Thursday, March 13, 2008

Parties and Scenes

The secret to success in either:

Enter late. Leave Early.

You're sitting at your keyboard/typewriter/quill pen/whatever. Ready for the day's writing session. Carol suspects Bob's cheating. Something she found in his sock drawer, perhaps. At any rate, Carol is plenty mad.

Do you start writing....

A) When Carol opens Bob's sock drawer? Perhaps dutifully putting away his laundry, perhaps trying to teach Bob a lesson by shoving the dirty socks he leaves all over the house back in the drawer, or maybe just plain snooping?

B) With Carol, alone in their apartment, drinking and clenching her jaw as afternoon shadows slide across the wall?

C) With Bob entering the apartment, beige walls in the purple twilight, a dark and bristling shape in the center of the room?

D) Somewhere in the middle of dinner: a tense and silent meal punctuated by the clicking of fork on plate?

The only right answer is, as late as possible.

In part, that depends a little on Bob's fidelity. If he's an innocent man accused, you'll want to spend more time building up Carol's fury. We'll get a bigger charge when it's cleared up. Or isn't. Comedy or tragedy, I'd probably start with (B).

If Bob's a cheating dog finally exposed, the emotional flashpoint will be the revelation and Carol's aftermath. Depending on Carol's character (tempestuous or calculating), I'd go (C) or (D).

Notice I wouldn't choose (A). We don't need that setup. If how Carol finds the MacGuffin in Bob's sock drawer is important, let's bring it out in dialogue. After all, innocent or guilty, you can bet Bob will fire back with a few counteraccusations of his own.

Or will he? It's your story.

Do we leave the scene on...

(A) Bob's initial reaction?

(B) That loud slamming door?

(C) Bob's long and lonely night on the couch?

(D) Carol's first breakfast alone in the apartment and the painful, silent hole of Bob's absence?

Again, depends. If Bob's guilty as hell, or Carol just won't believe him, take (A). Yes, that's one very short scene, maybe only a few lines. Bob comes home. Carol's standing there with the McGuffin. Bob's jaw drops open. Carol sees his face and knows.

Notice I used entry (C) there? Part of that is, I'm pretty straight-ahead myself. I understand direct confrontation better than keeping my wrath bottled until halfway through dinner. If Carol is the type to do that, well, that's another story...

But if there's still some hope for this fight, if Carol kind of secretly hopes Bob has a good explanation, or Bob desperately believes his lies might work, or if the MacGuffin that's come out isn't the one Bob *really* fears, we need to stay. We need to stay with that fight.

But AS SOON AS Bob or Carol has what they need from the scene, we. Are. Out of there! No need to stay all the way through the last bitter insult.
For that matter, our entire story should be joined as late as possible, and left as early as practical. The Lord of the Rings has been done; we don't need any more 200+ page denouments.

It works for parties, too. Last night was a Gathering of Clan Dynamo, in celebration of the birthday of Papa Dynamo. A little late, we missed the ceremonial goat-throwing.

And after Elderly Aunt Agatha Dynamo drank that third shandy and decided it would be fun to lift that police car, we knew it was time to go!


Charles Gramlich said...

If you were to start with the first option, you'd also have the option of having her find the "thing," react, but stop there and not tell the reader what it is. Don't let the reader see enough of her reaction to know anything more than that it is upsetting to her.

Then, depending on what it is, either she's waiting for him to get home, or she brings it up at dinner.

cs harris said...

I suspect genre makes a difference, too. A romance writer might start one place, a thriller writer someplace else, a literary writer someplace else again.

This rule--get in a scene (and book) as late as possible, get out when the scene has accomplished its goal--is one of the most important for new writers to learn.

Lana Gramlich said...

Very informative. Have you got such advice regarding painting, perhaps? ;)

Shauna Roberts said...

Useful post, as usual. Thanks.

Clan Dynamo gatherings sound more interesting than Clan Roberts ones. Ours are leavened primarily by practical jokes.

Steve Malley said...

Charles, you have a good point there, especially if the nature of the discovery (or the MacGuffin) are important to the story. But notice that even if you show her finding it, you're still trying to come in as late as possible and leave before the reader sees.

Candy, too right. Romance, the likely emphasis would be on 'did he or didn't he?' Literary works abound with 'now that he did, what happens in the aftermath?' And thrillers, 'Dial M for Murder' comes to mind: 'Is he planning to kill her?'

Lana, when you paint a scene, you already know to go straight for the most important elements. There's no extra canvas to waste.

For painters, the hard part is usually stopping. I'm shocking for putting just that little bit *too* much work into a picture!

Shauna, the Christchurch City Council, three insurance companies and the Fire Department have all formally requested that the mighty Clan Dynamo refrain from any further practical jokes.

SzélsőFa said...

I found this post very useful. Sometimes I write too much about a thing, sometimes it's not informative enough for outsiders.

H.E.Eigler said...

Yet another great post. How do you do it??

This is something I shall remember for quite some time.

Bernita said...

I agree, but I got sidetracked with images from Charles's comment:" she brings it up at dinner."

Steve Malley said...

SzélsőFa, H.E., thank you... :D

Bernita, I've had a few uncomfortable scenes like that myself. Living pure, it seems, is no proof against a suspicious mind.

My personal favorite though, is the confrontation that starts just as I'm drifting off to sleep!

Fortunately, the Tiny Dynamo does not subject me to such excitements. :)

Lisa said...

Another great post and a photo from one of my favorite tearjerkers of all time (yes, I'm a bit of a softie at heart). As a new writer, I frequently think about whether or if I should have started further along into the action. I think "it depends" is the tough thing to figure out. The nice thing is that it's become a habit for me to consider all the possible beginnings and the longer I write, the more fun it gets because I see more possibilities. Thanks for another great post.

Leigh said...

Thanks for this, Steve. This point is only to relevant to my writing - only I wouldn't have known that before reading this post!

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