Thursday, October 6, 2011

Writing in Scenes with Nancy Kress

(Image from:  Where's the Drama?, by Billy Marshall Stoneking)

For my "workshop finale" during this year's Summer Conference, I attended the Writing in Scenes, hosted by Nancy Kress.  I've read Nancy's how-to articles in Writers Digest and have some of her books from F+W Publications.  But was unfamiliar with her fictional work and was surprised to find out how much sci-fi material she's produced.

Nancy's workshop was actually a 3-part series, which lasted the rest of that Saturday afternoon. Despite such a lengthy seminar, Nancy is an excellent teacher and provided us with good insights into the techniques of scene writing.  Here are just some of my (legible) notes:

The advantage of writing in scenes, as opposed to starting from page 1 and plodding on until you type "The End" is that it frees the spontaneous, creative side of our brains and allows us to write while we're inspired.  The next step would be linking scenes into some form of logical sequence to produce a story.

Before writing a scene the following factors need to be taken into consideration:
1. Each scene must have a purpose in either advancing the plot or deepening characterization
2. Should have a "shape," that is, be part of the story flow.
3. Be dramatized.  ("Show" don't "Tell").

There are five Narrative Modes

2. Description
3. Action ("description in motion")
4. Character thoughts
5. Exposition

A scene becomes more vivid if it concentrates on dialogue.  Vivid scenes hold a readers attention.  The scenes readers often skim--or skip entirely--is description.  The trick, then, is to add rich details, without bogging down the story and boring the reader.  Some description is needed in order to move the story forward and avoid "White Room Syndrome"  (characters interacting, with no mention of their surroundings).

Characteristics of good descriptions are:

1. Specific
2. Slanted towards a character
3. Shows a relationship
4. Uses more senses than sight.

Nancy said, stories often aren't "smelly enough."

Additional advice on description--

--Chose the right details and you won't need too many of them.
--Tell the reader something about the character in what is being described.
--Give the reader a rich visualization.
--Give the reader clues abut the character(s).
--Illustrate relationships.
--Do as many things as you can in one sentence.

Scenes need to be orientated, that is, readers need to know where they are, when they are and in what point of view (POV).  The general rule of thumb is to have 1 POV/scene.

All scenes come to an end and there should be a little rise in tension.  Scenes shouldn't peter out.

There are three types of scenes.  These are:

1. Story time
2. Flashback
3. Expository

It is critical that the opening scene should be in story time, before turning to the other two scene-types.  Using the "Kress Swimming Pool Theory of Fiction," the first scene is the "kick-off" from the wall a swimmer does while doing laps.  Only with a good "kick" can the writer "glide" into a flashback or exposition.  However, the writer must keep these glides short and resume the pace (Pace = Events/Word Count).

On trick to maintain the story's pacing is to remove "locomotion writing," that is details on movement, unless it's important later on.

Expository scenes come in two flavors:  Summarizations and Data Dumps.  Both are less engaging and should be used judiciously.  Don't have two expository scenes in a row, or better yet, break up the info into small chunks and infuse them into the other scene-types.

How do you determine a scene's POV?

The POV Character should be the one who is most motivated and invested in the scene.  This character should also be someone who'll change by the end of the story.  

And speaking of endings, what type of outcomes are possible in a story?

Here are five examples:

1. The character gets what she wants.  The happy ending, or HEA (Happily Ever After).  How-ev-er, it should cost her something.

2. The Choice Story.  (Love or money?).  In this case, make sure both sides have some positive influences.

3. The main character doesn't get what she wants.  The unhappy ending.   But to keep this story from being a complete downer, have someone else get what they want.

4. Pyrrhic Victory.  The character gets what they want but at a higher cost than in #1.

5.  The character gets what she wants, but doesn't want it anymore and goes back to the way she was before.  (Example:  Dorothy's realization that "there's no place like home," in the Wizard of Oz).

Well folks, there you have it:  The last of my synopsis (synopsi?) for PNWA's 2011 Summer Conference.  I had an enjoyable time seeing old friends, making new ones and maybe even learning a thing or two.  Recounting what I've learned helps refresh my memory.

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