How to Find the Purpose of a Scene

Why are  you writing?

Well, obviously because I had a traumatic experience when I was young with a pair of wild gophers, and ever since words have flown from my pen even when it’s capped (it’s rather creepy, actually), so I write as catharsis and to keep quiet the horrible gopher demons inside.

Ah… no.  That’s not what I mean.  When you’re writing a story, or a scene, or even a paragraph, what are you trying to accomplish?  Why are you writing those words?

With delicate things like humor and poetry, knowing your purpose can be as important as knowing how to tell a joke or create beautiful imagery.  A joke without purpose is a joke in the wrong place— it doesn’t add to the emotion, it doesn’t forward the plot.  Instead, laughter will often destroy your hard-earned effect.  (This is why laughing at an insult is so effective.)  In the same way, imagery without purpose is useless.  Imagery that creates a specific emotion is poetry, and readers call it beautiful.  Imagery that isn’t attached to any sort of emotion has no reason to be there, and readers call it purple prose.  Without purpose, both humor and poetry are lost causes.

So how do you figure out your purpose for a scene?  Generally, my purpose in writing a scene is to tell a story, and to tell it well.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t tell me how to use poetry and humor.  Indeed, trying too hard destroys your ability to tell a story well, so stated this way, my purpose tells me nothing.  But it’s obvious, isn’t it?  Your purpose for any scene is going to change from scene to scene.  That way you don’t just fill a book with the same scene, told the same way, over and over.  As the needs of the story change, your purpose for the scene changes. Read the full post »

Character-Based Humor

It’s hard to be funny when you’re trying.

With plot, you can practice easily.  Create a character (Bill), decide what he wants (a sandwich), and structure it around that.  You can easily gather your antagonist, a couple side characters, and a neat little Hollywood Formula from just that information.  You can decide your length, and use that framework to practice subplots, red herrings, and a million other things.

Practicing character is the same.  With the same framework as above, you can work on character development, introducing characters without too much exposition, and all sorts of wonderful dialogue.  With setting, exactly the same.  Brainstorm your setting a little, but don’t let yourself get carried away with either the brainstorming or the description.  Even prose is easy to practice, if you take a little more time to work on it.

But humor… ick.  It’s hard to be funny on command without falling back to a joke.  Something with a setup and a punchline…  Sure, it’s fine for dinner table conversation, but for a story?  You can’t just stick a couple puns in there and hope everyone will laugh.  People know when humor is forced, and that’s what makes it so hard.  If you can’t force it, but you want it, how do you include and practice it without, well, forcing yourself to?

You can acquaint yourself with all the humorous tools.  You can try subverting expectations.  You can try using silly words.  You can try everything under the sun, but it remains difficult.  Meanwhile, funny writers like Joss Whedon and Howard Tayler keep saying that humor has to arise from the characters, not from the situation.  Once you start making fun of the situation, the reader will no longer suspend their disbelief— you’ve destroyed their engagement with the story.

So how do you use character-based humor?  How do you practice it? Read the full post »

What I Learned from Revising a Stageplay (And Failing)

A couple months ago, I rewrote a stageplay.

It wasn’t my stageplay, originally.  It was chosen to be the focus of a musical theater class I’m taking.  Unfortunately, it was no Shakespeare.  A couple of my friends and I agreed we might like to see a revamped version: something a bit funnier, less corny, and more character-driven.  So, keeping the plot intact, I rewrote it.  I typed it into Scrivener’s stageplay template, added a scene or two, and edited the dialogue.  I figured out a character arc for the main character, one that destroyed the play’s corniness and strengthened several characters at the same time.  I added as many jokes as I could, without destroying the emotion.  In fact, several of my posts from September came from (or went into) this project.  I had to put my novel-editing on hold for a little while, but editing something else allowed me to return to my own work with a more objective view.  The project had enormous benefits.

However, the teachers of the class didn’t feel comfortable with the changes.  Each student already had a copy of the script— to change it now would mean forcing everyone to unlearn and relearn their lines, based on my changes.  Furthermore, the class was based, rather strictly, on a videotaped production by another group.  Thus, in order to change the script, we would be riding without training wheels, without the video to back us up.  And anyway, there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the script, as it was.  In fact, the teachers were actually aiming for a script that would be easy to work with, in terms of acting.  My script required a bit too much skill, skill that some of the younger actors might not have been able to achieve in a short time.

So, my script was trashed.  It wasn’t the right thing for this class— they wanted me as an actor, not as a writer.  While a revamped script would have been nice for the older students, it wouldn’t work for all the students, the way the teachers wanted to teach. Read the full post »

The Right Word

Beautiful words are daunting.

Thankfully, beautiful words aren’t what we’re looking for.  Since beauty is subjective anyway, it’s difficult to find any one qualification that makes a beautiful word.  Think about it.  What makes something poetic?  Rhyming?  Not necessarily.  Syllables?  Nope.  Metaphors?  Not at all.  The only thing common to everything we call poetic is beauty, and that’s subjective.  What makes it poetic?

Simple answer: it’s the Right Word.

The Right Word could have many definitions and facets.  It could be exactly what it says, the correct word for a specific instance.  Or it could be a sentence, again perfect in that space.  Or it could be a paragraph, artfully short or vivid.  The Right Word is any selection of words that happens to be perfect for its situation.

Think about that for a moment.  Beautiful words are just perfect.  That’s it.  In order to write beautifully, you just have to write… perfectly. Read the full post »

On Writing Beautifully

Beautiful words are daunting.

Well, let me restate.  Trying to write beautiful words is daunting.  Beautiful words are beautiful— it’s the writing that gets hard.

Neil Gaiman.  Laini Taylor.  Patrick Rothfuss.  These people have beautiful words flowing from their pens on every page.  Maggie Stiefvater.  Cornelia Funke.  Miriam Joy.  (Yes, I’m including her, because, guys, her book.)  With all of these people, it seems like they roll out of bed spouting poetic prose.  Even their headdesks are eloquent.

Then there’s me, who’s still trying to get his protagonist’s head on straight.  I can maybe make one pretty word in a million, but a whole string of them?  That makes me headdesk, and that just emphasizes the point: I am not naturally poetic.  Those of you following the Teens Can Write, Too! blog might have noticed by now: John Hansen posted this exact complaint a couple days ago, about his own writing.  We have this in common, I guess.  Pretty writing is not natural to us.  In his post, John affirms that it’s okay to use Orwellian prose (prose as a clear window to the story, not distracting), and your personal style is always better than copying someone else’s.  He’s right.

Some of my favorite authors have very clear, Orwellian prose.  Brandon Sanderson is the most notable; several times on Writing Excuses, he’s claimed— even boasted of— his non-poetic style.  It’s true.  He tells his story plainly, without any of the frills or vivid descriptions that often characterize fantasies.  He writes what the story needs and no more, preferring to emphasize his setting, his plot, and his characters.  Personally, I set more store in those three things than the style of a book.  As long as the words are serviceable, I’m fine with them.  I’m not going to dock points for plain prose.

Especially at the beginning of a writer’s learning curve, I’d rather have a coherent plot and good characters than pages of brilliant writing.  Without purpose, those words are useless.  It’s more important for a learning writer to gain skill at creating and developing a story than at obsessing over the Right Word.

If I agree with everyone, why am I writing this? Read the full post »

Flesh and Blood

I’m sure you’ve heard the age-old advice about acting and reacting; in fact, I’ve echoed that advice several times.  Your good guys shouldn’t spend the entire book reacting— it makes them seem slow and apathetic, as if they’d lie in bed all day if there wasn’t a villain to trample their watermelon garden or blow up downtown.  Instead, they should, at some point in the story, switch from reacting to the villain’s moves to acting.  Instead of waiting for the next strike, they go after the villain.  Usually, the switch comes around the midpoint.  You can see it clear as day in superhero movies, or most action movies.

But there’s a different kind of reacting I’d like to talk about, one that doesn’t involve the grand scope of things.  It involves the little people, the walk-ons and the side characters, who so often end up as cardboard cutouts beside your vivid, engaging main character.  With all the work you put into your plot, setting, and characters, the side characters can fall through the cracks to become faces in a crowd, with speaking roles but nothing memorable.

Cardboard will not destroy your story, but flesh and blood can’t go wrong.  How do we make side characters real? Read the full post »

BZRK: A Review and Giveaway

This is a spoiler-free review for BZRK, by Michael Grant.  At the bottom of the post, I’m giving away the entire trilogy, consisting of BZRK, Reloaded, and Apocalypse (which comes out on the 13th).  You can do what you like, but I’d appreciate if you read the review before entering the giveaway.  (It makes it easier to enter, in fact.)  Thanks to Egmont USA for the opportunity.

Set in the near future, BZRK is the story of a war for control of the human mind.  Charles and Benjamin Armstrong, conjoined twins and owners of the Armstrong Fancy Gifts Corporation, have a goal:  to turn the world into their vision of utopia.  No wars, no conflict, no hunger.  And no free will.  Opposing them is a guerrilla group of teens, code name BZRK, who are fighting to protect the right to be messed up, to be human.  This is no ordinary war, though.  Weapons are deployed on the nano-level. The battleground is the human brain.  And there are no stalemates here:  It’s victory . . . or madness.

BZRK unfolds with hurricane force around core themes of conspiracy and mystery, insanity and changing realities, engagement and empowerment, and the larger impact of personal choice. Which side would you choose?  How far would you go to win?

BZRK was an interesting read.  It moves quickly, creates some enormous stakes, and reveals an intriguing piece of technology that’s fun to read about.  The characters are immediately engaging, from both sides of the conflict, and moral ambiguity abounds.  There were elements I didn’t like, but the story was good enough that I could ignore them and still have a good time. Read the full post »

Making the Mundane Show Character

They say that every word should count.

Unfortunately, “they” say a lot of things— and not all of their words count.  In fact, in most conversations, people repeat themselves, say meaningless half-sentences and fragments before stopping, or just grunt expressively.  Most of these verbal effects are impossible to convey in written dialogue, so we take them out and replace them with concise statements, full sentences, and blocking to show character.  Every word must count.

Even so… in dialogue, even stylized dialogue that you find in fiction, you see plenty of meaningless phrases.  “How are you?”  “I’m fine.”  Unless the statement directly opposes the obvious (such as a broken leg), it doesn’t do anything but fill space and make each word mean less.

Is that a big problem?  No, of course not.  You can use “I’m fine” as much as you want and no one is going to take off points.  But you know amazing writing by the way every word counts, even “I’m fine”.

Take an example, the line that inspired this post.  In the movie Serenity (sequel to all of Firefly), the characters are involved in a high-tech car chase— they’re on a little open-topped hovercraft and their pursuers are on a spaceship, and they’re zipping around the geography chasing each other.  Along on the journey is Simon Tam’s little sister, River, who is often crazy and occasionally psychic.  Simon looks out for her, but on this run there was no room for him to come.  So River is caught in a spaceship chase without her big brother.  Things are exciting, people are hurt, and metal objects go boom— all as expected, and the good guys barely come out on top, back at their spaceship.  Simon immediately rushes to River’s side and asks her if she’s all right.  River responds, “I swallowed a bug.” Read the full post »

Solving Coincidences with Subplots

You can picture the scene.  It’s a mystery-solving, crime-stopping TV show, with a main character who can drop witticisms even as he finds clues and shoots people.  Despite his capabilities, however, he isn’t much for technology— but that’s okay, because he’s got his bespectacled techies to search traffic cams and enlarge photos for him.  This week on TLA: Big City (TLA short for Three-Letter Acronym), the main character must solve the murder of a middle-aged woman, dead by a combination of prescription drugs she didn’t need.  It’s a murder that slowly but surely unravels, until the main character hits a wall.  None of the suspects has had any of those drugs, or has a history with them.  It’s a dead-end.

Meanwhile, the main character’s sister buys him a smartphone, much to his chagrin.  He has no idea what to do with the thing, and gives it to one of his techies at work to figure out.  She sets it up quickly and begins telling him about the features, at all the wrong times, when he’s trying to concentrate on case-related things.  Finally, he’s fed up with the case and decides to sit down with the techie and learn how to use his device.  She shows him the basics as he watches, barely comprehending; setting up email, social media, and subscribing to news alerts.  She even shows him how to use Google.  As an example, she Googles the victim’s pharmacist and, scrolling through the results with the main character, finds an old news story.  That story gives the clue the main character has been looking for, which casts suspicion on the pharmacist and solves the case.

Minus the witty banter and specifics of the case, I just gave you a one-hour crime show plot.  I didn’t bother with character development, character conflict, or even character names.  I didn’t bother with the detective’s jurisdiction, or scary buildings they have to investigate, or any of the red herrings they find along the way.  Even without all that, though, I gave you a rudimentary plot that would fit almost any crime show. Read the full post »

Making Subplots Necessary

Subplots are, at best, distractions.

That’s a good thing.  When your main plot is moving slowly, or has to wait for something to happen, a subplot can come in and keep people interested.  Or, when something awful is happening and you don’t want the reader to put down the book because it’s too intense, a subplot can be just the thing to gloss it over and help bring the reader through.  In short, subplots are great when you need to distract.

But subplots can’t just spring from nowhere.  If you only acknowledge the existence of subplots for the few moments when you need to distract from the main plot, it’s going to feel contrived.  The subplots must be there already, available to be used for your purposes… but they’re still distracting.  Subplots aren’t as important as the main plot— that’s why they’re called subplots.

Does that mean you’re allowed to ignore all subplots and only go with one plot line for the entire story?  No.  It’s said that characters interact in pairs— there’s a different relationship between each set of characters in your cast.  That’s a subplot for each pair, really.  Not only that, but we’ve seen before that subplots can cloud a mystery or prolong a romance.  Subplots have many uses, from pacing to developing character.  They’re useful, naturally.  But they’re still distracting.

At this point, it seems like subplots are more trouble than they’re worth— putting them in means distraction, leaving them out means less to work with in terms of plot.  There’s no way to win… is there? Read the full post »

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