Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Scene and unscene

I am working on a new novel, and as I write my way through the first act I find that I am being very careful--some might call it paranoid--about exposition. It's impossible to avoid exposition because at some point we have to actually talk about the characters and setting and situation (unless we're writing the sort of story where the reader is supposed to be kept in the dark about what's actually happening), but we don't want to write in big blocks of backstory and stop the forward momentum of the tale. Last night I gave up reading a novel because it was all exposition, more a nonfiction biography than a novel and after 100 pages I didn't know the first thing about any of the characters' emotional lives and I simply didn't care what happened to them so I shelved the book and I doubt I'll ever bother to finish it. That's something I don't want to ever happen to one of my own novels.

I wrote last week about my method of folding exposition into the middle of scenes, and how I'm not allowing myself to write anything but scenes in this book. If it's not a scene, it doesn't go in. I am even being as spare as possible in my transitional passages between scenes. But what do I mean by "scene?"

To me, a scene is a self-contained dramatic incident where we are shown a specific event in "real time." Moreover, my personal rules for scenes include such things as a change in situation for one of the characters (that is, something is different for some character at the end of the scene, and this difference will change the direction of the story in some important way--not necessarily a huge change, but a real change that cannot be ignored by the character in question), and either the introduction or increase of tension between two or more characters (that is, I don't let myself have scenes that exist simply to introduce a new character or setting; there must be, as just mentioned, some change for one of the characters).

So, I am writing my novel in units called "scenes" that:

Are self-contained dramatic incidents in "real time"
Dramatize events that change a character's life
Introduce or increase tension between characters

My scenes can do more than that, but they must do at least those things, or I have to start over. The plan is to have the entire book built of scenes, one after another, with little or no summary. I may cheat and have something like flashbacks by having my protagonist dream about people who have died, but I may decide that's too much of a cheat and not. We'll see when I get there.

I also admit that I am not going to be a tyrant about my rule of writing in scenes only. My basic concern is to stop myself from going off on long tangential digressions, writing chapter-length histories for each character or supplying readers with essentially lists of things and losing the direction and urgency of the story. My writing is constrained by a sense of doubt over each word I set down: do I really need this or that factoid, and why? It's a load of work, and I'm not even sure how necessary it is, but it's how I'm writing this book.

So here are my questions to you: Do you write in scenes? Do you know a scene when you see one? Can you take sections of exposition or narrative summary that stop the momentum of the story and make them into dramatized scenes? Bonus questions: Do you think this is important, or are you willing--as a reader--to let writers hand you pages of backstory? I happen to live with a bright, well-read person who is nowhere as impatient with backstory and exposition as the hypothetical stereotypical reader that agents and editors online go on about all the time. I don't, frankly, know if that reader exists. Just saying.


  1. I hear ya Scott. I actually like backstory. I poured over every one of the footnotes in Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell. Some of the stuff in there was even more interesting than the present story.

    And Tolkien's Appendixes: I cross check as I read. I want to know the story behind every old battlefield, barrow etc. I seem pefectly capable of stopping, and then picking and getting immersed in the story again. But, I have learned (been told by many agents) that most people do not like this. Must be kith and kin to my love of history.

  2. susiej: Yeah, I think that's the thing. I love history and I read a lot of nonfiction and biographies and I love doing the research for my books. But most people just want us to tell them a story. They don't want to read our research.

  3. Do you write in scenes?

    I absolutely write in scenes. My new work is entirely made of scenes, although there is exposition thrown into some of that action. It's the narrative voice I'm using that does that. Maybe I don't know what I'm talking about. I think, either way, it works for now.

    Do you know a scene when you see one?

    I think I do. I also think that it's okay, during the action of a scene, to introduce back story through dialogue or thoughts. If it's moving the story forward, I don't think it matters much.

    Can you take sections of exposition or narrative summary that stop the momentum of the story and make them into dramatized scenes?

    I may do this with the beginning of my new novella, make the exposition at the front more scenes than what it is. But I kind of like the exposition feel - it works with the back story people already know, and it sets a certain tone I like.

    Do you think this is important, or are you willing--as a reader--to let writers hand you pages of backstory?

    Yes, absolutely, if it's done well. Banana Yoshimoto had some exposition in Kitchen, and it worked fine for me, moved the story along past what we didn't really need to see in scenes.

    And I don't think those readers exist, either. It's all a ploy to scare us into some sort of submission. Scott, write the story how YOU want it, not what you think people want or expect. That's so much easier said than done, I know.

  4. You raise an interesting point, Scott. I think that yes, I know scenes, and yes, I write in scenes (I try to loosely follow the scene --> reaction scene structure), but no, I don't think back story/ exposition needs to disappear completely. I think it can be too jarring to have scenes only, as the reader may lose a sense of flow or time by jumping around.

    It depends on the genre, too, I think. In fantasy/ sci-fi, it's more tolerated than in commercial or contemporary, because there's world-building that needs to be done. But I do agree that too much can force a reader to put a book down, and no writer wants that to happen to theirs.

  5. Scott,
    On the subject of backstory: I usually don't mind some backstory, but when backstory goes on for pages and pages then I skip it. A little backstory here or there has never bothered me.

  6. I have two thoughts on the subject. First, as a reader, I think exposition and back story can be thoroughly entertaining if they are done well. So, in that sense, I don't think it's a problem at all.

    But, there's another term that also comes to mind when I write. Inescapable. I think when you are writing in scenes, you have a much higher chance of writing inescapable fiction. That's material when the reader forgets that he or she is reading. The person is so immersed in the story that they are trapped in it. I think only scenes can do this.

    So, while both are okay, I think good exposition has the power to entertain just as a good scene does. But a good scene also has the potential to be inescapable.

  7. I agree with many of the above comments saying that some backstory can be a good thing, as long as it's not too much and it's done well.

    I really like a bit of backstory when I've been reading a book, and the present action has piqued my curiosity about a character's past without telling me what happened. If there is enough tension built up that makes me guess about a really interesting piece of background information, then I'll devour it when it's finally revealed.

    I think it's a matter of making the reader care first--making the reader ready for the backstory and interested in it before it's presented, so it's not just jammed in there for future reference.

  8. Genie: That's exactly what I am trying to do by presenting everything in scenes. I want to get the reader's interest in the story-in-progress and make them curious about the larger story world. But all of that has to come first, before any backstory. I'm using a nested structure that goes like this:

    1. Begin dramatic action
    2. Explain background
    3. Resolve dramatic action

    That's the structure of the whole book. It's also the structure of the five acts of the story, and of each chapter in the acts, and of each scene within the chapters. So I allow myself backstory and history and description and all of that, but only if it's wrapped up in a meaningul dramatic scene.

    I'm not really doing this because I want to fit some formula an agent or editor has given me. Mostly, it's hard work and a challenge and those are the sorts of things that are fun for me when I write. Setting challenges and seeing if I can pull them off.

  9. When you focus so much on scene, you're moving toward writing a kind of script rather than a novel.

  10. I like backstory; but I'm nosey about people anyways. However, even I can get tired of it if it doesn't seem to do anything for either the character's motivations or the overall plot.

    I'm pretty sure I recognize a scene when I see it, and I try to write my story in scenes and dialogue; but because I like a bit more background on characters than most, I do slip in exposition. Usually in a flashback - never in a dream - but occasionally in a narrative. I only do narrative when the backstory needs to be quick and is extremely relevant to the action of the moment.

    I got way carried away in my third novel - because by then I knew everything about my continuing characters - and in my revision I know I'm going to have to cut a lot of backstory and focus more on the current scenes.

    See it over there, hidden under a big pile of junk?


  11. I only ever write in scenes. It's all I know, really. It's the flash fiction specialization, I think. I'm not sure I even know how to do transitions, come to think of it.

    This may be a detriment in the novel-writing process, but I can always add transitions later if need be. (At least, that's what I'm telling myself....)

  12. Do you write in scenes?

    Yes. I write the outline as a list of scenes, no formal titles just a brief description of the main plot point in that scene. If I move to a different character's POV in third person limited, I also identify that character.

    Do you know a scene when you see one?

    Most of the time, but I don't think I ever intentionally go looking for them when I read.

    Can you take sections of exposition or narrative summary that stop the momentum of the story and make them into dramatized scenes?

    It all depends on how its done. I recently read THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF CAVALIER AND CLAY, and it starts in present time, with one character (Clay) as primary focus and a second character (Kavalier) is introduced. For the next chapters (52 pages) it delves into Kavalier's backstory. There is no set up for it, not part of a conversation, it just goes there. Then it comes back to present (although at that point there is a section break).

    I mention this because a) I really like Michael Chabon's writing, and b) so did the Pulitzer committe, for this book. Not that I am trying to put myself on the level of the Pulitzer committee.

    It broke the forward momentum of the story, but as a section of backstory / exposition it was still told in an active, forward moving voice, i.e. it did not back-peddle within itself.

    Bonus questions: Do you think this is important, or are you willing--as a reader--to let writers hand you pages of backstory?

    See prior response. It all depends on how it is done. Do I still get the bonus?

  13. Denver Bibliophile: You say, "When you focus so much on scene, you're moving toward writing a kind of script rather than a novel." Can you expand on this? It's an interesting claim even if I find it doubtful on its face.

  14. Rick: You get the bonus! I have not fallen in love with Chabon's writing, though.

    All: I am not decrying backstory so much as I am trying to avoid infodumps am playing with ways to structure my narrative. As I said to Genie today and wrote last week, I wrap backstory within scenes. Also, as I said today, I had to put down a "novel" last night because there was no drama, just page after page of narrative summary and history and none of the characters came alive for me.

  15. Funny you should mention this. I've been writing a whole series of posts about Scene. Everything I write is scenes.
    Anyways, don't confuse backstory with exposition.
    You can have a scene where backstory is revealed.
    A: Hey, that's a kewl necklace.
    B: Yeah, my dad gave it to me.
    A: I wish my dad would give me stuff like that.
    B: I wish my dad was still alive.

    See? Backstory, all packaged up without a hint of exposition.

    I usually leave to much backstory out, so people get confused and I wind up dripping it back in here and there as needed.

  16. Andrew: No, that is exposition. It's just dramatized. I'm trying to avoid freestanding infodumps, though I also think backstory of any kind should be kept to a minimum.

    Except for in those stories where it shouldn't, which is not most stories.

  17. As a reader, I can handle a few paragraphs of back story and/or exposition at a time. Then I want more action/dialogue. I get bored easily, so while I like having it there, I want it dribbled like frosting. (I'm craving cinnamon rolls, for some reason...)

    As a writer, I try to dribble little swirls of back story and exposition here and there as the action moves forward. I only write in scenes - if it doesn't fit in one scene or another, it doesn't go in. A scene for me must involve some sort of change that drives the plot forward, and generally takes place all in one setting/time, and one POV. Once the change occurs (or shortly after), I start a new scene.

  18. Jamie's comment just made me hungry.

  19. I like backstory as long as it moves the story forward. That sound strange, but you can move a story forward by giving the reader understanding of why a character is the way they are. You don't have to do a data dump to accomplish this, just a sentence or two now and again.

  20. I used to have a serious problem with free form writing, where I would go on and on about what was going on in a character's head, detailing their struggles. Then I realized it was super boring. I still love good narration but in small doses.

  21. Great post...and very timely. I've been trying to teach my ten year old about the basics of writing. Last week we worked on inciting incidents and today we started our discussion on exposition.

  22. I think that scene writing is essentially writing a kind of script because it assumes a camera viewpoint.

    What is a scene, after all? It is action witnessed from a single point of view, in a specific location, in a specific moment in time. It's high point is some sort of change in the situation the character is facing.

    But the prose writer has more options than the simple camera view point it would seem. And why does a highly controlled viewpoint make for interesting fiction writing?

    For example, a book could deal with a single scene experienced from all the points of view.

    Indeed, one could write a novel that deals with an instant in time, the character drinking coffee at a coffee house and being reminded of his entire life.

    You might argue that both examples above require scenes, but is memory, in the second instance, a scene, or more precisely, can memory be best evoked by a scene of action? Perhaps memory is a system of images or symbols?

  23. I don't think that writing in scenes has a given correlation to script writing. Scripts are mainly dialogue. Scant direction is given toward scene settings, and quite often a script will not include extensive direction on character motivation and movement; that is left to the director and/or actors. Scene settings in a script are usually very direct, and not written in a form that would be suitable for narrative prose.

    Structuring a novel in scenes is a more a means for evaluating the plotting and pacing at a macro level.

  24. Denver: I think you are limiting what a scene is, and I also would disagree with the assumption of a camera viewpoint. A literary scene is in prose and is not "seen" or directly "shown" at all, and a great lot of scene content can well be non-visual: the beating of a character's heart, the smells of cooking, a sense of anticipation or relief. These are all non-visual sensations that are common in prose and concede nothing to the idea of a camera.

    I'd also argue that yes, your two examples are in fact just scenes. A scene viewed from five points of view is, from a writer's perspective, five written scenes. Also, the answer to "can memory be best evoked by a scene of action?" may well be yes. See Proust for a few thousand pages of memory-as-scene. I have nowhere argued against digressions within scenes; I do however claim that scene is an excellent framing device for narrative discourse.

  25. Did a lot of thinking about this post last night, and wow, it looks like I have a lot of comments to read over today.

    I think in some genres, backstory is okay as long as it is delivered in an interesting way. Your method of writing mostly scenes is a good one for those of us who rely to heavily on exposition, namely, moi.

    Thanks for such a great discussion.


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