Wednesday, February 27, 2013
The question: How do you bring spark to every scene?
The answer: With a box of matches.
The real answer: Your brain is the box of matches.
When you first have a story idea, it's so exciting that it takes over your life, and you simply have to start writing. But for most of us, somewhere along the way, we lose that spark and writing becomes a chore. That's when lots of people give up, sensing that if the spark is gone, the book isn't worth writing, and they should just move on to the next shiny new idea.
The problem isn't that the flames went out. It's that you have to relight the fire every day. Here's how.
1. Make every single scene important.
You have to find something in every scene that adds to the book and keeps the reader reading. Not just X happened, but X happened because tragic childhood reveal, or X happened and there was a beautiful detail that will be important later, or X happened and there was conflict. Personally, I turn on my playlist and think about the next scene as I'm driving to work, hunting for that tiny spark that will make it better and keep the reader curious.
2. Put conflict on every page.
The conflict might just be that the character stubs her toe, or forgot something, or annoys another character by arguing over the cost of popcorn. But if everything is just going along easily without a single annoyance or problem, then the reader loses interest. When you're excited about getting to the next "big" scene, sometimes you gloss over the linking scenes. And that's boring.
3. Make things more complicated.
a. She walked down the hall and opened the door with trembling hands, knowing that her destiny waited on the other side.
b. She tiptoed down the hall, her ears alert for the sound of tiny, skittering paws. Her uncle had mentioned offhand that the house was overrun with white mice, which were known for their glowing red eyes. She'd seen one under the kitchen sink and would have sworn it had fangs. A strange green glow under the library door made her wish she could run back to her room and hide, but Uncle Mac had promised to answer all her questions about the strange old house, so she turned the crystal knob with trembling hands.
Same action, but with additional mystery, back story, and feelings. Better, right? Hallways don't have to be boring.
4. Keep a list of what's to come.
Your brain is not the best place to store all the details you want to include in your story. If you get an idea, write/type it down. Maybe it's a turn of phrase, a big reveal, a new character, an argument, an interesting detail or rule of your world. Your brain will send you hints about your story that won't be important until later, and it's all too easy to say, "Thanks, brain! I'll remember that!" and then forget. You're basically receiving a trail of breadcrumbs from your subconscious, and sometimes they fall out of order.
5. When in doubt, leave a placeholder.
Sometimes, I'm so excited about a certain scene that I want to skip the linking scenes before it. When I can't get a certain scene out of my head, sometimes I'll leave a placeholder and just write the damn thing. I leave things like (insert backstory about childhood fear of dogs) or (minor argument, grow as friends) or just (get from airship bordello to train). And then I'll write the scene that's keeping me up at night so it'll get out of my head. Sometimes it's easier to fill in the blanks later using details you won't have until afterward rather than gloss over a scene that could have been great.
6. Always remember that the first draft is vomit.
It is utterly impossible to make every scene exciting in the first draft. Some scenes will be naturally amazing, others will be bland but functional. When you're on the first draft, your job is to churn out some raw ore that can be refined later. Whether you leave a few placeholders or just say "she walked down the hall", be confident that you can always polish it up later, when you know exactly what's going on and why.
7. Pretend you're a reader and hunt down boredom.
Once you've got a decent draft hammered out, print it out and start reading it quickly, pen in hand. Every time you're bored or find yourself skipping words, circle that passage. If you're bored, the reader's going to be bored. Go through the entire book, if you can, and see if there's anything these scenes have in common. Sometimes, you learn that you're too heavy on description, you bog down the action with character thoughts, or you have a character who just isn't sparking on the page. Look at all the things you've circled and come up with a plan to make everything more exciting. Look at the big picture and get one-on-one to find out why each scene isn't working.
Extra credit: After you've done your circling and really tightened up your draft, give it to a friend who's not afraid to hurt your feelings. Hand them a pen and ask them to make a note every time they get bored. Have them tell you why. Buy a box of tissue and make some brownies and fix that shit.
8. Feelings, senses, and weirdness.
These three things help your reader connect with a character in exciting ways. How the character feels, whether communicated through their dialog and actions or interior thoughts. What your character sees, hears, smells, tastes, and physically feels. And what makes their world different from what's normal. Some characters have tics, like tapping fingers or blinking with both eyes. Just remember: normalcy is boring, so if your character is rooted in normalcy, you're going to have to shake them up through external forces.
9. Change is good.
It's hard to be satisfied as a reader if something doesn't change. Quite often, the story changes the character as a person, whether because they live through something dangerous, grow as a person, find love, or lose something important. Your character on the final page should be somehow different from what the reader saw on the first page. The change should unfold gradually through the book, and even scenes that seem boring at first can reveal those moments that all humans can connect with, the little epiphanies and understandings and moments of mercy. Simply sitting on a couch in an empty room can be exciting, if you do it right.
10. Make it YOUR story.
You have a unique way of telling your story that insures that no one else in the world could write it. Don't lose that. Your voice will develop naturally over time, and it will inform every scene. Don't fall back on boring old cliches like "it struck her like a bolt of lightning" if your instinct is that it struck her like a gnome with a bag of cobras. Take risks. You'll have plenty of time to tweak them later if they stand out from the rest of the story.
11. Accept that you can't make everything exciting.
No matter how hard you try, every single second isn't going to be mind-blowingly insane. Michael Bay tried that with Transformers, and look where it got him. You need down time to make those crazy explosions interesting. So just remember that even after a dozen revisions and passing it on to friends and doing the very best you can, there comes a time when you need to accept that the story is probably good enough and push it out into the world, whether that's into querying, your agent's inbox, or your self-pub venue.
Because you know what's really exciting?
Writing the next book.
So pull out the next match and set something else on fire.
Caveats: Your mileage may vary. These tips come from my own writing experience, and your journey may be a different one. This is not the only way to do things. Please don't set *me* on fire.