When I’m freewriting, I tend to write way more dialogue than action. My first drafts often read like screenplays. Sometimes, I won’t even put tags that explain who is talking, and I’ll have to scroll back through the scene weeks later desperately trying to remember who was who.
Take this chunk of dialogue:
“I said no one was supposed to go in there.”
“I thought you meant, you know, other people. I didn’t think you meant me.”
“I always mean you. I don’t care what other people do. I care—”
“Just — don’t do it again, okay? It’s dangerous.”
It’s not bad, is it? But we have no idea who is speaking, where they are, or what’s going on. So let’s see if we can beef it up a little bit…
A quick post for you this Monday, Happy Writers! NaNoWriMo is imminent, and I’m about to launch into an all-day flurry of schoolwork to try to get everything done so I have some nice, lengthy, juicy writing days later in the week. (If you would like to follow my noveling progress, follow me on NaNoWriMo.org!)
Today, I want to talk about scenework. Novels are broken up into distinct chunks — among these, acts, chapters, scenes, paragraphs, and sentences. Scenes are some of the most important elements of a novel — if your individual scenes aren’t engaging, a reader is never going to appreciate the bigger picture. You want scenes that reveal your characters and move the story forward — scenes that build like bricks to construct the big, beautiful mansion (or townhouse, or skyscraper, or complicated subway system) your book will eventually be.
So, what do you do when you can tell a scene isn’t working?
A confession: I really like scrolling through writing prompts. I find it fascinating and entertaining to read these little one or two-sentence snippets of story starters, and I’m always hoping I’ll find one that sparks some brilliant, intoxicating surge of creativity, some whirlwind of production from which I’ll emerge with a fully written first draft of something all story-shaped and impressive.
A second confession: This never actually happens.
I like looking at writing prompts. But I’ll be the first to admit that, until recently, I had no real idea how to turn a writing prompt into an actual story.
How do you go from a prompt like Someone at a grocery store runs into a problem and actually make a story out of it? How do you take A ghost haunts a classroom or a dog that can talk joins local politics or a man wakes up to a tattoo he’s never had before — a set of numbers counting down and actually turn it into a full-blown story?
It’s actually really difficult to take someone else’s idea and make it your own! Most of my stories crop up entirely in my own head, so taking inspiration from an outside source can be befuddling and unfamiliar!
Maybe you’re like me. Maybe you’ve been intrigued by a writing prompt but had no idea what to do next with it. Or maybe you have an assignment for a creative writing class and have no idea how to start. Never fear! I’ve compiled some tips and tricks that should help you turn those prompts into full-blown projects.
You don’t throw a shirt down on the ironing board all wadded up and just press your hot iron overtop it.
I mean, maybe you do, if your intention is to make some kind of shirt sandwich and pressing the wrinkles deeper into the fabric locks in the flavor or whatever.
But usually, you lay the shirt flat. You make sure the collar isn’t folded up, and you smooth down the sleeves. Then you get to ironing. Giving yourself that minute to prepare the canvas, so to speak, makes the work easier and promises you a better outcome.
Hello, hello, Happy Writers! Today, we’re talking about Zero Drafts. Now, we’ve all heard of First Drafts: the very first incarnations of the stories we tell. They’re messy, they’re earnest, and they very, very often go unfinished, as they’re very often abandoned. Now, why is that? Sometimes, admittedly, stories just don’t work, and the writer loses their motivation to keep clacking away at the keyboard. But, oftentimes, the writer is simply overwhelmed — lost and frustrated and not sure what the story is that they’re telling.
Often, this is because the writer needed a Zero Draft. A Zero Draft is the percolation stage. It’s the answer to the question: how do I get all of the ideas in my head into something story-shaped? A Zero Draft is and should be the first step to writing a novel.
So, this post basically answers two questions: What is a Zero Draft? which, in turn, answers the question:
I have a story for a novel in my head and I’m not sure how to write it down. What do I do??
One of the oldest writing adages (and the most frustrating) is show don’t tell. This advice is applied universally, spread widely, repeated so often the words tend to lose their nuance and meaning. Aren’t there times when a scene doesn’t need to be shown? Can’t you share information with your reader without having it play out stroke-by-stroke? You are telling a story, after all!
The thing about “show don’t tell” is that it’s actually talking about writing scenes versus summaries. One is showing, the other is telling. They’re both vital building blocks for any kind of writing.
mimesis – (noun), imitation of the real world in literature, art, etc. Art imitates life.
We want our writing to be mimetic, to draw readers in as though they’re looking through a window — or into a mirror — that shows them a world that feels as real as their own. This is what a reader is looking for when they say they want to relate to a character; they want to feel like that character, and their story, is real to them. The most immersive creative works play out almost like a documentary — not in style, but in experience. You leave the film or the book feeling as though you watched the real life of a real person. When that suspension of disbelief breaks, the immersion shatters; when you’re aware that what you’re watching or reading is fake, it’s harder and harder to keep yourself in the right headspace to enjoy the story. That’s why good writers want to achieve a level of mimesis — you want your art to feel real.
But how to create that level of authenticity? How do we bring our fictional worlds to life?
When you think of your story, you think of the Big Scenes, right? The important plot points, the vital Moments that challenge your characters and move your book along. But what about the transition scenes, connecting all those story events together? Transitional scenes can be incredibly difficult to get right. They’re a spot in your novel that’s rife for info-dumping, and a poorly written transition scene can drag like dead weight. But sometimes cutting it off entirely can mess up your story’s pacing!
A good transition scene is seamless. You don’t notice it’s a transition, because you’re engaged in what you’re reading and the information you’re being given is naturally setting up for the next Story Event. The transition gives you something — a funny moment, a beautiful description, a thrilling bit of mystery, an enlightening character detail, a hint at the conflict or tension to come — that makes it move along smoothly.
To start things off, what is a transition scene?
A transition scene is the thread connecting disparate parts of your novel. Take some of these examples from Harry Potter and the Halfblood Prince
It might be a scene of time passing, such as snow falling over the Hogwarts grounds as the seasons change:
Snow was swirling against the icy windows once more; Christmas was approaching fast. Hagrid had already single-handedly delivered the usual twelve Christmas trees for the Great Hall; garlands of holly and tinsel had been twisted around the banisters of the stairs; everlasting candles glowed from inside the helmets of suits of armor and great bunches of mistletoe had been hung at intervals along the corridors. Large groups of girls tended to converge underneath the mistletoe bunches every time Harry went past, which caused blockages in the corridors; fortunately, however, Harry’s frequent nighttime wanderings had given him an unusually good knowledge of the castle’s secret passageways, so that he was able, without too much difficulty, to navigate mistletoe-free routes between classes.
Writing can be a difficult and intimately personal undertaking. We all have different approaches, different voices, and different methods for the way in which we weave words. There are lots of ways to write a book, and a problem I’m seeing a lot in writing classes, blogs, and instructional books is the expectation of imparting the One True Way to write.
One of the writing classes I’m taking had a forum discussion where writers posted some of their most prominent worries when it comes to their novels, and one of the questions posted really struck me: the writer felt like their fantasy story was whisking from one location to the next too quickly. The reader, they worried, would get whiplash zooming around their fantasy map, seeing too many locations without any one of them leaving a deep impression.
Cue me quietly sweating onto my keyboard, because this is the realest concern, for any fantasy writer.
When you’re writing speculative fiction — or, really, any story that has a big, big world for the character to explore — there’s an instinct to show off that world. To move your character around a lot. Usually, it’s because the story requires it — characters have quests to go on, wars to fight, journeys to undertake, sacred mountains to hike up, haunted forests to fight through, scaly slobbery monsters in vast acid-filled lakes to bring fabled jeweled tea cups to — you get the idea.*
* Is this … not … a normal plot point for any novel?
But, sometimes, we writers can get carried away. It can be fun, and fruitful for your story, to take your characters on a dizzying roller coaster ride across your fantasy map. But how do you know when you’re taking your readers on too dizzying a ride? How do you keep that fantasy map from becoming one big, confusing, smeary blur in your readers’ heads?
Your character, especially in a quest or journey-based fantasy novel, shouldn’t just be walking through a sideways scrolling sequence of set dressings. Every location you showcase in your story should be there for a reason.
As far as I can tell (and I am by no means an expert on this), the trick is to make sure the locations have emotional context for the characters, and to root your settings in your story’s plot. Make your locations matter, in other words, to both your characters and to the story at large.
Let’s get a little deeper into what that means…
Rooting Your Locations In Your Story’s Plot
Let’s say your character is going on that epic journey where they hike up that sacred mountain to retrieve the mythical teacup, fight through that haunted forest to reach the acid lake, and then row across the poisonous waters to meet the sea creature whose ire can only be assuaged by the delivery of that bejeweled cup. You might have noticed something about each of those locations I listed…
They all have a clear purpose related to the story.