Archive for video project

video project, writing

Scene and Sequel

One of the writing concepts I struggle with is the principle of Scene and Sequel. Jack Bickham has a whole book about it in the Writer’s Digest series of how-to books, and it also shows up in Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer, and in any number of other writing books and workshops.

The basic idea is that a novel is made up of a series of scenes and sequels. The scenes are the action part. A character has a goal and does something to try to achieve that goal but runs into conflict or opposition so that he has to try multiple approaches. The scene ends in some kind of disaster in which the character either definitively fails to reach the goal so that trying another approach won’t work, or he achieves it, but in a way that makes things worse for him. Either way, it throws the character off-balance so he has to regroup. Then there’s the sequel, which is the reaction part of the sequence. The character responds to the disaster, has a dilemma about what to do next, then makes a decision about his next step, which becomes the goal for the next scene.

When I read about this or hear someone speak about it in a workshop, it makes so much sense. Following this kind of structure ensures that there’s conflict and that the action drives from one scene to another. And then when I try to apply it to what I’m working on, that’s the part my editor or agent says needs to be cut. All that trying multiple approaches and ending in failure results in a bunch of extraneous scenes that keep the story from progressing.

At some point, the characters have to get what they want in order for the story to go anywhere. You wouldn’t want the detective in a mystery story to find the definitive clue to solve the case in the first scene of his investigation, but the story won’t go anywhere if his goal in a scene is to find a clue and he doesn’t find anything.

In my favorite story structure example, the original Star Wars, we’ve got a similar situation. Luke and Obi-Wan go into the cantina with the goal of finding a starship captain who’ll take them to Alderaan. There’s a bit of conflict — a bar fight and some negotiation with Han Solo — but the first pilot they talk to agrees to take them. If this had followed the “rules,” they would have failed to achieve their goal, and it would have ruined the movie because they’d have never left Tatooine. It would have been a movie about them trying and failing to find transportation while the Death Star was out there blowing up planets.

So, are all these writing gurus wrong about this, or was I misinterpreting it? Dwight Swain does refer to incidents and happenings, which are story fragments that aren’t technically scenes because they don’t have goals or conflicts. But in this cases, the characters do have a goal, and this scene is critical to the plot. The cantina scene isn’t just a filler moment to flesh out characters and relationships.

I finally figured out that maybe the problem is the terminology. I was thinking of a “scene” in theater terms. In a play, a scene is the part of the play that takes place in a particular location and time, and at the end of a scene, the stage goes dark and people wearing black run out and rearrange things to create a new setting or show that time has passed before the lights come on and the next scene begins. In a movie, it’s similar, but there may be a quick blink to black as a transition or, in Star Wars, a wipe transition. In a book, you get a blank line or a graphic item between scenes.

But I think in story structure terms, what they’re calling a scene isn’t the same thing. You could have multiple theater-type scenes in a story scene, or you could have multiple story scenes in a theater-type scene. Maybe there needs to be a different term for this to reduce the confusion, but I haven’t been able to think of anything.

So, looking at Star Wars again, I think I need to broaden the scope and back up a bit. The scene goal comes after Luke’s previous goal to just drop Obi-Wan off and go back home ends in the disaster of his uncle and aunt being killed. He tells Obi-Wan he’ll go with him to bring the droids to Alderaan, and that’s his new goal. Finding transportation is just one of the things they have to deal with along the way, along with avoiding Imperial entanglements. The disaster comes when they reach where Alderaan should be and it’s not there—which would certainly count as a definitive failure to reach their goal. Then they find themselves taken on board the space station whose plans they were taking to Alderaan, so it’s a big disaster. In response to that, they have to come up with a plan to escape. This “scene” has encompassed multiple theater-type scenes: the arrival in Mos Eisley, the scene in the cantina, the arrival at the docking bay, the escape from Tatooine, the lightsaber training and game on the ship, and the arrival at the ruins of Alderaan, and all this is braided around scenes taking place on the Death Star.

We still don’t have our heroes trying multiple approaches before they fail. They fly to Alderaan and it’s not there, period. That may only apply to certain kinds of stories. Going back to my hypothetical detective story, the scene goal might be to find evidence that Suspect A is the killer, so the detective might look at clue 1, then clue 2, then interview a possible witness, all without getting anything definitive, but then the last approach they try leaves them with proof that Suspect A couldn’t have been the killer — a disaster— so now he needs a new line of investigation to pursue.

Realizing that I was taking things far too literally and narrowly helped me finally make sense of this concept. I can take a bigger-picture view of my scene goals, and then I can have proper disasters without bringing my story to a screeching halt and without a lot of extraneous filler in the attempt to give my characters disasters. I’ve also seen a story structure that has this approach built in. Instead of looking at in terms of scenes and sequels, there’s a part of the outline for goal A, then the drive to achieve goal A, then failure of goal A, and regrouping, followed by a new goal.

In those smaller theater-style scenes, you don’t have to keep the characters from getting what they want. I like to think of that in terms of what’s going to get them closer to having to deal with the main story problem. You want them to fail at anything that would make life easier, but succeed at things that are going to get them in deeper trouble. So, Luke and Obi-Wan succeed in getting transportation because that will take them closer to bigger trouble. If they fail, they’re stuck on Tatooine, away from all the problems. But they fail to reach Alderaan because it would be too easy to just bring the droids straight to where they were told to take them.

A good test would be whether or not achieving the goal would end the story. If achieving the goal ends the story, then they have to fail. If failing ends the story, they have to succeed. Luke not getting passage to Alderaan would have ended the story. Luke successfully delivering the droids to Alderaan would have ended the story (or sent it in a different direction). In a mystery story, the detective finding evidence that tells him exactly who the killer is would end the story, so that has to happen late in the story. But the detective searching for evidence and finding nothing at all might also end the story.

Ultimately, I think it’s a mistake to get too tied to any one bit of writing theory. The scene and sequel format is a good tool to use when you’re trying to figure out what should happen in a scene or when you’re trying to analyze a scene that isn’t working, but if you’re too rigid about it, it will stifle your story. At some point, you just have to write and let your story play out.

Here’s the video version of this post (I had to fight my inner perfectionist to post this because I made a few flubs and I was losing my voice, so I may end up reshooting, but it’ll have to do for now):

writing, video project

Videos Up Now

Since I added the clips to the videos that went with the last couple of posts after I posted, here are the videos, for those who were quick on the ball to read posts before I added the video links.

The welcome and intro:

Do you really have to “kill your darlings”?

writing, video project

Kill Your Darlings

One of the most often repeated — and most misunderstood — pieces of writing advice is “you have to kill your darlings.” In other words, don’t get too close to anything in your book, and if you love something too much, it may be something you’re writing just for you, so it has to go.

But this is terrible advice if you take it that way. If you have to get rid of anything you love, then you’d be left not liking your work, and it implies that you can’t trust your own judgment.

I think this is actually a misinterpretation of the advice. A better way to think about it would be that you have to be willing to kill your darlings. In other words, you have to get rid of anything that doesn’t serve your story, no matter how much you love it.

What are some darlings you may have to kill?

A big one is description. Not that description is bad, but it does tend to make it to “darling” status because description feels like real writing. We hear in writing workshops about using all the senses, and it’s easy to wax poetic and create something that feels award-worthy. In the satirical novel Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, the author puts asterisks by the particularly good passages of description, spoofing this tendency. The problem is when that description doesn’t fit the viewpoint character or the situation. You may have written a beautiful description of the sunset that vividly brings the image to life, but if your viewpoint character is a jaded warrior who’s been fighting or walking all day and you’re not trying to show that he has the heart of a poet or artist, then he’s probably not going to think of the sunset in eloquent, poetic terms. Or if your character is on the run for her life, she’s not going to pause and admire the beautiful sunset. It may be lovely writing and you may be proud of it, but it has to go.

Then there’s “your research is showing.” You’ve spent hours researching exactly the undergarments your character might wear and how she would put them on, so of course you want to write a scene showing your character getting dressed so you can show all your research. But all the story really needs is to mention that she got dressed. Or, really, you can assume she got dressed if no one faints when she shows up for breakfast.

Another darling that may have to go is the germ of the idea. There’s something that sparked the idea for your story or that was in what you first imagined when you started thinking about the story, but as the story develops, you may no longer need that thing in your story. I ran into this with my book Rebel Mechanics. There was a scene I had in my head before I even got the idea for this book, and I realized that this book would be a good place to put that scene. My editor wanted me to cut a big part of this scene. After I stomped around the house, griping to myself about how I couldn’t cut it because that was the whole point of the scene and it was the thing that inspired the whole book, I realized that I didn’t actually need that part of the scene, and the story worked better without it. I was clinging to it as the spark for the story, but it was a darling that had to die. I often find that scenes I dream up before I start writing don’t end up fitting in the story that I write. I may try to cram them in, but they don’t serve the story. I tend to imagine scenes of the characters hanging out and talking, and then I try to put those scenes in the book, but it turns out they don’t need to be there, even if thinking about them was a good way for me to find those characters’ voices and get to know them.

Jokes are often darlings that need to go. Something you find amusing might not work for anyone else, or it might not be truly appropriate for the story. I often find that they don’t even work for me when I’m doing the second draft.

I seldom delete any of the darlings I kill. I have a “cuts” file for each book and copy them into that file. Sometimes I get to use them elsewhere. They may be right for a different character (like the description that doesn’t fit the viewpoint character) or a different book in the series. I sometimes put cut pieces on my website. That’s a great place for those sitting around and talking scenes.

Instead of looking for darlings that you should kill, instead look for things that don’t serve your story, and then overcome your resistance to letting them go.

Here’s the video version of this post:

video project

The Video Project

I’ve been talking for a while about doing some writing videos, and now I’ve actually started shooting them, so I guess it’s happening. This post is the text article version of the intro video I plan to post on Friday.

I’m going to start doing a series of videos on writing, with practical advice based on my years of experience as a novelist. I’ve written a lot about writing craft in my blog, but I thought it might be fun to do some videos, as well. My degree is in broadcast news, so I may as well put it to use.

Why should you listen to me? I sold my first novel nearly thirty years ago. I’ve had nearly thirty books published, plus some short fiction, and I’ve written a few more books that may or may not remain hidden on my hard drive. I’ve made a living almost entirely from writing fiction since 2004. I’m a hybrid author. I’ve had books published by some of the major publishers and I’ve independently published books. I’ve had books picked up by foreign publishers and published in translation abroad. I’ve won some awards and even had a book optioned for film by a major studio (though the movie never got made). I’ve pretty much done just about everything in a publishing career other than be a big bestseller — and that means that I’ve had a career you could actually aspire to. My career hasn’t depended on any big stroke of luck like a celebrity book club pick, a movie or TV series that actually got made, or even just being chosen by the publisher to be a lead title and get the big print run and big promotional push.

I love reading books on writing craft, going to workshops and conferences. I’ll try just about everything to see how it works. Some things never make sense to me, some things click, and some things I have to figure out. I’ll share what I’ve learned and how I use it in my writing.

Here’s how this channel is going to work.
First, I’m an author, not a YouTuber. My priority will always be my writing, so I’m not going to devote a lot of effort to making things super splashy. I’m not going to buy a lot of equipment or spend a lot of time on special effects, graphics, or anything like that. I’m aiming at posting a new video every month, but it will depend on my writing schedule. I’m not aiming to get sponsorships, and I doubt I’ll get enough subscribers to earn ad revenue. I just want to help writers—and thinking these things through to make the videos helps me understand these concepts better for my own work. If someone wants to read my books because they like my videos, then that would be great, too.

Second, I know that different people have different ways of absorbing information. I’ll confess that I’m definitely a “this video or podcast could have been an article” person. Because of that, I’ll be posting articles with the same info that’s in these videos in my blog, and I’ll link to that with each video. They won’t be exact transcripts because written language is different from spoken language, but they will contain the same information.

I will probably be using the original Star Wars — the movie they’re now calling A New Hope — as an example a lot, so if you haven’t seen it, you might want to do so. This is an easy example to use for explaining things like story structure because it adheres so closely to a universal structure and it has a fairly basic plot. Plus, just about everyone is familiar with it, so I don’t have to set things up to use it as an example.

I have the first few videos already planned, but if there’s a topic you’d like me to cover or if you have a question, please let me know in the comments (in the blog or with the video). I may also do some reader-focused videos that are about my books, so if you have questions relating to that, you can also ask them.

And here’s the video version: