Pub Rants

Category: writing craft

The Pesky Scene Break

Last month I did my ever-popular webinar Creating the Road Map for Your Novel. Of the ten participants, half had trouble with a powerful writing tool called the scene break. Now, scene breaks are awesome—unless they are overused or not used for maximum impact.

Why do writers use scene breaks? During the webinar, we came up with several reasons:

  1. To signal a shift in time (for example, to enter and exit a flashback, or to skip over a brief period of time during which nothing plotworthy happens).
  2. To signal a shift in point of view (POV).
  3. To build suspense, leaving one scene at a climactic, cliffhanger moment to switch to a new scene.

(To read some great examples, see Janice Hardy’s article on the topic of scene breaks.)

Here are three things about scene breaks to note:

  • Don’t use scene breaks too liberally. Think of POV as a movie camera. If you are constantly breaking scenes (moving the narrative camera), your reader is going to be pulled out of one scene and dumped into another. If it happens to often, your reader will get whiplash and lose the narrative thread of your story.
  • Scene breaks that signal shifts in time should be used judiciously and only when doing so actually moves the plot forward. Don’t use scene breaks as tools of convenience when they offer no other narrative impact. This type of scene break is the biggest culprit; when it doesn’t work on the page, it creates the most abrupt interruption in the logical flow of the narrative.
  • When breaking a scene to skip a period of time, ask yourself what happens during the time you’re choosing to skip. Are you skipping action that should be on the page? I’ve read manuscripts in which the hero conveniently gets conked on the head during a battle scene, only to wake up (after the scene break) once his buddies have defeated the enemy. New writers who are intimidated by writing action/battle scenes, or scenes in which the hero might have to come up with a brilliant plan to save the day, will sometimes conveniently skip them. Don’t fall into that trap!

In summary, whenever you are tempted to toss in a scene break, ask yourself: What is the function of this scene break? And what, if anything, am I skipping over that should appear on the page?

Last night Anita, our intern Chris, and I went to see Salman Rushdie’s talk at Mackey Auditorium on the CU Boulder campus. Mr. Rushdie is eloquent and quotable. I was one finger typing furiously on my iPhone so as to share some kernel of ideas with my blog readers. Any inelegance in my paraphrasing of his talk last night is solely my fault.

His talk tackled what it is to be a writer in this world.

In a world where 24-hour news necessitates posting something about an event, even if it’s not entirely accurate and only later to be retracted, readers are hard-pressed to find “truthyness” in a lot of journalism these days.

The novel takes on a new form of accurate truthfulness that might be a more accurate reflection of what our world actually is. The novel becomes the depth of the lived experience and the writer is bringing to the public the socially important information that is missing from all other sources.

Rushdie mentioned that the novel, Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, which won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for fiction just last week, is all we need to read to truly understand what is happening in North Korea.

And it is for this reason that when they come to power, tyrant and totalitarian regimes target artists and writers.

Rushdie went on to illuminate that we, as people, understand ourselves through the telling of stories. We have the right to tell story our way, through our beliefs, and about our nation. And those stories are a continuing dialogue. Unfree nations try to control the narrative. Not to have freedom to tell stories is true unfreedom.

The job of the writer, as it is for all the great arts, is to open the universe.

Tyrants close the world. A writer’s job is to open it.

Amen.

 

(Just a note, this post is from our archives. Some references and links may be from past years.)

First person POVs can be awesome. Writers can nail a snarky voice of a character or infuse a lot of witty dialogue with it. First person POVs can stand out as distinctive. Earlier this week, I was reading a sample with that POV and although the voice was strong and the dialogue snappy, something was just off for me. I couldn’t put my finger on it.

Then this morning I woke up with a bit of a eureka moment.

The writer was using the snarky internal observation of the main narrator to describe the other characters. Well, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, except, wait for it, that’s all they were doing. In other words, the writer was using the witty voice to tell about the characters rather than actually developing the characters in the scene itself  (as a writer is forced to do when using the third person narrative structure).

If the scene is strong enough, the writer can probably get away with it. But if the scene is feeling flat with only the witty voice to carry it, then it’s going to be one-dimensional and feel off.

In short, the writer is still telling instead of showing character.

I’d have to give a whole chapter to show what I mean and in this instance, I certainly don’t have permission to do so. But if you’re writing first person POV story, get with your critique partner and see if you might be guilty of that.

Aspiring writers always want to know why agents pass on sample pages. I figured I’d starting doing a writing tip of the week or the month – depending on how many good examples I have to share. So here’s my tip for this week:  when writing action, use tight prose. Yes, I get that that is easier said than done.

In a first draft, writers often get a little wordy. Hence why they are called first drafts! The trick is to not submit said first draft to an agent or editor. Revise first. By the way, this isn’t just a beginning writer mistake. Established authors do this too. The difference? An established author gets the benefit of a line editor who will tidy it up. Newer writers are not so lucky. You folks have to get it right out of the gate or agents will pass on the sample pages.

An example is the best way to understand what I’m talking about here.

Original wording:

We didn’t encounter any more of the guards on our way to the park. I felt a lot better once we were inside the park even though I logically knew that we weren’t necessarily safe there. I just felt a lot less exposed surrounded by trees. The others soon joined us at the designated meeting place.

Line-edited wording (and just an FYI that it was already clear in previous paragraph that characters were headed to park):

The coast was clear all the way to the designated meeting place. It defied logic but I felt safer and a lot less exposed surrounded by trees. The others soon joined us.

 

Less is more and this allows the writer to get to the something good that’s about to unfold a lot more quickly.

Last week my author Marie Lu came to Boulder, Colorado for the Breathless Reads tour — rather apropos given the event was on Valentine’s Day…

There were four authors featured: Marie, Andrea Cremer, Jessica Khoury, and Brenna Yovanoff. They did short reads from a breathless scene from each of their novels. They were smart though, they switched scenes so they didn’t have to read their own. It just works better that way! When the audience got a chance to ask questions, one attendee asked what advice would the four of them give to young aspiring writers.

This one stuck out the most in my mind. Ms. Cremer said that all writers need to remember this (and I’m going to paraphrase here): when she starts a project, she’s just so in-love with it, she can’t wait to sit down and write it. She’s excited. The words fly onto the page. Every idea, every bit of dialogue she writes is a gem. Then she hits word 20,001. Bam. The wall. And it happens every time. Then she has to force herself to sit down to write each day, none of the scenes come easily, she ends up deleting half the dialogue. In other words, she has to slog through the next 20,000 words until she breaks through to the ending section.

It happens to her with every manuscript she writes. And even more astonishing? Every other author on the panel agreed with her. They had never thought of it that way but it was so true!

Now why am I bringing this up? Because I think any number of authors hit that 20,001 word and either give up on the idea or polish the heck out of those first chapters and then NEVER GO ANY FURTHER and finish the novel.

I also see any number of sample pages that have an incredibly strong beginning, I’m excited, and then the middle sags like nobody’s biz. As an agent, I haven’t got time to slog through that part to get to what might be a great ending. I stop reading. On to the next author who has mastered the saggy middle, the art of gritting your teeth through the hard work revision.

Those are the authors we agents want to work with! So ask yourself, do you have what it takes to suffer through the middle abyss?

Fridays With Agent Kristin: Episode 8 – Three Reasons Why Prologues Don’t Work

STATUS: Agency is going to be closed Monday through Wednesday of next week for the 4th of July holiday. It’s a summer mini-break!

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? VIVA LAS VEGAS by Jimmy Buffett

When reading requested sample pages, every agent I knows skips a prologue when reading the sample. Today I discuss three reasons why that is so!

Enjoy and have a great holiday next week!

Writing Craft: Mechanics Vs Spark

STATUS: Everything is literally on fire around the city of Denver. From Colorado Springs and Monument to Boulder to Fort Collins. I was so happy to see the rain this afternoon. Sadly it only lasted 20 minutes. We need more rain.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? WINDOWS ARE ROLLED DOWN by Amos Lee

When I’m doing the Agent Reads The Slush Pile workshop, the toughest moment is when the volunteer reads an entry that is completely sound. In the reading, there is no problem that I can point to and say, “here, this is the issue” or “this is not working.” On a mechanical level, there is nothing wrong with the opening pages.

The form is acceptable, the grammar is fine, the writing is solid. I can even identify that the writer understands the tenets of craft. By all the “rules” of writing and publishing, I should be glowing about this entry.

But something is missing.

And I have no other word for the “what” that is missing except to say the work is lacking narrative “spark.”

In other words, the writing is missing a distinctive voice.

And when that happens, what can you say during the workshop? That I don’t love it? Well, that’s not accurate either because when something is missing “spark” it’s probably not just a Kristin subjective thing. Listeners sense it too. I can tell by watching the workshop audience. When something lacks spark, it loses people’s attention. They start to shift in their seats or stretch or focus on something else.  It’s not just me that notices the absence.

On the other hand, when a work has that elusive spark, I know it, because the workshop audience becomes completely still and enrapt in the reading. Their attention is glued to the reader so as not to miss the next sentence. It’s a palpable change in the atmosphere of the room.

Sadly I can’t give an example because none of my authors have this problem. I’d have to grab something from the slush pile and I certainly couldn’t post it here without permission.

And speaking of getting read, it all begins with the perfect pitch paragraph in your query letter. Pub Rants University is hosting Goodbye Slush Pile: How To Write The Perfect Query Letter Pitch Paragraph for your Novel tomorrow night, Thursday, June 28 from 6 to 8 pm Mountain time. Given by yours truly.

I can’t tell you the number of emails I’ve received over the years from participants who have attended, revamped their query pitches, and then landed an agent and went on to sell. Dozens and dozens. In fact, one person even came up to me during the Litfest closing party the week before last to thank me.

You won’t want to miss it!

Writing Craft: Action Vs Active Openings To Grab Attention

STATUS: 105 degrees today. WTF? It’s like walking in an oven…

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? HOSPITALITY by Friends of Friends

Can I see a show of hands of how many of you have been told that you need “to grab an editor or agent’s attention” right away at the beginning of your novel?

This is actually true. You do need to grab our attention immediately but when new writers hear this, they confuse an action scene with an active scene.

These two things are wholly separate.

If a beginning writer hears this mantra, they often interpret it to mean that they need to inject some kind of physical active scene to create tension at the beginning of the novel.

This translates into a whole host of odd openings with car chases, prologues, or dream sequences with “action” to start the story despite the fact that these are unnecessary to the story being told and don’t feel organic to what will unfold.

Besides, how the heck are you going to include an action scene in a literary novel? That makes zero sense.

So I want to take a moment to explain the difference between an “action” scene versus an “active” scene–which can be equally compelling in terms of grabbing attention.

An action scene is just that–an opening that has a lot of physical action to open the story.

A great example is Janice Hardy’s opening for her fantasy THE SHIFTER. But notice, in this opening, she creates tension but the pace is not necessarily fast and furious (a la a car chase solely there to grab attention) and it doesn’t need to be. Yet the action is physical and it is creating forward momentum.

Stealing eggs is a lot harder than stealing the whole chicken. With chickens, you just grab a hen, stuff her in a sack and make your escape. But for eggs, you have to stick your hand under a sleeping chicken. Chickens don’t like this. They wake all spooked and start pecking holes in your arm, or your face, if it’s close. And they squawk something terrible.

The trick is to wake the chicken first, then go for the eggs. I’m embarrassed to say how long it took me to figure this out.

“Good morning little hen,” I sang softly. The chicken blinked awake and cocked her head at me. She didn’t get to squawking, just flapped her wings a bit as I lifted her off the nest, and she’d settle down once I tucked her under my arm. I’d overheard that trick from a couple of boys I’d unloaded fish with last week. 

A voice came from beside me. “Don’t move.”

Two words I didn’t want to hear with someone else’s chicken under my arm.

I froze. The chicken didn’t. Her scaly feet flailed toward the eggs that should have been my breakfast. I looked up at a cute night-guard not much older than me, perhaps nineteen. The night was more humid than normal, but a slight breeze blew his sand-pale hair. A soldier’s cut, but a month or two grown out.

Stay calm, stay alert. As Grannyma used to say, if you’re caught with the cake, you might as well offer them a piece. Not sure how that applied to chickens though.

“Join me for breakfast when your shift ends?” I asked. Sunrise was two hours away.

He smiled, but aimed his rapier at my chest anyway. Most times, I enjoyed handsome boys smiling at me in the moonlight, but his was a sad, sorry-only-doing-my-job smile. I’d learned to tell the difference between smiles a lot faster than I’d figured out the egg thing.

If the above is action, then what do I mean by an “active” scene–which can equally work to grab attention? Active scenes don’t have physical action unfolding yet the narrative propels the reader forward through the author’s distinctive voice and because there is something about the scene that can’t be reconciled unless the reader reads on.

A great example is literary commercial writer Kristina Riggle’s opening for her novel REAL LIFE & LIARS. Here’s the opening:

    My tea tastes so fresh, and this joint is so fine, I might melt right into the red velvet cushion and run down the walls into a silvery pool on the floor.

    Sure, I’m a little old to be toking up. Just north of sixty. So sue me. It’s been a rough couple weeks around here.

    The kids – actually, just my oldest, the other two are dragged along under the wheels of her train – are throwing us an anniversary party. By tomorrow night they will all be here, with spouse, children, suitcases, plus the usual petty arguments and festering resentments.

    And I thought my being a hippie would free them of all that crap. The joke’s on me.

    “Mira!” calls my husband from the kitchen. “Mira?” he says a second time, maybe realizing how frantic he sounded.

    “In here!” I know he will follow my voice and check on me, and ask me some ludicrous question like where the spatula is, when he knows darn well. Lately, he can’t let me out of his sight for very long. It’s like living with a toddler again. I’m surprised he doesn’t come into the bathroom while I’m taking a dump.

    But then, didn’t I long for this, his fervent attention? As they say, be careful what you wish for. It’s like some sort of medieval fable where a wish has been granted, with a horrible catch in the bargain.

    In the echo of all this deference rings that horrible fight, when he turned into someone else, something alien possessing him such that I’ve never seen in 40 years. I take a deep drag from the joint, and shake my head a little, shaking away the memory.

    Max pokes his head into the study, and I place my joint carefully in the ashtray on the seat next to me. He’s got Einstein hair this morning. His sandy colored curly mop sticks up on each side, but he’s bald in the middle. His spectacles are up on top of his head, and his ratty red bathrobe hangs open over his boxers and t-shirt. He doesn’t mention the marijuana smell, nor the joint smoldering next to me.

In this opening, there is very little physical action. Her character is sitting on a couch smoking. That’s it. Riggle grabs attention by setting up a dichotomy–a grandmother smoking a joint. It’s not what we imagine or expect so immediately the reader is questioning the why and the character. It’s an active scene just for that reason.

Whether the opening works for you as a reader, is not the point here. I’m simply pointing out the difference between “action” and “active” when writing openings to grab attention.

So don’t confuse the two when your critique group says you need to immediately grab an agent’s attention in your novel.

Writing Craft: Breaking The Rule: Show Don’t Tell

STATUS: What is up with over 100 degree days in Denver in June? We live here because summer tends to be awesome. We could be confused with Phoenix this week.
What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? NOVEMBER by Ben Williams

A week ago I attended Denver Lighthouse Writer’s Litfest where I gave my Agent Reads The Slush Pile workshop to over 50 hearty souls–which convinces me yet again that writers are gluttons for punishment.

As I was giving the workshop, inspiration hit for a couple of blog posts I could do on writing craft that I think my blog readers would understand and find helpful.

So guess what I’m going to do this week if I can find 30 minutes of time to get one posted?

Writers are often given writing “rules” that woe be you if you break them. And for most cases, because beginning writers have not mastered craft yet, these rules hold true. But if a writer knows what he or she is doing, breaking the rule can often create something really unusual that will work and be amazing (but will have a lot of aspiring writers crying foul that so-and-so writer does it and gets away with it.)

For example, how often have you heard that as a writer, you should show and not tell? Too many times to count I imagine.

Do you want to know one NLA writer who breaks this rule all the time at the beginning of her novels? Sherry Thomas. Sherry has won the Rita Award twice in a row now (the romance genre’s highest honor) and her debut novel PRIVATE ARRANGEMENTS was named one of Publisher’s Weekly best books of the year in 2008.

So obviously somebody agrees that she has mastered craft and Sherry always begins her novels with a lot of exposition–usually a big no-no. But for her voice, it just works. Just last month, Sherry released her latest historic romance entitled BEGUILING THE BEAUTY which John Charles said in the Booklist review: “Thomas distills superbly nuanced characters and flawlessly re-created settings worthy of a Merchant and Ivory into a gracefully witty and potently passionate love story that sets a new gold standard for historical romances.”

And, if you check out the beginning of her novels, it’s all exposition. BEGUILING begins with the following:

It happened one sunlit day in the summer of 1886.
Until then, Christian de Montfort, the young Duke of Lexington, had led a charmed life. 
His passion was the natural world.  As a child, he was never happier than when he could watch hatchling birds peck through their delicate eggshells, or spend hours observing the turtles and the water striders that populated the family trout stream.  He kept caterpillars in terrariums to discover the outcomes of their metamorphoses—brilliant butterflies or humble moths, both thrilling him equally.  Come summer, when he was taken to the seashore, he immersed himself in the tide pools, and understood instinctively that he was witnessing a fierce struggle for survival without losing his sense of wonder at the beauty and intricacy of life. 
After he learned to ride, he disappeared regularly into the countryside surrounding his imposing home.  Algernon House, the Lexington seat, occupied a corner of the Peak District.  Upon the faces of its chert and limestone escarpments, Christian, a groom in tow, hunted for fossils of gastropods and mollusks. 
He did run into opposition from time to time.  His father, for one, did not approve of his scientific interests. But Christian was born with an innate assurance that took most men decades to develop, if at all.  When the old duke thundered over his inelegant use of time, Christian coolly demanded whether he ought to practice his father’s favorite occupation at the same age, chasing maids around the manor. 

This goes on for three pages. It’s backstory. Something writers are admonished to never do. But with her skill and voice, it works.

So keep that in mind. If you can pull it off, a rule is worth breaking. The trick is knowing whether you’ve truly pulled it off! From most of what I’ve seen in the slush pile, the answer is no, the writer hasn’t nailed it.