Our featured guest post for today comes from David Farland. An accomplished author of dozens of bestselling novels, Farland has established himself as a leading authority on crafting superb fiction. You’ll find him at the forefront of the Writers of the Future contest. He’s a (very) active presence in your inbox if you subscribe to his newsletter. You’ll also see him at LTUE 2018.
In this post, Farland teaches the core principles behind writing effective scenes.
As a contest judge, I see a lot of stories from beginners. Very often the new author seems to be preoccupied with just “writing.” They let their imaginations take them where they will in a scene. So they tend to overwrite in one of several ways.
They may spend time exploring the nooks and crannies of a setting, or creating entire billion-year histories. They might relay relatively unimportant information about a character’s inner motivations, or over-write rather trivial dialog. They may spend time playing with words, trying simply to write beautiful metaphors or they might try to be witty, or simply try to capture a mood or tone.
The results can sometimes be surprising and a bit gratifying, but most often the scene feels bloated, overwritten.
Here is a list of the things that I think about as I prepare to write a scene in order to avoid bloat:
- What’s the purpose of the scene? For example, let’s say that I want to show that a character, let’s call him Derrick, is falling in love with Kate. How do I show that? I might decide that I want to create a moment when Derrick recognizes that she’s interesting. Maybe she says something that catches his attention—making an astute comment about people. He might think, Wow, there’s something different about this woman. I might mention the aroma of her perfume, the beauty of her skin, or something else that attracts him. The point here is that I want to begin writing with a focus in mind, not wander around in a dragged-out conversation.One of my writing instructors suggested that every scene should accomplish two or three things, and I think that’s a great idea.
- What changes in the scene? A scene that doesn’t advance the story in some way should most likely be cut. It’s probably extraneous to the story. So I look at what changes in my scene, how it makes the story grow. In fact, I have to ask myself, is this integral to the story? Of course, sometimes the fact that things don’t change is crucial. For example, in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Remains of the Day, a butler sacrifices his soul for a rather foolish employer, foregoing the chances for love and happiness out of a mistaken sense of loyalty. Time and again, he has the chance to seize life by the throat—and fails. The results are both heartbreaking and instructive—and so each scene is logically justified.
- How shall I “set” my scene? In every scene, we need to describe where we are. We must transport the reader into the scene—using all of the senses in order to bring the scene to life. We also need to let the reader know what is in the background, the middle-ground, and what is close at hand. As we do that, we also have to explain who is in the scene.
- Who will be my viewpoint character? Your viewpoint character is the lens through which you relay the action. That means that you need to choose you POV character for good reasons. That normally means that you choose the one who is in the most pain, or the one who is struggling hardest to deal with a major problem, though you might also choose the character who has the most power to change the story. But you have to establish a character.Since we as humans are each locked into our own consciousness, experiencing the world in our own way, your viewpoint character should become the focal point for the reader’s experience. In other words, the reader should see the world through that character’s eyes, feel it through his skin, hear it through his ears. Since we are constantly thinking and feeling, you also need to relay the character’s thoughts and emotions. Many writers fail to do this well—they try to jump from one character’s consciousness to another for their own convenience as a storyteller, or—worse—they try to hide information from the reader in order to surprise them later.
- What is the GOST of this scene? GOST is an acronym that stands for Goal, Obstacle, Stakes, Tactics. So what is my protagonist’s goal? What obstacles does he face? What is at stake to him personally that motivates him to reach the goal? And what tactics or strategy does he employ to reach the goal.
- How will I write this scene eloquently? In a first draft, I just try to get the action on paper. But let’s face it, telling a story well requires us to try to lift the story above the mundane. This might mean that as I write, I will embellish the description a bit in some surprising ways. I might consider the power and poetry of my language as I try to capture a character’s tone or the ambience of the setting. I might consider my dialog, asking myself how I can have characters struggle to be witty or profound. In short, there are hundreds of little things that I can do to make a scene beautiful, but they’re all just decoration.
Often, it’s only after I’ve written a scene well that I take the time to play with it, looking for ways to impress the reader.
In short, writing a powerful scene isn’t something that just happens. You need to plan your scene well, then perfect it as your write it, and embellish it through the rewriting process.