Posts Tagged writing prompt
This is me, passing before your eyes as an extra in Clint Eastwood’s film Hereafter . (Here’s my post about it, since you ask. Back now? On we go.) Blink and you’d miss me because your eye would quite rightly be on Matt Damon and the other characters who mean something to you.
And look at all the other folk in the scene. Extras, nameless, not even in the script. All of us, there to be ignored.
But if we weren’t there you’d miss us even more.
Something I see so often in first novels is that scenes look unpopulated. The main characters and the setting may be well drawn, but there is no sense that there is anyone else in the world of the story. School gates are deserted; the shopping mall is empty; there is never another car on the road. It makes the reader feel something is wrong. Background people are a crucial detail for making us feel a scene is real.
I know why this happens. When you envisage a scene, it’s hard enough to put in all the stuff that is relevant. But the background?
Directors on big movies have the same problem. They concentrate on the principals. The job of making a background come to life belongs to the assistant director and team. You almost have to do a similar thing yourself when writing – make one of your jobs populating the background.
Of course, you don’t want too much of it. It mustn’t get in the way. When you’re opening a scene and letting the reader know who’s where and what they’re doing, add a person or two – perhaps a woman with her chin snuggled in her yellow scarf, walking fast to her car. The postman in a fluorescent vest swinging his leg over his bicycle.
You can use details of movement or life to punctuate pauses in dialogue or to underline tensions. Perhaps one of your characters hears a clack of bricks being thrown from the scaffolded house into a skip. He thinks that throwing something was exactly what he felt like – and instead he’s having a conversation that’s going nowhere. Or someone sitting in a cafe sees someone at an adjacent table waving to a passing friend and it reinforces their sense of being alone.
Imagination wrung out like a rag?
Of course, we’ve all got enough to think about inventing our significant stuff. It used to frustrate me too until I discovered Flickr. Now I search for a street scene or a bar and grab one that has the right look and feel. Instant background people – and I can get back to the characters I know and what they’re doing.
When you’re setting your scene, don’t forget the unimportant people.
Do you have any tips for populating a scene? Share in the comments!
Imagine a novel could guest on Desert Island Discs. For those of you receiving outside the UK, Desert Island Discs is an immensely popular and long-running show on BBC Radio 4, where guests are asked to choose pieces of music that form a soundtrack to their lives.
Starting today, the red blog will be hosting writers who use music in the creation of their novels. I’ve got scores of them lined up to talk about special pieces that have guided them to a deeper understanding of a character, or helped populate a mysterious place, or clarified a particular, pivotal moment.
First up is Dan Holloway, founder member of the literary fiction collective Year Zero Writers and the literary project eight cuts gallery. His novel The Company of Fellows was voted favourite Oxford novel by readers at Blackwell’s. He’s talking about Songs From The Other Side of the Wall, and the music that helped him develop his rather individual characters.
Do you write to music? Many authors do – as background, as a character’s favourite or bittersweet tune – or maybe just a way to erase the traffic rumbling by in the street. I’ve found over the years that the right music can do more than immerse me in a scene – it can also collide with it to actively create unexpected twists and nuances. As though the piece is speaking to the novel at a subconscious level.
I call it the undercover soundtrack and I’m talking about it today at the red blog – as it’s about music. And also because I got this terrific review for My Memories of a Future Life today so I figured its blog deserved a little attention of its own. Do come over.
I was critiquing a manuscript recently and as with all drafts, there were areas that sang beautifully and others that needed more work. Some types of scene came to life in a three-dimensional, gut-pummelling experience. Others trotted through at a distance as though the writer was including them dutifully but wasn’t interested in them. (And this distance wasn’t deliberate; sometimes we use these techniques for specific effects but that wasn’t what was going on here.)
Of course you know what I’m going to say. If you’re not interested in writing a scene, the reader won’t be interested in reading it. Either don’t bother or find something in the scene to engage you.
How to pep yourself up
Perhaps you don’t feel very sure of the content. Ask yourself – what are you not sure of? Do you need to do more research to bring it to life – for instance, if it’s a new location you don’t know well? Or do the characters need more to do beyond the main goal of the scene?
Or maybe you know full well what’s going to happen but you’d rather get to the next interesting bit. In which case, you either need to generate something in the scene that excites you (for instance, add conflict, twist events an unusual way) – or do something else entirely, no matter how inconvenient that seems.
But listen to the voice that tells you you’re unengaged. It’s telling you for your own good.
But this client’s manuscript was different. It was a thriller, but the author wasn’t engaged by his chases, backstabbing, skulking and close shaves with assassins. All of these were competent and well planned, but told at a summarised distance. I showed him how to make them ping off the page, of course. But he came to life, all by himself, in spectacular fashion in an extraordinary near-drowning scene, where the character has a haunting, hallucinatory encounter with the people stalking his psyche from his past. It was as though another book was trying to fight its way out of the one he thought he was writing. And one that was much more real to him.
This is, I suppose, one of the mysteries of writing. Just as parents have to let children be who they are rather than who they can be moulded into, writers sometimes have to let their true genre bust out by itself. Inconvenient though that might be if you think you’re writing a straightforward, saleable genre novel.
Is your book telling you you haven’t yet found the right genre?
Thank you, Iko, for the picture. Coming August 30: My Memories of a Future Life.
I’m fascinated to know if anyone else has done this. Have you tried to write one sort of novel and found you naturally wrote another?
Today I’m guesting at Janice Hardy’s blog The Other Side Of The Story. Janice might be familiar to you if you follow my writing tips on Twitter because she blogs exhaustively and perceptively about writing. I first came across her in a post about opening lines and the example she gave – from her own fantasy/SF novel The Shifter – has stuck with me. I’m sure it will stick with you too:
Stealing eggs is a lot harder than stealing the whole chicken. With chickens, you just grab a hen, stuff her in a sack and, make your escape. But for eggs, you have to stick your hand under a sleeping chicken. Chickens don’t like this. They wake all spooked and start pecking holes in your arm, or your face, if it’s close. And they squawk something terrible.
I’m not a fantasy author, like Janice, but I am fascinated by what gives fantasy its power. Underlying every good fantasy is a core of truth that means we put aside our logical minds and believe the story is really about us. Where I think this is most interesting is where it happens in mainstream fiction too. It’s a harder bridge to cross, of course, but once you tempt the reader over, the story possibilities are enormous… It reminds us most of all that every story has a logical side and also an emotional side. Anyway, I hope you enjoy the post.
I love a good party. Anyone might collide and anything might start. Or finish. A party is fate’s way of throwing a die.
Which makes them perfect for a story.
For some reason, a dinner party scene doesn’t do it for me. Of course it can throw folks together, as randomly as you please. But a dinner party is more difficult to choreograph, as most of the action takes place around one table, and juggling a sixsome or eightsome is tricky on the page. Most of the time I find excuses to split them up, sending them out to the kitchen to flatten the soufflé, or outside to have a smoke.
A party, though, comes alive on the page more naturally. Its loose informality means you can drift through a succession of intimate groups or pull back for a long shot. You can use montage to clip a conversation of everything but the most startling line. Or show that somebody is a crashing bore without boring the reader. You can shuffle strangers around with very little contrivance.
What parties can do in a story
Parties might be a focal point for society, as in Jane Austen’s novels, when they are often the only times that characters might meet.
Jilly Cooper has rounded off a good number of novels with a rousing gathering, letting the characters bash out their differences under the special conditions a party allows.
A party can also kick off a novel rather well. Iain Banks used a party early in The Crow Road to give a sense of reunion among his characters – and ended the sequence on a poignant note as the MC saw the girl he loved with another guy. Writing as his M alter ego, he used a party early on in one of his Culture books to set up his world.
You might start with a celebration and have it end in tragedy or outrage – as in Sleeping Beauty. The contrast will make the tragedy all the stronger.
Most of the plot of Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim comes from a party the MC is forced to attend at his new boss’s house. The scrapes he gets into set the rest of the book in motion.
A party can have an internalising function too. I used a party scene in My Memories of a Future Life to show the character trying to keep up with her old world after a personal disaster, pretending everything was all right. We can see it isn’t. Later in the book, she goes to another party, held by the friends of a character she hopes to find out more about. The surreal atmosphere reflects her internal state as her life takes another swerve. (Two parties may seem heavy going for one book but I atoned in Life Form 3 where there were no parties at all.)
My rules for a good party
So we’ve established that parties can give you hours of story fun. But like the real thing, they take a bit of organisation. Here are my rules for making your party go with a swing:
1 A party sequence needs a point of view. It could be one POV character or an omniscient camera, but keep it consistent. Don’t start as one and end as another.
2 When lingering on groups of people, keep to small numbers. It’s extremely hard for the reader to keep track of more than three people foregrounded at a time, and some writers never have more than two. Although you may like that ensemble scene at the start of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, where all the characters are nattering in a café, it does not translate well to the page.
3 Keep letting the camera look up to take in what others are doing and to demonstrate that there are more people there besides the ones you’re looking at.
4 If you have a tense exchange, don’t hurry away from it too fast because you need to get round to the other people too. Lock the characters in the bathroom together if necessary so that they can take their time.
Thank you, Oddsock, for the picture. And in other news, My Memories of a Future Life will be available on Kindle soon, so that will be an excuse for a party too…
How have you used parties in your fiction? What purpose did they serve in the story? Which writers give the best parties? Share your examples in the comments!
One day I want to write a story that runs backwards. I’ll start with the protagonists in a mire of disaster, and then tick back through time, unpicking their mistakes, until they are blithe and bonny.
So I devour all I can about backwards narratives, and the other day I was listening to the actress Kristen Scott Thomas interviewed about her part in Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal. The play is a love triangle; husband, wife and wife’s lover. The first scene takes place after the affair has ended and the final scene ends when the affair begins.
Aside from indulging my long-range planning, her comments about playing the part clarified something fundamental that writers do when we create any story – backwards or forwards.
Scott Thomas said that Betrayal’s chronology stripped away the tools the actors normally used to carry them through a performance. Usually, the actor plugs in at scene one, and what they experience there carries them, changed, into the next one. This domino taps that domino. In each scene their character learns something, commits to something, discards something, and that sets them up for the next. Changing all the time.
This relentless momentum, the decisions and acts that cannot be undone, the words that cannot be unsaid, are the pulse that gives a story its life. It’s like a shark who must keep moving otherwise it will die.
That change in every scene is what the actor looks for. It might be gigantic or it might be just a grain. And it is what the writer must look for too.
Thank you, Mrpbps, for the picture. Does each of your scenes have that momentum of forwards change? Do you think there are any situations where a scene can coast without anything changing? Let’s discuss!