Monday, December 07, 2009

Meaty Monday: SiWC 2009; Scenes That Can't Be Cut, by Donald Maass

This is the last of my posts for SiWC 2009! I hope they were useful to you.
On Oct 23-25, 2009, I attended The Surrey International Writers Conference, which is one of the best conferences in North America for improving your writing skills and learning about the publishing industry. The conference is extremely well-run, focuses on craft, and includes (for free!) one ten-minute agent/editor pitch and one ten-minute author/editor "Blue Pencil" clinic.

I'm going to summarize the useful information from my workshop notes here on the blog, but I'm going to have to break it up over several weeks' worth of Meaty Mondays, because there's LOTS to cover.

These summaries will be in point form, because my notes aren't much more than that, plus doodles.
This week:

Scenes That Can't Be Cut, by Donald Maass
This was a genuine workshop in that Mr. Maass would give us an exercise, then prompt the audience to spend a few minutes scribbling. This post summarizes the exercises and outlines the extra advice given. If you want the whole story, pick up Mr. Maass' new book on writing, The Fire In Fiction.
Workshop begins:

Middles are so often where a book falls down. How do you make every scene riveting?

Turning Points

Scenes that tend to fall flat are often travel scenes, aftermath scenes, and interrogation scenes (in crime fiction.)

In your scene, identify the turning point, which is the moment when things change. This can be a moment of recognition, discovery, or awareness. The scene can't exist without this turning point, so let's consider whether we could be doing more with it.
Exercise 1A: Start at the turning point, and imagine going backward in time with your protagonist by ten minutes.

Ask your protagonist: Who are you right now? How do you see yourself? Where are you in your journey?

Exercise 1B: Now imagine going forward in time with your protagonist to the point ten minutes after the turning point.

Ask your protagonist the same questions.

This change is the inner turning point that accompanies the scene's external turning point. This gives the scene gravitas.


The following three exercises should help you increase the impact of your dialogue in the scene.
Exercise 2: Re-write your scene's dialogue as an exchange of insults between the characters. Have them say what they need to say, but confrontationally. Strip out all the attributes and description in your scene. Just include dialogue.

Audience question: What if one character is comforting the other?
DM: Have one person be impatient with the other.
Writing the scene as an exchange of insults helps you increase the level of conflict in your scene.
Exercise 3: Now rewrite what you have as rat-a-tat dialogue. It's okay if that means you need to add more lines, but keep the dialogue snapping out in short, taut sentences.

Writing the scene as rat-a-tat dialogue helps you streamline and get rid of extra words. It lets your dialogue do more work. The extras are what we write when we aren't sure what the characters will say next. That waffle should be removed when you edit.
Exercise 4: Now try re-writing the scene in such a way that one person speaks once, briefly, and the other person replies only non-verbally.

Writing the scene this way helps you 'show, don't tell'.
Exercise 5: Consider your character's goal--what do they want, need, need to learn, need to avoid, etc? Are they going to get their goal in this scene?

If they will, write three indicators that suggest the character won't.
If they won't, write three indicators that suggest the character will.

The reason for doing this is we want to contradict what the reader is anticipating. The reason why? It's dramatic.
Exercise 6: Write three details of the setting, but choose oblique things--things that are unusual or unexpected, things you'd notice only if you took your time to really look.

E.g. The pattern the carpet suggests, the quality of the silence, a small detail of appearance, the changing light.

The reason for doing this is small, interesting details will help the reader imagine the scene much more vividly than lots of description of mundane items.
Exercise 7: Write a new last line for the scene. What's the lasting image that you're leaving with the reader?

Write a new first line for the scene, with one rule: It can't address the character's arrival. Look for something intriguing, puzzling, wrong, unusual, disturbing or unexpected to focus on.

The reason for doing this is that the first and last lines of a scene are important tools for propelling the reader along. You should work as hard on the first and last lines of your scenes as you do on the first line of the entire manuscript (and we all know how important that is.)

You've now finished the exercises. Re-write your scene as you would like it to appear, but draw upon the best of what you've created here. Is the scene better? Tighter? Is there more tension? Is your dialogue doing more work? Are you getting more oomph out of your turning point?

Workshop ends.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

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