Dirty Birds Talk Writing–Scenes

It’s Friday (yay!) which means time for me to host the Thee Dirty Birds talk! As always, you can find a full list of any post you might have missed here.

Today we peck away at Story Trumps Structure, chapter 12–Scenes.

Zoe: This chapter starts out by defining scenes, and I wish he’d put that definition way earlier in the book, because it would have cleared up a lot of confusion. What I think of as a scene is not what he thinks of as a scene. He says that “A scene is not something that happens in one specific location. A scene might span several locations, and one location might include several scenes. … A scene happens when an important aspect of the story is altered.” So I’ve been thinking of scenes as these little chunks, but they could actually comprise several chunks, even split up by other chunks. And now it makes sense how you can “end every scene unexpectedly.”

Ana: Oh, good catch. I didn’t get that. I thought he was wanting scenes to do way too much.

Zoe: Right? It also clears up problems I’ve had for years with trying to deal with Dwight Swain’s scene/sequel progression (which James also covers in this chapter, calling them “interludes” instead of “sequels.”)

Kate: It’s something I’ve had a lot of false starts with, and it’s a skill that will definitely come with time and practice, and paying attention to feedback on stories. It was good to have it distilled down to its essence, though, because sometimes I get stuck, trying to figure out whether to spell something out, or just go with a summary. (haha, hang on, I have to duck out and make a note about the current WIP!!!)

Ana: Yes, I liked his advice about summarizing scenes where nothing is altered. It’s what I usually call ‘skipping the boring parts.’

Zoe: Yes, his guidelines for determining whether to write the events out in “real time” or just summarize them were solid, and “whether something is altered” is an easy test. Getting out of bed and getting ready in the morning doesn’t alter anything as far as the story goes, so it can just be done away with in a sentence (or left out altogether). But if you get out of bed and start brushing your teeth and realize there are bulldozers in your yard, then you have something worth writing out.

Kate: And you know it’s time to go look for your towel, you hoopy frood.

Ana: I’m sure as a real lady, Kate is never without her towel.

Zoe: So, as James says, “Scenes are not about events, locations, or discussions. They are about things being altered.”

Ana: I agree with that. I also like that he pretty much gives us a checklist to evaluate our scenes by when he says each scene will contribute to the transformation of the protagonist, the escalation of the plot, or the deepening of the story’s internal, external, or interpersonal struggles.

Zoe: He also says that your protagonist will fail to get what he desires most in every scene (except for the final, climactic one). That’s something I struggle with, because sometimes they do get what they want. But he covers that later in the chapter with the four possible answers to “Does the character get what he wants?” which are: “Yes,” “No,” “No, and furthermore” and “Yes, but.” The first two answers make for bad scenes. The other two alter things and make for good scenes. So your protagonist can get what he wants in scene number three of 236…he gets it, BUT.

Kate: There has to be a loss for every gain. I liked the phrase “fail their way to success” to describe how you ramp up tension, yet still move the story forward. Even failures, like negative space, can tell the reader something and lead to the next stage of the plot.

And they should. Like Zoe said, if it’s just a failure, well–what’s the point? (Ana: Schadenfreude)

Ana: I’m not sure I like the example he gives us for reader expectation in the romance genre here. I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t want to read pages upon pages about a girl angsting over calling or not calling a guy.

Zoe: Yeah, it was another demonstration of his lack of imagination with regard to the romance genre.

Kate: Again he gives us questions to use to help portray the goal of the scene. It seems pretty obvious, but it’s helpful to have the list of different options. I’m sure there are other ways to do it, as well, but it was a good start. We tend, as authors, to find a groove, or lean sometimes on a favorite way of doing something. It’s like a foreshadowing thesaurus. 🙂

Ana: I agree. It’s handy to have. Almost as good as a towel.

Kate: Then he goes on to talking about false promises at the end of chapters, false cliffhangers that don’t deliver. I don’t know about you guys, but that drives me crazy.

Zoe: Yes. It’s what happens when you tell yourself “I need to escalate the tension at the end of this chapter!” but don’t really consider the story itself, the natural behavior of the characters, the promises you’ve made, etc. So you set up this false tension that deflates in the first sentence of the next chapter. (And makes readers put your book down in favor of watching paint dry. At least the paint won’t disappoint.)

Kate: That’s when the surrogate ‘throwing book’ comes into play around here.

Ana: We really need to get that into production.

Zoe: I’m finding that critiquing the book on Twitter is at least as satisfying.

Kate: Some of your tweets have been awfully funny. Has the registration book made a reappearance? Considering the amount of time spent on it, it must be a major character. Or the villain.

Ana: I thought the suitcases had done it.

Zoe: The book and the suitcases do carry a lot of narrative weight, and I do expect them to reappear (but I haven’t gotten back to my reading on that one lately). (That’s the problem with tweeting instead of just throwing the book: you have to keep reading it.) I do think that reading bad books along with writing instruction books is really useful for getting the hang of the concepts in the instruction books.

Kate: Hahaha! There’s a piece of advice for you–”Read bad books.” Very Neil Gaiman.

Zoe: It’s really effective. It can be difficult to see how a great book achieves its greatness, but it’s easy to see where a bad book’s gone wrong.

Ana: I actually really like taking great books apart. But sometimes it depresses me. Then I just take a nap instead. (Pretending to plot.)

Kate: I’m reading a Marie Sexton right now and I’m absolutely baffled as to why I like one of the characters, because he’s the kind that would normally annoy the pants off me (if I was wearing any). And I can’t figure out what she’s doing.

Zoe: I think I have a resistance to taking great books apart. They’re the books I manage to get through without the editor in my head making comments. I get to enjoy them the whole way through. And I kind of want to keep them that way.

Ana: It sucks, but that hardly happens to me anymore. I take just about every book apart in my head as I read. Some more, some less. It’s worse with the bad books, though. Which is probably why I DNF more than I used to.

Zoe: Yes, I don’t find a lot of books that just whisk me away these days. When it happens, it’s so special.

Kate: Ana, I think you’re on to something there. I DNF much more now, too. Even authors who are established in the genre, because I see something that sets up my internal editor’s back.

Zoe: Yeah, I DNF like crazy. Two, three chapters, and I’m out. (Sometimes two, three pages. I really need to get more disciplined about reading sample chapters before I download books.)

Ana: Yeah, hate that feeling. I skim an excerpt, think, oh, this looks good, buy, and then regret not having read the whole sample because I DNF before the 10% mark.

Zoe: Yes! I’m so easily suckered in by a good cover too.

Ana: And then, to me, it’s especially bitter when I go to Goodreads and everyone loves it.

Kate: I know! But there’s been so much emphasis on good covers lately, that I think people are skimping on editing services to pay for the cover. And a really good cover will predispose people to like it more, even if the writing doesn’t hold up.

Zoe: Yes, I’ve stopped reading reviews above 4 star when I’m deciding if I want a book. I want to know what people didn’t like about it.

Ana: Yeah, 3 stars are usually more informative.

Zoe: I used to feel bad about DNFing so much, but I came to realize that I’m not the “typical” reader, since I’m also a writer. I’m pickier. So my DNFing is not so much representative of reader taste.

Kate: I wonder if professional athletes, or musicians, have the same issue?

Zoe: I know nothing about sports, but I can see it happening with musicians. They can absolutely love a genre, and cringe at some of the stuff coming out of the genre because of what they’ve learned in the course of developing their own skills.

Ana: I think it always stings when someone doesn’t hone their skills as much as you do and gets away with it — or tries to.

Zoe: There are many well-loved authors I just can’t read, in all the genres. They’re hitting buttons for readers that aren’t my buttons.

Kate: And the subtext of that is, some of Story Trumps Structure is for everyone, and some isn’t. (See what I did there?)

Zoe: Clever Kate is clever. One of my biggest fears, though, is that all these books I DNF…what if my writing is that writing, and I just don’t realize it because I’m writing it? That keeps me awake nights. I’d hate to find out I was a big fat hypocrite. (As opposed to a big fat werehippo.)

Kate: I see what you did there.

Ana: What keeps me awake some nights about that is all the books I hate being popular and wondering if it’s just an issue with my taste, and if my taste is so different, will I ever write something popular? Dun dun dun.

Kate: Which always raises the question–do I apply the skills I have to writing something that fits the kind of checklist that pushes those buttons? And do I really want to do that? And somedays, I think, yes. Because I would love to be able to look at my royalty statement and have undeniable proof that I did something right. But what level of sales or whatever accomplishes that?

Zoe: I need to enjoy what I’m doing—I have a day job where I have to do crap I’m not 100% enjoying. So I don’t worry about popularity and just write what I want to write. What I want to read. There’s that too: if all the books are just what’s popular, I’m not going to have anything to read! Because we’ve established that I DNF a whole lot of popular stuff.

Kate: I think we’re going to have to set this topic aside and come back to it some day later on, because this is a huge issue for authors in the market right now. And I know I could go on for days about it.

Zoe: Right, so Story Trumps Structure…I thought I was going to enjoy the subtext section more than I did. It was…kind of obvious? I guess I was looking for something more nuanced than “What’s going on in the story colors…um…what’s going on in the story.”

Ana: I didn’t think there was anything new there either. Maybe it’s because we’re writing romance and we’re used to having a lot of subtext in books.

Kate: Subtext is often how you foreshadow future conflict. It’s kind of a given that, if you’re writing romance, you need to include subtext if you want there to be any depth to your story. What did you two think of the stuff on the last page? Did you feel he was advocating info dumps too?

Ana: I didn’t really get that impression, but maybe he didn’t word it clearly enough. I think he was trying not to have info dumps. (If that wasn’t the intention, I’ll pretend that it was)

Kate: I always try to stay away from long expository stuff where the character works everything out for the reader. But maybe I misinterpreted it? I don’t know, it’s one of those things that could easily be misread.

Ana: Let’s say you did.

Kate: Lol. The next three chapters look good. We may not be able to crank much during them.

Ana: If there’s a way to crank, I trust Zoe will find it.


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