Setting up Scenes
As pointed out earlier, there should be a big question that drives your characters forward toward a resolution. The individual scenes you write should tie into this question and continue to serve the plot. This is Writing Fiction 101, right?
Well, like many hobbyists, I tend to forget this precept while mapping out scenes. Mostly because I don’t map them out. I just write them one after the other, which leads to the problem I mentioned earlier with characters floating about detached from one another in the middle of the crazy world I’ve created. So, the lesson to be learned here is that the small scenes need as much careful handling as the big question. In fact, they are all tied together so perhaps they need even more care because they butt up against each other and can ruin the flow for the reader if they are not properly planned.
Zuckerman leads us into several examples. The first from Mario Puzo. In The Godfather, Puzo uses two different techniques to set up his scenes: shock and awe, and asking the question directly through internal monologue. Shock and awe (my term not Zuckerman’s) is pretty much just like it sounds. You open up a scene with some horrific act, something that really jolts the reader. Puzo does this with a horse’s head. I’m sure you know the scene from the film. But in the novel, it begins with Tom Hagen working in his office. He gets a call from Jack Woltz, who screams horrible obscenities. As a reader, we’re left to wonder why would someone do this? Well, waking up next to your prize racehorse’s head is bound to set even the most stable of characters on a bit of an edge. In fact, I suppose this could be said of any head in the bed – horse or not. But as a reader, we are hooked into the scene because we naturally want to find out what caused the outburst. Once we’re hooked, the novelist can proceed into the reflection of events that led up to the scene.
But there is more to this method than simply blowing things up. Puzo uses Hagen to gain our sympathy because he is a character we like, and to have someone yelling at him should naturally raise our dander. It’s a complex bit of footwork, and Zuckerman provides a great background on the method.
The second technique is more traditional. A future event is called out at the beginning of the scene and then we watch as things unfold in the normal manner. This gives the reader something to anticipate versus the detective work of finding out what happened after the fact. While each method stands alone, it is combination of the techniques that leads to a more enjoyable reading experience.
How to Ask a Question
While reading draft chapters of my work in progress, my son made the following observation:
In every chapter you ask a question and then you answer it.
I wasn’t quite conscious of such a predictable pattern, but eight year-olds are great at pointing out the obvious.
Now, you might ask if this asking of questions is a good thing or a bad thing. After all, you’ve probably read a number of writing books yourself and this is invariably the sort of advice they provide. However, very few actually explain how one goes about asking a question and how one uses that question (and others to follow) to build anticipation of the resolution.
Zuckerman does a decent job of this in the next two sections of the book. He explains that a question need not be something of the shock and awe variety, it can be more personal, though in order to sustain a reader through tens of pages it must have some clear consequence.
In my book, I have a scene where one of the main characters sees a battle raging around a castle far off in the night. Firebombs are bursting against the castle walls. It is a beautiful sight when witnessed at a distance. And while the castle does not seem to retaliate at all, there is a lone light in the tallest tower, and in the window there is a figure. The POV character is too far away to see anything else, but she feels that the character is staring out across the distance, looking directly at her.
The question here is, “Who is the figure at the window?” But what is the consequence? Is it enough to have a mysterious shadow watching? Probably not (though my son is eagerly awaiting the answer). How much better would this scene be if we knew that the main character had to go to the castle? She will of course, but I haven’t done anything at all to set that up. At the moment, this is just a scene that lets me play with the poetry of watching a night-time battle. In fact, the character watching the battle is so disconnected that after watching the mesmerizing beauty of the silent assault she promptly falls asleep.
If you character falls asleep, this is probably a good sign that you haven’t invested enough emotional connection between the question and the character. I notice this sort of thing in other books too. The author usually writes it off as the character being tired from all of the previous action, and while this is plausible, it hardly makes the question an active one worth answering. Think about that a little while looking at your own work.
Zuckerman suggests that while reviewing your own scenes you should pinpoint the climax and work around that instead of working toward it. If the scene doesn’t have a climax, you’d better get one or else the scene isn’t going to be worth printing.
So, we’ve had a little lesson on scene building and now we enter a new chapter on building the really big scenes in your novel. Zuckerman defines a big scene as:
To generate a the kind of power that places a scene into the “big” category, a scene often contains a startling surprise, is built around a powerful conflict, substantially alters the situation, plans, hopes, dreams of one or more major characters, and extends over a goodly number of pages. More often than not, too, its core action stems from one or both characters’ desperately wanting something from the other.
There’s a lot to be learned from this fragment. First, a big scene involves the major characters destinies. Second, one would be wise to put the major characters at odds with one another.
In my first book, one of my “big” scenes involves a major character watching a minor character make an idiot of himself. I actually built up this scene over the course of several chapters, eluding to the coming action. Then, when the minor character slips up the major character steps in and has a very emotional argument with someone else. Lots of action, but no consequences, especially for the major character. So, in reality, this isn’t a big scene and may not be a minor one either as it doesn’t do a heckuva lot to advance the plot.
While the book in question is beyond the point of salvation, I might be bold enough to say that if I had replaced the stranger with whom the major character has an argument with another major character I might have the workings of something good, this assumes that the argument is over something that each character wants from the other.
Zuckerman gives us some advice here about building up the big scene. First, he suggests that we continually heighten the drama. After conflict A, introduce conflict B, then C and so on. Each one swirling onto the next and creating that rising action between major characters that will result in something critical exploding and changing the direction of the story. Next, he he suggests the use of “devices”, action which might seem natural in the course of events but actually furthers the increasing tension. His examples are eavesdropping and plain old coincidence. However you get there, the idea is surprise the reader, shock and or move them, and show the major characters have had their lives transformed.
I realize that this last bit might be a bit vague. I’ve searched my own work for a good example of this, but I know from experience that my stories are very short on this type of material. It’s one reason they have not been successful.
Zuckerman provides good examples through and I would encourage you to check them out.
Defining the Climax
The classic writing book ploy is to give you a nice story graph explaining how to build tension and drama until you reach the pinnacle, the climax, and then you roll down the gentle slope called denouement. Zuckerman of course expects that you have not only read other writing books but that you’ve in fact written a few so that this is old hat. Still, I think it is always a good idea to keep this in mind, especially if you tend to wander about your scenes without creating enough dramatic tension (i.e. emotional investment between characters) – like I do.
While the main plot has this classic shape, all of the smaller scenes in your book should have the same sort of flow. Doesn’t have to be the classic shape of course, there can (and perhaps should) be little ebbs and flows as we gradually gain altitude, but eventually you need to reach that peak.
So, what does the peak look like?
In most big novels, this resolution takes place between major characters, usually protagonist and antagonist, but not always.
Zuckerman goes on to show how this works in several of the books he diagrams, but essentially it comes down to several key points.
1. How well the author prepares us for the big scene by using smaller scenes.
2. The surprise or surprises the big scenes reveal.
3. The intensity of the conflict between major characters based on what they desperately need from each other.
4. How the lives and plans of those characters are transformed.
5. How the scene extends to other scenes
In the final subsection, Zuckerman brings this altogether to build the climax of the novel itself (although he doesn’t tell us that this is what he’s doing). It’s a little awkward so again, I will provide the high points.
1. Does your book contain a good number of big scenes?
2. Check to see if some of your scenes “contrive extension.” This doesn’t mean you should pad with extra dialogue or description. You need twists and complications, reversals of fortune. In other words, the highs and lows that keep the emotional pitch of the novel ratcheted up to the highest levels.
3. Do you have enough lead in before the big scenes? You have to pave the way with details and questions before you can lead into the serious action that turns the fate of the major characters.
4. Does the final scene, the climax of thee story, involve the major opposing characters squaring off against each other to resolve the “big question”?
You might have some problems if you don’t meet these criteria. Of course, writers produce bestselling books without hitting each point. Just remember that Zuckerman is giving you the benefit of his experience.
The Tangled Skein: Weaving Plot Strands
I’ve always loved that word, skein. There’s a novel by Piers Anthony with that very name. Anyway, after getting through the work of plotting scenes according to Zuckerman’s guidelines, we get to the fun part of pulling it all together.
In this section of the book, we learn about backstory (the story behind the story), tightening the focus, controlling the number of characters. These three elements tend to oppose one another in the development of a novel. Zuckerman doesn’t do a good job of explaining this though, and I think that here, just 50 pages from the end, he is starting to loose steam. But there are good lessons to be learned, as long as they are placed into the proper context.
I love backstory. In fact, I love it so much I end up writing more than I could ever possibly use. P.G. Wodehouse (the author of the Jeeves and Bertie Wooster stories along with dozens of other characters) had the same problem. In his book about writing, he mentions that he sometimes has to write 150,000 words just to feel like he is getting warmed up to a story. Now, given that most of his books run 40,000 words, it makes you wonder what gems (or dogs) ended up on the cutting room floor.
When outlining and plotting, you will focus on the story at hand. Backstory though goes back as far as it has to, sometimes all the way to the beginning of a character’s existence. While you may put some of this into the novel, you should be prepared to let quite a bit of it go. Think of it as being there for your use only, to keep the character fresh in your mind.
Now that I’ve told you to ignore backstory, I’m going to tell you the opposite. Why? Because backstory is one good way to get around the thorny question of exposition. If you have a backstory, you can work small bits of it into the story as flashbacks (for example) which allow the reader to learn about a character by living through their eyes, versus having some boring scene where the character finds a reason to tell someone all about their life story. Nothing is worse than having someone tell you their life story. Why? Because it’s boring!
I know you probably have an aunt or an uncle, a grandfather, or even a friend, who’s lived an exciting life; swashbuckling adventures from one end to the other, never a dull moment. No? Well imagine what it might be like if your main character suddenly got the urge to tell you everything that ever happened to them without a break and without context.
This is where it might be good to remember that a little bit goes a long way. It will serve you well.
Zuckerman gives two examples of how to use backstory that I think are valuable:
It’s good practice to bring in the past (in flashback or memory) when it has a direct bearing on what’s happening… A similar and equally good technique is to bring a character to a moment of decision, slip back into the past, and then use this past event as the influencing or triggering factor for how the character chooses to act.
Backstory isn’t required though for all stories. Some thrillers for example focus entirely on the present. Zuckerman points out The Firm by John Grisham as an example where backstory is chucked for the action. What an author gives up without backstory is depth of character, and if you are going to make that trade you need to keep the focus on the action to account for the deficit.
Because I’m a fan of backstory, I’m going to file the pacing thing but I probably won’t use it.
Tightening Character Focus
This one is pretty simple. While pulling scenes together, make sure the action occurs between the main characters as often as possible. This keeps the story moving forward and excites the readers. I tend to wander off with minor characters all the time. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is one of my favorite film adaptations of Hamlet, but of course the major characters are not the stars but the minor players. This makes for good art cinema, but I think the general population would have a hard time getting this story let alone enjoying it. So keep that in mind.
Controlling the Number of Characters
This is an extension of the previous section. Basically, eliminate/combine characters wherever you can. If you can’t get rid of them (and some do tend to hang around no matter what yo do), try to keep them from being POV.
In reading this advice, I am tempted to throw down the pen and shout at the top of my lungs, “Well where is the fun in that!”
Zuckerman though has a good reason for eliminating characters. Often, when we are writing about characters we love, we tend to soften the blows of life by putting in buffers. These buffers stand between our characters and the most painful moments. They help characters through the problems they face, and that’s all well and good, but we are not conducting a therapy workshop for fictional entities. We are writing a novel and pain is an essential element of good fiction (literary, popular, or otherwise). Putting in the buffers makes our major characters seem weak. Forcing a character to struggle on their own creates empathy and we rejoice when they are successful. Zuckerman gives a practical example but I encourage you to think about it in terms of buffers. Look to you own work and find out who the buffers are, try eliminating them and making your majors do the heavy lifting. They will not only surprise you, but you will have a stronger book for it.
Rhythm in Plotting
As you might expect, this chapter is about the ups and downs of the plot. However, the title is unfortunate because some authors will blow right by this chapter thinking they already know about these things. Didn’t I, a total amateur, cover them a few paragraphs back?
Well, the lessons to be learned from this short chapter will help you tremendously. Because while we might talk about the ups and downs of the plot, this chapter is really about pacing not rhythm. It’s about working the story so that you get the maximum punch from your biggest scenes and create layers of fiction that enrich your tale.
Zuckerman begins with subplots. Writers know all about subplots. These are the twisty-turny things that happen between characters all over the story. The story within the story, you might say. However, they also serve the purpose of breaking up the main action. If you are writing a thriller, a subplot will give your reader a breather between rounds. If you are writing a romance, a subplot may give you an added burst of intrigue. No matter the genre though, a subplot must be made to serve the main plot. This is the turn that some writers never get around to making. If you have as story within a story that is primarily filler, then you’ve missed the point entirely.
The opposite of a subplot is a character who provides comic relief. This a screwball who flies in and out of the story and does outrageous things. Zuckerman says this relaxes the reader, and a writer is well served to follow-up their appearance with a powerful big scene. I suppose that’s why its called comic relief.
Before you go writing the Three Stooges into your story note that Zuckerman still encourages us to think about diversionary characters as servants of the plot. They ease up the tension a bit but they can also be vehicles for action.
A great modern example of this is Dobby in Harry Potter. Here is a character who does a lot of wacky things and yet, he also provides help to Harry when he needs it. Some people see Dobby as a useless addition, but who would have saved Harry from Lucius Malfoy?
Zuckerman opens this section with two great lessons in writing the Big Novel.
The one aspect of a blockbuster novel’s structure that usually keeps a reader turning the pages more than any other is pace — storytelling that move relentlessly forward, constantly repositioning the characters, and posing ever new dramatic questions in the reader’s mind.
The novelist must develop and twist and spin even within each scene in small units of action that endure for a page or two or even less.
Change is the key element here. There must be something new. Action takes place and the situation evolves as quickly as possible. You must move forward, but you cannot do so blindly. You must leave markers for the reader and these are what Zuckerman called the Story Points.
Story Points take the reader from the beginning to the end of the chapter and form the path by which we will resolve the main action of scenes along the way. They are the things that readers will remember as they move forward through your thrilling Big Novel.
Fluff aside, the story points are where the real work of your creative powers will show themselves.
I mentioned earlier that my son pointed out that I ask a question and answer a question in each chapter of the book I’m working on right now. As I look at that work, I see that indeed this is exactly what I do. Whether they are good questions or bad, right or wrong, is inconsequential at the moment. The point is, I ask the questions and answer them. However, how do I get to the answers? Well, it’s a bit of a muddle quite frankly. And reading about story points I see why… I haven’t worked out the details well enough to maintain the pace of the story. The distance between the markers is either too far or too short.
Zuckerman uses the metaphor of beats to give a flavor of how story points actually work, and I think this helps because I might be tempted to put in three or four story points in a fifteen page chapter. However, if they are heartbeats, then I suppose there ought to be one on every page if not more. As it turns out, this is exactly what Zuckerman recommends.
Tick, tick, tick. Keep the change moving forward and the beat goes on.
When I first started writing, I hated revising my work. I wanted to be done with it, to move on, to get with the next thing. So many ideas, so little time. Yet, after years of trial and failure, I have come to love revision. Sometimes a bit too much in fact, because there is always something you can be fiddling with.
To some writers, revision is copyediting. Commas, periods, grammatical rules, and a bunch of stuff that probably sets most people off revision. The good news that, as Nick Tosches put it in In The Hand of Dante, “They got people to do all that crap for you.” He’s a bit rougher, but the sentiment is true. This doesn’t mean you should turn in a shoddy manuscript, but really… There is plenty of time for commas after the contract is signed (at least that’s what it seems like to me).
I realized that revision was about making the story better. This coincided with my discovery that Jack Kerouac was not only dead wrong about “First thought, best thought” he was also lying. They mythology is that Kerouac wrote On the Road on a roll of paper he taped together. He typed at 100 wpm (hopped up on speed) and cranked out the book in three weeks. I don’t know if anyone else has said this before, I’m sure they have, but let me state it for the record: This is a lie. At a bare minimum, it is an extreme extension of the facts but I frankly believe this to be a premeditated act of marketing.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved On the Road, but so many writers who start young read about Kerouac and think that if he did it, so could they. Why revise when you can publish? Well, that’s what the Internet is for I guess, but if you want to be in print you’d better learn to love revision and realize that everyone revises, regardless of what they say in the literary biographies.
Obviously, this makes me a little hot under the collar, but I wasted a lot of time by not taking the bit firmly between my teeth and realizing that writing was work. True, it is work that I love, but it is work nonetheless. Learn from my mistakes.
Once you get past this and understand that everyone revises their work, you will probably start to enjoy it. In fact, taking a piece that I’ve written in the heat of inspiration and then carving it up in the cold light of the next day is one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve ever had. I marvel at the beauty of the sentences as they rolled off of my fingers. I wonder, “Who the heck wrote this?” And then, I destroy it because while I understand the raw nature of what I’ve written and find it amazing, no one else is going to appreciate it the same way. How can they when half of it is still in my head? How can they when the first two sentences of paragraph A would really work much better in paragraph C?
I encourage you to read this chapter closely. Zuckerman provides strong examples off first and final drafts from The Man from St. Petersburg along with an analysis of the changes. Essentially, this is an application of all the lessons given in the book: tightening character focus, sharpening story points, dealing with backstory (exposition!), and more. Love revision and it will love you back. Revise with a reason and you will love the result.
Getting Published and Onto the Bestseller Lists
This is where you go from being a hobbyist to a professional. Frankly, Zuckerman should have this chapter right up at the start of the book. Hmmm, didn’t I mention something like this before? Anyway, by the time you get to this point, you will be so gung-ho to start pecking away on your new outline that this chapter will take the wind out of your sails. Why? Because getting on the Bestseller Lists is not the same thing as publishing a literary novel. It’s about selling. Remember this is commercial work you are doing. Yes, there is a great deal of art that goes into it, but in the end you want millions of people to read this thing. That’s why you’ve gone through all the pain and suffering. That’s why you’ve spent many a long night staring at the screen and wondering if it is all worth it and yet still struggled forward. But now that you are facing the prospect of selling this thing to complete strangers, you hesitate. You shudder.
For one thing, someone is going to read this work you’ve written and not just anyone. This is person has read thousands of proposals, queries, manuscripts and rejected many of them. Yours is going to be rejected too, and by a lot of people if you’re lucky.
The other reason you might hesitate is that someone may actually want the thing! What a thought! But this fear is far more common than you might think. It is the reason I freeze up on every project I’ve worked on. It’s even something that kept me from writing this article. No, I don’t mean the review of Albert Zuckerman’s book. I’m talking about the general idea of writing down my thoughts about writing.
Why do you think I’m putting this way, way down here at the bottom of a 15,000 word article? Who the heck is going to find me way down here in the basement of the Internet?
The same thing goes for sending out a manuscript (and sending it out again and again).
While this chapter is a bit short, there is a strong dose of reality in it for every hobby novelist out there. Up until this point, you have probably been working by yourself. Novelists are pretty comfortable with this arrangement. Now, you have to put yourself out there. Now you have to explain and defend your work, but most of all you need to listen. People are going to tell you about your work, people who know. Don’t turn them away. Listen to what they say, but don’t take everything they say to heart. After all, you are still the author.
Zuckerman has four important points to make in this chapter, and since I have never published anything beyond a few short stories and some poetry, I won’t begin to fake like I know whether he is right or not. This is his show. This is what the man does.
Like I said, I wish the chapter was a bit longer, but it isn’t. So, here are the four categories:
1. Editing – High-level look at the life of an editor. My recommendation to you, embrace the editorial process.
2. Finding an Expert Reader – Why it is important that your spouse is not the only person to read the book you’ve written. Even writer friends are not going to be of much help here if they are hobbyists like you. You need someone who knows how fiction really works, and you are probably going to pay for their opinion.
3. Finding an Agent – Isn’t as hard as you think. Take an author you love, follow Zuckerman’s recommendations and track down their agent. Send them a letter by post, not email, wait, repeat if necessary. Oh, and when you write that letter be sure it sings like your book. If you hand-picked agent, one who handles other authors of similar material, isn’t interested in your book it might be because your letter didn’t sell it. Of course, the agent may not have an interest in your for other reasons but this is the one you can control.
4. Marketing – There are lots of books about marketing your work. One thing I thought was unique in Zuckerman’s book was the suggestion that you coordinate a mass buy of your book on a certain date. You do this by sending a letter to all of your friends asking them to tell their 20-30 friends to buy the book on date X from a chain bookstore. In today’s world of email getting the word out is easier than in 1993, but I like the idea. If you can get a few thousand copies purchased in a single week, you will probably break the bottom of the list. From there, lots of folks in the business will see it and if they like it it will pick up sales.
That last one is going to trip up a lot of privacy-minded writers. Personally, I don’t have a problem with this. I send crappy drafts of my stuff to a good-sized list of long suffering friends to whom I shall dedicate my first book to when it sells. Asking them for one more favor at this point is not going to hurt. I hope.
As if anticipating a readers disgruntled reaction to the selling chapter being so short, Zuckerman wraps up the book by reminding the hopeful writer that their job is really to write a ripping good book and not to market it. That’s the publisher’s job. Of course, the publishing world is different today than it was in 1993 but I suppose people have been saying that for a long time. In the end, the book really does need to be written and Zuckerman’s practical advice and solid real-life examples are bother helpful and encouraging.