One Easy Way to Take an Unexceptional Scene in a New Direction

“First attempts are usually not the best. There’s a reason the “test” pancake is usually a throwaway, and upgraded cellphone models are rolled out roughly every four days.” —Leigh Anne Jasheway “Improv/e Your Writing” Writer’s Digest November/December 2013

image by Gartenredakteurin
image by Gartenredakteurin

I wanted to try one of Leigh Anne Jasheway’s 10 games from her article, “Improv/e Your Writing” (Writer’s Digest November/December 2013). Jasheway calls the game I played, “New Choice.” It’s to help when we’re “going down a literary dead end.”

image by wilhei
image by wilhei

How I understood the play:

  1. Collect two dice and a few pages from a writing project.
  2. Roll the dice.
  3. Count sentences from the beginning to the one represented by the sum of the dice.
  4. Make a new choice for that sentence that:
    • changes the wording and content,
    • takes the story in a new direction, and
    • relates to the plot thus far.
  5. Write 12 sentences that explore the new direction.
  6. Repeat from step 3, starting from the first rewritten sentence.
  7. Play for an hour.

My selection is from an old rejected manuscript. I rolled a 7.

Jonathan thumbed to the first hymn listed in the bulletin and stuck his bulletin in the hymnal to hold the place1 Movement to his left startled him, and he looked up. 2 Laura, followed by Cecil, sidled down his row and sat next to him. 3 The sleeve of her yellow jacket brushed the sleeve of his sports coat. 4 She smelled like fresh-cut citrus. 5

Well, well. 6 Laura Midkiff had decided to befriend him after all, and she didn’t take her commitment lightly. 7 He, and most likely everyone else in the congregation, stared at her. 8 She donned a serene expression and gave her father in the pulpit her attention. Her father struggled to contain a grin. 9

A hand patted Jonathan’s shoulder. 10 He turned and greeted his foreman, Gene Pasternak, and his wife and two sons. 11 Mrs. Withers, his first and fourth grade teacher, settled in the pew in front of him, and Mrs. Mackey, his den mother, winked at him and joined her. 12

image by MaLyKa
image by MaLyKa

Here’s the result of steps 1-5— my 12 replacement sentences starting at line 7:

How thoughtful of Laura Midkiff to sit beside him in church.1 No doubt, the woman was up to something.2 Town gossip pegged her as the citizens’ choice to run against Dad for mayor.3 Perhaps her show of friendship helped to that end.4 Display how noble she was to rub sleeves with an ex con.5 And no surprise she’d enlisted slow-witted Cecil.6 He added political correctness points to her glory.7

Was he coming down too hard on Laura?8

Even if her gesture was sincere, he didn’t want her pity.9 He needed her help.10 And that didn’t mean rallying the congregation to his side.11 Laura Midkiff was the only person who had the contacts he needed to prove he was innocent of manslaughter.12

I hope the new version adds tension. At this early stage in the story, warm fuzzies were a mistake.

Try This Fun Game to Redirect a Mediocre Scene. Click to tweet.

What are your thoughts on playing Jasheway’s game?

A 50-Item Checklist You Won’t Want to Leave Your Scene Without

“Scenes are capsules in which compelling characters undertake significant actions in a vivid and memorable way that allows the events to feel as though they are happening in real time.”

—Jordan E. Rosenfeld (Make a Scene)

checklist  

Scene Checklist

Purpose

[  ] Has 3 reasons the scene should exist. Possibilities:

  • Progresses or changes character’s goal
  • Moves plot forward
  • Adds conflict between opposing characters
  • Introduces a character
  • Develops a character
  • Foreshadows
  • Raises stakes

Structure

[  ] Clear beginning, middle, climax (disaster), and end. 

[  ] Opening hook – lines that grab reader.

[  ] Opens mid action – not description or explanation.

[  ] Action scenes – goal->conflict->disaster. 1

[  ] Reaction scene – response->dilemma->decision. 1

[  ] Point of view (POV) character – character with the most to lose in the scene – reveal immediately.

[  ] Reader immediately grounded in who, what, where, when, why.

[  ] Setting – revealed through what POV character reacts to, sees, hears, does.

[  ] Something’s at stake, or story stakes are raised or reinforced – make situation worse, or stakes matter more.

[  ] Fear hovers – character might not meet her scene goal.

[  ] Actions –interesting; advance plot or exhibit character; performed in real time. 

[  ] Pace – appropriate for what’s happening.

[  ] Mood, tone, or author’s voice – realistic for scene, and the book’s genre.

[  ] Obstacles – people, events, emotions, secrets get in the way of characters meeting their goals.

[  ] Climax (disaster) – relevant to the plot or characterization.

[  ] Element of suspense, surprise, twist, or foreshadowing – creates anticipation; delivers a worthy payoff relevant to plot or characterization.

[  ] Metaphor or symbol.

[  ] Ending hook – transitions to next scene; entices reader to read on.

Hero/Heroine

[  ] Clear wants, emotional and physical – drive actions, dialogue, thoughts.

[  ] Pushes away from something negative; pulls toward something positive (emotional or physical). 1

[  ] A hint of victory; two hints of failure. 1

[  ] Conflicting values.

[  ] Reader can identify or empathize; knows whom to root for.

[  ] Secondary characters – clear purpose for being in scene.

[  ] Hints of wounds, fears. Or competencies.

[  ] Reactions shown – to stimuli that affect feelings.

[  ] Balanced emotion, dialogue, internalization (considering scene type).

[  ] 5 senses included – sight, sound, taste, touch, smell.

Dialogue

[  ] Tight, every word needed.

[  ] Interesting; moves scene forward.

[  ] Natural – leaves out boring parts of actual dialogue.

[  ] Characters’ voices – distinctive; could know speaker by his word choices.

[  ] Reveals or hints at emotions, undercurrents, or secrets.

[  ] Reveals character, plot, conflicts, or bits of important information.

[  ] Includes a zinger – jibe, bold truth, dry or humorous comment. 1

[  ] Action beats or simple speaker attributes (said) – identifies speaker.

Avoid

[  ] Clichés – in dialogue, characterization, plot.

[  ] Coincidences (something drops in to save the day).

[  ] Vagueness (it, that, pronouns that don’t tie, etc.).

[  ] Clever writing that adds nothing; confuses.

Remove

[  ] Boring, purposeless sentences and paragraphs.

[  ] Detailed body movement descriptions.

[  ] Unnecessary explanations.

[  ] Weasel words – except when they work in dialogue.

Style

[  ] Shows often; tells as needed.

[  ] Clear, concise, uncomplicated sentences.

[  ] Correct words (dictionary and thesaurus).

[  ] Power noun, verbs.

[  ] Short narratives when necessary (getting from one place to another).

[  ] Active voice – limit “was.”

[  ] Positive form used when possible.

[  ] Backload – ending words (sentence and paragraph) that tie to passage’s meaning.

Idea from Susan May Warren’s MBT Deep Thinkers Retreat manual.

Transform your scene with this comprehensive checklist. Click to tweet.

What would you add to this checklist?

3 Components That Help You Create a Strong Story

image by Peggy_Marco
image by Peggy_Marco

 

BreakingFree_N1664109

 

Today my guest is Jennifer Slattery. She gives powerful suggestions to help us strengthen our stories. Be sure to learn more about her novel, Breaking Free, at the end of her post.

 

Jennifer:

When stories fall flat, more often than not, one can trace this back to a few key issues: The characters’ goals aren’t clear or compelling enough, the stakes aren’t high enough, or the story hasn’t presented a sense of urgency.

Character goals tell the reader what they’re rooting for.

Your character needs story goals (one abstract and one concrete that he believes will help him attain his abstract goal) and numerous scene goals. Because without clear and compelling goals, everything else becomes noise. For this reason, readers should know the character’s goals as soon as possible, preferably in the first page. And you can add hints within the first paragraph.

image by Peggy_Marco
image by Peggy_Marco

Let’s look at an example from a well-known book, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Katniss wants freedom (from oppression and starvation for her, her family, and her district). This is her abstract goal. She believes winning the Hunger Games (her concrete goal) will help her achieve that freedom. So you see, both are important. Without an abstract goal, the concrete goal lacks oomph, but without the concrete goal, we have nothing to root for. The two work together.

High stakes makes us care.

According to Randy Ingermanson, in order for the reader to truly care, the stakes need to potentially lead to the death of something: a career, a relationship, life itself. In our example, the stakes are two-fold: a life of oppression, so the death of freedom, and once Katniss enters the arena, quite literally, death.

This is one of the reasons the Hunger Games sold over 9.2 million copies and became a box office hit. Collins presented clear and compelling concrete and abstract goals, strong scene goals in each and every scene, which is also important, and continually rising stakes.

Collins also infused nearly every page with a sense of urgency. (This is something James Patterson does really well also.)

A sense of urgency propels readers forward.

image by iworksphotography
image by iworksphotography

Imagine you have two stories. In one, your main character wants to earn money to buy groceries. Not very interesting, right? What if she needs to earn money to buy groceries for her kids before social workers come for a visit to potentially remove her children from her home?

Which story would you be more apt to keep reading?

Without clear & compelling goals in your story, everything else becomes noise. Click to tweet.

What are your thoughts on today’s post? Can you share any examples of a novel that uses all three of these story components well? Share your thoughts in the comments below, because we can all learn from each other.

BCheadshot2013Jennifer Slattery writes soul-stirring fiction for New Hope Publishers, Christian living articles for Crosswalk.com, and devotions for Internet Café Devotions, the group blog, Faith-filled Friends, and her personal blog. She also does content editing for Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas’ Firefly imprint, and loves working with authors who are serious about pursuing their calling. When not writing, reading, or editing, Jennifer loves going on mall dates with her adult daughter and coffee dates with her hilariously fun husband.

Visit with Jennifer online at JenniferSlatteryLivesOutLoud.com and connect with her on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/JenSlatte

BreakingFree_N1664109Breaking Free:

Sometimes it takes losing everything to grab hold of what really matters. 

Women’s ministry leader and Seattle housewife, Alice Goddard, and her successful graphic-designer husband appear to have it all together. Until their credit and debit cards are denied, launching Alice into an investigation that only leads to the discovery of secrets. Meanwhile, her husband is trapped in a downward spiral of lies, shame, and self-destruction. Can they break free from their deception and turn to the only One who can save them? And will it be in time to save their marriage?

Read a free, 33-page excerpt here: http://newhopepublishers.com/2016/02/free-sample-of-breaking-free/

Buy it:

Christian Book Distributors: http://www.christianbook.com/breaking-free-a-comtemporary-romance-novel/jennifer-slattery/9781596694682/pd/694682?event=ESRCG

Barnes and Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/breaking-free-peter-maxwell-slattery/1119735612?ean=9781596694682

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Breaking-Free-Jennifer-Slattery/dp/1596694688/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8