This week I offer you a rant, an apology and a request. I hope you enjoy them.
The first thing I want to write about today is about the topic of writing advice itself. All too often do I see writing advice given, in this blog or on other online forums, with the response being:
"Well, that doesn't work in all cases."
"Here's an example of where a writer didn't do that and it's great."
"It should be remembered not to take this advice as universal."
To which the voice in my head responds: "Well, obviously!"
All writing advice, whether written by me, Stephen King, the Pope or Ursula LeGuin, is subjective. None of it is applicable to all situations and none of it should be taken as gospel. They are tools to be used, considered and adapted when the purpose suits them.
If you don't like it, or it doesn't fit your story, ignore it. Or at the very least, consider why it doesn't fit your story and what that says about your type of story.
This isn't groundbreaking news for most people, but it felt like a necessary response to people telling me that my advice doesn't apply to this story or that book. Of course it doesn't. It was never meant to.
Distractions and Deadlines
As you may have noticed, I failed to post anything last week. It has been a completely hectic couple of weeks. Having just got back from working Sri Lanka, I had to go to South Korea a few days later for work as well. On top of this there were a variety of pressing deadlines, both in my writing and in other areas, that I had to meet.
As such, the blog was forced into the backseat and has been sitting there, pouting unhappily, for a good week now. Sorry.
But fear not, I fully intend to return to my regular Thursday scheduling as soon as possible. I've even cancelled a trip to Malaysia this weekend in order to get my head together and focus on some actual writing (and get some sleep!)
Here's what I need from you:
What would you like to read about?
To date, I have written about plot structure, scene structure, protagonists and antagonists, dialogue and description, first person and multiple POVs and pathos and endings. There are many other topics in writing that deserve covering and I'd love to lend my thoughts and ideas to any of them, but I'd appreciate getting a sense of what people want to learn more about.
Attached is a google form - I ask one thing of this week, dear subscribers - tell me what you want me to write about. Fill out the single question form and I shall strive to write about every request that comes in.
Please do keep them focused on something to do with writing, though. As much as I would be willing to give you a long and detailed essay on my opinions on grumpy-looking cats, it doesn't really fit in this blog.
Thanks, and see you next Thursday.
Well, despite having been in the Sri Lankan mountains making concrete and building fences with little but a satellite phone for communication, I've somehow managed to write a blog post too. This one is about scenes.
What goes into a scene? Sometimes you have a large, sprawling plot in mind. It has all the fantastic character development and wonderful narrative twists, turns and resolutions that you need. But somehow, you struggle to get your individual scenes to have the pace and excitement they require. We’ve all been there. Keeping the pace and interest up, consistently, on a scene to scene basis is difficult. It is also one of the biggest reasons for mid-novel slumps or slow beginnings. The ideas are there, but the individual scenes just don’t cut it.
So how do you write a scene?
In this post, I will be giving some tips and tricks to make your individual scenes exciting, impactful and most of all, interesting. When I refer to a scene I refer to a single frame of the story, as it follows a character or group of characters over a single period and in a single place. These might be chapters or bits of chapters, but when you shift time forward or shift to another place, you are shifting scene.
The first thing you need to start doing is to think of your scenes like mini-novels in and of themselves, with hooks, development, climaxes and resolutions. The traditional narrative theory of story-arcs applies well on a much smaller scale and should not be forgotten.
Let’s break down each individual part.
Start with the climax of your scene. Identify what it is.
In other words, write down the specific plot point that you want to get out of this scene. What is this scene here for, in terms of your plot?
It should be able to be reducible to a single line – something as straightforward as:
The protagonist realises that his brother has been lying to him.
The protagonist is forced to kill his prisoner.
I’m going to be using my own example to demonstrate scene mechanics, the climax of the scene being:
The protagonist confronts his lover about her infidelity.
Make sure it is clear. If you can’t identify the point of your scene to the overall narrative, then it probably shouldn’t exist. This is very important. If your scene does not have a clear narrative moment directly relevant to the moving plot, it isn’t a good scene. It’s filler.
There are two ways to deal with filler: cut it or integrate whatever information you need into a scene that isn’t filler, rather than giving it a scene of its own. Both of these options are feasible.
Scene Planning Step 1: Write down what the climax of the scene is.
The old adage remains true:
Good scenes advance either plot or character. Bad scenes do neither. Great scenes do both.
Always aim to write great scenes, then at least if you fail at one you’ll still have a good scene on your hands.
Look at your plot point you have written down and identify how your protagonist and perhaps your secondary characters are impacted by this plot point. Ask yourself the following questions:
Does it change the way they view the world?
Does it affect their relationship with another character?
Does it affect their motivations?
Does it affect their goals?
If the answer to all of the above is no, then my follow-up question is: why is it there?
Remember that plot is character, and your plot points should be there to develop your character. If your character is not being developed by the climactic plot point in your scene, you once again have filler.
What do we do with filler? Cut or integrate.
Scene Planning Step 2: Write down how that plot point develops your protagonist and/or secondary characters.
I like to think of scenes as a clear structure of three basic movements: hook, development and cliff-hanger. While this may seem formulaic, it is by getting used to the formulas that we can really start to be creative. The formulas we use are hugely adaptable, given the context, but this particular formula has really helped me in structuring my scenes.
Let’s go through each one and think about what they mean and what they need.
Like the beginning of your novel or story, the beginning of your scene should start with a hook of some kind. There are a variety of ways to do this, which I will explore in a moment, and you don’t have start each scene in media res with action (that would be repetitive). But don’t count on your reader being on board with your story enough that your scene doesn’t need a hook. Don’t do this at any point in your novel.
Your scene needs to start in such a way that the reader needs to keep reading after the first few sentences to find out where this is leading. It is hard to do, but very important.
Start as close to the climax as narratively possible
The first thing you should be doing is starting as close to the climax as narratively possible. This means that you should cut all the dead weight at the start of the scene that isn’t necessary to the climax that you wrote down.
Let me go back to my example: Joe Protagonist is confronting his girlfriend, Karen, in a coffee shop, about her cheating on him.
Now, let’s imagine the beats of the scene: She’s there waiting for him, he arrives, goes and orders a cup of coffee, pays for it, goes and sits down next to her, drinks a sip, they talk awkwardly for a moment while he builds up the courage, he’s nervous - he doesn’t want it to be true, then he confronts her. She denies it. He calls her a liar. She’s outraged. Cue big argument. She’s very offended, so much so that he questions whether he’s right. He doubts himself. She storms out. He feels ashamed. He begins to question his motives and blame himself.
Okay – we have an obvious plot point: Joe confront Karen and they fight.
We have obvious character development: Joe begins to question his own motives and starts to blame himself for even thinking that she was cheating.
Great. Fine. So where do we start?
Well, let’s be honest: does the reader really need him walking into the shop, buying a cup of coffee and paying for it? No. He’s sitting in a coffee shop. That’s implied. A reader can work out he’s probably bought a cup of coffee. Don’t treat your readers like idiots.
Do we need the awkward talk beforehand? Maybe. That depends on what kind of story you want to tell and how important it is to the character. The question you should be asking is “is the awkward talk beforehand necessary to develop his character?” If it is, keep it. If not, cut.
Maybe we start with the confrontation. That’s very close to the climax and a good hook. The opening line could be the accusation. But can we get closer? Of course we can.
Her denial implies she’s been accused. We don’t need the actual accusation. In fact, him calling her a liar implies she denied something (and if you have written the scenes before correctly, the reader should be able to immediately imply what denial is.)
That’s where I’d start the scene. I’d have the very first line be:
“Don’t lie to me, Karen.”
That’s a good hook. Why? It forces your reader to work. It forces your reader to work out the implications. What’s she lying about? It must be the cheating. After all, we know Joe was going to confront her about it. Why is she lying?
Then, let the reader work out that they’re in a coffee shop as you dive into it. For example:
“Don’t lie to me, Karen.”
Joe shifted in his seat, uncomfortably aware that the customers at the next table could hear them. It didn’t matter - he couldn’t let her get away with this.
Trust your readers and give them some work to do. We don’t need all the explanation beforehand of where they are and why unless it’s really necessary to develop their characters.
Types of Hook
Once you’ve worked out how close to the scene you can be, your hook will probably start to be obvious. But if it isn’t, consider the below three things as being good for hooks:
New Information: offer the reader a glimpse of something they don’t already know so they want to read on.
Confrontation: like above, start with conflict of some kind to draw the reader in. This can be verbal or physical. It could be something as small as a new character walking in the room.
Routine Breaking: something happens that is hugely different to normal. Stories are about breaks in routines and expectations.
Scene Planning Step Three: Write down your hook.
Okay - so we have our hook. What’s next?
This is where the protagonist is forced into the central conflict of the scene and reacts to it. It is the ‘climax’ and the core bit of your scene. In my example above, it is the argument they have in the coffee shop.
To develop this, you need to go back to Step 2. How will this affect your character? You need to get your character from where they are, developmentally, at the start of the scene to where you want them to be at the end.
Let’s look at my example: my key development is that my protagonist feels ashamed for blaming Karen for cheating and then blames himself.
(Spoiler: She did cheat on him. She’s a manipulative bitch.)
Over the course of the conversation, I need to get him there. This is where your skill as a writer comes and you use dialogue, description of feeling and emotion to move your character from one position (blaming Karen) to another (blaming himself).
Scene Planning Step 4: Write down what the development is. If they need to get from A to B - what is A and what is B?
So how do we end our scene? It is not enough to have your scene simply end with the conclusion of the development. I can’t end the scene with Joe blaming himself - that’s a low note. A lull note. I need something to lead my reader into the next scene.
If it ends with Joe sitting in the coffee shop, feeling ashamed and blaming himself, then the reader is fine with putting the book down at the end of the scene and maybe picking it up later to find out where it leads. Not good enough. Something needs to happen to make the reader need to read the next scene.
It doesn’t need to be huge, it just needs to be some kind of call to action, or introduction of conflict.
Brent Weeks does this really well in his novels. Here are some examples of the very last lines of chapters from his great fantasy novel The Blinding Knife. There are probably better ones, but I’d prefer not to give spoilers at this point.
It comes near the end of a fight scene. A small line, but leaves the reader with a… but what will he do now? If he has lost, what is the consequence? Good end to a chapter and leaves you wanting to read more.
Here, it is just an introduction of a character that provides that new conflict. We know that Gavin and his Father basically hate each other and are working against each other. Him entering the room leaves us wondering at the outcome.
I’m going to use a similar approach in my example. I’m going to have the guy that Karen cheated on him with walk into the coffee shop while he’s sitting there. It’s the first time he’s seen him since he found out.
It isn’t huge or ground-breaking, but it leads into another piece of conflict. What will Joe do? Especially know he feels so guilty? Will his anger overcome his guilt? I must read on!
Ideally, all your scenes should lead into the next one with this kind of hook - development – cliff-hanger structure wherever possible.
Scene Planning Step 5: Write down your cliff-hanger.
And there you go - you’ve got a compelling and effectively planned scene. Now all you have to do is write it.
To ensure pace and interest throughout all the scenes of your novel, keep in mind the following.
I'd have given more examples, but Brent Weeks was all I had on hand and no internet. There should be another blog post up next Thursday, but given that I will be in Korea - it might be next Friday.
See you next week.
This post leads on from last week’s on antagonists, but is aimed a slightly more specific type of antagonist - the villain. In this, I’ll be looking at some of the most famous antagonists from fantasy-adventure works - the ones who genuinely strike fear into the hearts of our protagonists and are a real threat; the ones we remember long after the story is finished. Villains like Lord Voldemort, Darth Vader, The Witch-King of Agmar, and even the White Witch from the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
It should be noted that all of the suggestions I give in the post come in tandem with last week’s post. You should not forget as you read that your villains, like all antagonists, need real motivations, arcs and faces to be interesting.
That being said, how can you write a fantasy villain that inspires that deep sense of fear, power and gravitas?
What Not To Do
Tell, rather than show.
Please don’t write: Lord EvilMan, the most powerful and scary man in all of EvilTown, walked in the room. He looks at the people and says: “I’m so powerful. I could kill every single one of you. Don’t cross me!”
Okay, my example is a bit exaggerated, but the point stands. There is nothing less impressive than a villain telling you how powerful he is, or you simply telling the reader that he is very powerful and scary. More than most things, these traits need to be shown to be effective.
So how do you show these things? Well, here are some ways to consider it:
Reactions and Fear
One of the things that make all the above villains so ominous is the way that other characters react to them over the course of the story. When we discover who fears them, we discover a lot about how dangerous the character is.
Sometimes, it will be the way they react to their presence, for example when Darth Vader enters a room, people will cower and look subservient without him really needing to say anything. Film, of course, has the added benefit of being able to throw some great music and sound design onto this as well, but what is important is that you are capturing the tone in your writing. You should be trying to capture this in your prose and one effective way of doing then is describing how people - especially strong and important people - react to them.
This is even more impactful when the villain isn’t there. Consider how we are introduced to the White Witch in CS Lewis’ wonderful The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. The beavers are extremely scared when her name is mentioned. Tumnus is so scared that he actually betrays his new friends, just because he is worried what will happen to him if he doesn’t. By making the characters do things that are out of character and against what they would usually do at the mere mention of the villain, without the villain actually being there, tells us a lot about their power.
The most obvious example of this working is Lord Voldemort. The fact that before we even meet him people are too scared to say his name in public has a huge effect on our perception of him as a reader. It’s a very clever narrative trick.
This is amplified by the fact that even after he has been defeated people are still too scared to speak his name. They actually flinch when others do it. This helps paint him with all the danger and gravitas that he deserves and means that when we do actually see him rise again at the end of The Goblet of Fire, it becomes one of the most memorable scenes in modern literature. This is because of how Rowling has set him up using others reactions.
I’m not saying that everyone needs to be scared to say your villain’s name. That would be a bit too on the nose and bit too similar to Rowling, I think. But do consider other ways that you can have common and normal people react to discussing or mentioning the villain. This really helps build up their danger.
While having common folk fear the villain is a good thing, sometimes this is even better demonstrated by someone very powerful fearing the villain. In the Lord of the Rings, Gandalf is set up as being an extremely powerful wizard, so when he becomes afraid of the Balrog, we know things are getting serious. This happens again later on where Gandalf is used as a narrative tool to indicate that the Witch-King of Agmar is someone to be really scared of, as he has no desire whatsoever to fight him.
If you can have otherwise powerful and competent heroes suddenly become quite afraid of something or someone in particular, this contrast will really help develop the villain’s sense of strength and danger.
Stories and Mythology
Real worlds and cultures have stories and myths built into everything. Don’t forget about this when you build your world. In The Name of the Wind, the Chandrian appear in fairy tales and songs sung by children. They are very much an old part of the world and that lends them a certain gravitas.
Imagine if your character is walking through a town and their one claim to fame is, “one day Lord EvilMan stopped here to stay the night. Up there is the house he stayed in, they say no one can stay a night in there without going mad.”
This is a demonstration of how your villain becomes part of the cultural tapestry of your world. Name things after them. Have stories, apocryphal or true, told about them. Make people scared.
Real Power and Threat
Your villain needs to pose a real threat to your protagonist. A real threat. There are two things you need for this to be the case.
1. Have them actually do something
Please don’t make your villain all talk and no action. Good examples:
Give your villain some real gravitas and don’t wait until the second half of your story to do it. If you want us to be intimidated and threatened by them, give us reason to be.
2. Imminent Threat
Great villains work well if the protagonist feels like they could be killed at any time. The threat feels very imminent. For all that I love the books, and the villains, my mine gripe with Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles is the fact that the Chandrian appear so violently at the start and then basically disappear for the rest of the books. They stop feeling like a threat and lose all of that great fear that was built up at the start.
There are many ways of creating an imminent threat. The White Witch is a constant and imminent threat because she has Edmund captured and is slowly turning him against his siblings.
3. Have them far more powerful than your protagonist
Nobody wants a villain who is easily defeatable. The best protagonist / villain relationships are ones that are hugely unbalanced. Our villain needs to be a real threat. Our protagonist should be the severe underdog in any conflict.
Consider Lord Voldemort - apart from some other clever narrative tricks like having the same wand, Harry doesn’t stand a chance. If it was a normal magical duel with no extenuating we all know that he would be dead. There’s no question of the matter.
What power does Frodo have to defeat the Witch-King of Agmar or Sauron for that matter? None, except for the possibility of destroying the ring. But in one on one combat they are a clear and impossible threat.
The White Witch even kills Aslan, our great hero and saviour, without much of a fight. (I know, I know, he comes back, but at the time it has a lot of impact).
A great example of this actually comes from Brandon Sanderson’s YA novel, Steelheart. I think Steelheart is great villain precisely because he is so completely unstoppable. When they do stop him, it isn’t because the protagonist is stronger or more powerful, but because of another narrative twist.
If you want a really scary, memorable and intimidating villain, consider doing the following:
Next week I will be in Sri Lanka, so may not be able to update the blog. If I am unable, then the week after I will be writing about how to construct individual scenes and chapters and what goes in them.
See you in two weeks, probably.
I am a writer, a reader and a teacher. I write about writing. Sometimes I write about other things too.