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In a world class city, the streets will get us from point A to point B, but they will also give us a taste of the city’s culture, connect neighborhoods, and create a natural flow. In our novels, we want scenes to get us where we’re going, but we also want them to leave us with new information, new questions, or greater understanding of our setting and characters. In other words, like a great city boulevard, we want a great scene to keep things moving in the most thrilling and memorable way.
Here are some tips that will help you to create strong scenes:
In every scene, the MC should be acting, reacting, or both—all with a purpose.
Every scene must move the main character (or the POV character if the book contains multiple POVs,) toward his or her objective. The reader should know what the character is working toward, and how the actions they take are intended to bring about those goals. You may want to create a scene that reveals the terrain of your story’s world or that lets the reader know the truth about the MC’s father. Definitely do that, but make sure the scene contributes to the MC’s objective.
As an example, consider the scene early in The Hunger Games where Katniss goes hunting before the reaping. As readers, we see the woods around the Seam, we meet Gale, and we learn a lot of backstory. But at the heart of the scene is Katniss’s action in support of her objective of providing for her family and keeping them safe.
Every scene should contain obstacles to the MC’s objective.
A scene that has no obstacles will have no conflict and won’t keep the story moving and the reader engaged. Even if the scene contributes to the MC’s objective, it won’t be engaging if it doesn’t contain a challenge. It doesn’t have to be obvious or overtly connected, but it needs to have some impact on whether or not the MC will achieve his or her goal.
Take another look at the example of the hunting scene from the opening of The Hunger Games. In that scene there is conflict between Gale and Katniss over the idea of whether they should try to run away. They don’t have a huge argument, but Katniss gets irritated and snaps at Gale. She remarks that “the conversation feels all wrong.” Not a huge conflict, but one that connects to the central objective of keeping her family safe. If Gale encourages her to leave with him, he’s putting that objective in jeopardy. The scene reveals this larger conflict on a smaller scale.
Every scene should matter.
Every scene needs to have something valuable at stake. It could be huge, like the welfare of your MC’s family, or smaller, like her mood on the day of the reaping. But every scene needs to have something connected to the MC’s goal at risk.
The size of the stakes will depend on how strongly they impact the character’s objective. A scene with lots of conflict and high stakes—a head-on car crash that leaves a boy pinned inside a burning car, for instance—only delivers if it connects to your MC’s goal. If your MC is struggling to cope with PTSD, and she saves that boy from the burning car, her stakes are impacted along with his. The stakes might be life and death for him, but this isn’t his story, so those stakes won’t resonate as strongly. But saving him required our MC to face her condition, so she had stakes in the scene, too. It’s the stakes that connect to your character’s goals that matter the most in your scene.
Every scene must move the plot forward, but great scenes will contribute other elements to the story, as well.
A truly great scene contributes more than just goal and conflict. If you can weave in setting, character growth, backstory, etc. you will have created a truly great scene. Think of the trash compactor scene in the first Star Wars movie. There’s conflict that impacts the characters’ goals of rescuing the Princess and thwarting the Empire, but there’s also great use of setting, character development, and dialogue. All these things support the main action of the scene—escaping the trash compactor before they are all crushed to death.
Just like a great city has all sorts of streets keeping things moving and connected, your novel will have many kinds of scenes driving the story forward and keeping the reader turning pages. Next month I’ll post about chapters, the neighborhoods of your novel.
How do you feel about scenes? Did I miss anything important? Do you have any additional tips? Please share your thoughts in the comments!
Last Friday, I wrote 4000 new words on my WIP novel. That’s a great day for me. But it was only possible because Thursday was a planning day.
When I work with students and teachers, I encourage lots of prewriting. My book, Writing for the Common Core, is essentially a book of prewriting activities. Here’s the thing: as professional writers, we know that our best writing comes with revision. That’s what students need to do, also: revise. However, that often devolves into merely copying a piece and cleaning up handwriting, especially in the lower grades. True revision, a re-envisioning of how to word something or the content to include/exclude, is hard to achieve in a 50-minute class.
Instead, I ask teachers to provide multiple prewriting activities. By giving students a rich and varied prewriting experience, they come to the first draft more likely to produce something worthwhile.
That’s what I did last Thursday, lots of prewriting.
Setting. One important thing for me was to locate my story on the slopes of Mt. Rainier. I used Google Earth to track the roads where my characters would be traveling. Using the program’s tools, I measured distances as the crow flies and distances along roads, so I knew how long each drive (and potentially chase scene) would take. I switched to the aerial view to look at the landscape–mostly wooded with some open areas.
Sensory Details. Once I knew where this section of the story would happen, I concentrated on the sensory details. What would they see, hear, touch, taste and feel? What would the day’s weather be like? Rainy, snowy, sunny, windy? Along with that, I thought about the mood of the events. Would the characters be frantic, excited, hopeful, angry, or bored?
Scenes. I also took time to sketch out the structure of a couple scenes. Scenes need a beginning, middle, end; add in conflict and a pivot or turning point; stir with some great emotional development. By planning ahead, I knew the general outline of what would happen.
Flexibility. With all the planning, though, I approached the writing with flexibility and let the moment carry the story forward. I “mostly” knew what I would write, but it always surprises me how much it changes and develops as I write. It’s never exactly what I planned; it’s usually better.
I’m not really an outliner; but I don’t write by the seat of my pants either. Instead, I need this half-way place, where I do rich prewriting activities and halfway plan, and then see where it all takes me. HOW you say something is everything. It’s not just what the story is or how well you plot. For me, the important thing is how you say it. What word choices do you make and why? What sentence structures and why? What pacing and why? The true writing happens when I write. But I love the prewriting because it enables me to get 4000 words done in a single day. Well, really, that was two days work: one to prewrite and one to write. Either way you count it, that was a couple great chapters to put behind me.
The Ancient Greeks were incredibly imaginative and innovative in their depictions of scenes from The Odyssey, painted onto vases, kylikes, wine jugs, or mixing bowls. Many of Homer’s epic scenes can be found on these objects such as the encounter between Odysseus and the Cyclops Polyphemus and the battle with the Suitors. It is clear that in the Greek culture, The Odyssey was an influential and eminent story with memorable scenes that have resonated throughout generations of both classical literature enthusiasts and art aficionados and collectors. We present a brief slideshow of images that appear in Barry B. Powell’s new free verse translation of The Odyssey.
Telemachos (Odysseus’s son), stands to the left holding two spears, reproaching his mother. She sits mournfully on a chair, anguished by the unknown fate of her husband. Her head is bowed and legs are crossed in a pose canonical for Penelope. Athenian red-figure cup, c. 440 BC, by the Penelope Painter.
Telemachos, holding his helmet in his right hand and two spears in his left, a shield suspended from his arm, greets Nestor (the king of Pylos), who has no information about Odysseus. The bent old man supports himself with a knobby staff, and his white hair is partially veiled. Behind him stands his youngest daughter (probably), Polykastê, holding a basket filled with food for the guest. South-Italian red-figure wine-mixing bowl, c. 350 BC.
The goddess presents a box of provisions for the hero’s voyage. The box is tied with a sash. The bearded Odysseus sits on a rock on the shore holding a sword and looking pensive. Athenian red-figure vase, c. 450 BC.
Odysseus asks for the assistance of the Phaeacian princess Nausicaä while she and her handmaidens are bathing by a river. Nausicaa gives Odysseus directions to the palace and advice on how to approach Aretê, queen of the Phaeacians. In this image, the naked Odysseus holds a branch in front of his genitals so as not to startle Nausicaä and her attendants. On the right, near the edge of the picture, Nausicaä half turns but holds her ground. Athena, Odysseus’ protectress, stands between the two figures, her spear pointed to the ground. She wears a helmet and the goatskin fetish (aegis) fringed with snakes as a kind of cape. Clothes hang out to dry on a tree branch (upper left). Athenian red-figure water-jar from Vulci, Italy, c. 460 BC.
Books 9 through 12 are told as flashbacks, as Odysseus sits in the palace of the Phaeacians telling the story of his journeys, from Troy, to the land of the Lotus-Eaters, to the land of the Cyclops. Here we see the beardless Kikonian priest Maron give a sack of wine to Odysseus by which Cyclops is overcome. In his left hand, he holds a spear pointed downwards. His crowned wife stands behind him with a horn drinking cup. The very long-haired Odysseus wears high boots, a traveler’s cap (pilos), and holds a spear over his shoulder with his right hand. To the far left stands a Kikonian woman. South Italian red-figure wine-mixing bowl by the Maron Painter, 340-330 BC.
Without any wind to guide them, the Achaeans row to the land of the Laestrygonians, a race of powerful giants. In this somewhat dim Roman fresco there are ten of Odysseus’ oared ships with single masts in the middle of the narrow bay, three near the shore, half-sunk, and a fourth half-sunk near the high cliffs on the right. Five of the Laestrygonian giants stand on the shore and spear Odysseus’ men or throw down huge rocks. A sixth giant has waded into the water on the left and holds the prow of a ship in his mighty hands. From a house on the Esquiline Hill decorated with scenes from the Odyssey, Rome, c. AD 90.
Penelope sits on a chair at the far right, receiving the suitor’s gifts. The first suitor seems to offer jewelry in a box. The next suitor, carrying a staff, brings woven cloth. The third suitor, also with a staff, carries a precious bowl and turns to speak to the fourth suitor, who brings a bronze mirror. Athenian red-figure vase, c. 470 BC.
This is the other side of the cup from Figure 22.1. All the suitors, situated around a dining couch, are in “heroic nudity” but carry cloaks. On the left a suitor tugs at an arrow in his back. In the middle a suitor tries to defend himself with an overturned table. On the right a debonair suitor, with trim mustache, holds up his hands to stop the inevitable. Athenian cup, c. 450-440 BC.
The old woman, wearing the short hair of a slave, is about to discover the scar on Odysseus leg. The bearded Odysseus, dressed in rags, holds a staff in his right hand and a stick supporting his pouch in his left. He wears an odd traveler’s hat with a bill to shade his eyes. Attic red-figure drinking cup by the Penelope Painter, from Chiusi, c. 440 BC; Museo Archeologico, Chiusi, Italy; Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY.
After the fight against the suitors, Eurykleia tries to persuade Penelope that her husband has returned. Shown here, the mourning Penelope sits in a traditional pose with her hand to her forehead and her legs crossed. Her head is veiled. She stares gloomily downwards, seated on a padded stool beneath which is a basket for yarn. The purpose of these terracotta reliefs, found in different parts of the Roman world, is unclear. Roman Relief, AD 1st century. Museo Nazionale Romano (Terme di Diocleziano), Rome; Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY.
Barry B. Powell is Halls-Bascom Professor of Classics Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His new free verse translation of The Odyssey was published by Oxford University Press in 2014. His translation of The Iliad was published by Oxford University Press in 2013. See previous blog posts from Barry B. Powell.
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We all want to write scenes that grip our readers and keep them glued to the page! Easier said than done, right? Well, here are four tips that I try to keep in mind every time I sit down to craft a scene. They aren’t 100% fool-proof, but they often help me find that extra oomph to make my scene’s sing.
1) Make Sure Your Scene Has Dramatic Action.
The number one reason a scene falls flat is because it doesn’t have any dramatic action. Dramatic action is the action the protagonist takes to resolve the problem he has suddenly been faced with.
In STORY, Robert Mckee talks about dramatic action as “story events” and defines them as an “event that creates a meaningful change in the life situation of a character and is expressed and experienced in terms of a value and achieved through conflict.”
Well plotted stories are built on stringing together the scenes that have dramatic action. These are the important moments within the character’s life that move the plot forward. For example, we seldom see a character go to the bathroom or sleep, because there’s no dramatic action in these moments. Instead, we pick the scenes that are the most exciting and meaningful for the reader to read.
2) Is There a Significant Emotional Change in the Scene?
A great way to tell if your scenes have dramatic action is to check and see if there’s a significant emotional change. If the character starts the scene happy and leaves it happy, nothing has happened. But if a character starts happy and leaves sad, then something has happened in the scene to change their life situation and make them sad.
You can track the emotion of your scene by drawing emotion faces (happy faces, frowning faces) at the opening and closing of your scenes. The emotion should reflect the emotion your character carries into the scene, and the emotion the character carries out of it in when it’s over. If the emotion-face is the same, for example both are grumpy faces, then you don’t have any dramatic action in the scene. This indicates that the scene may need to be cut or revised.
3) Set Up Reader Expectations
Setting up expectations helps the reader to feel the emotional change in a scene. If we know what a character wants and expects as she enters a situation, the reader becomes more invested. They want to see if the character succeeds or fails. You won’t have any reversals and surprises if you haven’t set up any expectations for the reader.
It’s much more exciting to watch a scene where a character scales a cliff if we know he’s afraid of heights, or we know his family is trapped at the top, or we know he thinks he can’t do it. It’s rewarding to see the character defy his fear. It adds tension if we know each misstep means he’s one step further away from saving his family from that fire-breathing dragon above (of course … you’ve got to set that up that dragon!).
4) Stop Protecting Your Characters
Even though we’re told to “torture our characters” it’s really common for us to protect them instead. Have you ever written as scene and decided to:
Have an important conversation interrupted by another character/event.
Had a character freeze up and avoid talking about their feelings in internal monologue.
Had your character avoid asking an important question? Or had another character avoid answering it?
Hinted to something, not once, but over and over and over again, and never unveiling the truth until late in the book.
Bailed your character out of a situation before it reeeeeeally got tough?
Avoided writing a scene because you the author felt uncomfortable?
All of that, is protecting your character (or in the example of the last one, yourself). The most common culprit is interruption. What’s happening is we start a scene, but the second it gets to the tough questions or uncomfortable conflicts, we bail our characters out of the scene and ask our readers to wait.
Sometimes we think we’re creating mystery and tension by drawing out the answers to questions, or avoiding the main conflicts. In real life we absolutely avoid questions and conflicts. But in drama … well, we want the drama!
Don’t cut off the scene before it gets going. Don’t avoid the dramatic action!
Stop protecting your character by allowing her to wander, avoid, and be bailed out of situations. Lock your characters in a room and make them deal with their conflicts! Be brave and get to the guts of the scene.
For example, I have a new nonfiction coming out next year, Kentucky Basketball: America’s Winningest Teams (Rosen, 2014). I searched and searched for an interesting opening to the story, until I found a scene that was worthy of describing.
It was Valentine’s Day, 1938. Packed into the University of Kentucky Alumni Gym were over 4000 people, some sitting in windows, others literally hanging from the rafters. The UK Wildcat basketball team led top-ranked Marquette University team by 10 points.
It’s an exciting rivalry game, early in the history of the basketball program at Kentucky. Fiction techniques dictated that I set the scene immediately. Then I use sensory details to fill in the scene to describe the fast-paced last few minutes. Joe “Red” Hagan shoots a long 49-foot field goal from near the half-court line. When Marquette missed three more times, it becomes the winning score. Then, the interesting part started. In the audience was “Happy” Chandler, governor of Kentucky. He was so excited by the win, and especially Red’s winning shot, that he called for a hammer and nail. He rushed onto the court and at the spot from which Red shot, Chandler hammered a nail into the floor to commemorate the moment.
It’s stuff of legends. And it deserved a full scene, which meant fiction techniques.
Research Details for NonFiction: Think Fiction
This means that while I was researching the nonfiction topic of Kentucky basketball, I was really looking for a certain type of information.
Scenes. I look specifically for scenes with a beginning, middle with conflict, and ending. It needs to be something fun and interesting, a specific event.
Details. Next, I look for details. Here’s a fact: the basketball arena was meant to seat 2500, but 4000 fans were in attendance. A newspaper article of the times specifically said that fans were literally sitting in windows and hanging from the rafters. I look for numbers, colors, sizes, shapes, extended descriptions, and other specific details. These will all help the story come alive.
Timelines. The timeline of the basketball game was important to lay out and newspaper reports were helpful. The details of the first half were important to understand, so I could focus on the last three minutes.
Personalities or Characters. This story is made richer by the presence of Happy Chandler, governor of Kentucky. What a happy thing that he was named Happy! It added to the appeal of the story that the governor with such a nickname was so Happy that he did something unexpected.
Unexpected. The story is interested because of the governor’s unexpected reaction. Stories of last-minute wins are commonplace, even if in the moment it feels like a miracle. By itself, Red Hagan’s shot isn’t remarkable enough to include in a book like this. But add to that the unexpected hammer and nail, and it becomes a remarkable story of a fan who wanted to acknowledge a miraculous shot. That’s why this story made it into the book’s introduction, surprise.
Research and document all your research; but while you’re researching, think fiction techniques. And your nonfiction article will become an interesting story that both informs and entertains.
I mostly write at night and some of you who follow me on Twitter already know that in the last couple of days, I’ve been struggling with the scene from hell.
**Cues scary Satanic music**
This scene is a new one for the middle of the novel based on a new plot point. The premise of the scene was a setup to get all of the major players in the novel into one place so that a major turning point occurs. Sounds simple enough, right?
But it just wasn’t working. Ugh! And the scene from hell was born.
**Demons laughing in the background**
Now this struggle could be a case of writer’s block but I was writing words for the scene — they just weren’t sounding true or right. You know that writer gut feeling that tells you what you’re working on will probably go into a WTF folder? Yeah, that was the kind of feeling I had.
I tried anyway because I’m a stubborn girl. And I tried. And I tried.
Then I just gave up. There was no use pushing this scene that wasn’t working. So I closed my file and drank a Blue Moon and lost myself in a book.
Little did I know during all this time my subconscious was working in the background. Figuring out how to make this scene better. After a few nights of good sleep, I woke up yesterday morning with a “That’s it!” moment.
Love it when that happens!
So the thing I’ve learned this week (or rather re-learned with the selective memory I have) is that I can’t push a scene where it doesn’t want to go. I need to trust my gut to let it go and just come back to it. I didn’t have a bad case of Writer’s Block but rather a serious case of Writer’s Push.
Has this ever happened to you? Have you had a case of Writer’s Push?
Would love to hear how other writers found their true words. :)
Keeping track of timing when writing a novel can be tricky. Using a timeline can help you remember what happened when, and other details that add continuity to writing.
A typical timeline for me consists of the following:
The time of day events occur, including the specific date, day of the week, and the duration of those events or scenes. Even though most of that detail never makes it into the story, I refer to it frequently to make sure I’m not stuffing too much into one day while leaving other days mostly empty. I check the timeline to make sure scenes are occurring in a natural way. It helps when my characters refer to events that have happened in the past, I can easily remember when they occurred. Keeping a timeline helps ground the story in real time and draw the reader in.
The weather. I keep track of the weather so when I’m writing about events that occur at the end of the day, I maintain continuity in the weather.
What the characters are wearing. Again, this is usually a detail that doesn’t make it into the book, but just in case I want to refer to it, I can easily remember. This includes what items they have with them, if they are traveling or something.
Sometimes I indicate on my timeline emotions or paradigm shifts that my main characters have, just to see if the timing feels natural. It also helps when revising a scene to look at the timeline and remember whether this scene is before or after a certain emotional moment.
I find the timeline very useful in writing, but it comes in handy especially during the revising process. It saves me a lot of time when I need to remember what happened when. Keeping track of scenes like this also helps me notice if I have repetitive scenes or if the cycle of events is becoming formulaic.
I know this is basic stuff—writing 101. But if you don’t do this, give it a try. It’s makes a difference.
So I was reading this awesome post at QueryTracker about writing a synopsis and the section on chapters got me thinking.
I don't write in chapters. My brain doesn't understand them. Like, literally - I find it confusing how sometimes a chapter can take place over a period of three days, and another time a chapter ends in the middle of a scene and the next chapter picks up at the exact same place. I can't find the pattern.
I think in scenes and scene sequences - thanks to all my film and screenwriting education, I guess. My first ms is a dual narrative and for the most part each "chapter" is one complete scene or sequence.
H.L. Dyer says at QueryTracker, "Each chapter, like a novel, should have a beginning, middle, and an ending."
This makes sense to me, and I think this is true of my scenes and scene sequences, they are just generally too short to be considered a "typical" chapter. I'm also a fan of the short chapter in fiction, so maybe that says something about me and my writing.
As I'm in the planning stages of my next book, I'm finding the chapter issue interesting. This book will have one narrator and so switching chapters at the end of each scene doesn't quite work with how I want this book to be.
I don't outline, but I do make note of all the major scenes I know need to happen, as well as my beginning through to the inciting incident, and my ending. I'm fascinated by people who use chapter outlines, and know exactly what will be in each chapter when they sit down to write.
I don't know how they do this. But then I also tend to be more fluid with my scenes. I will switch them around and re-order them in order to best build tension, make motivations clear, and keep the story moving forward.
At this point, I feel certain that I will have to write first and separate into chapters later. I will probably but in chapter breaks in places where it feels right, but other than that I won't know where a chapter ends and the next one starts until I finish the story.
What about you? Do you know exactly what your chapters will entail? Do you think in chapters or scenes? Does anyone else split and number chapters after they've written the book? Am I crazy?
I think I got over-ambitions with my recovering foot. I did not accomplish everything on my list in my last post as soon as I meant to. Over about three days, I did get those three poems sent out, and I rewrote a short story for a fiction contest and entered it. I did visit websites, etc. for agents I want to send my MG mystery to, and made my list. And then I just got plain tired. I will spare you the details of foot excercises three times a day, 20 minutes each time. But those exercises, plus walking around a little, really wore me out.
So, I've been reading again. Not fiction, because I think I reached "fiction glut" rather than "reader glut" last week. Instead, I've been re-visiting books on the writing craft and doing some more research for my current WIP under revision, my MG ghost story set in 1919 Sacramento. My characters are Irish-Americans, so I've been especially soaking in anything Irish, and the book I just finished reading (and thoroughly enjoying) is Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization, a wonderfully written account in a style that makes history truly exciting to read.
The writing books I've been poring over are: Self-editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King, and Novelist's Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes, by Raymond Obstfeld. The latter is really for writers of adult fiction, but, except for the chapters on murder mysteries and sex scenes, the advice and examples are superb for children's writers as well. Both books are good. I've read them before, they are part of my library, but you never can revisit a good book on the writing craft too many times.
So, now the foot is better, the energy is back, and it's forward and on to my revision of Granny's Jig, and query letters for Imogene and the Case of the Missing Pearls -- although my computer time will be in smaller doses for a few days. (I have learned my lesson.)
We’re done! But I thought you might like a re-cap and a table of contents.
The 31-day Think Like a Writer series challenges writers to write at least 750 words each and every day for a month. I used the website 750words.org, but you can do it with pencil and paper or on your computer. These creative writing prompts are meant to be “morning pages” or practice in Thinking Like a Writer.