As promised, here’s a detailed version of the “homework” exercise I gave at the end of my craft talk today. (Also, thank you to everyone for your energy and participation. I know it was a long day, but yinz helped break this talk wide open.)
Exercise: take 15 minutes and conduct research on a historical event or person that will cast a shadow over your scene. My example was Andrew Mellon brooding over a lost love and his lack of children.
Then, for 10 minutes, write a scene where something important happens. Most of my examples from the craft talk were people meeting other people for the first time, but you might also consider having a character make a significant decision.
Some factors to consider:
History (significant events that happened eons, years, or minutes before the scene begins)
Action in scene (Katniss meeting Cinna, Werner solving a math problem and agreeing to work as a lab assistant)
Subtext, mood, atmosphere, emotional weather
Setting (immediate locale) + 3 toys in the “toybox” of your scene. In the Nazi scientist’s office are a large goon cadet, a fireplace, dogs, and a tin of biscuits with a bow on top
Setting (larger town or city). + 3 ambient noises outside. “Somewhere in the distance, a dog barked“
Setting (time period) + 2 ways the time period affects the characters’ lives
When you’re finished with your draft, here are a few other things to consider should you choose to revise it:
*Conflict. To add depth, a character can be in conflict with any number of elements in their midst. For example, with “Setting (immediate locale),” have you ever been in a room that’s 5 degrees too cold, or contains a yellow jacket?
In “Bullet in the Brain,” Anders the literature critic is annoyed by the kitschy paintings in the bank in which he’s being held hostage. In ZZ Packer’s “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere,” the main character Dina is upset because she’s a brown person from inner-city Baltimore who’s just started orientation at Yale.
*Rhythm. Open and close a circuit in the scene by having a character flick on a (figurative) light switch. For example, in my story “Cottontails,” a college athlete meets a young woman who interviews him. He’s intimidated because she seems vaguely sinister and he’s unsure of her motives. This young woman has a notebook but she doesn’t write anything down. Near the end of the scene, she writes something down.
This technique can add a tiny sense of motion or progression into your scene.
*Scenes where characters are bored or falling asleep usually don’t work. From The Sweet Hereafter: “The biggest difference between people is their quality of attention.” Scenes where characters are focusing their attention are usually pretty good. E. Lockhart once said that she loves writing scenes where characters are obsessively scrutinizing other characters. Those scenes are probably really fun to write, too.
*My go-to technique when a scene is feeling limp: put a rock in the character’s shoe. It unbalances the scene in ways that can be interesting or useful. Doesn’t have to be a literal rock: socks mismatched, a night of unsettling dreams, driving someone else’s car.
*Ghosting/”perhapsing” (what haunts your character?)
In closing, here is a better example of place being used to show a character’s emotional state. It’s another excerpt from All the Light We Cannot See. In it, Werner the math/radio prodigy is about sixteen. His lab supervisor, Dr. Hauptmann, has grown cold to him, and WWII has begun.
As I said as I was erasing the chalkboard, if you attended the craft talk and want feedback on your “homework” scene, email it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’m happy to provide feedback on the scene. Context (“this is the first scene in the first chapter of my novel”) is welcome as well.
*Special thanks to Sheila and my brother-in-law for printing out handouts, and thanks to Dave for lugging them around. Also, thank you to the participant who pointed out the term “perhapsing.” “Ghosting” might sound more Halloween-y, but I do appreciate knowing the actual term.