Tuesday, April 12

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, April 12, 2011 14 comments
"Write what you know" sometimes spills into our approach to scene writing. We stick to the scene format that feels most comfortable to write, whether that's action, dialogue, description, narrative summary or internal monologue. This, my friends, is not good. Can we say "one trick pony"?

Have you picked up a book with too much dialogue and thought, "Would these people shut up already and DO something?" or read something that's action, action, action and felt completely exhausted within 10 pages? Presenting scene after scene in exactly the same manner can become tiresome to read. It can also hamstring your pacing. Tension that's never released tends to fizzle rather than build.

Self-editing for Fiction Writers addresses this particular problem well. The authors' remedy? Mix it up. Avoid putting the same scene format back-to-back. I'd say perhaps an exception would be when there's a chapter break. Example time. I revised a chapter that opens with a dialogue scene. (And by golly am I entirely too addicted to dialogue scenes.) In it, the MC's grandfather drops a large family secret in her lap. Narrating the event would have sucked away tension, so the dialogue is staying. My problem was the follow-up scene. What I shouldn't have is more dialogue, at least not a scene that's driven by it. But alas, that's what I'd drafted. My fix? Rewrite that scene as narrative summary--not telling it in flashback, but reporting the scene events in story "real time." I also included some action to pick up the pace.

If I wanted to slow the pace, my best option would be an interior monologue section. Slower yet? Interior monologue with flashbacks. Narrative summary doesn't come naturally for me. But craft trumps comfort. The more I banged away at it and read writers who do it well, the more the scenes flowed.

So, my friends, get out the carrot or the whip, but by golly, teach that pony some new tricks.

What scene format do you use most frequently? Which is hardest for you and why? How might revising for scene variety improve your story's texture and pacing?

This is a repost from November 2009.
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  1. Writing only what you know can be limiting and keep you in a rut, but it does take some courage.. I like how you've shown the different pace levels. Informative and helpful article.

  2. I tend to vary it naturally, according to what is happening in the story at the time. I like the ebb and flow of shifting from action, to dialogue, to description, and back again.

  3. PS I love that book! It's one of my faves.

  4. I have to consciously add scenes that are mostly dialogue. My books get too bogged down with description and thought. Sometimes I'll think to myself: this whole next chapter needs to get the information out there with a long conversation because my characters need to talk!

  5. Good article. Its great to get all that info on pacing.

  6. I do have that book. It's a good one. I'm a dialogue gal. I love writing dialogue. I tend to write it first then I go back and try to sprinkle in narrative. I don't want my manuscripts to be too chatty.

  7. Great advice. I end up loving stories that have that ebb and flow with their scenes.

  8. Good food for thought. I need to check out that book! :)

  9. Great post! I managed a lot of scene variety almost providentially in my first novel. We'll see how that works out for my second. :-)

  10. I spread the pony around equally, but I have noticed, I start the book off slowly and then by the last third I'm racing to the ending, amping up the tension. Building for the big climax, as it were. Most people say this is bad for the book, but I say no. When I read, I like to be led in gently, allowing me to get into it, and then be raced to the end.

    Write what you know, and like, I guess. More or less.

  11. Jade: Scene uniformity is the kind of rut that can really hurt pacing. It does take courage to try other types for sure.

    Christine: That's great. I'm finding it helpful, following Browne and King, to ask "which narrative method will be the best way to present this scene?"

    Candice: Adding more dialogue will definitely make your characters more real to readers. You might benefit from Sandra Scofield's _The Scene Book_ for getting a handle on other scene types beyond descriptive and narrative summary.

  12. Aine: I wish I could remember which of my reference books rates the pacing of each scene type! My rough guess would be to rate them from slowest to fastest this way: Setting description, interior monologue with flashbacks, interior monologue, dialogue, narrative summary, action.

    Christine: I'm a dialogue gal too. Our weakness is ending up with inaction as well as dramatizing events that don't merit it. Narrative summary is hard, but it's a good way to power through chunks of time and not dwell on unimportant details.

    Laura: Me too. It was a lightbulb moment for me to see an editing book address this issue, and seeing how it could improve my story pacing.

  13. Karen: The authors are Renni Browne and Dave King. It's a great resource.

    Rosslyn: Thanks. I thought I had it in an early draft, only to discover my manuscript was far too dialogue heavy. One of the biggest fixes of my rewrite was changing scene types, which made a huge improvement.

    Anne: I've seen plenty of books that start quiet and grow increasingly fast as the story progresses. As long as the later fastness is foreshadowed a little and not sprung on the readers out of nowhere, I think it can be an effective way to pace.

  14. wow! That's an interesting question and I have to confess, something I've never thought about. I'll have to take a look at this~ :D <3