Thursday, May 17, 2012

Tips from the Tops - scenes and dramatic narration

Tip: "If you see your novel as a collection of causally related scenes, you just write the book one scene at a time."
Top: Elizabeth George in Write Away
How it Works in my writing life:  Seems simple enough but I'm going to throw in a rather huge wrench - Elizabeth George is the very epitome of an outliner - the absolute direct opposite of a pantser. If you are an outliner than I highly recommend her book - it will make sense to you and I have no doubt if you did what she did you'd be successful. I am a pantser. For those who don't write or don't know what the hell I'm talking about - an outliner is someone who does a lot of work before starting the actual novel - they write outlines and maybe lots of character studies and do deep spading in their garden before planting a single word. Pantsers don't outline - they throw everything into the process in a white-heat  - getting their story down as fast as they can. As I said, I'm a pantser and not even just a little bit. I'm an extreme pantser. I didn't even know The Rock Walker was a mystery until I had a hundred pages written! I didn't know that my protagonist in True was one-quarter Blackfoot until she (and I!) saw her father a third of the way through the novel. It makes for all sorts of trouble but that's the way I roll. I outline after I've got a first or even second draft. Then I do mind-maps and the hero's journey and all the rest of it. If I did it before I truly wouldn't write - it would be so boring for me. As far as I can figure it - either way is as much work.
Getting back to this tip - if you're a pantser I STILL recommend this book - it is just that you'll process it differently. And you'll still write your book scene by scene connecting some of it with dramatic narration. How else? The difference will be that when you're finished your first or second draft and after you've done whatever process you do to find the true story - then you'll see the scenes that don't need to be there. The main word everyone has to pay attention to is CAUSALLY. Don't do what your mind wants to do (or mine does) and turn the word in the sentence to casually. This is the opposite of casual! What it means is that every scene, every description, every character, every theme, mood, atmosphere, and indeed every word MUST propel the action of the plot. 
George tells us that novels are made up of either scenes (rendered action) or dramatic narrative (related action). No matter what you've been told there are lots of places in writing novels for telling for that is what related action might be considered. It cannot all be showing. Even a play which you might imagine has all showing, doesn't. The set, the costumes, the blocking - all are ways of telling what is going on underneath or over top of the action. 
When we move the action to telling it and shorten it as it suits the plot we must sometimes sum the action up. When we tell in this way we are using 'summary narration'. Most good writers use a balance of rendering and related action. Have a look at a novel by Dickens  - he usually starts his book at a distance - an overall sweep of the environment - a description of the river Thames winding through London at dawn for instance and then brings you closer and closer until you are hearing folks squabbling in the debtor prison. If you read Dickens (and I highly recommend doing so) even in the longer descriptive style of the past -every damn word is there on purpose.
So you start your next section of the novel either because you know exactly what needs to happen (the outliner's bones of the plot) and you need to start fleshing it out : Mary must show she is jealous of Bob's easy relationship with his sister - how will I show or tell this? Or because you've finished the scene before and you can vaguely see where you need to get to next : Whoa! Why did Mary snap at Bob that way? She must be jealous of something - could it be his easy relationship with his sister?
At this point is when you might decide whether you're going to do a scene or narration. If you're going to narrate you have another choice to make - is this going to be rather short (summary narration) or a lengthy (dramatic narration)one in which we the readers see conflicts arising, characters developing and where figurative language might be employed. If you want to create a scene it can as well be long or fairly short. A section of your novel might be some summary narration interspersed with partial scenes - often bits of dialogue.
If this seems complicated it really isn't - most of us do it naturally as we write as we do when we tell a friend a story: The room was full of knick-knacks. I hardly knew where to sit. The old woman made me tea and I could tell the teapot and the cups hadn't seen a good sink of sudsy water in a long while. She sat there silently until I thought I'd snap with the tension. Then she told me what she'd brought me to hear. "Mary isn't right in the head. She hasn't been since she lost the baby. I thought you should know that." I didn't say much after that. Just sat there politely eating the store-bought cookie she'd offered and made my excuses before leaving. I wasn't going to show her what I felt.
In that example - that I just made up - there is a bit of summary narration - I don't tell exactly everything about the sitting there, the pouring of the tea, the clock ticking etc...but the main scene is the dialogue that the old lady speaks.
Scenes are shaped. In the one I just illustrated - as short as it is - it has a rising tension and conflict. The old woman lets the narrator sit and stew until she could 'snap' and then tells her why she has brought her there. If this were part of a novel I was writing it would also have to meet the demands of the plot. This would have to propel the narrator into the next scene - a decision would need to arise from it even if that decision was that the narrator wasn't going to act but just let this last thing add to the others before she does finally snap, or grow, or whatever is going to happen to her happen. And that is what is meant by causally. Each scene needs to move the whole clockwork forward to the next cog or scene.
And now my dears I must go attend to weeding out some scenes that don't do that in The Rock Walker. For although I hummed along great for a bit - I did find the pantser's dilemma - a scene out of order or needing to be jettisoned, changed or ???
Do you write your novels scene by scene? And how do you approach scene work?


Elspeth Antonelli said...

My novel writing process is very, very similar to Elizabeth George's. I like the structure. Her writing book is the one 'how to' I own.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I love Elizabeth George and for some reason, I didn't know about this reference book! Thanks for the tip, Jan!

Liza said...

This book is on my list. I'm not an outliner...yet. But my newest work has ground to a dead halt because I don't know what is going to happen next. Maybe it's time to outline some.