Wednesday, July 1, 2015

How to Kill Your Scene: Writer as Director, Part 3

Writing Coach Deb McLeod - Writer as Director
By Deb McLeod

Way back in the early days of my writing – yesterday, literally at my critique group yesterday – I suffered from the syndrome called 'Writer as Reporter.' I still have bouts of it, especially when juggling a complex scene where I am focused on imparting information the reader has to have. I often get bogged down in the best way to feed that information and forget to keep the emotional roller coaster moving.

Have you faced that problem? How can you insert an info dump that sets up the next plot point or how can you feed in backstory without losing the reader?

Here are a few things you can do:
  1. Write the scene (novel) for you. Next step: now write it for the reader. 
  2. Be absolutely sure the reader really needs that information.
  3. Trust the reader to get it. 
  4. Plan out where you drop bits of information rather than dumping it on the reader all at once. 
  5. Remember, you’re writing a scene. Use sleight of hand to impart information. 
1. This might be bad news, but it’s a hard truth I see over and over again in critique groups and with my clients. You have to write the scene, or maybe even the whole novel, at least twice. Once to tell yourself the story; to know when you need to have planted information and when you need to figure out the backstory that leads to the moment that’s really important. Allow yourself permission to write the first time through just for you so that you know the whole story, then you can go back and write for the reader. Orchestrating the emotional journey usually comes after the first draft is done.

2. Be absolutely sure that the reader really has to have that information and that they really need it now. Is there some way you might weave it in further back? Just a drop here or there, so when the reader gets to the place where they need to know something it resonates with what went before? Can you cut it altogether and still have the story make sense? How lean on information and backstory can you go?

3. Learn to trust your reader more. Don’t write to the lowest common denominator. Chances are, if you’ve hooked them into the story thus far, they will go with you a little ways, even if they’re confused. Get some beta readers. Some “reader” readers rather than “writer” readers. Ask them to tell you where they got confused or closed the book. They likely won’t be able to tell you why. But that's okay. Writer readers are the ones that will tell you why. Writer readers are wonderful to have when you’re putting it all together. But there comes a time when the story outgrows writer readers. It’s very revealing when you give pages to a reader reader and realize how much you can actually get away with.

4. I use Scrivener and am writing a multi-viewpoint and layered story. I have assigned keywords for subplots and character interaction. I can sort by subplot and look at all the scenes that deal with that subplot. If I realize I should have set the reader up better I can go back through all the scenes in that subplot and plant clues. Even if you don’t use Scrivener, there might be a way for you to do this on your own. It's been an invaluable way to plant the seeds of information that need to be planted and to avoid the info dump.

5. While you may have every intention of feeding information into a scene, remember the first priority is the scene. Conflict. Movement. Twist. Info is secondary and should be delivered subtly.

In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder outlines the principle behind burying exposition in the story. I’ll summarize it here.
The technique is called “Pope in the Pool.” For the script of The Plot to Kill the Pope by George Englund, some vital backstory needed to be imparted. The story is a thriller and they couldn’t risk slowing it down for an info dump. So they slipped in the information while the Pope was swimming laps in the Vatican pool. There’s the Pope, bathing suit and all, swimming his laps while representatives who came to see him give us the information we need. We’re interested in the Pope and the pool in the Vatican and are focused on that, but getting everything we need to know without plodding through a boring info scene. Sleight of hand by the writers. 
Remember, readers don’t want information! Readers want a story. They want to be transported to the world you’ve created. Sure, you have to make them understand, but how you make them understand is key. Learn to spot when you’re in the midst of an info dump. Cut what you can, weave it in behind this scene and disguise the rest.You'll end up with a better story.

  About the Author: Deb McLeod, MFA, practices novel research immersion. For her novel, The Train to Pescara, Deb journeyed to Sardinia to study ancient goddess worship and spent time in the Abruzzi village her great-grandparents left in 1905. Her metaphysical knowledge for the Angel Thriller, The Julia Set, culminates from four years of studying and teaching meditation, clairvoyance and chakra healing. For over fourteen years, Deb McLeod has been a creative writing coach helping other writers to embrace their passion and get their words on the page. For more, see

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