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Website of author and professional editor Rachelle M. N. Shaw. Find information about her books, her editing services, and her blog, From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing.

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From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing

From Mind to Paper is a blog for writers, editors, and those interested in the English language. It covers a multitude of writing topics, from punctuation and grammar to plot development, character development, and world building. In addition to in-depth articles about various writing topics, this blog also has a number of series posts, which are currently being transformed into a nonfiction series on writing.

Filtering by Category: Make Every Scene Count

Make Every Scene Count: Ending Scenes

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

There are two particular scenes in a book that are rather telling of the writing quality in between: the opening scene and the ending scene. Each is vital to capturing the reader's interest in a book and keeping it. I touched on some tips for writing opening scenes in a previous blog in this series, and now it's time to go over ending scenes. I'll cover both ending scenes for chapters, and the final ending scene for a book. This will then wrap up the "Make Every Scene Count" series.

Chapter Endings
Consider ending the last scene of each chapter with a climactic moment rather than resolution. Cliffhangers may be old-fashioned, but they work. Why? They urge readers to keep reading. Examples of climactic moments are important news (especially the start of an announcement that is interrupted), a revealed secret that impacts other characters, new information that changes the plot, or new potential problem. This allows room for sort of resolution of things, but leaves the scene open-ended enough that readers will remain anxious about the outcome.

However, just because a scene is climactic doesn't mean it has to be dramatic. Dramatic scenes should really be kept for key moments. Otherwise, they become less effective. An example of a climactic scene that isn't quite so dramatic is one where a main character discovers an important object (without realizing its importance) or notices a change in themselves. Both of these things can have a huge impact on the plot, but for the scene at hand, it really doesn't change much.

Book Endings
Book endings can be difficult, especially when it comes to pleasing your readers. Some might be rooting for Ending A, and others for Ending B. So what can you do to please both audiences? Well, first realize you cannot make every single reader happy. There will always be some criticism of your choice, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Not only can authors learn from the feedback of their fans, but the fact that there is a debate about how it should have ended usually means that the writing was at least thought-provoking.

When it comes to the writing itself, my biggest suggestion is to leave some mystery to the end of a book. But be careful with this one. While not every issue needs to be resolved, there should some finality to it, and a clear, overall story arc. The worst kind of ending is one with too many loose ends or a completely anti-climactic one that leaves the reader feeling disappointed or "ripped off."

However, some less important issues surrounding the plot can be left with undetermined conclusions to hold the reader's interest in the book and keep them wondering after it is finished. Cryptic dialogue and life-changing circumstances are both great ideas, so long as you avoid clichés. For example, a marriage ceremony at the end is nice, but it's often overdone. A twist to this type of ending might be a newly married couple where the wife sneaking into the restroom to send a text to a mysterious friend without the husband knowing. This poses the option of the text either being an innocent conversation or something much more dishonest, causing speculation. This open question will leave the reader wondering, but a resolution of marriage will still have taken place.

The second and last piece of advice is to save completely care-free, happy endings for fairy tales. I know not everyone will hold the same stance as me on this, but I'm a firm believer in making endings realistic, not idealistic. This doesn't mean a conclusion can't be uplifting or joyous. It does, however, mean that some sacrifices should have been made to reach such a point. The sacrifices could be a friendship, money, change of character, or even death of others. Every book will have an ending that is best suitable for it.

For some more helpful hints on writing ending scenes:
http://rebeccabelliston.wordpress.com/2012/11/29/writing-tip-1-end-chapters-at-height-of-scene-not-at-resolution/

http://barrylyga.com/2010/02/writing-advice-41-ending-scenesfriends-as-critics/

Make Every Scene Count: Intimacy and Romance

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

As natural as intimacy and romance are in everyday life, they aren't the easiest scenes to write about, especially when it comes to standard fiction. For pure romance/erotica novels, the task is pretty simple. Explain in detail the heightened emotions and surges of passion one experiences when engaging in any intimate physical activity. However, for standard fiction that doesn't focus on romance, writing a sex scene or even just a romantic one can be tricky. To establish a well-written and seemingly spontaneous but cleverly crafted love scene for your fiction novel, consider the following guidelines.

  1. Use heightened emotions. As I mentioned in some of my previous posts, dramatic writing isn't really something that I endorse very often. Nevertheless, love scenes call for it. When you're in love, every motion, breath, and thought (especially of your lover) is intensified and becomes paramount to your next move. As such, these emotions often lead to instinctive reactions that are not well-thought-out. These scenes usually have a slow-motion-like effect to them.

  2. Pay attention to physiological changes. Before any close contact is even made, our bodies adopt some physiological responses when someone we attracted to is in immediate vicinity. Some we notice ourselves, and others we do not. These responses include increased heart rate, perspiration, flushing of the face, clamminess (especially of the hands), and butterflies in the stomach. Some other common, less obvious responses are nausea, shyness (hiding or quickly fleeing the scene), loss of speech or stumbling over words, talking too much or too quickly, forgetfulness, and nervousness (i.e. playing with hands or hair, fidgeting, biting lower lip, looking downward, shifting position often, not able to look in someone's eyes).

  3. It's all about the specifics. As with the previous points, note all actions and physical responses that each character involved makes. If the scene is unfolding slowly for the character being followed, so should unfold it for the reader.

  4. Don't be too revealing. Even with emotions portrayed and physiological changes exhibited, when it comes to full-on sex scenes, it's good practice to leave some to the imagination. While the reader wants to know what happens, they are usually more excited and "turned on" if you will when parts of the action are eluded to but not actually stated in a count-by-count blow. A good sex scene in a fiction novel works a lot like clothes on a woman; unless you're going for erotica, it's best to show a few tantalizing parts that make your mind wander.

Make Every Scene Count: Action and Conflict

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

Action scenes are a crucial part of narration in a story. They aren't always sword fights or full-fledged battles, but regardless, the nuts and bolts matter. Whether the scene is a small plot point in the story arc or a large one, the craft of writing one should be done with care; action scenes can be tricky. So my advice is to focus on two main areas when getting down to the nitty-gritty: the writing structure itself and the minute details that make up the structure. Each contributes to the scene to make it more intense and realistic.

Writing Structure
First, pick up the pace. Use shorter dialogue and sentences to move things along. However, try to harmonize this with natural flow and keep things in "real time." By that, I mean describe the actions of each passing minute. A greater abundance of details in those short sentences lets the reader know that this scene is an important one that will likely have a long-term affect on the plot. Another trick to speeding things up is to make your characters react with their gut more than their brain; the act of deciding quickly without dwelling on future consequences brings a sense of urgency to the scene.

Action scenes are one of the few places where readers really expect and appreciate extra tension and big reactions. In other words, drama. Drama is one of those touchy elements that I'm not overly fond of personally. Too much drama throughout a book can be rather annoying, and it tends to make the book less believable. However, when paired with a specific action scene, drama has the power to intensify the situation and increase the reaction of both characters and readers. Adding unexpected consequences or extra conflict will heighten the drama in the scene and can increase the stakes, making the impending actions of the characters involved pertinent to the outcome of the plot.

Close calls will enhance that drama. They cause characters (and readers) to hold their breath and hope for the best. They can be used to build tension or to introduce new conflict. For instance, if one character is running from another and both have guns, a few near misses will likely be exchanged before someone is hit. But once one of the characters is wounded, the whole dynamic of the chase changes. If the pursuer is injured, the person he is chasing might very well get away, amplifying the stress of the situation and developing the plot further. If the character fleeing is the one injured, the reader will suddenly become tense alongside the character.

Details
Details help polish a well-written action scene. They are the last-minute touch that really dresses up good writing. Strong verbs are one of those details. The stronger the verb, the stronger the action that is conveyed. If you see a weak verb anywhere in an action scene (i.e. went), replace it with a stronger one (i.e. strutted).

The five senses are another great asset. They increase tension and urgency. When a description of those senses comes into play during an action scene, a short wave of slow motion can be perceived. This type of effect is quite simple to achieve in movies but is a bit trickier in writing. Adjectives as well as a few well-placed lengthy sentences can be used to achieve slow motion.


General Tips
If you're still struggling with perfecting that action scene, try these tips:
1. Act out the scene to get a handle on body movements before writing them.
2. Research any weapons being used in the scene and how they are used.
3. Study other writers, particularly ones that are known for their craft of writing great action scenes.

Overall, use action scenes sparingly and balance them out with other types of scenes. A nice balance of scene descriptions and effective pacing throughout the story can bring an intensity and power to the action scenes.

Make Every Scene Count: Environment and Pace

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

Environment should always play an important role when building a scene, but it is particularly crucial when it comes to setting the pace and mood of each scene. The way you structure the environment and how the characters respond to it can indicate a characters' unspoken emotions can and even hint at circumstances to come. When building an environment, I think many writers struggle with establishing what to include in the details. This struggle may stem from the fact that most everything can be used to enhance the atmosphere of a story. Merely describing a warm, sandy beach allows the reader to picture the place. Showing the effects the weather has can make that picture even clearer. But having your characters react to that environment and describing intricate details about the space can really bring the environment to life. So here are some things you can focus your attention on.

Lighting. It's easy to establish whether it's day or night during a scene. However, writers often forget some of the other effects that time of day can bring. For instance, if it's night, is there a full moon, a partial moon, or no moon visible at all? Different moon phases affect the light reflected off it, thereby altering shadows as well. Certainty of what one can see in the surrounding area depends strongly on lighting, and characters' (as well as readers') speculations about it can change when an environment is dark or dimly lit. Keep in mind how the lighting of any given scene might affect surrounding objects and characters, and use it to your advantage; describe physical features of characters and/or objects using these changes.

Time of day/Day of the week. Time isn't something writers always focus on in great detail for scenes, but it does have a direct effect on the environment and can help establish one. During rush hour on a weekday, for example, there would be much more traffic (and background noise) on a main street than there would be on the weekend. On the other hand, a place like a mall might experience more crowds on the weekend rather than a weekday, especially if it's a holiday. Take time of day and day of the week into consideration when it comes to the surroundings during a particular scene. You might be surprised how it can change the outcome of your characters' actions or responses to one another. It might even introduce unforeseen conflict.

Reaction of the characters. Believe it or not, even dialogue and body language can help build the environment and pace of a scene. How you respond to the things around you can indicate quite a bit about what is going on. Shivering for instance, indicates the temperature might be chilly. Fidgeting and darting eyes show nervousness, a clear sign that something bad has happened or is about to happen. And short, choppy dialogue can indicate action, conflict, and emergency situations, adding to the pace already established by body language. If you're not sure what body language to use to convey specific emotions, check out the book The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. It gives a wide range of actions that characters can perform to express emotions without dialogue.

Senses. In any given environment, there will be smells, sounds, textures, tastes, and a sense of temperature. You don't need to describe every one of these for every scene you write, but providing as much detail as you can, particularly for new or unfamiliar objects/places, can really enhance the scene. An old building holds far different features than a new one, and a busy city has a far different kind of background noise than your typical suburb does.

Nature. For the most part, writing in a few descriptions about the weather is easy. It's one of the first things a writer learns to incorporate into his/her writing as part of the environment. What is easy to forget is the rest of nature, especially the living parts. If you're writing a story that takes place in an existing geographic location, research the plant and animal life in the area. Find out what types of plants grow there and during what time of year. Find out what animals are natural inhabitants of the land (and water). One of the biggest complaints I hear from people when a book is written about a city they are familiar with is that the writer got the environment wrong. They mention animals, plants, and sounds that aren't really prominent there, or they get the overall sense of culture wrong. If you're picking a place you're unfamiliar with, make sure you know what you're talking before tackling the project of its environment.

Foreign objects or material. New and unusual objects are sure things to take note of. The technique of describing an object in detail is also effective for noting red herrings giving hints about later plot points. If the object is something a character comes in contact with, describe the texture and temperature of the object as well as its shape, size, and color.

My overall advice about establishing environment and pace is to include as much detail as possible in your first draft. It's much easier to remove things later than it is to add them in.

Make Every Scene Count: Is It a Keeper or a Write Out?

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

Many times during the writing and editing process, you will find yourself facing the question, "Should I keep this scene or toss it?" It's important to first determine whether the scene is crucial to a plot. As a professional editor, my advice is generally to cross out any scene that does not propel the plot forward, develop a character, or create further conflict. However, we all have our scenes that hold sentimental value. When confronted with this type of scenario, there are two main options: write out the scene, or adapt it to the plot. The best choice depends on the particular scene. The following are some questions you can ask yourself when deciding whether to rewrite a scene or scrap it:

1. Does this scene in any way significantly alter the outcome of the plot? 2. Does this scene strain a relationship between two or more characters? 3. Is this scene in line with the personalities of the characters and the overall feel of the book? 4. If there is dialogue involved, does it serve a purpose, and is it in character of those speaking it? 5. Does the scene contain extraneous information that could not be derived from surrounding events alone? 6. Does this scene change the mindset of one or more characters involved in any way? 7. Does this scene resolve any previous conflicts? 8. Does this scene further the complexity of the plot?

"Yes" answers to any of these questions indicates there might be need for the scene and that adaptation of the scene might be best. The more "No" answers you have, the more likely it is that the scene is truly unnecessary and probably should not be kept. The only question that is completely under the discretion of the writer is number eight. While complex plots are intriguing, you will eventually have to draw the line somewhere so you can start solving the issues you've introduced. However, it's totally up to you where to draw that line.

So, is your scene a keeper, or is it a write out?