Friday, June 8, 2012

Taking Time To Smell The Roses: Writing Scenes


In my recent Update Thursday, I write about struggling with certain scenes. When I come up with a story idea, several scenes pop into my mind. These scenes cry out in my mind until I type them all out as the emotional and visual powerhouses they are. Of course, these are just a handful of scenes, as in they total maybe 1/4 of the novel. This means I have a lot of spots to fill with everything in between.

Which is easier said than done.

I'll get to work on connecting one scene to the next. I have an idea in mind. I start typing it. And it comes out looking like crap. And by looking like crap I mean there's no feeling, no depth, no detail. It's a building without the walls filled in, just a frame. You can't live in a frame of a house, and my character can't live in a world without emotion and scenery.

Take, for example, my latest scene. My MC, Adrienne, is going to a nursing home to volunteer. My original scene was lifeless. Take a look:

"As I park in the lot in front of the nursing home, I take a look at the place. The outside is light blue with white shutters. Attached to each window are flower boxes with marigolds and pansies. Underneath are evergreen bushes trimmed into squares. The whole place is well-maintained and neat. It gives off a bright beacon of hope for those who stay and those who visit."

See what I mean? It's so plain and generic. Like something in a book you would read in the third grade. It's not YA. It's just blah. Blah, blah, blah blah blah. This is, sadly, what happens to some of my scenes. I just throw out some descriptions and move on. If the scene is lucky anyway. Sometimes I skip right by describing what's going on around my character. Focus on the dialogue, or inner dialogue.

It's one of the harder aspects of writing for me--descriptions. Not that I can't describe things. I just forget to when it's an 'in between' scene. I'm so involved in the characters and the story progressing, I forget to stop and smell the roses. My character is focused on the people, focused on the conversation, focused on the thoughts running through her head... she doesn't look around her. Why doesn't she?

Probably because I have no idea what is around her.

I spend more time on plotting out what happens next that I don't take the time to write out descriptions of places and things. Until recently, I had no idea what Adrienne's house looks like. It was a two-story with stairs. I forced myself to sit down and figure out what rooms were where and what colors were in them. I never bothered with it before, but the more I read, the more I realize my story needs description. It's not just a frame, a basic telling of what happened, like you do when telling your friends what happened to you at work earlier.

It's a bigger picture.

It's a fictional world that needs maple trees and psychotic squirrels* and posters on the walls and vases sitting precariously on end tables.

Here's what happened when I rewrote the nursing home scene:

"River’s Bend Nursing Home is on the outskirts of town. It’s set slightly off the road, about fifty yards. Ornamental pear trees line down the drive until you reach the parking lot. The building itself has the appearance of a house, only much larger. The evergreen bushes that surround the perimeter are trimmed weekly. Each window has a flower box with different types marigolds, pansies, and geraniums. It has a quaint appeal to it, making it feel more like a home than a nursing home. It is a beacon of hope for those who stay and a comfort to those who visit."

Notice the difference? It's not as lifeless as before. It has the right kind of details that help you visualize Adrienne's surroundings.

If you take a look at the two scenes, you'll see something else. When I usually write out a scene, I'm constantly talking from my MC's perspective. "I drove into this parking lot and then looked at the place," "I walked over to my best friend's house and noticed her mom cut down a tree," or "I went to bed and fell asleep." Everything seems so monotonous when I do that. My epiphany with the nursing home scene was this:

Don't start this scene with your character. Start with the surroundings. End at the character.

I started the scene with that new paragraph and led into what the character did next. I'm constantly falling into this trap of telling my readers the progression of the scene. "I woke up that morning, ate breakfast, brushed my teeth, got dressed, and drove to the nursing home." I'm slowly starting to adapt my thinking--nobody wants to read the routine (unless it's relevant). When the reader sees my character at the nursing home, they know she woke up, ate breakfast, brushed her teeth, got dressed, and drove there. They don't need me to list irrelevant information.

Of course, sometimes you do have to say more on how your character got somewhere. It's just not always necessary. I don't want to start every paragraph with "I did this," "I went there," or "I made that." I need to learn how to diversify. To make the story real to the reader. Make it so that when somebody tries talks to them, they're so engrossed in my fictional world they don't even notice.

Does anyone else struggle with writing certain scenes?
Do you have a picture in your mind ahead of time of places?
How do you handle descriptions?

I would love to hear your thoughts!

~Jessica

* Psychotic squirrels: We have one that squawks at us through the window.

10 comments:

  1. I do the exact same thing! I come up with some really powerful scenes and want to write those right away so I end up writing a bunch of trash to fill in the spaces. And I tend to see the settings in my head and either can't be bothered or forget the I need to make things visual for the reader as well. I have to admit I've tended to leave this to my beta readers to tell me what needs flashing out! Lazy huh? I'm trying to improve though and I always make myself try and see through fresh eyes so I can tell when I need to start describing.

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    1. You have no idea how glad I am to know I am not alone! I always worry that I'm not as great of a writer as I try to be. I was actually just thinking about what you said--leaving it to the beta readers. Otherwise I'll just stress over the several scenes that may or may not need the details and never finish.

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  2. I was always taught in my english classes to write with all your senses, maybe that's why I was feeling that I was doing something wrong when I see everyone else having trouble fleshing out their stories or descriptions, because I already do it out of habit.

    My teachers would ask, well what was the weather like - is it sunny, is it windy, stormy? What does it smell like - is it musty, is there a flower smell, fresh cut grass, some awful old lady perfume? What does it look like - do you have to squint your eyes from the sun, did your glasses fog up cause its cold out? What does it sound like - is there a background conversation, hum of cars on the street, birds singing, plow truck going by, water fall, waves? Well you get the point.

    So maybe keep that in mind when writing, once you train your mind and hand to write with the senses in mind it will come naturally.

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    1. I really wish I had that when I was in school. I homeschooled from 8th grade on, so I think I missed all the great English teacher writing advice. I learned a little bit during the writing course I took from correspondence, but not enough. That's why I'm glad I have the internet and people like you to help! :D

      I am going to definitely keep this in mind. It's so hard to remember to pay attention to what's going on around me. I'm usually distracted by my imagination. Lol. I need to start carrying a notebook with me and take some notes to spark setting inspiration. :)

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  3. This is such a tough subject for me. I've been told from countless how-to writing books that I need to have more description and write with your senses, but when I read myself, I prefer just getting on with the story. How a character feels and what they do is more important to me than what they are wearing. But all the experts say to have more description. Sigh. I just get bogged down with it. Maybe I'm just like the kitty in the picture. ;)

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    1. I think that's my problem, I like to get to the heart of the story. Too much description = Jessica isn't paying attention anymore and has skipped to dialogue on accident. It's probably because that's what I want to read more of, dialogue between characters and inside my character's head. I know I need at least a balance though, since people want description. :P

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  4. First of all, I'm giggling like a loon over the psychotic squirrel. Ok...I have this problem, too. 'This then this then this.' GAH! Who wants to read that? It's so dull and lifeless, and that's one of the things I hate in books, so why does it happen in my own writing? I didn't really have problems with descriptions/transitions in Blue Sky Days, but I'm finding it harder with my current WIP, and I'm thinking it's because a) it's adult, not YA, and, b) it's third person instead of first. There have been times when I've felt extremely frustrated trying to get a scene out. Now I'm at the point where I'm just getting out what I can and I KNOW it needs work, but I'll do it in the revision process when my head isn't full of what I still need to write...if that makes sense. Right now I just want to get it out, even though it may sound like crap lol. That's the beauty of a first draft though - they can be crappy, and the beauty comes later.

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    1. Hehehe, I'm glad I got you to laugh! Maybe I really should add that into my book, or one of them anyway.

      Oooh, third person. I don't think I could ever write third person, it kinda scares me. You make a good point--first drafts can be crappy, then you can work out the beauty later. I'm going to remember that. Just getting the story out the best you can is necessary--all the details can be worked out later, and placed where they need to be rather than just thrown in to add a description. Thank you Marie! :D

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    2. I'm so glad I could help! :-D I know it can be hard not to edit as you go, or to try to make everything perfect the first time, but it's just being harder on yourself than necessary, and the writing process is already difficult enough at times. And yes to psychotic squirrels. Seriously. ;-)

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    3. ^_^ So true. And that's probably the reason it has taken so long to revise. Go psychotic squirrels!

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