Friday, June 1, 2012

Scene and Narrative Matters

Sharon’s article on writing scenes is the sort of thing that gives writers tiny heart attacks. So bursting with hard core writing tips that as we read the air around us thins of oxygen and thickens with smothering questions: Did I follow the method of scene writing? Have I used too much narrative? Too little narrative? What is narrative?

I recommend printing Sharon’s article and referencing it often as you create your novel.

It’s an interesting time in the development of novel structure. We’ve fully embraced the postmodern subjective structure and have made it our own. It’s easy to lose sight of the foundational basics in the midst of all the sexy structural changes.

If you don’t know the basics of scene, narrative, cut away transition (now a given in modern writing), and partial resolve of tension (scenes that ease tension on certain plot issues while ramping it up on other plot issues), now is the time to apply yourself to studying them.

It’s these skills that will help you make the leap in novel structure you need to stay competitive in today’s market.

Modern readers aren’t the TV generation anymore. We aren’t interested in the three-act novel. Think Internet. Mixing medias as easily as metaphors.

Today’s novel is all about mixed media. Folding a collection of short stories onto themselves and into each other to form an overarching narrative about hate and the power of love (Let the Great World Spin). Using photography as an intrinsic aspect of plot (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children). Incorporating research as part of the novel experience including footnotes (The Kingdom of Ohio). A novel that is so filled with visual reference the story takes a back seat (The Night Circus).

These are a few examples of where the novel is headed. And while it looks fancy (and it is), no matter the structure, each of these novels has, at its core, the mastery of scene and narrative weaving that holds the whole thing together.

Scene is action: movement, dialogue, interaction of characters, action, and reaction. It’s the actors moving on the stage, talking to each other, planting evidence, arguing about how to cook rice, making love in a hammock, reading the ransom note.

Narrative is personality: cohesive voice, POV, tense, tone, voice, and narration. It’s the stream of consciousness, the storyteller grabbing your arm (figuratively) and saying, Did you see THAT? It’s the frank self-disclosure, the murmur of warning that lets you know the story is about to get tense, very tense indeed. It’s the personal aspect of the novel and it matters deeply.

I’ve read manuscripts that were scene after scene grinding along until the book's final—you guessed it—scene. I didn’t enjoy these experiences.

I have read manuscripts that were 99% narrative, streams of consciousness so heady you could lose yourself in the long sentences up to fifty words long. I didn’t enjoy these experiences.

When time comes for me to pick up your novel and turn to page one, what would you like me to see? How will you enfold me with your narrative and scene? Draw me in. Please, please, draw me in. 

12 comments:

Megan Sayer said...

Bonnie that was exactly my response to Sharon's post! Well worth printing out for the future.

Here's a question for you: do you think the type of novel will direct how much the writer relies on scene and how much they rely on narrative summary? I'm curious to discover whether my newest WIP will follow the same style as my previous in this. Do they usually follow the same way? Part of me wants to do it differently just to ensure I don't fall into the same voice and style by accident, but at the same time the style I used is very much a part of me, so it's hard to know. I'll probably try to do it differently and end up quite similar regardless. Maybe that's about finding my style as an author over multiple books, and is possibly a good thing. So long as I don't keep writing the same book again and again.

I wonder also whether the 3-act novel really has been thrown out the window? I'm very much of the TV generation, and although I love and appreciate books that seem to subvert the accepted traditions of style as we know it, I still wonder whether things need to happen at the same places in such books as in traditional ones to keep the time-poor, internet-obsessed reader engaged. I don't know.

wanderer said...

postmodern subjective structure...

cut away transition...

cohesive voice...

There's so much here I want to find out more about.

Oh, and that last paragraph of yours? It really, really makes me want to write something splendid.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Heading to GoodReads to see what you thought of Miss P novel.

Oh the times they are a changin'

~ Wendy

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Now, this post is REALLY good news for my WIP. This is exactly what I'm trying to do with it. I love reading this kind of literature (currently I'm loving Jonathan Safran Foer's novels).

In this second novel, I'm hoping to cause the reader to love the character from the very start. To worry for her. To look at themselves and wonder how it would be for them.

Cherry Odelberg said...

Making love in a hammock. Seriously? Seriously?
now, "mixed media. Folding a collection of short stories onto themselves and into each other to form an overarching narrative about hate and the power of love," maybe that is something I can handle. Thanks for the insights. Maybe, just maybe I am glad the novel landscape is changing. One more second wind, one more technological advance, one more mountain before I die.

Bonnie Grove said...

Megan: Not entirely sure what you mean by "type of novel". Given the content of your comment, I'm guessing you don't mean genre or non-genre. Here's my best shot at an answer: No matter how many novels you write, it will always be you writing them, so yes, there will be a similarity of voice and subtext in some small sense. But as you grow as a writer, you'll find your characters will take over and become the voice of the novel.
Do we just write the same story over and over again? Probably--in terms of the questions that haunt us, the unanswered-ness of life, I think we do. But in terms of story, characters, and plot? No. Each is unique.

As for your wondering about the three act novel--I truly hope we can ditch it for good. Nothing against Chekov and the other founders of modern literature, but there are more organic ways to write stories and writers are finding this out in droves. Many of the novels we admire have no sense of the three act structure (of the novels I listed, only The Night Circus relies on this structure, and, being honest, it did suffer for it, plot-wise).

Again, I'm talking structure--not whether or not we use mixed media, or other excellent style tricks.

Wanderer: So glad you're feeling ready to write something splendid!

A quick primer: postmodern subjective structure began back pre-WWII with artistic movements and writers (actually, you could say it began pre-WWI in Paris with a Russian dance troop that preformed a scandalous dance one night and ignited the flames of creative postmodernism), but essentially, it began as a way of pushing against accepted forms and mediums of art and embracing a more expressive style that was really non-style.

This can only take you so far--and we've struggled with the keeping what works and embracing freedom of medium.

Cut away transition is exactly like what you see when you go to the movies--a scene ends and another begins without the transition scene that moves the viewer from scene A to scene B.

cohesive voice is about narration. I wrote a post recently about the two questions a writer should ask before starting a new project: Who is telling this story? And Why does this story need to be told now? These are narrator questions and answering them will ensure you write a novel with a cohesive voice.

Wendy: Did I rate it? I can't recall. But I do have some thoughts about it. :)

Susie: Happy writing! I haven't read Foer, but of course there is buzz aplenty. :)

Bonnie Grove said...

Cherry: A great deal of freedom of thought happens in a hammock.

I'm happy things are changing. They are supposed to change, I think. And it doesn't mean we need to panic or cling to old ideas. We are artists--we're all about leading the way into change. And possibly hammocks.

Sharon K. Souza said...

Wendy, we read Miss P for our book club. Very, very different. And we had mixed reviews about it. What I did like was his use of the visual media in the creation and telling of the story. I learned something at the end of the novel that I wish I'd known at the beginning. It would have added a whole new perspective to my reading experience.

Bonnie, you took my basic post from Wednesday and expertly expanded on it. I always learn so much from the rest of you.

Marcia said...

Bonnie, there's an interesting blog going on now at StoryFix.com. Larry Brooks is doing a workshop on the inner dynamics of The Hunger Games. He claims the traditional structure is what made these books/movies bestsellers.

Bonnie Grove said...

Sharon, I had mixed reviews about Miss P, too. In the end, I had to give him props for the innovation and the ability to create such a creative story from a collection of old photos (a hobby of the author's).

I didn't know until I started reading that it was YA.

Oh, and MWAH.

Marcia: Interesting! I haven't read HG yet (it's on my kindle, just need to get to it). Thanks for the heads up!

wanderer said...

Bonnie, thanks so much for taking time to explain all that!

Bonnie Grove said...

You're more than welcome!