Some more questions and comments from a reader of this blog.
Interesting discussion on 'setting the scene'. A few question some to mind:
1. How do you know when you've got 'just enough' vs too much info to set the stage and pique the reader's interest...ie, get the milieu (world) of the scene's story?
I don't. I rely on two things: 1. does it entertain me, 2. Does it entertain my prepub readers. I think I'm harder than anyone else on my own writing. If I don't feel that it is entertaining, I write it over and over again until it feels right. In terms of setting the scene, as opposed to the interest of the reader, I do know what to do for that, and I am constantly tweaking the writing to improve it. The first is this: the scene must be set in terms of time (date and time of day), place (environment, weather, all the details), characters (appearance, clothing, equipment), and reason. This information doesn't have to be recited right at the beginning, but it has to be put right up front and focus the reader. It is like a stage play. The play can't go one until the stage is set (not an empty stage here). The scene like a stage must be set. The writer has powerful tools that can allow the reader to see, hear, feel, smell, and taste everything that is going on in the scene. You have written enough when your readers can experience the scene through all of their senses.
2. Just as a novel has a whole structure, prume,so does each individual scene. So wondering, do you have a general rule of thumb which stipulates how much attention, to spend on developing a given scene?
(I'm not talking about short transitional scenes, which simply bridge, and don't require special treatment...I'm talking about substantial scenes.)
To me all scenes are substantial. In other words, if the novel is unchanged when the scene is left out, then the scene is unnecessary and should be left out. Even a "bridging" scene must be important. I try to make them important or I try to fit them at the end or beginning of an important event. So each scene theoretically gets the same attention as every other one. That doesn't happen. Pivotal scenes are just that, they are so important that I can't help but think about them for days until they are written. Sometimes I find that unprogressive. I make lots of notes and hope I don't lose the strength of the writing before the scene comes together. The trick it to try to give as much attention to those scene leading and following a pivotal scene to ensure they are strong in themselves.
Also, I presume, you've got an objective or need for each character in a scene...and, you're trying to create rising tension..(to satisfy the need) throughout the scene's progression....
This is a great point. Like the purpose of the scene itself in the novel, every word is carefully chosen, each bit of punctuation is placed to make the most of the entire scene. Likewise the characters are each necessary, their entry is specific and their descriptions are critical. I use the Arlo Guthrie method of introducing a character (and place) with at least 100 to 300 words of description. This ensures the placement of the character and the theme. After the place and the character is introduced the first time, you may then use defining characteristics to set the character or the scene the next time you bring them on stage. For example, if a character has a big nose, you can easily wax eloquent about the nose in the first introduction. You then just make the point about Lou's big nose when you bring him back again. That allows your readers to immediately see the character in their mind again. For a place the description might be the smell of the mold from the old furniture. When you go back to the house, a reminder about the smell sets the scene again. One thing I dislike in some authors is that they fail to introduce or reintroduce their characters properly. I get confused when confronted with just a name without any description. Writing without sufficient description is like a blank mask on your characters or an empty stage.
3. Do you primarily use dialogue or actions of the characters to create a compelling scene? Rule of thumb, or ratio?
I try to make all the writing dialog or action narrative. In other words, if the story isn't going through with dialog, it's because it is moving with action (showing you what is happening). I prefer dialog. To me, dialog is truly life. This is how the world really runs. Who cares what a person did. What is more compelling is when that person tells why they did it to another person--or lies about it. That's when you begin to understand about the characters. There is no ratio, but I find that 80 percent of my writing or more is dialog.
4. Do you give alot of thought, to the "point of attack" ...the point at which you have the character enter the scene? Is it usually at an entry point, mid point or exit point of a scene? Any rule of thumb?
Ah, these are screenplay terms. In general, the setup for a scene is at least one character. The other characters enter based solely on the storyline for the scene. So, in my way of looking at scenes, I have a scene input and a scene output. The point is the input and the output. The stuff in between is the storyline. That storyline must fit into the plot, and that plot must fit into the theme. So they enter and exit just based on these points. I'm not sure I can be more general than that. Let me use the example of the very first chapter and scene of Daemon. We have Aksinya conjuring a demon. The scene is set. Aksinya goes about her business and you have a demon. The input of the scene is Aksinya's sorcery. The output is the contract with the demon. The demon appears at just the important point in the scene. His appearance supports the storyline, plot, and theme.
5. How much attention to you give to the "back story" or exposition? that is... elements of the character's biography that are crucial to the story developing?
Obviously, good (believable) novel & screenplays contains back story because every believable character brings a certain amount of baggage to a drama.
I want to give these details through mostly dialog with other characters. In other words, you get it when the other characters in the novel get it. This goes back to my point that I want my readers to know as much as the characters in the story know. I don't like omniscient storylines. In Daemon, at the beginning, I do give you some information about Aksinya's back story as description--that's because the reader needs some tangible info to set the scene. Note, I don't give you anything about he demon except external description. And all you get from that point is almost 100% external description and dialog. Thus in dialog, you learn so much more about Aksinya. That's the trick, every time she opens her mouth, you learn a little more about her. Some of it is back story. Some is mundane, but you find out what moves her soul.
6. What are some effective ways of weaving different scenes and storylines together?
Wow, this is a very hard question to answer. The primary means is through the characters themselves. The last time I addressed comments, there were some wonderful points about items--things. I said watch for them in the development of the novel. Items, like those mentioned before--we will see a bookstand becomes an item that weaves the scenes and storylines together. A crucifix will do the same. Aksinya's mother's dresses. Sorcery weaves together the overall scenes and storyline. The idea of temptation. Like the multiple levels of the plot that I am trying to write into this novel, the multiple characters, items, and ideas provide the glue that holds the scenes and storyline together.
7. Do you have a preferred technique for revealing facts about a person...ie, props, clothing, makeup, language (accent), behavior, musing, dialogue?.
I love to use language differences to bring out compelling things about a person. The wrapper is important to me, but not as important as the words. When Aksinya tells the demon to "shut up," you know he has touched a nerve. I don't have to have her say anything else.
I suspect most back story, however, is conveyed through dialogue. After all, good exposition doesn't stick out...it is presented in a believable context.
Yes, great observation. Mostly through dialog, some through description.
(Suspect it's easy to overload the reader with too much information.)
I'm not sure that is possible with dialog. It is certainly possible with description. The point of dialog is that it is ultimately entertaining. Just as we like to discuss subjects, readers like to eavesdrop on the character's discussions. If the dialog is entertaining, the reader won't care how much information you are pumping out. In fact, the information flow can be enormous and as long as the reader is entertained with the repartee, they won't get tired of it. For example, in the last bit of dialog between Aksinya and the demon, I laid a bunch of heavy stuff on the reader.
“No! I haven’t rejected Him. I believe in Him. How could I not believe—I’ve seen demons. If there are demons, there is God.” She glanced down, “I don’t trust Him. I knew He would fail me. I didn’t expect you to fail me or my own strength to fail me.”
Asmodeus picked his teeth with a claw, “I didn’t fail you—you called me too late. You failed, Countess Aksinya Andreiovna Golitsyna. I didn’t fail and that guy didn’t fail—you failed. Come, you’ve seen her. Now is the time to go.”
You have to admit, this is some really deep dodo. The reader may or may not take the time to think about these statements. I do believe they are entertaining in themselves, so most readers will just keep reading, entertained and yet musing about the astounding things the demon and Aksinya just said to one another.
8. Do you tend to reveal background info early in the story, but, withhold certain facts for dramatic effect. I've heard come writers say secrets are the most powerful form of back story, and whole dramas can revolve around them. Do you employ it, often?
I suspect, knowing how and when to expose details about a character's past is a real art form.
I don't call them secrets (although that is a perfect characterization of it). As I mentioned, I don't want my readers to know more than the characters in the story. Now, we know there are things the characters haven't shared with us--like Aksinya's real father. You might have guessed there is an issue here. I may not have laid enough clues. That's what further run throughs do is allow the writer to improve the foreshadowing and the proper revelation of these points. Indeed a secretive character might have secrets and a nonsecretive character might have secrets. The point is that we never know all of anyone's "secrets" even if we know them well. The same is true for characters in a novel--we don't know everything about them and, indeed, those things of importance to the plot are revealed in their proper time. Just like the observation of the servant in the last installment. I've tried to excite the readers about who this servant is and the proper revelation of these points. Indeed a secretive character might have secrets and a nonsecretive character might have secrets. The point is that we never know all of anyone's "secrets" even if we know them well. The same is true for characters in a novel--we don't know everything about them and, indeed, those things of importance to the plot are revealed in their proper time. Just like the observation of the servant in the last installment. I've tried to excite the readers about who this servant might be. I didn't give any clues at all. The demon didn't drop hardly any. When you finally see her, what is your response? Relief? Fear? Wonder? Excitement? Does it make you wonder more, like Aksinya, just who is this servant?
9. Do you employ set-ups & pay offs; like screen writers do? That is, a set up introduces a bit of action, that will become significant later on and lead to a pay-off.
Yes, big time. I just don't refer to them as setups and pay offs. Generally, the foreshadowing, items, characters, settings in a scene are all setups for further scenes. Just as the dresses and the jewelry boxes mentioned in chapter two, the sorcery books and items in chapter one, the hunger, cold, and tiredness of Aksinya in chapter three everything is a setup. Each will bring some large or small pay off. Otherwise, what's the point of mentioning it.
10. Do you usually close out a scene on a button? You know, something to seal off the scene with a punch....maybe, some type of narrative tool to make the scene stand out, and alone.
More screenplay terms. Yes, I attempt to close out every scene with a specific punch. No scene should just peter out. They have to have some tight ending to wrap them up and push the reader into the next scene.
The true end of the last scene I gave you:
“Close your mouth, Countess Aksinya Andreiovna Golitsyna, now is the time for us to act.”
“I don’t understand you at all.”
“You will.” - there is your "button"
The one prior:
Aksinya watched him move toward the back of the house. When he was out of sight, she sat on the chest. After a bit, she curled up on the top of it and pulled the coat close. Her breath came in white clouds. She closed her eyes. - there is the "button" She closes her eyes and that closes the scene.
Prior to that:
The streetcar came up, and they boarded. Asmodeus paid the fare. They rode the streetcar past the city center and out toward the west side. Aksinya sat and Asmodeus stood. Certainly the world changed to accommodate a nearly seven foot tall demon who carried a gigantic chest on his shoulders. He seemed to fit on the streetcar without trouble. The entire world suddenly seemed less solid to Aksinya than ever before. - the "button"
The end of each scene is unique. It leaves a thought in the mind of the reader, or it closes the scene like a curtian on a stage.
That's it until tomorrow. I'm trying to decide how to break up the next very important (pivotal) scene. This is where Aksinya calls her servant.