Last week we discussed the overall plot or structure of a book. As you begin editing your initial lump of clay writing (or as I like to think of it—word vomit), structure should be your first consideration because it affects the book as a whole and can sometimes require huge changes, or macro-editing. Next begin to look at your book on a chapter by chapter and scene by scene level to see how all the various elements are working together.
In a nonfiction book, examine each of your chapters to see if they are working as strong individual essays that prove your point. Examine your details that you use to support the point in each chapter. Could you dig deeper? Could you choose stronger examples? Could you add more story elements to bring your examples to life? Does the chapter either 1) follow a strong logical progression ending with a conclusion, or 2) follow a woven pattern ending with a strong wrap-up. Also, does this chapter tie in well to the chapters surrounding it?
For novels, scripts, biographies, and examples within nonfiction books, let’s move on to how to use artistic and fictional elements to their full potential in your writing. If you’ve never taken a creative writing course, you may have some catching up to do. Go to websites like http://www.la.unm.edu/~katem/E102fa03/fiction_terms.htm and http://www.poetryresourcepage.com/teach/fgloss.html to brush up on some basic fiction terms before moving on with this lesson. If you aren’t familiar with them—get familiar with them quick. And before you start weaving these elements into scenes, practice writing smaller separate pieces like conversations, descriptive passages, and character sketches.
The first thing to keep in mind when writing stories is the old “show don’t tell” adage. In nonfiction, you need to tell, but not within the actual stories. Once the story is finished, you are free to explain what you saw in it and why you chose it. In fiction, you don’t get to tell. You can, however, on occasion, let your characters do some telling for you if it’s not too heavy handed or didactic. Let’s face it, you started with an idea you wanted to share with the world. But no one likes to be preached at. Let your readers take a journey with your main character and learn and discover through their experience, not just their summation or commentary on their experience. The more “literary” the book, the less telling you can afford, even through the mouths of your characters. Literary writing expects more from the reader. In popular fiction, readers do like to hear things wrapped up for them and more clearly explained. Children’s fiction generally requires the moral of the story be presented in an overt fashion. But again remember, this is only after “showing” the story and should ideally be presented through the mouth of a character.
Next, let’s discuss scenes. In our video based society we are used to stories coming to us in scenes. In classic books you will often find characters meandering from one time and place to another with no clear break and the narrator jumping around from one mind to another. In contemporary fiction, a simple “***” takes us effortlessly from one time and place to another, and requires little or no explanation of how we got there. The reader understands that we are cutting to the vital information that moves the story forward. This allows the author to keep the tension high and the pages turning by eliminating a lot of fluff. In your own mind, you will want to figure out what happened in between and how the transitions occurred, but your reader needs only the briefest explanation and does not care about irrelevant details. As you edit, make sure that each scene is doing its job in advancing the plot and/or deepening characterization. Something vital should happen in each scene. If not, cut it. If you have a scene where nothing happens but reflection, weave the relevant reflection into a different scene. If you have a scene where nothing is happening but description of an important setting, weave it into a different scene. If you have a dialogue scene that’s interesting but nothing really happens, weave the conversation into a different scene. Every scene should have tension and conflict and end with something to thrust the reader forward into the next scene.
Are you getting the point? Of course, not every single scene requires every element. Certainly stories and examples in your nonfiction will not always need every element. However, check every scene and story for places you could strengthen it by weaving in characterization, action, dialogue, inner dialogue, and description.
As you edit your scenes, first decide if they’re pulling their weight, and if they earn staying in the book. Second, look for a nice balance of elements above. Also, look at the progression of your scenes. In a story, it is good to be continually moving in a cause and effect progression. You don’t want to say. “She entered the room and turned on the lights because it was dark.” Say, “She entered the dark room shrouded in nighttime terrors. Her hand scraped across rough stucco, searching the wall for the switch. Light flooded the room, chasing away the shadows…” In the first version, “because it was dark” stops the flow of action. In the second version, it’s actually hard to find a stopping place. One sentence flows into the next, and there’s a feeling that we must keep going. Notice how I also wove characterization and description into these simple action sentences. I even created a tone.
The fourth thing you want to look for in a scene, is a clear and consistent point of view. In a first person story or limited third person point of view, this will stay consistent throughout the book. However, still check to make sure that what they see and think is true to that character and is not your author’s voice intruding with things that they wouldn’t know or contemplate. For example, if you’re character is standing behind someone, remember that they can’t see their facial expressions. You can move them to a different vantage point, or they can comment on general body language. Likewise, a character will not comment on their own facial expressions, unless they are aware of the face they are making. You wouldn’t say, “Confusion flashed through my eyes.” You would instead describe how confusion felt in their body, or give of a glimpse into their confusing thoughts. A male POV character will not describe another guy as "cute" or "sweet."
The most popular point of view being used these days is multiple third person point of view. In this POV, each scene should take place from the perspective of a specific character. Since we’re using scenes anyway, think of this as the cameraman for the scene. We can only see what they see and hear what they hear. If we are in “close” third person point of view, we can even hear their thoughts. So perhaps this is a cameraman whispering commentary to the audience. If you are writing in multiple third person, give thought to who will be most changed or effected by a given scene, and put the scene in their POV. If during a specific time and place you want to switch point of view, that’s fine, but it still constitutes a scene change and requires a “***” break. If you aren’t sure if you are firmly in one head, try rewriting the scene in first person, then change it back when you’re finished.
As each scene opens, drop us firmly into the head, even the body, of the point of view character. Set up the scene by letting us know where and when they are. Twang at least one of our five senses so that we can see, hear, feel, smell, taste, or touch what they are experiencing. Then we will be ready to join the character in the fictional world of the scene.
You may be wondering with all this talk of scenes, where chapters come into play in novels. In this contemporary model, you don’t need to make decisions about your chapters until late in the process. Short chapters are helpful to keep your readers turning pages. They give the reader a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment and have become very popular in recent years. There are different strategies for breaking chapters. For instance, suspense and thrillers often break chapters in the middle of a tense scene. Experiment with your chapters and see what works best. Your editor may ask you to change your chapter breaks, so don’t get too attached to them.
If you have had some good literature training along the way, you may also be wondering about the omniscient point of view. For you as a beginning writer, assume it is dead. It has to do with that Postmodern mindset we studied last week. We don’t trust a single authoritative point of view anymore. Omniscient stories rarely make it to publication these day, and you don’t need that strike against you as a new author. It’s also incredibly hard to write an omniscient story well. I don’t have space here to go into all the reasons, so trust me or research it more on your own.
Let’s look at some of these fictional elements more specifically now. Characterization should be built by showing us your characters in conflict, action, and relationship. Weave their physical description into action and dialogue. Show them in relationship with other characters and show the contrasts between the characters. Let us into their thoughts, but try to let us in on what others think about them as well. Keep your main characters round. Give them complex personalities. Everyone contains the capacity for good and evil and has mixed emotions and motivations. Make sure that your characters do have strong goals and good reasons for wanting their goals.
In order to make each character individual and distinct with a consistent personality, I recommend using some sort of personality profile on your characters. I like to use the exhaustive Myers-Briggs analysis on all my main characters. There are many other systems available. Or choose a few people you know with similar personalities, and build a composite in your head from those.
Similarly, dialogue should be woven into description and action. The primary way we do this in contemporary fiction is through the action beat. Instead of always writing “he said” or “she said” or worse yet, trying to come up with hokey dramatic tags like “she complained” or “he pontificated loudly,” we simply show what the character is doing, or if in their point of view, we can share their thoughts that accompany what they just said. For example:
“That’s so unfair.” Sharon stomped her satin slipper to the hard wood floor.
Mike crossed his arms over his broad chest. “I’m unfair? You’re the queen of unfair.”
“You both just need to settle down.” And stop being a couple of whiny brats. (said by the point of view character, John, who has already been established.)
Notice that each time a new person speaks or acts, we start a new paragraph. These are called action beats, and they seamlessly weave action, description, and characterization into the dialogue. Notice how we get a feminine picture of Sharon, and a strong masculine one of Mike. Notice how we see the floor and imagine the feel of stomping it in a satin slipper. Notice how we learn about all three of the characters through the inner dialogue at the end, and notice the juxtaposition of what John said against what he thought. This reveals much about him as well. Master the action beat, and you’ll be well on your way to becoming an accomplished novelist.
Descriptions of setting should also be woven into action and dialogue. Show us characters moving through and interacting with the setting. Be sure to use those five senses as mentioned earlier. When at risk of losing the POV character for a scene, plant us firmly back in their body by telling us what they feel, hear, smell, or taste. Use setting to your full advantage. Also, description can be developed into symbol. When choosing symbols for your book, look for ones that arise naturally from the descriptions of settings and characters, then develop them further. These usually make the strongest symbols.
Finally, I’m going to give you one of my favorite artistic secrets. One that not many novelists employ. Paying attention to rhythm and word choice can give your book a strong tone and voice. It also adds that final artistic touch needed for literary fiction. I especially like to give attention to rhythm in longer descriptive passage and internal dialogue. For example, in my historical novel, I use iambic rhythms, which bring to mind Shakespeare and King James. The rich rocking meter creates a real sense of beauty and music. Often, I lull you into a lovely rhythm and snap you out of it to bring attention to a specific detail. In my contemporary novel, I use crisper, sharper rhythms and shorter sentences. I have the most fun with rhythm in my narrative nonfiction. Since I am the main character, I can use rhythm in my own voice to create emotion and give you a sense of rambling or chatting. Then switch to a feel of smacking you. Quick, hard hitting points. Fun, fun, fun. If you would like to learn more about rhythm, spend some time in the world of poetry.
Homework: Write a scene. Try to incorporate character, setting, action, and dialogue in a specific time and place from a specific point of view.