What are the most important scenes in a novel?

theatre-1459597To overcome feeling overwhelmed by finishing your novel, a writer might want to keep these writing principles in mind:

  • She doesn’t have to write chronologically.
  • She can write her most important scenes first and then fill in the blanks.

Now, if she has planned your novel with some kind of outline, then these principles become even easier.

So the question is, what are the most important scenes in a novel?

This doesn’t mean some scenes are less necessary than others. In the final draft, all the scenes should be necessary and move the story along. A post from C.S. Lakin’s blog called The First Ten Scenes You Need to Plot for your Novel offers a list of scenes on which the writer should focus.

I concentrated on finishing these scenes and now I am writing the final draft of the “in-between” stuff. If you get stuck in your writing, jump ahead work on the The Midpoint scene. This is the scene, roughly 50% of the way through your story, where the character asks whether or not she wants to continue. She questions who she is. She decides to go on, or maybe decides to take a different tactic. Then write backwards from that scene, or write forwards.

Here is what the writer should remember: if she gets stuck writing the novel chronologically, she can jump around and write one of the scenes listed in Lakin’s article.

There’s no rule against doing that.

Advertisements

Checklist for writing a scene

When it came to my novel, I honestly didn’t think I’d have to do that. But, here I am, the stage of my novel where I am going over each scene, and I am “killing my darlings.” I want to keep most of the scenes, but I have a criteria I go over that may tell me otherwise.

clapper-board-1420048I didn’t realize until I was a young adult that some scenes in a movie didn’t make it into the final cut. Today we have DVDs where we can see the parts of the movie the director cut and left on the editing room floor.

When it came to my novel, I honestly didn’t think I’d have to do that. But, here I am, the stage of my novel where I am going over each scene, and I  am “killing my darlings.” I want to keep most of the scenes, but I have a criteria I go over that may tell me otherwise.

If a scene doesn’t fit the criteria, slash. It’s gone.

I don’t actually trash the scene, I just put it in a folder called “unused material.”
  • Is it a scene or sequel?
    A scene has a goal, a conflict, and a disaster. A scene that is a sequel has reaction, dilemma, and a decision. Both are okay, but it’s good to know which is which. Read Randy Ingermanson’s article Writing the Perfect Scene for more details.
  • What is the conflict?
    If no conflict exists in the scene, either find a way to rewrite it into the story or cut it.
  • What is the purpose of this scene?
    A scene can have several purposes: introduce a character, build suspense, establish a mood, create a resolution, and on and on. If you can’t figure out the purpose of the scene, cut it.
  • Do you have a consistent point-of-view? Would the scene be improved by changing the point-of-view?
    I wrote some scenes from the viewpoint of my antagonist. However, I felt they were to “on-the-nose” so to speak. No subtext. So I rewrote the scenes from the viewpoint of another character in the same scene, and I felt the story became more effective. Why? Because it created suspense and mystery for my antagonist.
  • Are you using sub-text in the action and dialogue of the characters? Are you avoiding on-the-nose writing?
    Instead of telling what the characters are doing and saying, pay attention to what they’re NOT doing and saying. They may say one thing, but really mean another. It’s what is going on beneath the surface. Here’s a great article about using subtext.
  • Does your character do something surprising?
    Keep your readers on their toes by surprising them with your character’s reactions. In each scene, the character should do something unexpected.
  • What emotion is the character feeling at the beginning of the scene? Does he or she have a conflicting or contrasting emotion by the end of the scene?
    If the character is laughing and playing around at the beginning of the scene, is she pissed off at the end of the scene? May sure your characters express a range of feelings and moods throughout the scene.
  • Does your character have expectations at the beginning of the scene that contrast with  what happens during the scene?
    If your character is expecting to win a competition at the beginning of scene, show him or her losing. Or something else unexpected. Or maybe the character expects to lose and ends up winning by cheating or something else. Surprise the reader.
  • Are the characters only talking in this scene? If so, does it move the story along?
    Your scene may only be a conversation, but it better move the story along.
  • Does your scene have a beginning, middle and end? Does it seem like a mini-novel?
    If you consider them a mini-story, then you’re more likely to write stronger scenes. C.S. Lakin talks about scene structure in her article.

I have a file in my Scrivener document called “Tool Box.” It has several lists to use for keeping my novel in check. One of those tools is a Scene Checklist. I review a scene using all of the above criteria. I hope you find it helpful.

Fiction Writing Workshop: Action Scenes

kick-fighting-1528974

He extends his sword and then utters these words:

“My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die.”

The most memorable part of this fight scene are these words. But why?

To find the answer, I wanted to know more about writing effective fight and action scenes. My novel has several of these scenes, so I did some research to maximize their punch.

I found some great articles on the web and as I read them, I kept coming across some recurring themes.

  • Action scenes in books are different than action scenes in movies. A blow-by-blow fight between characters doesn’t come across as exciting on the page as it does on the screen. Describing every detail bores the reader.
  • Action scenes must further the plot. They should do this in both movies and books.
  • Action scenes must advance characterization. Why is the protagonist fighting? The fight, the action must relate to the character’s goals.
  • Action scenes should increase the suspense, the tension and up the odds. Writer John Rogers says, “… this is one of the reasons The Matrix still holds up, and the sequels are two of the most boring movies I have ever, ever, ever seen.” I have thought the same thing over and over since I saw those last two movies.
  • Action scenes should be unique and have interesting settings. One fight scene looks like another. An interesting setting can make it more memorable.

I also found some contradicting advice. Writer K.M. Weiland says:

“Make sure you use [dialogue] to your advantage by breaking up descriptions of action with story-advancing (and perhaps scintillatingly witty?) dialogue.”

While writer Alan Baxter says:

“There is no dialogue while fighting. It never goes like that. You don’t have time, although there may be a few sharp words but no conversation.

Remember Montoya’s famous piece of dialogue? It’s totally appropriate. It had been repeated throughout the story and when he finally finds his father’s actual killer, it’s thrilling. Also, he says it before the fight begins, so it serves as a war cry.

Both of the writers I just quoted suggest using short sentences and one or two word pieces of dialogue. Good advice for fight scenes.

Here are the excellent articles:

Writing exercises:

  • Comb through your story or novel and analyze each fight or action scene. Does it develop character? Does it advance the plot? Is dialogue used appropriately? Does it create suspense?
  • Find a favorite novel and go through it looking for action scenes. Do they work? Could you improve upon them?
  • Do more research and find more articles on writing action scenes. Do you see recurring advice? What other tips can you find for writing these scenes?

See other Fiction Writing Workshops from this blog.

The Final Quarter

football-1437517I am down to the last 25% of the current draft of my novel which I’m now calling Ziggurat Reach. Whether that is a working title or a final title, I don’t know.

I know what is happening in the last part of my novel. I am building up to the story’s climax and all the characters have finally gathering to one place–the ziggurat, in case you’re wondering– and a lot of things are about to happen.

Here are some thoughts on what I’m trying to accomplish and how I’m feeling as I’m writing this week:

  • Each character has a goal he or she is in the process of fulfilling, and I’m figuring out ways the goals will be finalized in this last quarter.
  • K.M. Weiland has said she wrote more than one version of the climactic scene. I think I may do that.
  • Scrivener has been a godsend in motivating me to get moving on this novel.
  • In my next draft, I have a whole new subplot I’ll be writing. At this point, it’s outlined in Scrivener, but I’ll be composing first drafts for those scenes after I finish this draft.
  • Saving up to buy some ISBN numbers. Deciding whether to break the story down into four mini-novel episodes. The first one would be free. I would also offer the novel as a whole for a cheaper price than buying the three remaining mini-novel episodes.
  • Still deciding whether to use Smashwords or Amazon or both (at different times).

Well, tonight I’ll be toiling away on novel. Maybe I’ll go to my favorite coffee shop, Heine Brothers in Northfield area of my city, Louisville, Kentucky.

Books on writing I read in 2015

Every year I try and read a couple of books on the writing craft. I know that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but,  honestly, I love reading stuff on how to write fiction. Here is what I read in 2015:

2940151898539_p0_v3_s192x300Planning a Novel, Script or Memoir
by Hank Quense
Quense offers practical tips on how he writes his novels. What I want is something I haven’t heard before, and that’s what I got with this book. At the beginning, he suggests the reader to just take what he or she needs. Good advice. Not everyone thinks the same way, and, also, who wants to read the same thing over and over?

9780985780401_p0_v1_s192x300Structuring Your Novel
by K.M. Weiland
Weiland shows how to make the most of using the three-act structure as you write your novel. She has become sort of an online tutor/mentor to me because books like this one answer my questions about writing fiction.

51QhpMsap6L._UY250_Your Guide to Scrivener by Nicole Dionisio
Scrivener is a program to help writers organize their projects, both fiction and non-fiction. I can’t praise the software enough. There are dozens of books out there to show the writer how to use Scrivener, and I picked this by Nicole Dionisio. I admit I selected because it was the cheapest ebook on the subject I could find. But it’s all okay, because she did a great job and the book is short, so you can learn Scrivener quickly.

Quense tells how he writes his books and doesn’t apologize for it

Here is my review of Hank Quense’s Planning a Novel, Script or Memoir as it appears in Goodreads and Amazon:

I’ve read many books on writing fiction and after a while I see the same theories and best practices over and over. This is not necessarily a bad thing because a reminder is always helpful. However, when I come across some new best practices for writing a novel, I feel like I’m getting the most out of my time and money spent.

2940151898539_p0_v3_s192x300In his Planning a Novel, Script or Memoir, which is part of his Fiction Writing Series, Quense offers practical tips on how he writes his novels. That’s what I want—something I haven’t heard before, and that’s what I got with this book. At the beginning, he suggests the reader to just take what he or she needs.  Good advice. Not everyone thinks the same way, and, also, who wants to read the same thing over and over? Quense’s recommendation to use Scrivener, his practice of mind-mapping, and the idea of a plot cloud gave me some new techniques to incorporate into my writing disciplines. Of course, he also touches on fiction elements I’ve read elsewhere, but his succinct style on concepts like  “character arc” proved to be a great review and motivator.

So if you are looking for some fresh ideas on writing fiction, I recommend this book. He includes lots of resources in the Appendices. The reader may or may not decide to use Quense’s ideas, especially if the person prefers to write without planning, but as he says about his mind-mapping technique, “Ultimately, you have to decide whether to use this method or not.”

I’m definitely going to check out his other books in the series.

What I’m learning as I write my novel, part 2

1089540_94098497In my previous blog entry, I began listing some things I’m learning as I write my current novel. Here are some more:

  • Let the story unfold like a snowflake. When writing the discovery draft of a novel, I like to use the snowflake method. This is a method created by writer Randy Ingermanson. I mentioned in my last post how writing this novel was like peeling an onion; this is part of that metaphor. Here’s how I’ve adapted it: first, write one sentence for each scene; next, turn each sentence into a five sentence paragraph; then turn each paragraph into five paragraphs. I use the snowflake method software to develop my characters, but then I jump to a text document and let the story develop. I read about a similar method in a book that is out of print called One Way to Write Your Novel by Perry Dick. You may want to use your own version of this method.
  • Write a scribble for each scene. Many different methods float around the internet on how to write a scene for a novel. I’ve come across this list of tips for writing scenes, and the item on this list that I find helpful is write a scribble version (of the scene). Here is an example of what a scribble version looks like (Scroll down a little.). Usually, I write a scribble version for a scene when I turn scene from one sentence into a paragraph. So, a scene is first written out as a scribble, then I expand it with dialogue, action, narrative, inner emotion and inner monologue.
  • None of the main characters in my story are married or in committed relationships. They are all in their early twenties, with one exception. I’m beginning to think this could be marketed to young adults.
  • In further rewrites, I will be able to see where I can change things. As I write the discovery draft, I make notes about things that have already happen that I can change and strengthen. This includes: characters idiosyncracies; dialogue changes; inner emotion additions; jacked-up conflict; additional sub-plots. I also will be taking out some dialogue in my opening scene in which the antagonist reveals too much about himself too soon–I hope this will create more suspense as in “what’s he up to, anyway?”
  • I write a series of scenes that go together and break them into chapters. I write scenes and then break them into chapters. Supposedly, fiction is written as scenes in the same way nonfiction is written as a paragraphs. A chapter in fiction may contain several scenes, or only one–it’s up to the writer. I may cut a scene in half by ending a chapter in the middle of it to create a cliffhanger.
  • Most of writing is definitely rewriting. Recently, I’ve come across these articles about editing and rewriting a manuscript. I plan on using some of the tips they offer; in fact, I’m already using some of the advice from them. Here they are:
    How to Write a Book: the Five-Draft Method (Jeff Goins)
    How I Self-Edit My Novels: 15 Steps from First Draft to Publication (K.M. Weiland)
  • I’ve gotten good at avoiding sentences beginning with participles and as. I recommend Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. One chapter discusses sentences in which the writer begins a sentences with an –ing word. This can lead to dangling modifiers: Rowing down the river, the branches of the trees hung over us like protective arms. Anyway, here’s an article that talks about the same thing. The first comment also has some good tips.
  • Writing action scenes is not the same thing as action scenes on the screen. An action scene need not include every punch, kick or jab. Every car chase scene need not include every screeching turn around a corner. Actions scenes are an opportunity to reveal character, among other things. Here are some articles I’ve read recently on writing action scenes I’ve found helpful:
    5 Essential Tips for Writing Killer Action Scenes (Chuck Sambuchino)
    The Kung Fu Panda Guide to Writing Action Scenes (K.M. Weiland)
    Writing: Action Scenes (John Rogers)
    Just Google “writing action scenes” and you’ll find these articles listed as well as many more.
  • I’m avoiding infodumps. I’m writing a science fiction series with certain “rules of the universe” in which the stories take place. With this draft, I’m avoiding infodumps about this crazy place I’ve created–for now. When I rewrite, I’ll need to explain a few things as briefly as possible. How I will do that, I’m still deciding. Should I even do it at all?
  • Dialogue is never the best the first time around. When I rewrite, I will be hammering the dialogue to make it stronger in an attempt to give each character his or her own “voice.”
  • Writing about the progress of my novel, like this, is helpful. More lessons appear to me as I write and I hope to continue chronicling those lessons in this blog in an attempt to improve my writing and storytelling. Wish me luck.