Sunday, August 31, 2014

Scene construction

Many of the scenes I see written by first novelists lack structure, development, and purpose. They seem to be the result of the writer’s thinking, “Oh, I guess I’ll start a scene here” and “Well, I guess I’ll end the scene now.” That’s not what you should do. Ya gotta have a plan, Stan.

To construct a fully fledged scene you have to begin with the proper scene framing (see my previous post about scene framing), and you have to include enough action to produce a well “rounded” scene. Scenes are the building blocks of your story. Each one should relate a significant, self-contained episode that has a beginning, a middle, and an end, just as the novel as a whole should have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

This is the basic, age-old dramatic structure that Aristotle first called the “narrative arc.” Instead of using the terms beginning, middle, and end, we can describe the narrative arc of a story as the Complication, the Crisis, and the Resolution. Novelists need to think of each scene as a ministory with a similar narrative arc.

Just as important is determining the purpose of the scene. If a writer doesn’t know what purpose the scene will serve, then it will likely lack structure and the proper development. To help guide you in writing a scene, keep this list handy:

The SCENE’S PURPOSE is to:           

            • Move the main plot line ahead
            • Present necessary information

            • Introduce or develop characters

            • Create atmosphere or develop setting

            • Introduce or worsen a problem

            • Solve a problem

            • Set up a later scene

The scene should serve at least one of these purposes.

Also, during the planning stage of your scene, ask yourself these questions:

·      Who will be the viewpoint character?
·      What other characters will be in this scene?
·      Where will this scene take place?
·      When will it take place?
·      What is the primary action that will occur in the scene?
·      What will generate conflict?

Do all these things, and you will have an effective scene that will encourage readers to keep reading your story.

Paul Thayer

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

He said/she said

Many new authors are fond of substituting more lively words for that simple, all-purpose word said when they attribute dialogue. Popular examples include laughed, chuckled, growled, gasped, moaned, hissed, and spat, all of which are impossible to do while you’re trying to say something intelligible. I especially like the word gushed: “She has made me the happiest man in the world,” he gushed. When a character does that, I think, Who is this guy, Old Faithful? Somebody who has just barfed on my shoes?

What people actually do is say a sentence, laughing, gasping, growling, etc., either before or after it. You’ll look more professional if you stick with plain words like said, asked, cried, called, whispered, and shouted and then amplify how the person delivers his dialogue: “Stop, you’re killing me!” Tom said, laughing so hard that tears streamed down his cheeks. Or you could try it this way: “Stop, you’re killing me!” Tom said. He laughed so hard that tears streamed down his cheeks. If you’re writing in the first person, you could also say: “He won’t be coming back,” I told him (or “he/she told him,” if you’re writing in the third person).

Wanting to use more descriptive verbs when you’re attributing dialogue is tempting, I know, but simple words like said are functional. They’re almost invisible because they’re used so frequently. The reader flies past them, so the reading experience is not disrupted. Unusual words are intrusive, making the reader aware of the author.

Another danger of finding alternatives for said is the tendency to use transitive verbs improperly. For example, you may write, “Blah, blah, blah,” Julia interrupted. Interrupt may be used as both a transitive and an intransitive verb, but it’s transitive when its used to mean “to break in with questions or remarks while another is speaking.” Therefore, the transitive verb interrupted must have an object: Julia has to interrupt someone. So you have to write, “Julia interrupted her,” or something similar. A better solution, however, is to stick with said, using the abrupt end of the other character’s speech (shown via the em dash) to communicate the interruption. Example:

Julia whirled on him and said, “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you—”
“Damn right you know better,” Mark said, “so let’s just drop the subject.”

A better way to play the dialogue attribution game is simply refraining from using them. When only two people are talking, readers have no trouble determining who’s speaking if you start a new paragraph at every speaker change. To see samples of how few saids you can get away with, read a novel or two by Elmore Leonard and Robert B. Parker.

I'll bet you a million bucks that neither one of them ever used the word gushed.

Paul Thayer

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Scene framing

Novelists should settle their readers quickly into each scene. To accomplish that, do the following:

  • Identify the setting and give the reader a sense of where we are.
  • Let the reader know how much time has passed since the previous scene.
  • Indicate who your point-of-view character is and describe his/her frame of mind.
  • Mention everyone who is present so that a character doesn’t suddenly pop up out of nowhere or so that character’s dialogue doesn’t come as a surprise to the reader.
  • Subtly place any props your characters need, so when they reach for a briefcase or gun or chair, readers will already have that object in their vision of the setting.

For variety, offer these required elements in a different order each time you write a scene. You can make a quick check of your scene framing by asking Who? What? Where? When?

Paul Thayer

Sunday, August 10, 2014


In most cases, use the active voice of verbs instead of the passive voice. The passive voice moves the object of the verb to a superior position as the subject of the sentence, relegating the proper subject to an inferior role.


Jewelry is often stolen by burglars. [passive]

Burglars often steal jewelry. [active]

Passive forms often use the verb was:

          Oxygen was discovered in 1774 by Joseph Priestly. [passive]

          Joseph Priestly discovered oxygen in 1774. [active]

In the examples above, the proper subject—the doer of the action—often gets lost in the shuffle. Or, you might say, the actor has been removed from the action.

The active voice is almost invariably more vigorous, direct, and vivid and therefore keeps the action in sharper focus for the reader.

You don’t have to change every passive construction to an active one. For instance, various stock locutions such as The project was abandoned and The Romans were defeated are perfectly acceptable.

Also, the passive voice is useful when the doer of the action is unknown or unimportant:

The lock was broken sometime after four o’clock. [Who broke the lock is unknown]

In 1899, a peace conference was held at The Hague. [This sentence comes from an essay by E.B. White. In this case, the doers of the action—the holders of the conference—are unimportant to White’s point.]

Paul Thayer