Reading as a writer: Deconstructing a scene

image of the book Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen and a filled in scene deconstruction worksheet

This summer my wonderful local book store, A Good Book in Sumner, Wa, not only had a Summer Reading Bingo card, but came up with a Bingo card for writers as well. It looked daunting at first with squares like: Write your manifesto (turn your excuses upside down); Write seven days in a row; and Finish Something; but the more I worked on it, the more inspired I was to continue.

One of the final squares on my card before I got my blackout was, “Deconstruct a Scene.” The instructions were to read a scene from your favorite book/author and find what makes it work. I picked out scenes from different authors I enjoy and put the books on my desk with the scenes I’d chosen dutifully marked, but kept moving on to other squares of the Bingo card. Finally, I searched the internet to see if there were any forms or worksheets out there to guide me through the process of deconstructing a scene. I didn’t find what I was looking for, so I went to work creating my own.

I had recently attended my first meeting at the Pacific Northwest Writers Association (PNWA) cottage. I’ve been a member for years, but only watched some meetings online. I’m glad I went. Pam Binder gave a presentation on critique groups and created a hand- out with her ideas of how to evaluate a scene that were helpful. I also incorporated ideas from Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (8th Edition) by Janet Burroway, Elizabeth Stuckey-French and Ned Stuckey-French and The Twelve Questions in Frencesca Block’s The Thorn Necklace: Healing Through Writing and the Creative Process.

Deconstructing a scene

Evaluating a scene is similar to evaluating an entire story. A scene encompasses the same elements:

  • The point of view(POV) character, in a specific setting, wants something
  • Something or someone stops them from reaching that goal
  • This leads to crisis
  • Which leads to reflection and/or insight
  • Causing the POV character to change and/or come up with a new goal

The point of deconstructing scenes by authors you admire is to look for the techniques they use to make a scene stick with you. You want to identify the choices they make that appear so effortless and keep you reading like:

  • How do the characters express emotion?
  • What invoked emotion in you the reader?
  • Did something surprise you? Why? How?
  • What kept you turning pages?
  • Was there a hook at the end of the scene?

The Worksheet

I tested my worksheet on a scene from Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen. I chose this for my exercise because my current work in progress (I finished the first draft two days ago. YAY!) is in that vein: A murder mystery that brings a lot of eccentric characters into wild situations. The scene I chose did not specifically fit the scene and sequel structure, and I realized this by using my worksheet. I also discovered a technique to show emotion that I liked and may use in the future.

Filling out the worksheet didn’t take as long as I thought it would and the insight gleaned from filling it out was well worth the effort. The great thing about this Scene Deconstruction Worksheet is not only can I use it to read as a writer, but I can use it to evaluate my own scenes.

You can get a copy of my worksheet to use in your own reading and writing by signing up for my newsletter.

I want it button

When you do, you will receive a link to the file and a special message from me about once a month.

I hope that you will use this worksheet and find it as informative as I have.

Happy Reading and Writing!

 

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B is for Banausic and Bickham – Craft Book Review: Jack M. Bickham Double Feature

banausic beauty

banausic: adjective – relating to or concerned with earning a living; utilitarian; mechanical; practical. Not operating on a refined or elevated level; mundane.

Why Stand By?

I heard a scuffle on the sidewalk below
You put down your glass and walked to the window
She saw a hussy in a public embrace
He saw a man gettin’ his
We heard her scream
They turned back to the TV

I grabbed your glass and brought it to the window
You took a sip and poked your head out
She yelled, “Let that woman go.”
He finally called the police
We watched and waited
They turned off the lights

They were too late
We took one last look at the body
She had bled out
He was never found
You refilled your glass
I contemplated banausic windows

Today’s NaPoWriMo theme was the I, or the speaker of the poem. I thought it tied in well with witness testimony which I am studying in an online forensic psychology class through futurelearn.com

I also found inspiration in National Book Award Winner Lighthead: Poems (Penguin Poets) by Terrance Hayes, especially “Lighthead’s Guide To Addiction” and “Satchmo Returns To New Orleans.”

tools of physical labor

Craft Book Review

I first came across Jack M. Bickham‘s name while reading Crafting Dynamic Dialogue: The Complete Guide to Speaking, Conversing, Arguing, and Thinking in Fiction (Creative Writing Essentials) from the editors of Writer’s Digest. His book Writing novels that sell was mentioned in a section called Parent-Adult-Child which talked about three primary roles people/characters occupy in life.

My local library didn’t have that book, but did have Scene & Structure (Elements of Fiction Writing) and Setting (Elements of Fiction Writing), so I picked them up instead. They are both part of a series called Elements of Fiction Writing 5 Volume Set (Beginnings, Middles & Ends – Description – Setting – Characters & Viewpoint – Scene & Structure)

Setting

My Expectations: A while back in a critique meet-up, I  heard people talking about active setting. I hadn’t read A Writer’s Guide to Active Setting: How to Enhance Your Fiction with More Descriptive, Dynamic Settings by Mary Buckham yet, so I still wasn’t clear what sort of magic made setting active and hoped this book might clear that up.

Intended Audience:
All fiction writers, but it may be a little advanced for early beginners.

What I liked: It was fun to learn about setting from the man who wrote Twister which  has a vibrant setting and uses setting (weather) as a character. Not only did this book answer my questions about active setting, it inspired me, through straight-forward exercises, to think about setting differently in my novel. This book really clicked for me and helped me understand aspects of setting that I hadn’t thought of before.

What I didn’t like: The writing is very dense. Though the book isn’t very thick, it’s a slow read. Definitely worth it because I really felt aha! moments, but it felt like mining through thick stone to get to the gold.

Rating: ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ 4/5 I recommend this book.

Scene & Structure

 My Expectations: Because I had such a good experience with Setting (Elements of Fiction Writing), I had high expectations for this book. I looked forward to seeing what sort of clarity Mr. Bickham could bring to my understanding of plot.

Intended Audience: Writers of fiction. Perhaps most useful to someone planning a novel. Though I plan to use his order of component segments of scene and sequel to evaluate my scenes during revision.

What I liked: This book did not disappoint. Mr. Bickham’s presentation and explanation of scene and sequel were eye-opening and gave me lots of ideas to evaluate and improve my draft.

What I didn’t like: This book, even more than setting, felt like a lot of reading for the amount of useful information. However, the information is so useful, that it makes it completely worthwhile.

Rating: ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦  4/5  I recommend this book.

 

Happy Reading and Writing!

I’ll see you tomorrow.

Great News for Writers and Anyone Who Wants to Write!

No longer CohesiveSometimes things just go right. And when that happens, I get excited and want to share.

I got struck by the spring cleaning bug and in my sorting and tossing, I found a copy of Writer’s Digest that was part of the swag from an author meet I went to last year. Inside was an interesting article on planning your own writing retreat. I liked Steve Holt’s ideas, especially his daily schedule that broke up writing around meditation and exercise.

Believing that I can convince myself that I live in an ideal setting for a writing retreat, I started my retreat this morning and what did I see when I checked my email? Future Learn’s free eight-week fiction course started today. The timing couldn’t be better (except for the fact that I was so excited, I’ve already started week two).

The trouble I’m having in my writing has nothing to do with writer’s block. It is more about bringing new ideas to my table. I know what I want to accomplish with my novel, but an interesting story isn’t enough. Now, I have to make every page interesting, every sentence interesting, every word exactly what I want. And a lot of me wants to run. But I can’t. I have a deadline.

So, why would I take on a fiction class during my retreat? Because within just a few hours, I was inspired to write some interesting paragraphs I wouldn’t have written otherwise. The exercises were harder than I expected them to be. I over-thought them, but that was the thought I needed to write a section of a short story I’ve been thinking about for a couple of years. And I invented three unique character sketches.

What does this have to do with finishing my novel? Each thing I wrote today helped me stretch my imagination and improve my observational skills. You can always build on a strong foundation, so I want everyone to give themselves the gift of free education. The course is self-paced and you don’t have to do it as an eight week course though I personally am going to try to make it last so I can keep the inspiration going over my Spring Retreat.

Happy Reading and Writing!

 

 

A Happy Discovery – Free Indirect Discourse: I Was Already Using It, But Now I Know When and How to Use It Correctly

Write Like the Masters by William CaneI first saw the term Free Indirect Discourse while reading the chapter on Flannery O’Connor in Write Like The Masters by William Cane. Cane describes Free Indirect Discourse (FID) as “A popular technique with good writers, FID involves narrating a scene in language that contains some elements from the lexicon of one of the characters (Cane sites Rimmon-Kenan 1983).” He also writes “A helpful way to think of it is to conceptualize FID as narration tinged or colored with the voice of one of the characters.”

I didn’t completely understand the concept until I read this passage from Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away:

The room was lined with automobile tires and had a concrete and rubber smell. Meeks took the machine in two parts and held one part to his head while he circled with his finger on the other part. Then he sat waiting, swinging his foot, while the horn buzzed in his ear. After a minute an acid smile began to eat at the corners of his mouth and he said, drawing in his breath, “Heythere, Sugar, hyer you?” and Tarwater, from where he stood in the door, heard an actual woman’s voice, like one coming from beyond the grave, say, “Why Sugar, is that reely you?” and Meeks said it was him in the same old flesh and made an appointment with her in ten minutes.

Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away

This passage describes a telephone from the perspective of a character who has never seen one before. A more distant third person narrator may have said, “Meeks stopped at a gas station to use the phone. Tarwater had never seen anyone act so strangely, talking into a box like that.” O’Connor draws the reader into the mind of the young man experiencing the machine through observing its use.

Free Indirect Discourse is a type of third person point of view (POV) that allows a minimal psychological distance between the reader and the character. In other words it lets the reader inside the character’s head. There are two other forms of discourse in third person POV: direct discourse and indirect discourse. Direct discourse (or quoted speech or direct speech) is the same as dialogue, something stated out-loud by the character and written in quotation marks. Indirect discourse (reported speech) tells the reader what a character said or thought without quotation marks and using a reporting verb like she said or he thought.

Examples:

Direct Discourse

“It’s a lot more than that,” Jerry said. “If it works out, you could get everything you need and make some money too.”

“I’m intrigued. It sounds too good to be true,” Rick said.

Indirect Discourse

Jerry told him it was a lot more than that. If it worked out, he could get everything he needed and make some money too. Rick told Jerry he was intrigued, but it sounded to good to be true.

Free Indirect Discourse

Jerry’s proposition was intriguing. Could he get everything he needed and make some money too? It sounded too good to be true.

As a writing exercise, I recommend creating examples like those above, first, starting with dialogue and trying to change it to the other two forms of discourse and then, starting with FID and trying to turn it into the other two kinds of discourse. I found it to be trickier than I expected.

For me, discovering FID cleared up the question: do I put my characters’ thoughts in italics or in quotes? I now believe the answer is neither as long as I am using free indirect discourse correctly.

If you would like more information about free indirect discourse, I found these posts interesting and informative:

http://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/2013/09/free-indirect-style-what-it-is-and-how-to-use-it.html

http://jeffchapmanwriter.blogspot.com/2010/06/free-indirect-discourse.html

http://blog.karenwoodward.org/2014/04/free-indirect-discourse-how-to-create-a-window-into-character-soul.html

Once I understood free indirect discourse, I went on the hunt for it in my work in progress. My novel is a psychological thriller told from the perspective of each of its three main characters, so, it turns out, my novel is full of FID.

Here’s a jog through B’s mind:

She wasn’t afraid of snakes. They fascinated her from a young age. She loved to draw their beautiful colors and patterns. She remembered spending hours in the snake habitat at the zoo watching their tongues flicking in and out as she imagined seeing the world through tasting her environment. Talk about an oral fixation.  She attempted to emulate the way pieces of their bodies expanded and contracted to propel them forward by wriggling on her carpet, that old shag carpet that shed fuzz right up her nose and made her sneeze.  Mom helped her create a really cool Medusa costume in sixth grade by sticking wires through a ton of rubber snakes and hooking them into a cheap wig.

And here’s a moment in R’s:

“Of course, silly. I’m a regular.” She smiled and scrunched up half her face. She probably thought she was winking.

That sounded like the brush off. She wasn’t going to give him a number and tell him to call her, so he wasn’t going to ask. She would let him find her here in this dive, if she wasn’t hooking a bigger fish on the line. Fine. He had mastered that game long ago.

Were you able to identify the different kinds of discourse? Do you feel like you got inside the character’s heads? Did they feel like two very different views of the world? I hope so. Have you found places in your own writing where you used FID, or places where you could improve your writing by using FID? I would love to hear about it in the comments.

I hope you also find the discovery of free indirect discourse fun and exciting (for some reason knowing the style had a name was very exciting for me). Happy Writing.

Part Two The Worrying Wave of Weak Verbs: a cautionary tale of the murderous search for to be, to have, to do, to get, to go and to make

Action verbs

He went down the slide.
He slid. He zipped. He whooshed!

In my last post, I shared an amazing discovery, a  little book full of helpful tips called The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier by Bonnie Trenga. At the end of exploring Chapter Seven, you’ll recall I encountered a “there was” problem in my manuscript. After my battle with “there was”, I moved on to Chapter Four: The Delicious Drama of the Weak Verb. Finding specific verbs is important, interesting and sometimes fun, but I didn’t find it delicious.

In Bonnie Trenga’s words:

“Weak verbs are everyday, normal verbs we use all the time. However, they’re often repetitive, passive, wordy, or too general. These verbs frequently fail to clarify the action, and they make readers work too hard.”

Which verb does she start with? You guessed it, our friend “to be”. Along with the battle of “there was” that we discussed last time, she also mentions “it was” and “this was”. Because “there was” introduced me to my worrying workload of weak writing, I won’t linger on “to be”, but introduce you to the other worrying weak verbs and how I began to weed them out.

action verbs

He got up the rock wall.
He climbed. He hauled himself up. He tested his upper body strength.

As the title of this post suggests, other weak verbs include: to do, to get, to go, to have and to make (Trenga also suggests to occur and to use). Because my manuscript is written in past tense, I started my search for the past tense of each verb: did, got, went, had and made. When I typed “did” into the find bar in Word an astounding, heart-breaking 826 instances came back. However, a friend and fellow writer, Sherri Ann DeLost offered a very helpful tip: when typing a word into find type a space before and after it, so the results only include the word not the letters within another word (such as candid). This made a large difference bringing my did count down to a reasonable 180 or so (though many “didn’t”s may still need to be dealt with).

After seeing the staggering number of verbs in need of more specific replacements, I decided I needed lists of specific action verbs at the ready. I started with my thesaurus and found some replacements.

Did: acted, performed, achieved, executed, completed, concluded, determined, ended

Had: kept, controlled, enjoyed, held, owned, possessed, retained, included, contained

Got: acquired, gained, obtained, took, received, knew, bought, gathered, understood

Went: moved, exited, left, retired, escaped, traveled, ran, walked, passed, wended

Made: initiated, originated, started, created, produced, shaped, formed, crafted, built, constructed, fixed, readied

These are only a few examples of the words I found, but I didn’t feel like I had enough replacement verbs, so I searched online. I printed out these three lists:

http://www.westga.edu/~rmcrae/FYW/Awesome-Action-Verbs.pdf

http://www.cvisual.com/film-techniques/writer-action-verb-list.pdf

http://cdn.writershelpingwriters.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Active-Verbs-List.pdf

and here are some other lists you may find useful:

http://www.fourcornerslearning.org/TechTips/Resources/Action%20Verbs.pdf

http://www.wellesley.edu/sites/default/files/assets/departments/cws/files/complete_list_of_action_verbs.pdf

http://www.owlnet.rice.edu/~cainproj/writingtips/preciseverbs.html

http://www.momswhothink.com/reading/list-of-verbs.html#verbs%20list

I created a key: D=did, H=had, W=went, G=got and M=made and scoured my lists, writing the correlating letter or letters next to the strong verb that could replace the weak verb.

With all of these active, descriptive, precise verbs at the ready, was I prepared to attack my weak verbs? Some of them.

Here’s an example from my work in progress with the verb “got”:

“Ben grabbed a handsaw and got up on the step ladder while Anna attempted to twist the branch and tug at it to help it along.”

Ben grabbed a handsaw and climbed the step ladder while Anna attempted to twist the branch and coax it along.

I found stronger replacements for hundreds of  weak verbs, but I also found new issues. Many of these weak verbs were like parasites in symbiotic relationship with other words to create a different meaning than the replacement verbs I so obsessively collected. Example:

“Went back” led me to find as many words as I could for returned.

“Had to” led to must, needed, and wanted.

“Did his/her best” to = I don’t know. I’m still working on this one.

After I worked through each of the weak verbs, examining my sentences over and over again, I thought it would be fun to do a new word cloud of my manuscript to see if this exercise had changed my overused words. I was sure changing so many “went back”s would get “back” off of my list at least. If you haven’t read my earlier post about overused words, you can make your word cloud here. Sadly, “back” was still there, but more shocking was “make”. Hadn’t I just spent an entire day replacing make?

The answer was no. I had focused on the past tense of the weak verbs and, like “there was”, led to “there is”, and “there were”, I needed to search for each of the other weak verbs in all of their variations.

“Make” presents interesting challenges: “Make any sense”, “Make sure”, “Make it look like”, “Make this work”. At least one or two “make sure”s can become “ensure”. I would greatly appreciate other suggestions.

As you can see, verb choice presents unending challenges and sparks the neurons.

This week I will be reading my entire novel for content: plot, action, consistency, etc. I will also pay close attention to whether my verb choices have changed the distinctive voices of my characters. I tried to keep that in mind as I made changes, but I’ll only know for sure after I’ve looked at the big picture. Wish me luck.

Happy Writing!