Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Setting the Scenes

Since all writing is worldbuilding in one form or another, I thought I'd pull back and talk about ordinary worldbuilding. Ordinary people call worldbuilding "setting."

I'll be taking a workshop at Savvy Authors on setting as character later this month, so I've started to consider how I think about where my characters sit, sleep, walk and talk. I've also used setting as a way to plan my novel.

After I went through the early stages of getting an idea, finding some kind of structure for it, getting a feel for the characters and doing some research for the history and location, I started writing. And stopped. And wrote, and stopped. Then, in frustration or desperation, I started listing my story by scenes focusing on where each scene took place. I made a list of settings for my novel and with the setting made a note about what I wanted to happen there, what I could see so far. If you've written plays for stage or screen you know what I mean. Here's what my list kinda looks like.

  • Sacramento street, night--Coby finds Zulie
  • Queenie's doorstep, night--Coby drops Zulie off, gets dismissed
  • Ross alley, night--Tory lets Coby in the back door.

I've already planned the movement of the story, the three-act structure, the plot points. So what do I get out of planning by setting?

Sometimes the statement of what happens grows into a paragraph sketch of the scene, or if I'm on a roll, a whole scene. The benefit of this has been that once I have a list I also have a timeline, a series of scenes that, once they are written, I can manipulate to break up long passages. I've also been able to skip scenes and write ahead. I've done this when the intermediate scenes, the ones that don't seem quite as important, turn out not to be.

It's not that I don't know what comes next. Because I have the scene list, I do know. What's missing is that I need to thread something into the scene. This has been a tremendous breakthrough for me.

For example, I'm pretty clear about the general events of Zulie meeting the major for the first time. It's not a huge plot point, but it is something that has to happen for th story to move forward. I also know that Zulie runs and errand and meets someone that she relies on later, at the end of the next scene in fact. However, I needed to write the scene where she gets lost first. Then I wrote the scene where Coby sees her just before she gets lost. And the scene between the major and Pritchard. And the scene where she and Sascha meet for the first time.

I didn't write these because they made me happy, or because I was avoiding the other ones in their favor. All of these need to be threaded back into the unwritten ones. They need the unwritten scenes as set-ups. What in the scenes I've written is important enough to be hinted at? Have I begun an idea that I can develop, something that I hadn't thought of or noticed so far?

I also have a manageable writing plan. A couple of people have suggested a version of this, writing by scene, one scene every day. Let's see. Ninety thousand words. Thirty chapters. Three thousand words per chapter. If each scene was a thousand words that would be three months for a book, writing it scene by scene. At my slowest, that's about an hour's work. I've taken longer but I was multitasking, or half-asleep. The feeling of accomplishment is amazing. Freeing. I have time first thing in the morning, after my first work shift, to get it done. If I want to double up, I have time at work, and after work. In between, I have time to think, to let the scenes integrate, to feel into the characters in their new state.

Next month I'll be putting the pedal to the metal and getting the rest of the novel finished, testing the scene-setting model. I'll also be cleaning up earlier scenes for presentation. I'll be letting you know how it all works out as I go. Meanwhile, how do you work with scenes? Do you know where your characters are? Where they have been or where they are going? How is your timeline? How do you manage your day-to-day writing?

8 comments:

Marilyn Muñiz said...

I create the scenes as I write. No planning except a vague idea. As I'm writing the scene, I do know where they are in my mind. Until the scene is finalize, I don't want to write into a timeline.

My day-to-day writing involves my journal for my novel and sitting my butt in a chair to write. It's quite simple but it works for me.

Ella Gray said...

I like to use a timeline and a location 'map' as I'm planning scene order - it's about as close to real outlining that I do at the start of a story. I've learned the hard way how important it is to get the location right from the beginning. Changing it later takes a lot of re-writes, LOL.

Stacie Carver said...

I struggle with setting my outline in terms of scenes, but I like the idea of 30 chapters, 3 scense per chaper and 1000 words per scene, give or take.
I know that some of my scenes will be longer, but it's a starting place. Thanks for the simple idea.

EW Gibson said...

I like your setup, just enough information to be a guide without burdening you down. Also, leaves you room for whatever happens along the way.

Rosi said...

I'm always fascinated to find writers who actually know where their story is going before they do the writing. I just have characters who walk into my head fully formed and tell me the story. (sigh) Sometimes I sure wish I had more control. Maybe I will learn that as time goes on.

Melanie said...

Stacie--
I picked a book that I liked and more or less followed its format. Then I rounded off the numbers to something I could remember! Turns out that writing a thousand words (more or less) at one sitting is really do-able

Melanie said...

Rosi--
I used to write that way. Start with the characters and watch their movie. I've got six Nanowrimo novels written that way. I'm trying this as a way to manage my writing without the pressure of Nano to press me into the writing shape. I still follow my characters. I just follow them for shorter periods with more detail :-)

Tiyana, aka "Yoyo" said...

Hi, Melanie. :) I think setting is very important, a starting place for me, so I always have to know where my scenes take place before writing them. (If I can't "see" it, I can't write it.) I'll also have some idea of what I want to accomplish in a scene, a set goal to write towards, but like some others here I prefer to discover the essence of the scene as I write it—in a linear fashion, in the case of my current WIP.

Though, right now I'm doing more rewriting than "discovery" writing at the moment, since I'm currently in the editing process. Even so, I still approach my scenes linearly from beginning to end and am paying more attention to setting to make sure I get the little things right. "There is a light blub on now in this scene... Was that there before? I thought they kept the light off to keep from being discovered and used matches instead?" I think the clearer your vision of the setting is before you write, the less you'll encounter little inconsistencies like this later on.

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