As I’ve said before, writing is hard. I’m working on a story right now and I find myself struggling—struggling to write, and struggling to take my own advice on writing. I mean, can’t I just nap? Of course I can! But then I won’t have a book. So…I guess I’ll keep writing.

I’m putting this post in the middle of the series of posts on structure because I find the middle is where I fumble the most, though obviously you can use these ideas at any place in your story. If you’re struggling with a scene, consider some of the points noted below. If you’ve finished your first (or second, or third) draft and you’re going back to read through, keep these ideas in the back of your mind to see if you can’t tighten things up a little as you’re editing.

If you pay attention as you’re reading or watching movies or being told any type of story, you’ll notice that Act Two tends to be where things go off track. How many times have you had a story start with an amazing intro and then just kind of falter as the writer tries to navigate the murky waters of their plot? One of the issues I notice most is that things drag on too long, like the writer is buying time as they figure things out. They have an awesome concept, they get the opening on the page, then around page forty things start to stall out. That’s totally normal (for me, anyway), so you keep plugging along, trusting that your great idea will shine true in the end and you’ll go back and polish up or delete those unnecessary bits. All too often, however, it feels like maybe the writers plowed through the tricky parts, then, once they got it all sorted, instead of deleting those fumbling earlier pages, they left them in, because we wrote them and that took time and blood and sweat and tears and possibly some alcohol, so dammit, somebody has to read them. But if they don’t make your story better, they don’t need to be there. It’s like a builder leaving out patches of drywall so you can see the wooden beams and the wires and the insulation and know they did hard work. Readers (and homeowners) just want the finished product. It’s difficult to make that determination when you’re close to the material, but you’ll be a better writer if you’re able to look at your work critically and make the necessary cuts.

Some things to think about:

What is your Central Dramatic Question (CDQ)?

There are a few names for this, but the gist of it is the same. It’s basically the reason people will keep turning your pages. If someone goes missing on page one, the CDQ is where are they and what happened? Even if the book sucks, people will still flip to the end just to get that answer. (I just suffered through a book for this very reason.) In romance the question might be, When will they get together? When will they say I love you? When will he learn she secretly had his baby five years ago? When will she regain her memory and discover she’s fallen in love with her abductor? Your CDQ can be broad or specific, and it can adapt and change as your story progresses. In a book like The Hunger Games, for example, we know the story is about good triumphing over evil and that somehow, impossibly, Katniss will be instrumental in overthrowing the Capitol. The CDQ then is something broad like, How will she accomplish this despite overwhelming odds? Your CDQ can be anything, but people need to care about the answer, and you need to plant that seed early enough that they care quickly. In school we read the first 25 pages of a classmate’s script. It was well written and clear, but no one knew what the story was about. Why would we read page 26? What were we hoping for? As a result, we weren’t that invested in reading the remaining 75 pages. When he told us what the rest of the story was about we were totally interested—but he needed to hook us well before the 25% mark.

J.J. Abrams is known for the
“mystery box” approach. Just think about it literally: someone gives you a sealed box covered in questions marks—are you going to just ignore it? No, you need to know what’s in that box. Depending on the genre/type of story obviously the type of mystery box you use is different, but it’s impactful all the same. It’s like that mysterious door to the basement with an intricate lock you’re told not to open, or the letter from a dead relative that you can’t open for ten years…you have to know what’s inside, and you’ll stick around until you get answers.

In Undecided, I started by revealing the “reveal” right away: the heroine, Nora, had sex with the hero’s best friend last year at a party, but the best friend doesn’t remember it (and the hero doesn't know about it at all). You know the truth is going to come out eventually, but the CDQ is the when and how. The tension builds as the romantic relationship develops and the stakes get higher. The CDQ makes people want to know how your story ends.

Keeping It Interesting

This is hard to do because it’s so subjective. Opinions and tastes vary, so you have to trust your gut and look at the response you’re getting. If you send your MS to five people for feedback and four say the middle drags and the fifth says it’s the greatest thing she’s ever read (and is your mom), you have take a second look at the middle. Ask the readers some questions. Where did they start to get bored? Why? Was it repetitive? Unexciting? Did the scenes take too long to get started? A good rule of thumb for approaching your scenes is how cool people approach parties: show up late and leave early.

When I was at film school we had a really obnoxious instructor for our Dialogue class. He did a lot of annoying things, but one helpful thing he did when not promoting his book of short stories was tell us to read our scenes backwards. This is a little easier when you’re working with a script and not straight prose, but give it a shot, reading the dialogue from end to beginning. The inclination for a lot of people is to write a scene as it might occur in real life. If you think your best friend stole your dog, maybe you wouldn’t show up at their door and declare, “I know you stole Fuzie, now give her back!” (That was my actual dog’s name. My sister picked it. Don’t get me started.) You might have the character show up, make small talk, accept a drink, comment on the bag of stock bones defrosting in the sink, come up with an excuse to use the bathroom…and bore your readers. I know what you’re thinking—but that builds tension! It only builds tension if the stakes are there. Like, if she’s in the house of a known murderer. But put yourself in the reader’s shoes: if we know she’s going there for the dog, just get the dog already.

For example, in this Dialogue class we had to write a short scene about whatever we wanted to. Mine was three women at a friend’s funeral. They were snarky and entitled, but they offered the expected platitudes for two pages until finally they were like, “I’m glad she’s dead!” I thought this was a great reveal, but what it really meant is that 66% of what I’d written was filler. We read the scene backward and it started with a bang: “I’m glad she’s dead!” and then it petered out because, well, the rest wasn’t essential. If (and when) I restarted with that line, the rest of the scene had much more dynamic.

Now, if your character shows up at a party, is bored senseless for an hour, and then the super hot guy from gym class shows up? You don’t have to say she got to the party and the guy showed up right after. Try giving yourself a maximum of two or three sentences to sum up the boredom—and not run-on sentences, either—and then get to the action. The past sixty minutes had been the longest of her life. Warm beer, a droning conversation about the seventy-first season of The Bachelor, and one not-so-accidental boob grab later, she was ready to go home. Then the door opened.

The Rule of Three

If you’re setting up something—a joke, a reveal, character development, whatever—you get three chances. You can call back a joke three times, you can drop two hints then give us the answer, but any more than that is boring and annoying. It’s an actual rule and if you don’t know the saying, “Prove you know the rules before you break them,” you do now.

For example, in Undecided I wanted to show that Crosbie’s feelings and respect for Nora had developed throughout the book. One: At the beginning they’re in a restaurant and a group of girls passes by and invites Crosbie to join them. He says goodbye to Nora and joins the girls. Two: In the middle of the story they’re talking in a store when two girls approach and make small talk. Crosbie chats with them for a moment, then says goodbye and returns his attention to Nora. Three: They’re in a coffee shop when a few girls greet him and Crosbie simply waves hello and doesn’t interrupt the conversation with Nora. There’s no need to have Nora think, “Wow, it’s nice that Crosbie has stopped abandoning me mid-conversation!” because I’ve shown it. And because that same scenario changes each time, it’s not irritating or repetitive.

You might have a running joke in your book—someone always bangs into drawers, for example. (Actually, now that I write that I think that’s an example from the Tina Fey movie Date Night.) In the movie they’re at home and Tina bangs her knee on a drawer her husband has left open. It makes her angry, but she says nothing. Later when they’re escaping bad guys, she bangs her knee on another drawer he left open, and she’s like, Seriously!? Even now?! Then later he closes the drawers. Progress.

I read a hugely popular book a while ago that did not use the rule of three, and I think it suffered for it. The heroine tries to distract herself from being attracted to the hero by thinking of poo and pee. She repeats the words in her head when she thinks about him. It’s not my personal favourite thing, but I get it. And then I got it again…and again…and again…and again…and again… I lost count. The book has a billion reviews, but I read some of the most glowing reviews and even they mentioned the constant repetition of that gag got tiresome. Three times would have made the point and been plenty. Now it’s a distraction.

You can use the rule of three for a scare factor, too, just make sure (in all instances) that the situation is escalating. For example, if someone finds a threatening note on her car at the mall, that’s scary. It’s even scarier when the next note is pinned to her front door. Even scarier when it’s on her pillow then the killer jumps out of the closet and we’re all terrified. But nine notes? I mean, they’d better be pretty freaking scary if I have to read all nine.

If you’ve got the equivalent of nine notes in your story, consider which of the three are the best—the scariest, the funniest, the smartest—and cut the rest. Get a second opinion. If they’re so super great that it breaks your heart to lose them, save them for another project. But odds are? They’re just the building blocks for your best “notes” and you don’t need them anymore. Give the reader your very best all the time, and leave the rest on the cutting room floor with your tears.

Keep Up the Pace

I’ve learned that when I don’t quite know where I’m going in a story, the scenes get longer. They get more detailed. They get more boring. Because I’m guilty of it, I can smell this guilt on other people, and I’ve abandoned more than a few books because of it. Maybe writing all those details helped you, but if the point of a scene is that someone goes downstairs, do we really need a whole paragraph about it? Just say they went downstairs. My first-ever (unpublished) book is 140,000 words. This is because I attributed writing a lot of words to writing a good book. That’s not the same thing at all. It’s unwieldy and only got one request eight years ago, for which I am still awaiting a reply.

So how do you keep up the pace? Take a look at the details. Are you giving me the details that are necessary? There’s setting up a scene and atmosphere, then there’s filler. Try to recognize the difference. I once read a script from a friend who listed every item on a detective’s cluttered desk. I thought, surely he wouldn’t include all this information if it didn’t pay off, right? Well, it didn’t. He was just describing the desk. For frick’s sake. Say it’s cluttered. Mention he has a mug that says #1 Dad so we know he’s a father. Then cut the rest.

Combine Scenes

Combining scenes is probably the number one way to keep things going. It will also make your scenes more interesting, because there will be more things going on. I gave an example previously about a woman buying groceries who wanted to hire a hitman to kill her husband. Instead of a scene where she buys groceries then goes home and makes the phone call, why not have her make the call at the store? It would be super unnerving to see her comparing the price of green beans as she plots a murder.

Your hero has a big job interview and his long-distance girlfriend wants to surprise him with phone sex? We don’t have to see the interview then watch him go home, shower, watch football, then get a phone call. What if she called while he was nervously waiting in the office for the interviewer to arrive? Tension, humour, and shenanigans, that’s what.

If you have a scenes that accomplish only one goal, ask yourself what else they could be doing. They can be funny or ironic or tense, but if every scene you write has purpose and impact, the more scenes people will want to read.

Scenes versus Vignettes

This is something I wasn’t at all aware of when I first started writing. I think because I came from a background of writing scripts, I viewed the scenes in my books much as you’d watch a movie, which meant I would write a scene in a bedroom, someone would say, “I’m hungry,” then I’d start a new scene in the kitchen. This resulted in a lot of one-page scenes that made the story feel choppy. I’m hyper aware of this now and notice it in a lot of books. The fix felt overwhelming but was actually very simple: just tie the scenes together. “I’m hungry," she said, then headed downstairs to the kitchen where John and Martin were bickering about hockey stats.

Pay attention to this when you’re reading. How does an author get from one scene to the next without a scene break? The occasional short scene can provide impact or emphasis or tension—you’ll see it a lot in the climax of action-packed books—but without a solid intention, it’s distracting and interrupts the flow of your story.

More posts to come as I find ideas, time, and inspiration, but in the meantime, keep writing! That’s what I’ll be doing.




September 10, 2016

Keep Me in Mind...

On Writing