Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Storyboard Your Scenes

by Deb McLeod

If you take the time to immerse yourself into a scene before you have to write it, you almost dream it alive. If you imagine the props of the scene and are aware of the emotional change for your character, if you define the sensations that the character will filter in, then that scene will come alive for the reader.

Note: I’ve done enough fiction writing craft research that I’ve absorbed what I learned and made it my own. However, I may have lost original resources or worse yet, attribute writing tips to the wrong person. My profound apologies if I get the attribution wrong.

Somewhere along the way (I think it was Robert J. Ray in “Weekend Novelist”) I picked up the idea of thinking about props during a scene. What are the ‘things’ of the scene that your characters might interact with. Like the props in a stage play, what things populate your scenes?

Imagine the setting where your scene takes place. Let’s say it’s in a fancy restaurant. What are the props you might use? The first things that come to mind are the place settings. But often the first things that come to mind are the easiest. They tend toward cliché or at least are overused. We’ve all read and seen the scene where the character doesn’t know which fork to use, or is overwhelmed by how you get the lobster tail out of the shell with grace and leave the linen spot free. Funny, but overused.

So look around your fictional fancy restaurant for another prop. I personally like a funky bar for burgers and beers over a fancy restaurant with wait staff whose only job is to stand behind the table and pour water when your glass is more than a third empty. So if I were writing a scene at a fancy restaurant that is where I would go to look for props – to the place of my discomfort.

What if my character notices a small smudge on the side of the white-gloved hand of the faceless person that keeps filling up her water glass? Maybe my heroine is uncomfortable. Seeing that spot can do something for her and for the plot. It might make her breathe easier – no one is perfect and she doesn’t have to feel out of place. Or it might make her really uncomfortable. Because of the spot, she knows that the same wait-person is waiting on her. Watching her drink her water. He or she is behind her back and making her really uncomfortable. Is the water person a male or a female? You could write the scene creepy or safe, whatever fits the plot. But if you spend some time with the things of your scenes you can put them to work and make the scene more real.

Emotional change
(The scene as a room idea adapted from Blake Snyder. Emotional change during a scene adapted from Snyder and Robert McKee’s “Story”.) 

Imagine a scene as a room. Your character enters, struggles with another character, but wins and exits out the opposite end of the room. You will have a positive emotional change. If your character is thwarted in their quest to get what they want in the scene room, then you will have a negative (or continuous negative) emotional change.

When characters enter a scene, they come from the scene before. They bring their reactions and feelings from what just happened. You should know when a character enters a scene how he or she is feeling.

Let’s take the fancy restaurant scene. If it’s my heroine, she’s apprehensive. She’s hoping that her hair is holding up in back. She’s conscious of the pinch of her dress under one arm. Her heart is pounding as she’s frantically trying to think of some sort of small talk she can make with this person who has commanded her presence at this dinner. She has no idea why she’s here and would far rather be at home with her cats.

As the dinner progresses, her dinner partner senses her apprehension and swoops in for an attack. Our heroine parries the attack as best she can and almost puts her dining partner in her place. So satisfied with her responses to the nasty woman who has invited her for dinner, she forgets for a moment to be on guard and her wrist hits the delicate wine glass she placed too close to the edge of the table. Like a slow motion scene in a movie, she can play out the next minute before it actually happens. The glass will explode on the hardwood floor and reveal her once and for all  as the fake she is, eating at this fancy restaurant. In the nick of time, the faceless waiter behind her catches the wine glass, not spilling a drop and sets it back on the table. She looks up, meets his eye….

When my character leaves the fancy restaurant scene room, her emotions are in a different place than when she entered. And when she goes into the next scene she will start off happy and then something will happen to change her emotional charge. You can chart your character’s emotional change throughout your plot chain.

Write through the senses

See, feel, hear, touch, smell. These are the five senses writers are referring to when they ask you to write through the senses. If you spend some time in your scene mapping the sensual experience the character has, you’ll make the scene come alive. Writing through the senses is one of the keys to the adage: Show, don’t tell.

William Strunk, Jr., in “The Elements of Style,” writes that “the surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by being specific, definite and concrete.” In “Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft” Janet Burroway takes this quote further. She says: “A detail is ‘definite’ and ‘concrete’ when it appeals to the senses.”

When you’re storyboarding your plot into scenes, spend time focused on the five senses. Take our fancy restaurant again and go through the list of senses for what your character might experience in the scene:
  • See – the bouncing glitter of china and crystal  and gold-edged picture frames against a navy blue wall in the dimmed light from the thousand-prism chandelier that hangs from the thirty-foot ceiling.
  • Hear – the sound of stiletto heels across a hardwood floor. Muted conversation from the table next to them. Far enough away so they can’t hear or be overheard.
  • Touch – the feel of the fine linen napkin, the heft of the silver knife, the thin glass between her lips as she drinks her wine.
  • Taste – they’re in a restaurant, so taste can follow the courses. The garlic and butter of the escargot. The tart and sweet of lemon and raspberry on the minuscule plate of greens, etc.
  • Smell – a hint of clean soap when the wait-person leans over her to fill her glass.
When you’re writing the scene you can pepper these (don’t add too many) in order to bring the scene to life for the reader. When the scene is alive, the reader experiences it with the characters and you create that spell that keeps your reader reading.

Whenever I’m having trouble writing a scene I go to the prep and spend some time imagining before I actually write. I jot notes and play with props. I immerse myself in my character’s feelings and senses.

Like most of my writing, a line will come to me. A piece of dialogue or a first line, and then I free-write the scene. Do you have any scene tips or tricks to add to this?

About the Author: Deb McLeod, is a writer, creative writing coach and founder of The Writing Ranch. She has both an MFA and a BA in creative writing. She has been teaching and coaching for over ten years. Deb has published short fiction in anthologies and journals. She has written articles and creative nonfiction. Deb has been a professional blogger, tech writer, graphic artist and Internet marketing specialist.  

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