Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Scenes and Structure -- writing tip

Question: I g0t a note from an editor (a printed rejection with a handwritten note on it) that said, "scenes and structure needs work." Any idea on what that might mean?

Answer: It could mean something as simple as that some of the scenes are out of sequence as far as the storytelling is concerned. It might also mean that the structure of the scenes is not properly configured. Only by looking hard at your manuscript, can you decide which.

In the beginning all writing teachers say three things. “Show don’t tell. Write what you know,” and “Write in Scenes.” That is good advice as far as it goes. What it doesn’t say clearly enough is that your story, or article should unfold in an organized fashion, letting the reader in on facts as they become important for the reader to know. Some people call this giving the work “structure.” This concept is usually easy to identify in non-fiction, but harder in fiction. In non-fiction you state a premise, give additional facts and then, in the final paragraph, sum up the concepts that support your premise. We all learned that doing essays in school.

Just like the “lead” in an article, a fiction transition is the most important sentence you can write. A transition is the first line when you move the reader from one place to another, or one scene to another, or from their chair into your story. A good transition, like the lead in a newspaper or magazine article, should answer the questions, Who? Where? and When? Otherwise it leaves the reader aware that something is missing and causes editors to write in their refusal letters, "This story needs to be better grounded in time and space!" I know. I have the letters to prove it.

Dramatic structure is a little more involved, though not as involved as one might think. Every scene has the same structure. Here it is:
1. Transition, preferably with hook. (Who, when, where, and end with an unanswered question)
2. Rising action and dialogue
3. Turning point of the scene (the place where something important changes)
(if there's no point, the scene goes, no matter how well written)
4. End/resolution of the scene, preferably with another hook. When we come to the end of a scene,

* * *

we indicate it with the double line break, at least two extra lines of "white space" and use the three stars, a line, or some other indication, in case the line break falls at the bottom of a page. Once the turning point is reached, then a final hook for that scene is set, and the scene ends. The Scene Ends Right There! Yes, as soon as the point is made, regardless of what else might have really happened later.

Say for instance a medical examiner is called to the scene of a murder. He looks at the corpse and at the uniformed cop on standby, then says, "He's done it again. This is the same as the last one."

That's the final point of the scene, because we have let the reader know a serial killer is on the loose. Now after this in real time, the criminalists may descend, take photographs and fingerprints, pick up blood samples, and eventually the body will be removed leaving the inevitable tape outline on the floor, but to show the reader all that would be anticlimactic, because the point had already been established. Once your serial killer is on the loose, end the scene, and get on to the next scene where your detective is hot on the trail instead of wasting your and the readers' time on pointless action, however well written. Most short stories have three major turning points and coincidentally three major scenes.

If you MUST include thescene with the criminalists (say there are clues embedded), then move the ME to the END of that scene, don't let him come at the beginning. That's making sure things don't come out of sequence.

Often there are things that happened in the past that affect the present. Sometimes this requires a flashback scene, but not usually. Flashbacks tend to distance the reader from the action. Therefore, I believe it's good policy not to put anything in flashback, unless you have information that can't be told any other way, or action that can't be shown sequentially. Instead, use mini-flashbacks to relate action that happens before the beginning of the story, and is too previous to be moved to a later time frame. Just in case I need to explain the difference: A real flashback, is a whole scene shown out of time sequence, and a mini-flashback is having a character remember something that happened before for a line or two, then going on with the present scene’s action.

This can be the time for good use of narrative. They always tell us "show don't tell" and narration is "telling." But you can't show everything in the space allowed. So my advice is to narrate the mundane, or the action in pointless scenes if the reader has to know about it. Basically your story scenes should be like shining jewels and the narration like the silver wire that strings them together. Most writing texts don't get into how to do narration and it was years before I figured it out.

Look at the following story synopsis:

After meeting her fiancé, Don, for lunch, Melanie buys an antique statue that strikes her eye in a small shop. After taking it home, she becomes conscious of an aura about it. It begins to affect her dreams. Over the next two weeks, as she goes to her job at a local library, at home, and even on dates with her fiancé, Melanie cannot get the little statue out of her mind. Don is disturbed by her lack of attention and his assumption that Melanie’s life should revolve around him is established when he presents her with airline tickets for a honeymoon on a date she has already told him she can’t get leave from work. He suggests she quit her job and devote herself to keeping him happy in the future. Melanie does some research and finds the statue was once the symbol of an African River god. She writes to the embassy asking more about the history of the river god and is referred to the Museum of Humanities. She calls the museum and makes an appointment to speak with the curator, an expert in African culture. He tells her the statue was stolen and that the three tribal factions of that area each blame the other two for the theft. War among them is imminent. Melanie decides to give the statue back. Melanie thinks about quitting her job, but the little statue looks angry and her dreams are filled with visions of airplane crashes for weeks. Her nerves are on edge when Don comes by unannounced and berates her for spending so much time on the darned statue. They break up. Don goes on their planned honeymoon alone and his plane crashes. Though he survives, Melanie has no desire to resume their relationship. Melanie learns from the museum curator that the statue is authentic and makes arrangements to ship it back to Africa.

Looking at the above, almost anyone would assume they’d start the story at lunch with the fiancé. Or at least with the purchase of the statue. But look at the three structured scenes outlined below, that have the needed background information embedded with mini-flashbacks.

Scene one: Melanie’s apartment. Quarrelsome phone call from Don. Problem Statement: Melanie’s relationship with fiancé Don is not going well. Melanie eyes the statue that looks like a humpbacked waterdrop with a head. The face keeps changing, sometimes male, sometimes female, sometimes faceless, depending on the angle of view. Mini-flashback: She remembers where she bought it and the feelings she’s been having ever since. Don shows up and they quarrel about his making honeymoon plans without consulting her schedule. Don leaves, angry. End hook, Melanie wonders if the marriage to him is going to be a mistake.

Scene two: Museum. Melanie meets the museum curator. Definite interest on his part. Mini-flashback to the dreams and how she got there. He’s nice and attentive. Gives her background on the statue and agrees to come and look to see if it’s the original. Curator makes a mild pass. Melanie mentions her fiancé. Curator suggests she return statue. Melanie is not sure whether she wants to let it go. She is becoming fond of it, despite its ominous aura of anger.

Scene Three: Melanie’s apartment. Curator calls. Statue is genuine. As he leaves, Melanie says she will consider a date and asks him to make arrangements to ship it to Africa. Don comes by and they quarrel again. He gives her an ultimatum, tells her to quit job. They quarrel. Don is very nasty. Melanie dumps him. Don announces he plans to go on the honeymoon trip he wanted anyway, on Flight 801, or some other famous crash number. Melanie tells him to go ahead. They are through. Don leaves. The statue then definitely looks female and smiling. As Melanie packs it to be sent home, she feels at peace for the first time in weeks.

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