Tuesday, February 25, 2014

You know that weak scene? How you wrote it might not be the problem.

Pick up a book, open it to a scene in the middle, and read a few paragraphs. Sometimes that will be enough to convince you to buy a book - it's the way I used to pick up books at the bookstore back when I had the free time to be hanging out in bookstores. But chances are you won't be experiencing that piece you are reading the same way you would if you'd read the book up to that point.

One of the things you learn as you hone your writing craft (as they say) is that story structure is really important. It often gets talked about in terms of making sure that people can detect where the story is going, or in terms of having big ticket items like "inciting event," "midpoint reversal," "climax," etc. That stuff can feel really natural to you, or it can feel very restricting. But what people don't often talk about when they discuss story structure is that the structure of the story supports the strength of the prose.

If you wanted to be logical, you could use a metaphor like building a house. There's no point in having fancy paint on a wall that has no strength and is about to fall down. But it's actually even more significant than that - it's as if the paint on the wall could look more beautiful because of the struts the wall contains. So building a house doesn't really do it gracefully, as metaphors go.

A better metaphor would be waveform vibrations. Let's say you have a simple sine wave. Then you let it interact with another. If the two line up in one way, they cancel each other out. If they line up in another way, they double one another's intensity. Here's a little picture showing two sine waves (green and blue), and the result of their interaction (red).
The summary here is that when the two waves line up, they have more impact. When they don't, they dampen each other.

The same thing happens with words. Not just with words, but also with phrases, images, and other forms of structure in a piece of writing. Repetition creates patterns. We call them arcs. Sine waves are also made of arcs. A climax is when all the arcs line up together at the end of the story. It's something we aim for.

These alignments happen all through the story, however. And they count every time.

Have you ever heard the advice that you shouldn't open with a scene that jumps straight into action, explosions, deadly danger, etc? Well, you shouldn't. Why? Because those are things that are supposed to have impact. To have amplitude. But at the start of a work you've had no time to get your waves going. They *can't* line up. So everything you describe is going to depend solely on the intensity of the prose on the page, sentence by sentence. It just won't have the same kind of impact that it might if you started out by establishing what is normal first - even if only briefly.

Establish the character. Establish what normal looks like to them, even if you do that by having them notice that today is not quite like other days. Establish a bond of caring between your protagonist and your reader. To put this in the simplest way I can, the character is one wave (actually, they are a set of waves, but I'm trying to be simple here). The "normal" is another wave. The departure from normal sets up a new kind of wave. The bond with the reader will cause them to bring in comparisons from their own life (still another kind of wave). Once each of those waves is recognized and in play, you can play with them and line them up to create a catastrophic inciting event that will have some meaning to the reader.

Of course, the further you go into the story, the more waves there are. You couldn't possibly count them all. But tracking as many as you can, at least on some level, is very important. It helps you know how to line them up.

Okay, so let's say you have a scene you have written, and it's not coming across the way you want. But you've done your absolute best with it, and when you read through it you can't really see anything substantial wrong with it. You might try to punch up the prose, but then it might depart from the style you've been using for this story. Or it might depart from being reasonable, or be inconsistent with character, etc.

Don't punch up the prose. Look for weaknesses in the lead-in, and places where the impact of the scene is being dampened because earlier parts of the book don't support it.

In my novel, For Love, For Power, I have a scene which has to be really really awful. But it's not really really awful onscreen - the awful stuff is going on offscreen and the point of view character discovers that it's going on. At that moment, he has to react. He has to have the strongest reaction he's had to anything so far in the book (he's a relatively understated guy). And because he's reacting emotionally, it doesn't make sense for him to explain what he thinks is going on. The surface text looks like this:

He dashed into his room. No way to let her know he was here, but if she was on the other side of this wall, and she needed him, surely she would call. He flicked on the speaker beside the door with the crescent-moon handle, praying to hear her voice, even if it were raised in anger –
Instead, out of the speaker came a bestial, rhythmic grunting.
Nausea swept over him; his entire body shook with rage.
Oh, my Lady! My Lady!

Based on this alone, some things are clear, but others definitely aren't. We don't know who he is. We don't know why he cares. We have no idea who she is relative to him and how she might feel about events. But to try to explain it in this spot would be a mistake. Part of what readers need to know is set up in the time I spend setting up the characters earlier. Other parts of it are set up in this chapter as I get closer and closer to this moment. If you want to see the progression, I spent a blog post on it, here: Heightening Emotional Impact.

One of the most important roles of structure and description is creating a sense of increased amplitude through a story. So if you find yourself with a sneaking feeling that something isn't working right, but can't pinpoint it in the place where it happens, take a look back at how it gets set up.

It's something to think about.



  1. I think this is why swearing in fiction can jerk me out of the story -- I've read stories where harsh language feels like it's there to "punching up the prose" to garner an emotional sense where the groundwork hasn't been laid for it. The only word I had for it before was "gratuitous", which wasn't very descriptive -- what feels gratuitous to me in one story can feel natural in another. Thanks for this great post!

    1. Very interesting thought, MK. I think you're right that swearing is one technique that people might use to try to get their characters to feel more "into it." I can also see why that wouldn't be particularly effective in many cases. I'm glad you liked the post. Thanks for your comment!

  2. Build up is so important. It's like a scary movie isn't scary because someone jumped out of a closet right at the start with a knife. It's scary because the character feels stalked and afraid and it becomes a bigger and bigger feeling and you feel just as afraid as the character does. The build up makes it scary!

    1. Yes, Nicole, that's a great example of how buildup is so important. Thanks for your comment!

  3. Replies
    1. & a similar line of argument could restrain the dogmatism of "kill your darlings" stylists ... give your darlings a chance first, move 'em around, support them with words elsewhere, adjust the score, grade the colour, etc. etc. (I mean I don't actually do anything of that but I should :))

    2. Jo, I'm not so sure that this reflects directly on "kill your darlings" - at least, I don't think it can be interpreted as telling you to keep them. Keeping darlings, even if it is in a separate file, is never a bad plan. However, this particular point about buildup would probably make me more likely to argue for cutting the darlings out in circumstances where they aren't contributing to the larger structure. "Darlings" I've encountered tend more to be on the level of surface text. On the other hand, by all means keep them and redistribute them as necessary!

  4. This is very true. I'll add that when you're looking at the surrounding narrative, also consider the scene order, especially where you have multiple POVs. I had a novel where a simple reordering of the scenes turned something from simple progression to strong tension. The scenes themselves hadn't changed, but what the reader knew and when did.

    1. Yes, absolutely. The order in which a reader learns things is one of the most important tools for creating the kind of buildup I'm talking about here.