yes, ma’am”) does the same thing. The goal is to give the reader an understanding of who these characters are. Once we have that, we will usually understand their actions. So, choose a moment that allows you, through dialogue or action, to show off the characters, to give the reader a sense for who they are.
  4. Give the scene purpose. In Balm, Hemp is looking for a room and for his wife. He’s not simply shooting the breeze with Mrs. Jenkins. In your scene, something needs to be at stake. The stakes can easily be resolved, as they are in Balm: Hemp gets a room but doesn’t find out anything about his wife. Not every scene needs a pulsing, Hans Zimmer drumbeat in the background. But every scene needs a reason to exist.
  5. After the scene is over, summarize the pivotal moment. Balm summarizes Hemp’s search for a job and his wife and his decision to find a new place to live. After seeing his conversation with Mrs. Jenkins, we can imagine him doing these things, and so it’s not necessary to show them. In the same way, you can dramatize a character-building moment and then trust that the traits you established will be clear enough to make sense during a quick summary of events.

The goal is to build a story that relies more on character and voice (which are inherently interesting) and less on minute-to-minute action (which can become tedious).

Good luck.

How to Dig Deeper into a Scene

4 Aug
Justin Taylor's story, "So You're Just What, Gone?" appeared in The New Yorker.

Justin Taylor’s story, “So You’re Just What, Gone?” appeared in The New Yorker.

If there’s anything I’ve learned as a writer, it’s that I tend to create a potentially interesting scene and then exit it too quickly. I don’t think I’m alone. Because stories value compression, it’s natural to compress everything, all of the time. But the best moments in a scene don’t always arrive immediately. To reach them, you must dig deeper into the scene to discover what’s inside.

Justin Taylor’s story, “So You’re Just What, Gone?” starts with a long scene that ends with a great, tense, plot-driving moment. It was published in The New Yorker, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story’s opening lines set the scene:

It’s one of those airlines where you get your seat assignment at the gate, and they’re late to Logan and slow to get through security, so the lady at the counter can’t seat Charity and her mom together. Which means five-plus hours of freedom—hallelujah!

Charity is fifteen years old, and so, of course, the story makes her sit next to this guy:

When the guy appears, he’s older, way older—like thirty, maybe. He wears leather sandals and a powder-blue slim-cut dress shirt, untucked and with the sleeves rolled. When he lifts his black backpack up into the overhead compartment, Charity finds herself staring straight into his exposed navel, a bulging outie like a blind gold eye in his belly, which was waxed at some point and is now stubbled, like a face. The top of his boxers peeks up above the waist of what Charity just so happens to recognize as three-hundred-dollar True Religion jeans.

This is the point where it would be tempting to dive directly into conflict and, then, end the scene. But that’s not what Taylor does. He’s got a potentially tense situation, and he milks it.

First, he flirts with her a bit, mildly, but the flirtation ends quickly when he becomes absorbed in a newspaper. Next, Charity falls asleep and wakes to find that she’s been resting her head on the man’s shoulder. Then, they stand up at the same time to use the restroom, and when they return, talk a bit until this moment:

“I’m Mark,” he says. “What’s your name?”

“Charity.”

“Charity. That’s pretty.”

She can feel her cheeks warming. “I don’t know.”

“No, really. It is. You are.”

“O.K. I mean, thank you. Thanks.”

He gives her his number, and then this happens:

He palms her inner thigh and squeezes it, two pumps, the second one a hard one, his wrist digging against the crotch of her jeans.

“Call me when you get bored, Charity,” he says.

To arrive at this moment has taken almost a third of the story. We’re not stunned at this turn of events because it was suggested by their proximity to each other. But, we are creeped out. Taylor has slowly led us to the man’s hand on Charity’s thigh, giving the scene space to steadily make us more uncomfortable. So, how did he do it?

The situation (young girl, older man) presents an obvious narrative arc. Rather than rushing to that ending, Taylor picks a series of moments to depict along the way, inching us closer and closer to the inevitable end. They’re small moments: minor flirtations and incidental physical contact, but because we suspect where this is headed, each moment is charged. That charge is the reason we savor the scene.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s dig into a scene using “So You’re Just What, Gone?” by Justin Taylor as a model:

  1. Identify the situation and a natural narrative arc. This is something you may do after you’ve written a rough draft of the scene, simply because we don’t often know what’s going on until we’re in the thick of it. So, state the situation as clearly and succinctly as possible (teenage girl sat next to pervy man on plane). Then, consider in what direction the scene could naturally move (man hits on girl). The genius of many scenes is not that they do the unexpected but, rather, that the expected thing is so dramatic and tense. In a horror movie, when a character walks into the dark alone, we know what’s going to happen. It’s the wait that thrills us. So, figure out where you’re going with the scene.
  2. Brainstorm points along the arc. What large or small moments might occur before the scene’s end? Taylor’s moments are both large (she falls asleep on the man) and small (he lets her by to use the restroom). What matters is that each encounter builds on the previous one. Richard Ford once said that stories make impossible things possible. In this story, Taylor allows the characters to become comfortable enough with each other that the man’s hand can move to the girl’s thigh. The man wouldn’t do this immediately. Seduction (or at least familiarity) is needed. How can you show the steps required to allow your ending to occur?
  3. Build mini-scenes around each point. Each moment in Taylor’s scene is not long. The moment when Charity awake with her head on the man’s shoulder is only a few paragraphs. Each moment has its own small arc—its own increasing tension. So, in each of your mini-scenes, think about how you can ratchet up the tension, even a little. How can each mini-scene end with more tension than it began?

Good luck.

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