Friday, May 14, 2010

How to Write Scenes in a Novel

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by C. Patrick Schulze

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Great! You’ve developed these wonderful characters who stand primed to flit about your magnificent setting and, boy-oh-boy, do you ever have an idea for a storyline. Well, it’s all for naught if you can’t compile these things into scenes and string those scenes together to make your story awe your readers.

Imagine, if you will, a lustrous string of pearls. The first gemstone compliments the next, which balances with the rest. Strung together they lay upon a woman’s neckline to bring forth her natural beauty and give her a radiating sense of elegance. Now imagine that necklace where the jewels are a hodgepodge of odd sizes, hues, luster and even quality. All of a sudden we’ve taken the best of nature and the best of man to make them into something less than pleasing. The same thing happens with your story if you don’t pay as much attention to your scenes as you did with your characters and setting.

Let’s get started.

To begin, you may wish to know some people recommend you consider what the characters want to happen, what they need. Personally, I disagree. I believe if you first determine where you want to go and what steps you must take to get there, your characters will follow.

It’s important to know an effective scene requires emotion, action, dialogue, characters, conflict and setting. Of course, it’s primary component is the conflict your characters face.

Next, determine what has to happen in a scene to move this part of the story forward. Don’t worry about what could happen or what should happen. Be concerned only about what MUST happen. Now that you know what must happen, figure out who must be in the scene to make it work. Put only those characters into it and leave out everybody else.

At this time, use only two or three sentences to write your scene. That’s all you need at first.

Next you determine where this scene takes place. It may be obvious after you asked yourself what must happen, but if it isn’t, fix the setting into your mind. Consider that events happen in places one might think out of place. Think of a teacher and high-school student as they discuss the child’s grades. You’d assume this would happen in the classroom, most likely after class, right? Why not have this discussion take place at a racetrack or better yet a bar. Now that would perk the scene up, don’t you think?

Now consider how it all ties together. A classic secret is to begin as late in the scene as possible. Regardless, this next beginning almost calls out for recognition as it naturally piggybacks off the ending of the previous scene. However, give this a bit of thought, too, and see if you can’t punch up your creativity just a bit. For example, your student and his teacher are talking at the races when one scene ends. The next scene might typically start the following day in class. What if this second scene started as they watch the school burn down? The oddity of your settings may just give your novel a unique and imaginative spark. After all, why should all the surprises come at the end of a story?

The next thing you might want to do is visualize your scene as if it were in a movie. If you can see there, it’s probably got some strength to it.

After all this, now’s the time to pen what many call a scribble draft. It doesn’t have dialogue, setting or anything beyond simple physical actions. Make is a bare-bones outline. It’ll sound something like this:

     Jack runs down the hill
     Jill runs after him.
     Jack falls down the hill, and drops his bucket.
     Jill does too and screams as she tumbles.
     Both land in a heap at the bottom of hill.

After all that, now guess what you get to do? Yep, first draft. It time to put fingers to keyboards and clack away.

You may find it useful to write your scene first with only the characters’ physical actions and nothing more. When you close your eyes and “watch” your scene take place, look for those areas that stutter or slow the pace. Those are the parts that need work. After you’ve “seen” it play out, go through this process again, this time with the dialogue. Does it “hear” as well, too? If not, you know what needs work. Do this a third time with your setting in mind and you’re good to go.

The real secret to a good scene is visualization.

After you string a few scenes together, reread them and ask what’s the worst that could happen if this scene or that were omitted in whole. If the basic storyline is unaffected by the missing scene, it’s unnecessary and should probably be cut from your manuscript. 

Yep, it’s a lot of work, but you’ll get that beast wrestled to the ground and your story will emerge. Good luck.

Here’s a couple tips many find useful. Write your last scene first and the first scene second, at least in outline form. If you know where you need to go, the steps to get there will become much more obvious.

If you remember, I recommended you first write out your scenes in just two and three sentences. If you do, put all these mini-scenes on the same piece of paper, a file of its own. Make a copy of that document before you expand them into full scenes. This is the start of your synopsis. (You’ll thank me one day for this tip!)

Until we speak again, I wish for you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the emerging novel, “Born to be Brothers”

Thursday, May 13, 2010

How Small “Earprints” Make for BIG Characters

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by C. Patrick Schulze

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For just a moment, I’d like you to think about someone you find interesting. What is the oddest thing about this person? It’s probably a small thing, isn’t it? Is that a part of what makes them interesting? Probably so. I have one friend who slathers her lips in Chapstick at least three or four times per hour. Odd? You bet. A big deal? Not at all.

It is this imparting of inconsequential oddities into your characters that is yet another secret to characterization in novels.

For best results, ensure these mannerisms are relatively unimportant and involve movement of some sort. You might consider nail-biting, rapid blinking, the way they hold their head when they’re unsure, their crooked smile, those sort of things.

Think of it like this. Can you identify someone only by the way they walk? That image is what you strive for with your characters. I call it their “earprint.” (Did you know that ears are as unique as fingerprints? True.) So, these mannerisms you give your characters make up their earprints and each major character should have their own.

These unique and ubiquitous traits are what makes one character distinct from another and are often the thing that turns a character from ho-hum to memorable. These mannerisms also offer a glimpse into your character’s soul or an insight into their mental state at any time. They also create an aspect to your characters you need; believability.

These omnipresent idiosyncrasies also have strength as they allow for dramatic reversals. For example, if your character stutters when they’re nervous, how might a scene be affected if your character suddenly doesn’t stutter - just this once?

Remember way back when you first began to write your novel and you filled in a list of character traits? Did you also include a trivial trait or two? If not, you may wish to reconsider.

My favorite oddity we all know about it Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean. Talk about an odd duck that proved to be a memorable character! Another character I really enjoyed was Robert De Niro’s portrayal in “Stardust” where he played a gay pirate captain who tried not to act gay in front of his men. (Great flick, by the way.) My favorite real person in this regard was Gen. Ulysses Grant who endlessly whittled and smoked cigars regardless the seriousness of any battle in which he commanded.

Now for some general tips to keep in mind.

Each major character should have only one to two. You don’t want this getting out of hand.

Make each tick unique in and of itself. They lose their effectiveness if everyone has the same one.

Ensure your traits are believable. The basketball player who trips every time he runs would never make the cut.

Make these mannerisms meaningful. A character who tugs at their ear in every scene for no reason gets old fast.

Repeat the character’s idiosyncrasy more than once but only at appropriate times. If they blink when their nervous, should they blink when having dinner with their mother or on a first dinner date?

Seek out distinctive traits. Some are so overused they’ve become clichés. Nail-biting is an example. How about someone who perspires on cold days? Is that distinctive enough for you?

Try to make these oddities meaningful in relation to your character.

Use caution with these traits as it’s easy to “show” with them versus “tell.”

Anyone care to tell us those unique traits you’ve created for your characters?

Until we meet again, know I wish for you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the Emerging Novel, "Born to be Brothers"

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

How to Make Your Writing Come to Life

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by C. Patrick Schulze

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Have you ever gone to a park on a clear spring day, sat on a bench and closed your eyes? Doesn’t the world change when you do? The sound of children laughing seems to dance into your consciousness. The leaves begin to sing with the breeze and the sun teases your skin with a warm glow. Why hadn’t you noticed this before?

Because when you close your eyes, you become dependent upon your other senses.

So, too, is should be with your writing.

When we write, our goal is to transport our readers to another world, one in which they have never, and can never visit. To make your writing come alive, write in the same manner you experienced that day on the park bench; with your senses. Some say you have as many as twelve senses, but we’ll stick with the basic five for today’s article.

Of course, the primary sense we use in life and in writing is sight. If you read any novel, it will be loaded with imagery that involves how things appear. The secret to make your writing come alive, however, is found in the combination of sight and the other four senses.

In my opinion, the unsung king of our senses is smell. It is the gateway to our memory and can transport you anywhere; mom’s kitchen, the market in Marrakesh or your first grade school room. It is, therefore, a powerful tool to enhance your novel’s imagery. The problem with smell is it’s the most difficult of the senses to imagine. The trick then is to add visual elements to your “smell” narrative. For example, if you wish to portray a beach scene, if you add the sun, the water, the cry of gulls and so on, the sense of smell is better employed. Another useful aspect to the sense of smell is the wide range of odors available to the writer. It’s use ranges from a stench to a perfume and everywhere in between.

Another sense that carries a great deal of association is taste and is often used in conjunction with the sense of smell. Taste is also easily employed to delve into a character’s emotions and can be as powerful as smell in evoking a reader’s reaction.

Hearing is, of course, a primary tool in your arsenal of weapons to bring your writing to life. Its power comes to light when you wish to create atmosphere. Think of that scene on a beach mentioned above and imagine how it is altered if waves crash upon the shore or lap against the sand. As with all senses, it has a wide range of applications from the crushing boom of waves during a storm to the soft buzz of a hummingbird’s wings. Here’s a tip you don’t hear too often. To create the best action verbs, combine hearing with touch.

Last, but certainly not least, is the sense of touch. This sense carries with it the language of love and of loathing. It, too, has a great depth of emotions and feelings.

The real secret of how to bring your writing to life is to combine the senses in the correct combination. The use of too much sensory imagery can overload your reader and shock or even bore him. You should consider the use of all five senses every time you have the opportunity but find the correct and timely combination of some of them to bring true life to your writing.

One way to determine which senses to employ with any given scene is to return to our park bench. Close your eyes and imagine your setting. What senses jump out to you first when you do this? Scribble a few words that relate to this image because these are probably the senses to use for that scene. After this, choose the most powerful two or three images that came to mind and then ensure you use the strongest and most specific words to describe the scene. By the way, this is the time for metaphors and similes.

The secret to writing that comes alive is the combination of senses your readers can imagine from your words. Without a healthy dose of sensory narrative, your novel will most likely lack the propulsion it needs to send it up the best seller list.

Do you care to share how you’ve enhanced your sensory writing skills?

Until we speak again, know I wish for you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the emerging novel, “Born to be Brothers”