Friday, August 17, 2012

5 Tips for Interesting Scenes

The sad truth of this career is that reading is boring. Even the most exciting books have their moments. It takes more focus than when watching a movie or even listening to a tape, and novelists can't depend on showing pretty images to cover up for any tedious editorializing.

It’s hard to be interesting. Not just in the writing world, but socially even. We have told a bad story, or worse, told a good story badly. And sometimes, we don’t even know how we messed it up.

So it makes sense that in the course of months, working in anywhere from 80,000 to 150,000 words, an author would come across passages that he just goes, “My God, this is dull.” It is worse, however, when the next sentence in his mind is, “What the hell went wrong?”

1. Pack it full of information.

A sentence can communicate anywhere from a single image to a whole world. “There was a dog on a leash,” is different then, “The mangy mutt stretched his leash tight on the lamp post.” The second illustrates everything the first does, adding the pup's hygiene, hints to mood, and gives details to the location. Neither on is better than the other. At least not without context. Either can be boring. One is much longer than the other, but, if we wanted to give the same information out, the shorter sentences would actually take more time to read. How long a writer wants to take delivering information is based on many different elements (the importance of it, the length of time he wants to indicated has passed), but a strong factor in it is how bored the reader is.

Scenes are the same as sentences; they can be one little event stretched out, or many squished together.

Take a look what the reader has learned from the text. It should be more than just events. Does it say anything about the characters’ back story or personality? Does it give details to the setting or the people’s uncommon circumstances? (Whether that be supernatural rules, a look into the life of a drug dealer, or the type of cereal a billionaire eats.) Does it foreshadow future events? How much of the story is even told here?

Sometimes the scene just needs more reasons for existing. Adding humor is generally a quick fix, but it’ll backfire if someone catches you at it. Easy information is abnormal information. The problem may be that the scene and the characters are too typical – The character is just “normal” or a  stereotype. Giving them anything that makes them different, she is recovering from cancer, he has an addiction to chewing gum, is just the type of detail that can make the business meeting a little less dull.

Sometimes, all a writer has to do is smoosh sentences together; instead of having each give a little piece of the story, have less say more.

2. Constant conflict.

Both authors and readers get bored when there isn’t a clear direction that the story is going. True in life as well as fiction, when there is no conflict, there is no reason to change. When we are happy, we are stagnant.

Constant conflict is an easy fix. Easier said than it looks like, in fact. Why? Because the conflict doesn’t always have to do with the plot. Little things like Samwise stepping on Frodo’s heels (I’m adlibbing here) to Ron Weasley trying to fill a page worth of essay (true story) can give enough of a problem to be a background for the important editorializing.

The writer wants to fluctuate the intensity of problems and conflicts as he goes. With high stakes constantly leering, the reader is going to get tired and the writer will have nowhere to go from. But, when it comes to the opposite, too many little things, will not be taken seriously either. Conflict usually requires overlapping, so that when one problem is solved, giving a little satisfaction to the reader, there are still others that they want to see concluded.

This is one reason that many books and movies have duel plots inner twined. The characters seem to come to an end in one, they can be propelled by the other until they stumble upon a new lead for the other.

And when the author comes to a situation that everything seems good for the people, he knows that there needs to be something done about that. A big disaster can send things rolling again.

3. Opinionated narrators over unbiased narrators.

When I say “narrator” it does not necessarily mean an actual character. Narrator is the person who is telling the story, though it may never be discussed, hinted at, or even decided who that person is.

English class had taught us to be neutral observers when it comes to writing. We don’t want to use “I feel” or indicate that we are human.

There is a place for this sort of style, and it’s not that I am taking a stance against the neutral narrator. It can achieve goals and atmospheres that characterizing the speaker won’t. But, people do tend towards this tone, and unless the author has a specific reason to do it, there’s no point in that sort of heartache.

People like people. It’s why there aren’t books that are basically summaries. Our favorite shows, novels, and movies have our favorite characters; there are few that we like despite hating everyone. We like extreme emotions. We feel for the passionate.

In the book Misery, I did not feel as bad for Paul Sheldon when he got his foot sludge hammered or thumb cut off nearly as much as I did for Annie when she dropped the bottle of champagne she had been saving for a special occasion. In Little Shop of Horrors, the dentist pleading for help about brings me to tears, but when Seymour (in one version) charges in to be eaten, I was like, eh. Sympathy is different for each individual, but nothing leads people to cry more than people crying.

Having an opinion about the events, an interpretation of the descriptions, judgment about the characters, and just the simple explanation why the narrator cares makes people care.

I can describe a car or I can describe the beauty in the parking lot. I can tell you about a man or I can complain about a bastard. I can tell you what happened or I can explain what went wrong. In any case, there’s a reason gossip is more fun than the news.

4. Gloss over information and events we don’t care about.

It’s hard to tell what people will want to know and what they’ll be fascinated by. We’re all different and some of us have the strangest obsessions. If it were easy then there’d be no point in reading this article.

But, it’s not impossible to predict. Generally, if we trudge through a hard to read text and ask, does this deliver information that anyone cares about?

I recently read a short story about a kidnapping. Twenty pages of it and all I was interested in the “why.” But it began with a long introduction about the “how.” Though it had some foreshadowing events to it that benefited the question of why (the criminal cared about the child’s claustrophobia, helping my curiosity), the attack itself was obvious. Got a van, snatched and grabbed. In fact, at the end of the read, that’s all that I felt needed to be said about it.

I personally have the bad habit of prioritizing the duration of the moment over the importance and even over the interest. Ever since I watched The Lion King and they skipped throughout the whole of Simba’s life, I always hated cutting through large periods of time. Not only that, but I often want to give an indication of time taken.

There are times in which the writer wants to go into detail of each footstep and thought. There are many times in which he might want to just skip it. Though duration and importance of the moment are significant factors, the highest priority is if the reader is interested. If he doesn’t care, but it needs to be said, getting it out as quickly as possible should be the best way to go.

This seems too vague to be usable. But it’s a question that is easy to answer. Do I think my readers care about this? As long as you are honest with yourself, and don’t answer what you want to hear, you’re going to come up with a reason to cut it or keep it.

5. Not being predictable is different than being unpredictable.

We often have goals of being unpredictable and original. It is bad to make what people have seen before and true geniuses can diverge from the pack, see things in a different light, and don’t need to follow trends.

Except we can take it too far.

Something truly original would be unrelatable. Something perfectly unpredictable would be boring.

It is the job of the author not to just bewilder the reader. A writer gives enough information that they think they know where it is going, but leaves out enough for them not to be sure.

A common tactic is to start out a book without explaining the situation and hoping the reader will keep going until he understands it. But if he doesn’t understand what he doesn’t understand, and if he doesn’t think there will be an answer, he just won’t commit to it.

Similar to giving a child a challenge, if it is too easy she will be bored. If it is too hard, she will give up. The readers should have doubt as to outcome, but not only should they still be trying to predict what it’s going to be, but they should have an idea of what it would want to be.