Monday, October 11, 2010


Current Reading: Metatropolis, ed. by John Scalzi.

Inspirational Quote: "If we make the analogy that drama is a language for presenting emotional energy and that, as a language, it possesses its own, unique grammar for the construction and presentation of meaningful dramatic actions, then it is not a very big leap to say that every dramatic film scene is analogous to a sentence, for like a sentence, the dramatic scene is the expression of a complete idea - a complete DRAMATIC idea. And like a sentence it is composed of a SUBJECT (the character driving the scene), a VERB (the central action of the scene) and an OBJECT or OBJECTIVE (what the character is striving for)." -- Billy Stoneking Marshall

I've been trying to learn how to write a good novel for a while now. A long while. They say the only way to learn is by doing, but honestly, I don't see how that can apply to activities like flying or alligator wrestling.

Fortunately, writing is not a life-threatening activity (although RSI is a constant danger). There's always something new to learn or discover. For a lot of my learning, I rely either on good books that demonstrate effective techniques, or on writers writing about what they think and how they work.

In the last few months, I've been learning about scenes. "Write in dramatic scenes" is an old piece of advice I keep coming across. But that advice demands some kind of functional definition of "dramatic scene."

A quick web search turns up all kinds of references to dramatic scenes. Most of them contain good information about types and flavors, but there's not very much out there about definition or structure. This was interesting, and Holly Lisle's discussion of scene contains a vital piece of information: scenes are about change. They start with the world in one state and end with it in another. But I think there has to be more to it than that. Five paragraphs describing the turning of the seasons is definitely about change, but I don't think I'd call it a dramatic scene. The drama is missing.

For a real understanding of the dramatic scene, it makes sense to look to the theater (since the western prose tradition arose out of Greek theater). Many articles about writing scenes for the stage contain valuable information and guidance that can easily be applied to writing scenes for a novel. Television writing, strangely enough, can also help. David Mahmet wrote a memo to the writers of The Unit that lays out in plain language everything a writer needs to know about writing the dramatic scene, but as Musashi said over and over again, "You must train deeply to understand this."

Drama is conflict. Conflict requires character. A character tries to move the story in one direction, while another character or force tries to move it in another. The scene ends with success for one side. The story changes. Jim Butcher's livejournal breaks it down very clearly. Randy Ingermanson analyzes it in detail. (I recommend you read those people, and the books they mention. They are both more articulate and more experienced than I.)

I've studied some good books, and I can see the dynamics they discuss put to practical use. It's a good model that propels a reader through the story with a dynamic rhythm, a rise and fall to the action, that I'd love to be able to emulate. To emulate, I must first understand... and this is what I understand:

Essentially, there are two types of scenes: action and reaction.

Action scenes show the point of view character actively trying to achieve a change in the story. They begin with a goal and end with either success or failure for the character.

Reaction scenes (Butcher calls them sequels) follow action scenes and, as may be obvious from the name, show the POV character reacting to the resolution of the action scene. They begin with that reaction and end with the character committing to the next course of action.

Butcher and Ingermanson refer to a novel's plot as being a flow of scenes: action, then reaction, followed by another action and reaction, each building on what went before and heading to the climax. The balance of time devoted to each has a huge effect on the pace of the work. Stories that consist of many long action scenes and few short reaction scenes create a breathless rush. Those that favor reaction over action are likely to be more emotionally intense and introspective.

I suspect all of this sounds rather cold and analytical, and out of place when discussing art inspired by passion. But it's a discussion of a writing technique, a way of achieving an effect that really should be no more out of place than a discussion of pointillism would be when considering the work of Georges Seurat, or a discussion of sentence structure would be when studying Shakespeare.

Art doesn't come from technique. Art comes from the application of technique.

Next time: Action Scenes.

No comments: