Monday, 10 March 2014

Monday blog: Writing scenes

Currently reading: The Amber Spyglass - Philip Pullman
Reading next: Railsea - China Miéville
Writers' Bureau course progress: Assignment 2 back on track

I recently found myself at a point which seemed ideal to begin actively writing my main project, the fantasy novel known as Kin. Over two years of writing, scrapping, planning, rewriting, planning etc. has led me to this point and not only do I feel confident that I've developed a good solid structure I actually feel excited about the prospect of putting text to screen.

It's nice to be writing properly again, writing scenes which make up a small part of a bigger whole. It's great to be contributing to a bigger overall project rather than simply scribbling nonsense for the sake of it. This brings to light more elements of the writing process for my consideration.

In this blog I'm going to be talking about writing scenes. A scene is probably exactly what you would imagine it to be: a self contained section of story that typically occurs in a specific place or covers a specific topic. You can usually easily see the beginning and end of any given scene by the change of location or character. In some books a scene can be a whole chapter while in others it will make up only a portion of a chapter. Imagine how scenes work in movies and you've probably got a good idea of what I'm talking about.

All writers are different and everyone has their own approach. Some writers split dialogue and narrative into two camps and write them separately; some prefer writing dialogue some prefer the narrative more, I am definitely in the former category. Some writers will even tell you that they don't see any need to split the two and they just write. It's comforting to hear that there are people who do things the same way but there's also a strange reassurance in hearing that there are those who do it differently.

I write dialogue first because, as I said in my previous blog, character development is very important to me and I feel that dialogue is the best way to give your reader an instant sense of character. What the characters will say to one another will inform the action of the scene and I often don't know exactly what they're going to say until I write it, this means that I might not know the exact direction of the scene until the dialogue is down. Likewise, however, action will also inform dialogue so it's all a case of careful balance more than anything. Given a choice I would rather write good dialogue and tailor the action around that as opposed to the opposite.

Good dialogue means the reader can tell who is talking the moment they open their mouths and before any confirming dialogue tags are added. Good dialogue is also very difficult. I find it the most rewarding to write but it's by no means the easiest. This means I can sometimes be pondering over a scene for some time and ultimately still come out of it with a relatively low word count, especially when compared to the amount of narrative text I would achieve in the same time.

I shall go back to a word I used a moment ago: balance. This word, for me at least, is the core concept of writing. There are so many avenues of thought, so many techniques and mechanisms that all need to align and mesh together so as to create a smooth running and well oiled machine. Dialogue is one of those areas in which this appears most prominently. Are the characters speaking in their own voices or just mine? Does this conversation feel natural? What have we learned from this conversation? Is it moving the story forward? Would that character really say that?

I often start a scene with bits and pieces, elements that have come into my head over a course of time. This might be a specific action a character might perform, a line of dialogue or short conversation. I'll begin by putting these down and adding piece by piece to it. The result resembles a jigsaw puzzle at mid completion; clusters of recognisable pieces joined but no real coherence with regards to the overall picture. It is very easy to get lost, confused and lose all integrity for that scene even if I had a strong idea from the beginning.

Ultimately there are two main considerations when writing any sort of scene:
  • Form - Does the scene make sense in itself? Is it interesting?
  • Function - What does it contribute to the story overall? Does it provide characterisation or move the plot on?
When thinking about the form of the scene I try to imagine it as a real life scenario in which I am one of the characters. I do this from all points of view just to see how each character would react and see if I have made any glaring inconsistencies. I find it incredibly easy to get carried away with writing things I feel are "cool" or attractive to read about, but sometimes my insistence on keeping these elements can compromise the structure of the scene. Do these people act realistically and true to their established character? I have to be very strict with myself; just because I have thought of the most amazing one-liner for a character doesn't mean that shoe-horning it in will benefit the story, which brings me nicely onto...

Function is what the scene does for me as a whole entity. If form was examining a delicate blossom then function is examining the whole plant, roots and all. Perhaps I've written a witty, sharp and incredibly insightful conversation between two characters but does it actually serve the story in a meaningful way? I want the reader to learn something new with each scene, I want them to feel as if the story is moving onwards and hasn't reached a complete halt. This doesn't mean hair-raising scenes of excitement every third page; a quiet conversation between two characters can move the story along too. Characters are instrumental in revealing many important elements in the plot and plenty can be learned indirectly through dialogue as well as directly.

However I would prefer to further separate characterisation from plot progression. I believe that characterisation should be happening all the time, even if it's just a passive effect in the background; every time a character is in a scene, every moment you spend with them you can potentially be learning more about them simply through their actions and dialogue. This shouldn't even require a huge amount from the writer themselves; if the character is realistic and reacts to the world according to how you have imagined them, the rest should fall into place naturally.

I feel that it is important to break each of these elements down to better understand them individually. However it's also vitally important that they are put back together and examined as a whole because as essential as they are individually, it's nothing against how well they perform if crafted together correctly.

These are my thoughts from only a few days of writing dialogue for my first chapter. It's what I believe to be true and it's my own personal approach. You may find something to relate to in my musings or you might disagree entirely. Either of these options is fine and that's exactly what makes writing such a magnificent craft to enjoy.

This is Frisk,
signing off.

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