Thanks to all who wished me a happy birthday.
Today, I’ll just answer a few questions that came in:
I’m seeing the wisdom of breaking my work into scenes and sequels, but I’m a little confused about sequels: how long do they need to be? If a scene ends in disaster and I need to take my character from that right into another action, is what happens between those two scenes a sequel even if it’s only a paragraph or so? And more importantly, can there be action in a sequel, pushing the MC to the decision–or is that then just another scene?
Randy sez: A sequel should be as long as it needs to be, but no longer. The trend these days is to minimize the sequel. You can get by with a paragraph long sequel, if it does the job. You can even skip to a new POV character in a new scene and then allude to the sequel of the previous scene, without ever showing it. Sequels can be boring if done boringly (duh) and so it’s best to avoid that. Yes, there can be action in a sequel. It’s probably better that way.
What about different POVs about events that take place at the same or at an overlapping chronological time? How can you cover the same (or not distinctly separate) time period from two different POVs?
Randy sez: This is fine, as long as it works. Orson Scott Card once wrote two novels that covered the same time period and the SAME EVENTS, but from the POV of two different characters. ENDER’S GAME and ENDER’S SHADOW. In the first, you see the whole story from Ender’s POV, and a little kid named Bean is a minor character. In the second book, Bean is the main character and you now understand the first novel better, because Bean knows things that only he can tell.
Many novels have shown scenes going on that overlap in time. It’s perfectly OK to do that, as long as you maintain emotive tension.
My critiquer complained that the story was too dark and breakneck. I intentionally added a few humerous scenes to slow things down and give the reader a breather. They aren’t sequel and don’t necessarily advance the plot, but they do deepen characterization and mileu. And, they bridge to the plot. Is this done?
Randy sez: Yes, it’s done all the time. It even works some of the time. You should make sure that your critiquer actually reads your kind of story. Otherwise, you may be taking advice from someone who is not your target reader. It’s rare (but does happen) that a novel is too fast-paced. Or maybe I’m just getting old. One or the other.
I’d like to know if, in general, the key elements to good storytelling that we talk about, like Scene/Sequel, apply more to commercial than literary fiction?
I guess I’m writing a relational drama, women’s fic. I have some chapters that move the story along but don’t have a disaster, unless it’s subtle. Can you have an emotive punch in a scene without a ‘disaster’? Isn’t humor an emotional experience? In a story about relationships and inner struggle, can inner conflict and interpersonal drama produce enough emotional experience? Or is it a hairy bore?
Randy sez: Yes, the Scene/Sequel schema is for commercial fiction. Literary fiction is its own world, but the truth is that some literary novelists could really use a little Scene and Sequel magic so as to stop being so darn boring. The literary novelists I read are not boring. Chaim Potok is never boring. Neither is Elizabeth Moon or Audrey Niffenegger or Alice Sebold.
Humor is not really an emotional experience. Humor is good, but it needs to be on top of that pesky Powerful Emotional Experience. I always use some humor in my books, but its the pepper, not the potatoes.
Inner conflict is always good, even in movies with lots of exploding helicopters. (See the Die Hard movies for examples.) Interpersonal conflict is always good. You can only blow up so many planets before it loses its charm. Whereas interpersonal conflict never loses its charm. I have watched PRIDE AND PREJUDICE well over a dozen times and have not got bored with it yet, not even the five-hour BBC marathon version.
The problem comes along when I’m reading something that is not written in my “style” or similar to my voice, and then I start mimicking that writer’s style! Not overtly, but in things like sentence length or sarcasm or pacing. You have mentioned reading several different types of fiction: do you ever face this challenge, or is it simply a freshman/sophomore thing?
Randy sez: There is nothing wrong with mimicking somebody else. That, in fact, is probably how you develop your own voice–by mimicking others and finding those aspects of their voice that resonate most powerfully with you. I have been doing a daily exercise recently where I type a couple of pages of another author’s work. That’s all–just type them. Then I go write. I have not noticed that my voice is warped by those other guys. But I’ve ripened on the vine for a long time. A freshman or sophomore may be a bit more pliable. Don’t worry about that. When you get to be a Senior, your voice will be strong and powerful and unique.
Randy, I can’t seem to grasp this Scene/Sequel thing. I’ve read Dwight Swain’s book and even listened to his lectures, but it just excapes my understanding.
I know it will be one of those things that makes me slap my forehead and say “well duh!” when I finally understand the concept, but for now I get frustrated trying to “get it”. Yes, I have listened to your Fiction 101, Fiction 201 and also the tapes of Fiction 101 you did with Brandilyn Collins. Am I just hopeless?
Randy sez: Scene and Sequel is hard! Don’t give up. Write a scene and then look at how it ended. Does it end with a disaster or a decision?
If it’s a disaster, then you have a Scene. Make sure the disaster actually disasts–(it should frustrate some goal). That goal should be clearly spelled out at the beginning of the Scene. If so, you can’t help but have conflict in the Scene.
If it ends in a decision, then you have a Sequel. What were the options available before the decision was made? That is the dilemma. Make it as tight as possible.
If you have neither a disaster nor a decision at the end of your scene, then strangle that scene because it’s not helping you.
OK, I better get this blog posted before midnight.
Daan Van der Merwe says
Aha! Thank you for that information bonne Friesen! I was not aware of that but, knowing my two brothers, it figures.
Steve Lewis says
Wanted to kind of add my two cents about Camille’s post. You can actually find the whole Scene/Sequel thing in the vast majority of literary fiction,if you look at them as the ebb and flow of tension. IMHO, I think that the only major difference between commercial and literary fiction is that literary fiction places more emphasis on the sequels. Which is why most literary fiction focus on everyday life; it’s about feelings.
A couple of authors that you can find this with are Anne Tyler and Jack London. With Tyler I would look at The Accidental Tourist (absolutely love this book), with London the short story ‘The Mexican.’
Another way of looking at things that has helped me is that a story is a character pursuing a goal and through his actions the situation gets worse (you can definitely see this in The Accidental Tourist). If it gets better the story is over pretty quick. The name Disaster might make things sound melodramatic (setback or complication might be better in this case), but a good writer can be so subtle that we aren’t aware of the overstructure. But it’s there, just less overt.
I LOVE the charming interpersonal conflict of Jane Austen! That must be why I want to write this stuff. I own worn-out versions of both Pride and Prejudice films. And several versions of Austen’s other novels-to-film. And of course all the Die Hards.
I got a little too excited when the family watched “The Shooter” recently… I SAW it! Scene and Sequel, laid out in near perfect, textbook formation. It got me death glares from everyone in the room. I’m banned from movie night until well after Die Hard 4 comes out on video.
J Parker Haynes says
I have a question about this Scene/Sequel model that I can best ask with an example.
Let’s say we have a story with only two characters of consequence. In keeping with current events, let’s call them Obama and Hillary. Now we’re writing this story entirely from Obama’s POV. Must every Goal/Conflict/Disaster be Obama’s, or can some be Hillary’s as seen from Obama’s POV? Or is there something I’m not seeing and this is a stupid question?
A million thanks for this ongoing education you provide with your dedication to this blog! May you and your family celebrate the best Thanksgiving ever. (You might even unplug the computer until Sunday midnight.)
J Parker Haynes
You know, I never thought of Jack London as a literary writer. But then I’ve never read Pride and Prejudice – I couldn’t get past the first few pages. I couldn’t read Ann of Green Gables for the same reason (although I do enjoy the movies).
Yet, I love many classics (Gone with the Wind, Screwtape Letters, Flannery O’Connors short stories, many other short stories by famous authors that I can’t think of right now) – so are all classics literary?
I thought literary dealt more with inner conflict, flowery writing, and less on physical action. I thought literary works were about the growth of the character, developing his or her worldview in such a way that the reader questions his or her own worldview. I thought literary works were more about philosophy, and the collision of the characters’ different philosophies. Now I am confused.
Lois Hudson says
Randy, please, how about a concise definition of literary fiction.
One of the best examples of this that I’ve come across is the Len Deighton trilogy, Faith; Hope; and Charity, which explores the final story of his Bernard Sampson character from different POV. Wonderful stuff for those of us who like a good spy story.
Karla Akins says
I love the fact that you are typing other writers’ works, Randy. That’s part of how I teach writing to my students! It’s called “copywork” and they do it by hand. I’m a big believer in it. If a child does this for several years, daily, (just a few sentences) then they begin to grasp good grammar, syntax, etc. and use it in their own writing. Kids as young as 2nd and 3rd grade can write in coherent, beautiful sentences. One of my 4th graders that I’ve taught since Kindergarten writes on a high school level now. So it makes sense that typing a page of someone else’s work would help us as writers, too.
I believe it was Benjamin Franklin who taught himself to read by copying books by hand. Also, Thomas Jefferson (who wrote our Declaration of Independence in the USA) and Abraham Lincoln, as well, In fact, it was also a method used in early colonial schools because they only had so many books available to children.
I am going to do this myself. What authors are you using? Are you using authors who have more of your own writing style? Or are you using people that don’t write anything like you?
I did something interesting awhile back with a book that kept my interest — I outlined it. I wanted to see what it was about the book that kept me riveted. (This was before I was introduced to you and your snowflake.)
Thanks for the great ideas! Oh, but to have endless hours in which to practice the craft and write!
Happy Thanksgiving to you and everyone on this list!
Rachel Brown says
Randy, I really appreciate how you make yourself available to us like this. Thanks so much for the answer to my question, and the great responses to other people’s questions, too.
I’m learning so much.
bonne friesen says
Wow, what great information in today’s “light” post!
Plus, now I can almost forgive you for liking HP, since you’re also a P&P fan. (kidding! relax you voracious HP fans!)
You just never can tell with people, can you?
Daan ~ any help you need with trivial Canadiana, I can fix you right up
Tami Meyers says
A couple of years ago I started doing the same thing you’re doing with the practice. I typed the first three chapters of a best selling novel because I figured if she was that successful I could learn something from her work.
I have a sanguine personality without any analytical cells in my brain, so outlining and such are useless exercises in frustration. Because of this I thought if I typed someone else’s excellent writing I could possibly pick up the rhythm and flow of good writing, along with learning proper punctuation and structure.
I stopped doing it when someone told me I was wasting time I should be spending on my own story.
Wow, look how much I could have learned in two years! I might even have understood this Scene/Sequel stuff by now. Guess you have to be careful who you listen to (or is that to who/whom you listen?).