Friday, February 17, 2017

Scene versus Summary--Which to Use for What Effect

I like picking up what I call "airport reads," just to see what's up in commercial fiction.  Airport reads are those books that airport bookstalls buy, thinking they'll take travelers' minds off flying.  It's a big coup to get your book in an airport bookstall, and over the years, I've seen more serious fiction arrive on those shelves.


Recently, I got a copy of JoJo Moyes' new book, After You.  Her novel, Me before You, a story of a woman caretaker for a paraplegic who helps him with assisted suicide, was made into a movie, and I enjoyed it a lot--good characters, tense situation.  Moyes is a master wordsmith, expertly pacing her stories.  After You is the sequel, as you may have imagined, and it also starts with a bang--the main character falls off a roof and has to return home to her parents while she heals.

This is an airport read, so it's not deep, but it's entertaining.  I started the novel one night before bed and stayed up later than I wanted, unable to stop reading the first two chapters, enjoying the dialogue, the expert delivery of character, the pacing. 

Then I hit the third chapter.  Hmmmm, I thought, it almost felt like it was written by another author.  Slow, heavy with backstory, the interrelationships not as deftly shown on the page.

I needed my sleep so I put it aside.  Tried to pick it up the next night, got through chapter 3, but I haven't wanted to go back to it since.

I spoke with a friend who'd read it.  "It's a good story, worth reading," she said, "but I also noticed a slow down after those opening chapters."

The writing teacher (and writer) in me got intrigued. 

So this week, I spent some time studying the structure.  The most obvious element I noticed was that chapters 1 and 2 were mostly scene.  They had a brisk pace, lots of tension, lively dialogue, and specific settings.  Chapter 3 was mostly summary.  Lots of backstory, not much happening, a good deal of the chapter presented as thoughts and feelings.  Very slow stuff.

A basic difference between scene and summary.

One of my writing students had asked about scene and summary in class this week, so perfect timing.  My research would come in handy.

Basic definitions of scene and summary:

Scene:  includes specific location, characters moving around onstage (movement), and dialogue.  There's tension, things are happening.  Usually doesn't include much backstory or time passing.

Summary:  can span many locations, events are often condensed or summarized, lack of movement onstage, not much tension.  Often includes backstory.  

Effect on the reader:  Scene promotes tension and movement, a faster pace.  Summary is like a pause to absorb, reflect.

When to use either:  If you want tension, use scene.  If you want the reader to pause, use summary.

It's not that I'm a scene junkie.  I like well-written summary as much as the next reader.   But placement is everything.  When Moyes chose summary for her third chapter, as a reader I was stalled out.  I still needed the build of tension before all that summarized backstory got thrown in.  It might have worked in smaller doses, along with scenes.  It might have worked in a later chapter.  As it is, I'm probably going to drag myself back to the book and work through my resistance as a reader, but I'm also going to look at my own (and my students') scene/summary balance much more carefully. 

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
See if you can identify scene and summary in a piece of published writing.  Then ask yourself how it comes across to you as a reader.  Finally, where has the author placed it, in the book?  Is it appropriate to that spot?

Then look at one of your own beginning chapters.  Do a careful scan for summarized sections and get ruthless:  Do you really need them, just here?  Would they be better used later, in smaller bits, or not at all?  

Friday, February 10, 2017

False Agreements and How They Drive Characters in Your Fiction or Memoir


What I call the "inner story" in fiction or memoir just refers to the transformation of a character or narrator through a series of outer events.  It's pretty simple, but its success depends on something called "false agreements."  Without this transformation, and the false agreements that propel it, a story is just a list of crises.   Readers want to witness growth.
Transformation doesn't just occur, right?  It usually happens from a series of events that create change.  To make each change real for the reader, we have to consider where the character's journey starts.  Usually, there is something they don't fully understand.  Something they are challenged by.
I like to look at this as a kind of agreement.  The character decides something is true--even if it isn't--and agrees to operate as if it is.  As the story goes along, the writer challenges this belief, conviction, desire or hope or fear, this agreement with self, another, or situation, and slowly proves it false.  

At the beginning, the false agreement might be quite intact.  As the story goes along, each event breaks down this agreement.  By the end, even the character must see that it's not real.  By the end, there is a new realization.

What are some false agreements in story?

In Janet Fitch's novel White Oleander, the false agreement is that the narrator, a teenage girl, believes she can help her mother stay out of danger.  This proves false when the mother decides to kill her boyfriend and ends up in prison, abandoning her daughter.

In Jeanette Walls's memoir The Glass Castle, the false agreement is that the narrator, a young girl, believes that her crazy family is eccentric but normal.  This falls apart as the parents take more risks and put the girl in danger. 
 

In Lief Enger's novel Peace Like a River, the false agreement is that justice can prevail--when a young girl is attacked by boys in town and her brother defends her, his family can bring him back into the family.  Proven false when the brother runs away and aligns with a serial killer.

A false agreement will always be revealed as false by the end of the book.  It may be accepted, then denied, then accepted again during the story--humans rarely travel a straight line in growth--but it is exposed by the end for what it is.  Even if the character ends up in permanent denial, the reader has seen the agreement as fully false.
Your Weekly Writing Exercise:  How to Set Up a False Agreement in Your Story
Understanding a false agreement means really knowing your character.  If you didn't get a sense of the false agreement last week, here are some next steps. 

Most writers start by describing the status quo that the story starts with.  What does everybody put up with, to get along?  What are the accepted beliefs?   

Some examples of false agreements from different books I've read lately:
1.  If I'm good enough, nothing bad will happen.
2.  If I protect my sister, she won't be abused.
3.  If I go there in person, I can find the truth.
4.  If I keep silent, nobody will get hurt.

There are hundreds of possibilities, and yours will be unique.  The "hook" of your story starts from this false agreement.  Because something will happen to immediately cast doubt over this false agreement, right? That's what launches your story.

Once you have your false agreement sketched out (spend 15-20 minutes freewriting on what it could be), your next step is to chart how that agreement will get busted up.

In all stories, there are small and large epiphanies where the character gradually realizes the agreement may not be all it's cracked up to be. Maybe a hint of that is early in the story, within the first third.  It can be a small epiphany, or turning point. 

But the character often perseveres and tries to keep the false agreement going.  Then there's a bigger event that cracks it even more:  often, at this point, the character decides not to take this #%$$ anymore and reinvents themselves or gets new help or new clues.  This might happen midway through the story. 

There's is often a revision of the false agreement, a new false agreement, if you will, that is closer to the truth but not quite it. (Why?  Because you still have half the story to get through, and false agreements create the conflict that drives the character.  So you don't want to get rid of the false agreement entirely, not yet.)

Usually, near the end of the story, the smaller epiphanies result in a major one.  At this point, the character sees truth. 

They become different, fundamentally.  And they make changes that really show how far they have come since the start of the story.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Andre Dubus on Writing Memoir--A Podcast from Brevity


I admire Andre Dubus's writing, both his fiction (House of Sand and Fog) and his memoir (Townie).  This week, as I return from teaching in Tucson, instead of a lengthy post, I'm going to keep it short--and share an excellent podcast with Dubus, shared by one of the writers at my retreat.

Although the podcast is specifically about memoir, and whether a writer must live a dramatic life in order to write it, his comments can be helpful to writers from all genres.

Here's the link to Brevity magazine, which published the podcast. 
Enjoy!