Story Middles: Finding and Creating Compelling Scenes

Let’s start by thinking about dialogue. You’ve done your homework, you’ve outlined. You have a pretty solid idea of where you’re going with it. But suddenly you come to a necessary scene that stumps you.

Though you may know what it’s supposed to accomplish in terms of an A-to-B goal, you cannot quite visualize howyou’re going to get it there.

One of the more useful techniques I’ve developed for “finding” a scene, for getting into a scene which I either don’t know how to start, or one in which the “meat” is eluding me, is by writing the participating characters’ “sides” (their lines, the he-said-she-said) in their entirety, with little or no attention to action or picture. In a way, it can be thought of as allowing the characters to write the scene for you. I’ve even done it by ad-libbing into a tape recorder, playing all of the roles.

Rarely do I use all of what they say. Sometimes none of it survives the cut. But I’ve found it a great way to develop a scene that I’m unclear about — a scene that, because of its subject, or objective in terms of storytelling, and/or structure, needs to be there, but isn’t automatically coming alive in my head. Often, the process will lead to business and/or a dynamic I hadn’t anticipated — stuff that may add dimension to the scene.

AND…ACTION!
Now, the actionpart. Once the dialogue begins to gel, and I’ve gotten it all down, the next step for me in this particular process is cutting. Which may begin with finding places where the spoken words can be augmented — or better, supplanted by action or business. Those looks or gestures or pauses during which a character can take a sip of coffee — in place of a verbal response.

Or even better yet, finding material that can be eliminated.

And of course the outside trims — snipping off the ends. And at the top, too, discovering how much I can get rid of — how deep into the scene I can be when it begins. This part usually surprises — not only about how little is really necessary to make a significant story point, but also how effectiveit can be to throw your audience momentarily off-balance.

Disorienting readers or viewers, wondering what in hell you’re up to is, incidentally, another convincing argument in favor of peeling back your exposition a layer at a time. And similarly, best-case, leaving them with their mouths agape at the far end of the scene.

PICTURE THIS
And – the picture: Regarding descriptive passages, my suggestion is that unless your name is F. Scott Fitzgerald and/or you have more than a touch of the poet, keep yours brief.

Sure, sometimes elaborately delineated physical characteristics, or the finer points of how a room is furnished have their place. Principally, of course, if you’re writing period stories, or scenes in which research is key. Even there, however, I recommend economy. Say it in as few words as possible. Let your action and dialogue carry the scene. Almost invariably, less will turn out to be more.

Posted in Writing Tips

About the Author

Emmy and Edgar-nominated, Tom Sawyer was head writer, showrunner, and producer of the classic series, Murder, She Wrote, for which he wrote twenty-four episodes. He also wrote, directed, and produced the cult film-comedy Alice Goodbody, and was the co-librettist/lyricist of Jack, an opera about JFK.

He’s the author of FICTION WRITING DEMYSTIFIED and his latest thriller is A MAJOR PRODUCTION! Tom’s memoir is THE ADVENTURES OF THE REAL TOM SAWYER and he’s written a companion book called 9 BADASS SECRETS FOR PUTTING YOURSELF IN LUCK’S WAY. More at ThomasBSawyer.com.

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