Monday, March 22, 2010

Diagramming a Scene

I've said before that I purchased Donald Maass's The Fire in Fiction and Writing the Breakout Novel a few months back, after reading Susan R. Mills's great series on the former book at A Walk In My Shoes. Anyway, I've finally finished reading and am now starting to apply Mr. Maass's lessons to CALLARION AT NIGHT. It would be kind of silly for me not to -- Maass has been a literary agent for three decades, and represents fantasy and science fiction, so he has to know what he's talking about in some respects. I'd be remiss to not at least give the suggestions in these two books the "old college try." (I'd feel the same way if Terry Pratchett or Orson Scott Card offered me writing advice. Of course, if I got personal writing tips from either of those gentlemen my brain would probably be stuck on "Holy crap I'm talking to Terry Pratchett/Orson Scott Card.")

Anyway, one of the chapters in Maass's The Fire in Fiction is devoted to creating scenes that can't be cut from your manuscript. How does one do this? Well through several avenues -- determining the turning points, stripping down the dialogue, and determining the character's goals in the scene. This all amounts to a practice called diagramming the scene.

I've started to do this with the rewrite of Chapter 14 of CaN and I'm of the belief that the results are a heck of a lot better than the first write through. Maass explains that, if you start with the major parts of the scene first, then you write a stronger scene with much more impact than if you went through dozens of drafts to find the point of the scene.

My scene diagram looks like this, by the way:

Chapter XX scene development
Scene (number): Title of scene
Setting: Where it takes place in the city 

(Character)’s Goal: The goal of whoever the major players are in the scene. Sometimes two of my major characters are in a scene, so they may have separate goals; the second character may not be a POV one, but their goals still matter
Obstacles: What's going to prevent the character(s) from achieving the goals stating above
Hints of Success/Failure: What clues can I give the reader that the character(s) will succeed or fail? Or can I give them some misdirection to pull success from the "jaws of failure"?
Outer Turning Point: The part where things change where it's clear to everyone involved in the story (i.e. the external, visible point where everything changes)
Inner Turning Point: The point where things change in the character's outlook on things. The internal change that occurs.
Do/es the character(s) succeed? Is the goal achieved completely or partially? How big of a setback is the failure if the character is set to fail?
Once I've done this from Chapter 14 to the end of the story, I'm going to go backwards and do this same process for Chapters 1 to 13. I've already kind of half-started doing this for Chapter 1 (not in any great detail though) and I've thus far determined that I did something like this unconsciously already. 

What are the benefits of diagramming a scene like this? Well, at least for me, I'm seeing stronger scenes get written on the first shot. I also lose my way less often and though my chapters are now longer on average, they're longer because they need to be longer to include all these details that can only serve to strengthen the story itself. Like I said before, I'd be remiss to ignore Maass's advice. 

Chapter 14 is stronger as a result; and the entire book will be as well. I challenge you all to try this with one scene and then rewrite it using that information. Tell me if you think the scene's better or worse now that you've done that. 

Also, I'm curious as to your views on doing something like this. Does it smack too much of outlining for all you pantsers out there? Or does it seem right up your alley for all those plotters and planners? Let me know in the comments, loyal readers.


Gary Corby said...

It's said that when they were making the movie Marathon Man, Dustin Hoffman at one point went without sleep for several days, because that's what his character did, and he wanted to get the effect right.

Sir Laurence Olivier sniffed, "Good God man! Why don't you try acting?"

Detailed preparation sucks the life out of whatever I write. I did a scene the other day that (very unusually) came out well on the first pass, and I had no idea about the twist one of the characters was about to produce until I wrote it.

There is one book on organising your writing that I do recommend though, and it's Jack Bickham's Scene and Structure.

L. T. Host said...

I have a general outline in my head and let my characters steer me to the important plot points. I do a lot of brainstorming out loud and can spend hours figuring out how the pieces fit together, but I actually like it that way-- it's like putting together one big puzzle!

Joshua McCune said...

External diagramming's hard for me, but I do lots of internal iterative diagramming on the post-processing side.

Susan R. Mills said...

It is so time consuming, but it is worth it in the end. By applying what I learned from Mr. Maass, my scenes are leaps and bounds better than what they were before. I'm excited to begin my next project because I know that my scenes will be much tighter the first go around.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Strangely, it depends on the scene/chapter. I have very specific diagrammed purposes for some chapters (in my head, or free form written down), and others have more of an intuitive feel of how it starts and then I just need to write to see where it goes. This is all on the rough draft, of course. I can see diagramming on the post-processing end, as Bane says, helping to shape up a flabby or meandering scene.

Thought provoking, as always!

Andrew Rosenberg said...

My list of scene analysis topics even dwarfs that. But that's a good place to start.

Adam Heine said...

Sounds like a lot of work. I think I'll try it.

You know, Orson Scott Card does have a couple (really good) books of advice on writing: Characters and Viewpoints and How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I'll second Adam's rec for OSC's How to Write Science Fiction.... It was one of the first "books on writing" that I read. However, I'd say it's a general overview, not the nitty gritty stuff. STILL, it's Orson Scott Card...!

Anne R. Allen said...

Really useful info here. I recently started to do a similar thing while doing a revision of my WIP. I was using a technique I learned while studying acting: the old "what's my motivation?" thing. It's the best way to fix a scene that's not working (or figure out if it's necessary.) Maybe your system is too left-brained for a first draft, but it's pure brilliance for revisions. Thanks! Sierra Godfrey posted this link. I'm glad I found your blog.