Once upon a time I decided to learn to write novels. I discovered that there were a lot of “how to write” books out there that weren’t all that helpful. When I discovered two books by Nancy Kress, however, I began to wrap my brain around the process.
I reviewed both books for Vision: A Resource for Writers in 2008. Here’s my review of Beginnings, Middles, and Ends and here’s my review of Characters, Emotions, & Viewpoint.So you can imagine my delight when I discovered that Nancy Kress would be the presenter of the Early Bird Session at the 2012 ACFW conference. Early Bird is a course from 4-6 hours long that takes place just before the conference proper begins. It’s optional (short hand for “costs extra”) but worth while. (I’ve also attended EBs with agent Donald Maass and author James Scott Bell.)
Nancy Kress spoke about Writing in Scenes–not a new concept for many writers, yet worthy of a refresher course. Each scene, Nancy reminded us, has a purpose of its own: either to advance the plot, deepen characterizations, or fill in back story. It’s best, of course, if a scene can hit at least 2 of 3.
Each scene also has a shape of its own–a beginning, a middle, and an end–and contains the following elements: good dialogue (easy on the dialect!), good interwoven description (consisting of specific, concrete words), thoughts, action, and exposition, which is telling and should be used lightly. Dramatization–showing–is the heart of a good scene.
The first scene, of course, is the most important. Nancy urged us to get two characters on stage asap, engaged in both action and dialogue. “It is more important to be interesting than to be clear,” she said. “Clear can happen later.”
None of this was revolutionary, perhaps because I’ve read her books several times. What I did appreciate was that this was a writing workshop, meaning we worked. To add to the fun, 3-5 volunteers read out their exercises at the close of every section.
The first was dialogue only. No tags, no action, no thoughts, no description, and certainly no exposition. I don’t recall specifically what the parameters of the exercise were, other than the two were to be in disagreement.
I chose Spencer and his Great-Uncle Howard from a proposal I submitted earlier this summer. Howard thinks it’s high time that young buck gets himself a wife. Spencer is in no hurry. So that was a fun bit of dialogue to write, but very difficult to add nothing to it!
For the second exercise, the room was divided in two. Half were to write a description of the space from a positive, happy viewpoint, while the other half were to look at it negatively. I wrote (rough draft alert, folks!):
The cavernous space stretched out, air chilly and still. A dark ceiling hung overhead, threatening to crash down and bring the pipes and fixtures with it, but held at bay by thick columns. Off-white columns bulky enough for someone to hide behind, and the thin carpet underfoot enough to muffle their footsteps. A few meager spotlights tried to push back the darkness, but did not quite succeed. The space expanded to a distant black curtain. What lay behind it, besides more hiding places? An escape route, most likely.
For the third exercise, we were given the following scenario: An old woman on a bus sees 3 teen girls, talking, laughing, texting, etc. Then we each wrote 3 sentences only of the old woman’s thoughts.
Just like she and Lizzie and Sophie years ago, a strand of three that should never have been broken. Once innocent and sweet, then bitter dissension. Regret clawed at her throat.
The fourth exercise took us back to the dialogue piece. We were now to choose which character’s point-of-view the scene would be in, and fill in around the dialogue. I found myself wanting to change bits of the conversation to better match the “surround” but of course that was against the rules! Turns out the conversation happened around coffee, which almost became a metaphor to the snippet, which I wrote from the great-uncle’s pov for the simple reason that he doesn’t get his own pov in the planned novel.
The fifth exercise was to craft an engaging first line for the above scene, as though it were the first line in the novel.
Folks didn’t brew real coffee any more–or raise real men–the way they had back in Howard’s day.
There was another half hour to the class, but at this time my volunteer stint at the registration desk began. I hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse inside “Writing in Scenes.”
Bonnie R. Schutzman says
Nice review. I’d read the book with that opening line 🙂
Aw, thanks! It was a fun workshop. 🙂
Cathy Bryant says
Thanks for sharing. I’ve devoured two of her books and loved them. Great opening line!!! =)
Did you read the same two I had? I’m glad to hear they were a practical help to others, too. Thanks for liking my opening line!
Yeah, I think you need to do a short story with Howard’s POV as a teaser once your novel sells :).
Me, I think you should write the story of the woman on the bus. You’ve got a good ear for character stories and it could be easily framed with this moment and her reconnecting :).
Aw, thanks, Mar! I’ll keep that in mind.