Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Tell Them You "Scene" It Here First

My first novel, Dark Dealings, is dedicated to Barbara Rogan who took on a student “with delusions of authorship”.  She took a group up us and turned the willing and thick-skinned into writers and authors. She is a former literary agent and a professional editor with eight traditionally published novels (and one more on the way) to her credit.

Barbara has been gracious enough to share her wisdom on the making of One Good Scene and what that means for the novel.

I’ll say it straight out: There’s no point writing a novel if you cannot write a scene. It sounds obvious when you say it, but many people try. You don’t have to write short stories to work up to writing a novel; they’re different genres entirely, and not every writer is capable of both.  But you do have to be able to write a knock-out scene before you can hope to write a credible novel, because scenes are the building blocks of stories.

By scenes I mean bits of action that take place in a specific place and time, involving a specific character or characters.  I find it helpful to think of a scene as something you could film in a single location. 

Say we’re writing a story in which a husband and wife quarrel over breakfast. The story follows the wife out to the yard, where she chats with a neighbor while weeding the garden; then it switches to the husband sharpening blades in his workshop. 

How many scenes would it take to convey that action?

If you answered three, we’re on the same page. Each of these three is a separate entity, not only an essential part of the structure we’re creating, but also a pleasing object in itself. Coming up with a story is only a first step; writers then have to break the story down into scenes and write each scene, one at a time. Of course, not every event in a novel can be a scene, or novels would be infinitely long. Virginia Woolf wrote a whole book on one day in the life of Mrs. Dalloway, and even then she couldn’t dramatize every moment and memory. As writers, we need to choose which events to make into scenes, which memories to make into flashbacks. 

Let’s go back to our film analogy one more time. Imagine you’re making a film on a strict budget, and every scene costs a million dollars. How carefully would you plan your scenes? How much would you expect of each?   

Writers have budgets, too, though they’re measured in words instead of dollars. We can only fit so many scenes into a short story or novel, so they’d better be scenes that contribute vitally and in multiple ways to the enterprise. In order to earn its keep, every scene has to multitask. A scene that advances the plot without contributing to characterization, or one that exists only to establish setting or illustrate theme or convey backstory: those are wasted opportunities, empty scenes. A good scene does all those things, or many of them. 

It’s no small thing to write one good scene. The skills required are the same as those required to write a good novel. We need dialogue that entertains even as it advances the story and reveals character and relationships. We need a setting so vividly realized that it can draw readers out of their world and into yours. We need characters driven by their own agendas, which are often imperfectly understood or concealed. We need conflict and tension, not only in every scene but on every page. And we need to create all this in language that is fresh and beautiful.  Language is our medium, our palette. Just as great painters are fanatical about the paints they use, so are great writers choosy with their words. To be a writer is to care, not only about story, but also about language.    

The beauty of focusing on scenes is that they contain all the same ingredients as stories and novels, in smaller amounts: cupcakes as opposed to cakes, let’s say. Over a long career in publishing, as a former agent and editor, and now as a writing teacher, I’ve encountered an awful lot of failed cakes: good story ideas that failed to make the transition into good novels. Those are the writers who inspired my workshop, “One Good Scene,” as a manageable way to learn a challenging craft. If you can write one really good scene, you can write a string of them; you can write a novel.

Barbara Rogan is the author of eight novels, including Suspicion and Hindsight (Simon & Schuster), and coauthor of several nonfiction books. Her books have been widely translated, featured by the major book clubs, optioned for movie and television and issued as audio books and eBooks. Her next novel, A DANGEROUS FICTION, will appear early in 2013 with Viking/Penguin.   

She has also worked extensively in publishing as an editor and a literary agent. She taught fiction writing at Hofstra University and SUNY Farmingdale before starting her own online school, Next Level Workshops. She’s a frequent lecturer on both the business and craft of writing and teaches seminars and master classes at writers’ conferences.

Will you look at your writing or the book you are reading differently? How so?