Sunday, November 11, 2012

Dissecting a scene

When the grind of the daily word count begins to numb my brain and create stifling trenches of ruts in my story, I like to step back, clear my palette and try new techniques. One I tried a couple years ago and I like to go back to it frequently. I call it Dissecting a scene.

I have three categories when I dissect a scene, but you can add more depending on what you are writing. My witty mnemonics are TEA: Things, Emotions, Actions.

I'll use an example from my current project since it's right in front of my face. The gist of the scene is this: my character Nelson is stuck in the Apocalypse and has for most of the book been traveling with a mean, inconsiderate character. He finally grows a pair and goes off on his own and finds some sanctuary with some nice people in a farm house. He is by himself for the first time since the end of the world for a few minutes in the farmhouse dining room. And go.

THINGS: All the physical descriptions in the room. The carpet, the peeling wall paper (and what's underneath it), lace curtains, the table and chairs, what they look like, the old framed photos, a coat rack covered in winter overalls (it's summer at the time the scene takes place), a bookshelf covered in yellowed, flaking newspapers, a saddle in the corner with an old rodeo buckle, the lantern light since the electricity is out etc. etc. etc. Think of as many things as possible, even if you don't think you'll use them. This goes for any setting: a gas station, a Victorian parlor, a jungle, a classroom. Include weather and time of day.

After I make a list of things, I tack on a sub-category of the 5 senses. I've put a lot of visuals, but then I try to add sounds (the way the floorboards creak when he walks, but the heavy silence when he stands still), tastes (I had to cheat as there's no food yet, but maybe he can visualize the table filled for thanksgiving dinner and his mom's pumpkin pie), smells (when he disturbs the dust around the picture frames) and how things feel (the belt buckle, the rough wood of the old table, the heat of the night with no air conditioning).

Keep in mind you don't have to use all of the items on your list, so go nuts. (The actual list I made of things in this scene was two pages long!)

EMOTIONS: He is feeling free for the first time. Relieved. Happy. Excited. These emotions are of course going to play on all the fear he's been feeling and the uncertainty of the future. List why your characters are feeling the way they are, even if it's leftover from previous scenes. Understand their emotional states to play on the visuals and actions.

ACTIONS: Things he is doing while he self-reflects. Looking at the pictures, pacing around the old floor, leaning on the table, sitting back in one of the chairs looking at the ceiling, touching the parts of the old saddle, making shadow puppets on the wall from the lamplight.

Since this scene is very slow moving, I don't have to worry about getting him from point A to point B. But in a scene with a lot of action, this can isolate all the other things to get your choreography down for how characters gets from doing one thing to the next to the next. Don't worry about emotions or other descriptors in this category, purely what they are doing.

Then, you can put it all together. I found it amazing how much better my descriptions were as I picked things out of the list I might never have thought of if I just wrote the scene.

I won't give away how I put together the scene (wait for the book to come out! :-P) but the shadow puppet thing, which I kind of added to my list as a joke, ended up being very symbolic and tying a lot together.

I especially like this in action scenes where I tend to focus all on the action and leave emotions/descriptions behind. Like I said, you won't use every item on the list, but having concentrated on each individually will give you more focus to choose the important things that relate to each other and make the symbolism better and strengthen theme. I also like to use this when I don't have time to think about writing a complete scene. Maybe I'm on break at work or have a few minutes at lunch, I can think of a scene, pick a category and make a list. Then when I have all the lists I can sit down and focus on the scene.

So, there you have it. I don't always use this technique, but it has proved helpful for me in certain situations. And it's much less bloody to take apart a scene before rather than dissecting after you've written the scene. Happy writing.

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