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Mythology and Storytelling

Classical mythology has always fascinated me, not because I believe in any sort of pagan pantheon, but because it’s evidence of the enduring power of storytelling. Something in the human psyche craves narrative, especially the epic kind. Mythological stories have woven through generations and cultures, survived wars and the erosion of wind, sand and water. They survive longer than pyramids and buildings, are more impregnable than fortresses and citadels. Storytelling is our species’ genetic memory. All it took in the ancient world was a group of people, evocative language and a warm campfire to keep it going.

Take Hercules. Here in 2018, the era of the internet, smart phones and artificial intelligence, references to this powerful mythological story still keep showing up around me. Hercules (or Heracles in Greek) came from the ancient Greeks, a culture that began nearly five millennia ago, then he remained popular through the Etruscan and Roman civilizations, which began more than seven hundred years before Christ. The character of Hercules must strike a common chord. He came up against incredible odds, suffering at the hands of Hera (Zeus’s jealous Olympian wife) and later Eurystheus the king, who set the hero out on his famous twelve labors as penance.

It’s the story of those labors that endures, even into our modern culture. Just a few weeks ago my stepmother told me her horses had been inside so much this winter, her barn was like the Augean stables, a reference to Hercules’s fifth labor, which was to clean them out. The word “herculean” is used in English to refer to efforts above and beyond normal, and Hollywood is still making movies about the Greek hero. He was an Olympian gladiator, a superhero from the ancient world.

Which warms me to my topic, using mythological stories in modern storytelling. I stumbled across a little side story that took place during the eleventh labor of Hercules. He ran into Antaeus on his way to the Garden of Hesperides to collect some golden apples, and the two of them engaged in a wrestling match. It seems Antaeus drew his strength from touching the earth (his mother being Gaia, the goddess of the earth), which is fascinating in itself because formalized wrestling has Greek origins, won by pinning someone to the floor. Nevertheless, Hercules defeated Antaeus by lifting him into the air until his power was depleted. Then he crushed him.

I jumped on that story as a metaphor in my novel. First of all, it’s a wrestling match, and my protagonist is wrestling with the past. And to defeat it, he needs to lift his memories up and expose them to air and light, thereby draining them of their power. The memories themselves are of his cousin’s death from falling into a salt mine ventilation shaft, which is, of course, a conduit deep into the earth, the source of Antaeus’s strength. So I hauled an ancient story out of mothballs, part of a myth that still resonates with people today, and framed it as a metaphor around a modern struggle.

Many writers tap into ancient myths. If you’re writing a story that deals with the human psyche, explore ancient mythology and read about the titanic struggles of Greek heroes and mortals trying to define and explain the hardships of a brutal world. A lot of nuggets are hiding there. Your task is to find them and bring them back, against all odds.

Epicurus Interruptus

Just a little rant, which is always good for one’s system. The title subject occurs most often in American restaurants, specifically in establishments which send the manager, the chef, and—I think—the busboy out like robots to check and make sure everything was “excellent,” because I guess the server doesn’t believe us.
Why do we go out to eat? In my case it’s to enjoy good food, usually in the company of people we like and maybe even haven’t seen in a while. We pay a lot more than we would if we cooked it ourselves at home, because we want the time to converse instead of prepping, chopping, cooking, serving, clearing plates and cleaning up afterward. We pay a lot for the food and for the service, tipping the servers because they’re on their feet all day, juggle a lot and make sure things show up on time. But the clincher is—I go out to eat so I can talk with the people I’m meeting for lunch or dinner.

So why does the American restaurant experience consist of loud music and revolve around the servers’ schedules and convenience? First of all, I spend a lot of energy trying to find seating away from the loud speakers and the a/c that’s dumping on my shoulders, keeping most restaurants at an apparent 60 degrees Fahrenheit, not enough to actually freeze anyone, but enough to keep diners from parking too long in their chairs. I have to bring a sweater with me, no matter the time of year, and frankly a lap blanket is often recommended.

And whenever the server shows up, it’s time to shelve the dinner conversation (which has usually required shouting and a bit of lip-reading anyway), even if he/she is only filling our glasses with water. Countless times a diner has been telling a funny story, only to have to put it on hold to let the manager know how excellent the experience was. Or, worse, to get into a lengthy, unintended conversation with the server, who talks about what classes she’s taking, what her work schedule is for the week, and how her dog was just spayed.

Maybe there’s something wrong with me, but I don’t go to a restaurant to talk with the restaurant staff, listen to loud music or burn off a thousand calories shivering. I don’t need a conversation buffer or a random conversation with strangers. I need space into which we diners at the table can talk and catch up with our lives, without a thousand interruptions. I freely admit that interruptions are a hot button for me, relaying the subtextual message, “Your time and comments don’t matter.” But I have to think that most people find them annoying.

I’ve often thought a good device would be a little flip-board on a stand that diners could put at the edge of their table, with a variety of messages like “Don’t need service right now, please don’t interrupt,” “Please refill our drinks, but don’t interrupt,” “Please bring more bread and butter,” “Everything is excellent, please don’t interrupt” or “Don’t bring the check until we flag you.” They’d sell like hot cakes.

Saving the Cat

I attended a great writer’s conference in Chicago in June. One of the big takeaways for me from one of the sessions was this: Be aware of the moment your reader will fall in love with your main character, and why. The session leader referred to it as the “saving the cat” moment. When a fireman climbs the tree and saves the cat, he becomes a hero. We want to root for him. We’re engaged and want to see him succeed. When does that happen with our main protagonist?

Blake Snyder, a screenwriter, wrote a famous manual, Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, which describes in detail the structure of the monomyth, or hero’s journey. The phrase “Save The Cat!” was coined by Snyder to describe a decisive moment when the protagonist does something likeable or nice. His inspiration for this was the movie Alien, where Sigourney Weaver’s character Ripley actually saves a cat named Jones. Snyder writes that saving the cat is the scene where we first meet the hero and she gains audience favor and support right from the start. His point is that it’s not as important to make your character cool and sexy as it is to make her likable.

Heroes that are too noble, flat and cartoon-like are boring. Our protagonists can and should be complex characters, filled with flaws and weaknesses. This makes them human and relatable, but it can also make them hard to get close to. The protagonist Paul in my novel, for example, is not exactly a warm and fuzzy guy. He suffers from difficulties in making and hanging onto relationships. He is by nature bumbling. He mistakes people’s meaning and does things that can antagonize others. So how will a reader come to root for him? Probably they will fall in love with his need to uncover the past and figure out why he is the way he is. Or they’ll identify with his longing for connection, which we all have. I believe his “save the cat” moment may be when he begins to ache over the sadness he sees in the other main character, Lainey, and feels protective of her. So it’s less a hero moment and more an empathetic human moment.

As a balance to this “save the cat” idea, note that this paradigm is more relevant in genre fiction, or more action- or adventure-oriented stories. I would argue that other types of stories, such as those seen in literary fiction, don’t always fit this paradigm. Not every story arc is a classic hero’s journey. Read this article from The article says:

“The purpose of great narrative fiction is to argue a particular point-of-view through the context of problem-solving. It is true that fiction could seek out other grand purposes—slice-of-life stories like The Kids Are All Right, or tall tales like True Grit—but for the most part, when an author sits down to write a compelling work of fiction he is usually trying to say something meaningful.

Complete stories offer an author the opportunity to make this argument in such a way that an audience must accept it (if they accept the story’s initial givens). Authors are able to pull this off because complete stories present several points-of-view on the problem at hand, points-of-view that are impossible to hold simultaneously in an audience’s day-to-day lives. This is the true power behind great stories.”

So I would qualify these writing guidelines by saying that principles like “save the cat” are good. Until they aren’t. The main question is, what is the real story we’re writing?

The First Man I Danced With: A Tribute to My Father

My dad, Bruce Keller, August 31, 1932 to March 29, 2017

Fathers are complicated, and none of them, at least the earthly ones, are perfect. They need a lot of grace, maybe more than the rest of us. What an overwhelming job they have, to carve out in young souls an image, an example, however blurred and sketchy, of what God our heavenly Father might be like.

My dad was a creative man with shimmering intelligence who could sit and chat for hours about cybernetics, geology, politics or astronomy. As he put it, he forgot birthdays and anniver­saries, but he had perfect recall of interesting information he’d read in a book.

He was a dad who took us on hikes and searched for fossils, who talked our stuffed animals with distinctive character voices. He read us books at bedtime and took us to the library. Everywhere we went, he pointed out rocks and sedimentary strata around us and explained why they were twisted or bent or tipped up on edge. He gave us sharp-edged context for the physical world that surrounded us. Through my dad, I got a sense of the patience of geological time. And maybe the patience of God.

My dad was the first man I danced with, in the kitchen, my feet on top of his, the radio blaring some kind of swing-dance music. Dad taught me to drive on dusty back roads in upstate New York, attended my choir concerts and encouraged me to go to college. My life would have turned out very different without him. My sister, brother and I all learned word play from him, which continues on into his grandsons. He filled our lives with music and literature. This was never forced on us, but books were always stacked on end tables and the back of the toilet. I would often walk in for dinner and find him reading something to my mother while she cooked.

When Dad’s barbershop quartet wasn’t practicing in our living room, music always seemed to be playing in the background, from his own collection and from albums he brought home from the library. How many other kids my age could hum music by Ravel and Tchaikovsky, or knew the words to songs from musicals like “The Boys from Syracuse”? It’s from my dad that I developed my love for the English language—both reading it and writing it—for music, and for art. I knew that he loved me and never questioned that. He spent time with me, he talked with me, he joked around with me, he teased me, he treasured his grandchildren. He saved every letter I wrote him while I was learning how to be a mother and deal with children and adult life.

Dad had a wonderful sense of humor and a quick wit. He always managed to find the silliness or the absurdities in everyday life, and that humor remained intact up through the last months of his life. He approached his Parkinson’s disease and increasing physical limitations with curiosity, grace and humor. Even as his muscle control diminished, his wit and perseverance carried on. I’ve never seen anyone deal with their old age and infirmity with such philosophy, acceptance and lack of bitterness. He was not a complainer.

Everyone has a more difficult side, and parts of our lives that we regret. I won’t pretend my father was exempt from that. From my own experience, guilt can accumulate like a murky lake that never drains, like the Dead Sea. If it’s not addressed, it sits forever at the edge of our consciousness. We can pretend it’s not there. We can skirt it, maybe, hiding in the surrounding woods, trying not to look at it. Apologizing for all that stuff would require confronting the dead water, head-on, approaching it. We’re afraid if we get too close, it will suck at our toes and ankles. Maybe it’ll overwhelm us, and we’ll be drawn in and drown. So we hide around the edges and chase away anyone else who might get close enough to really look at it. That’s how I imagined it was for my dad. Between him and his first wife and his children he had gradually dug himself a dead lake of guilt and shame, and he lost track of how deep it went.

I was in my late twenties when I decided to forgive my father. Forgiveness comes when we decide that love wins. It doesn’t mean we never get mad again, or that we’ve forgotten things we can’t forget. It’s not flowers and bunnies and puppies. What it means is that love conquers anger and wins over our tightly held shield of self-righteousness. We let go of it and drop it.

To use another word picture, in my mind, it was like I pushed my boat out into those murky lake waters, my oars dipping into the shiny muck, the keel slicing through the oily surface. I saw it, I experienced it, I looked into it. I knew it was my father’s and not mine. I moved over the face of the brackish water to some symbolic floodgates, where I hammered open giant latches and swung out the great, rusty barriers. I could imagine the force of the water bursting and plunging over the edge, draining down the valley and soaking into the earth.

Too often we mistake that anger somehow protects us, when it really damages us. Holding grudges is painful and oppressive, and I wanted my dad to be free. As it turned out, though, the person set free was me. Forgiveness is funny that way.

Dad and I never talked much about it, I just walked about the last 30 years as if there were no dead lake between us. In my mind, there was nothing left but a dry depression filled with prairie grass and saplings. It was just an ancient lake bed now, layered with fossils and shale and all the twisted and stressed rock formations that formed that three-dimensional world my father had brought alive while I was growing up. Isn’t it strange how, like the landscape around us, all the stresses and pressures of life make it more beautiful and full of character? Layers of colorful sediment fused under great weight, rock metamorphosed by heat and pressure, mountains and staggering canyons and gorges built up and carved out by forces that seem, at first glance, destructive. This life is not a flat, barren land. It’s a string of national parks, and my father took me there.

Forgiveness and grace are simple, powerful forces. They remind us we’re all people, we are all mixed bags, and we’re all at fault. But we aren’t meant to carry our trash around forever. God has something better for us and wants to liberate us. It’s because of God’s forgiveness and grace that my father, for me, will continue to be the daddy who would turn up the radio in the kitchen and have me dance with him by putting my feet on top of his, dipping me backward until my hair swept the floor. And that is how I’ll remember him.

Plotters, Pantsers and Plantsers

At most of the writers’ conferences I’ve attended, this topic came up: Should we plan and outline our novel before we start writing, or should we write “by the seat of our pants” and let the story happen organically?

Some people refer to these two different approaches as “plotting” versus “pantsing.” There are arguments for and against both methods. I don’t know of any writer who doesn’t at least have some clue how she thinks the plot will progress before she sits down to write. But I also know if we write constrained to a detailed outline and don’t listen to what our characters are telling us, we’ll end up with flat characters and forced plot lines. There’s something exciting about a story taking on a life of its own, and that’s what makes me a pantser. I confess, once beyond my college freshman Principles of Writing class, I have never outlined a short story.

Plotters plan out their novels in detail ahead of time, sometimes mapping every scene, so they know what’s going to happen before they write it. This makes it easier to bust through writer’s block. They’re less likely to get stuck because they know what’s going to happen next. Plotters also tend to get their novels written faster, or at least more smoothly. But if they do get stuck or discover they want to change something, they often have to redo their whole outline. And characters that have to salute and behave according to a detailed outline can seem wooden and contrived. Stories, like life, should have some complicated nuances that show up organically.

Pantsers have the freedom to take their novel in any direction they want. They have flexibility. They’re not stuck following an outline, so if they don’t like a character, they can simply kill him. Or if they don’t like the way their plot is going, they can change it. However, pantsers can easily get writer’s block and end up abandoning old projects for new ones. They can also make big mistakes in story structure or get lost or distracted somewhere along the story arc. They may end up with some beautiful writing, but the plot can be iffy and the focus fractured, and therefore the story suffers.

People who use a little of both approaches can be called “plantsers.” That’s what I’m aspiring to become. A few years ago I wrote my memoir totally by the seat of my pants, and the biggest complaint from beta readers was with story structure and some scenes that were questionable as to purpose. It had some great writing, but some of it read too much like an album of quirky memories instead of a coherent story. So eventually I’ll have to go back to that book and approach it like a mad plotter. Right now it’s sitting on a back burner… simmering.

Starting with a Scene
When I started my novel, I had an idea: some images in my head, and a couple of characters and what I might do with them. I began by writing one scene—by the seat of my pants, naturally—to see what happened. This is how I intend to start any novel-length fiction writing. If I like the experimental scene, the characters and the voice, and if they open up interesting possibilities for character development and themes and metaphors about life, then I’ll lay out a very general storyboard for the plot. Since it will be a full-length book, I’ll have to pay attention to the ebb and flow of intensity and where my plot points and climax will occur, and I’ll want to prevent the story sagging in the middle. But I don’t want to feel constrained to a detailed outline; in fact, for me that would be paralyzing and probably require a couple of margaritas!

Stepping out of Our Comfort Zones
Some writing mentors have suggested that natural pantsers should try using at least a general outline and see what happens. It could turn out to be a good mixture—pantser writing with plotter planning. (Say that three times fast…) And plotters, at least to get started, should try writing using stream of consciousness in order to tap into creativity energy before all the marching orders are laid out, and let some of the details fall where they may.

Why editors love pantsers: They write with such flair and gusto, and their scenes are imbued with in-the-moment passion!

Why editors love plotters: All the moving parts of their stories line up so very beautifully! And plot holes? What plot holes?

Some references:

Malaprops and Mixed Metaphors

Today I plan to ramble on about malaprops and mixed metaphors, partly because I’m in a silly mood. Malaprops are words or phrases that sound similar to something coherent, but don’t have the meaning intended. They are mistakes to avoid in writing (unless it makes for funny dialog), but they can also be funnier than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. Mixed metaphors use pieces from two or more familiar clichés.

My mother, who passed away in 2009, was the queen of mixed metaphors. My all-time favorite of hers was: “We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it.”

I once used this wonderful phrase at work, and it caught on like wildfire through tumbleweed. Now it’s used regularly in meetings, and I have the satisfying assurance that someone will use it at a get-together, forgetting that it’s not quite the right cliché.

At work we also used a malaprop, which might be from Groucho Marx; at least it sure sounds like him. But it’s great when you really have nothing good to say about someone: “Of all the people I’ve ever met, you are certainly one of them.” People generally react with a slight frown and say, “Thank… you…” because they can’t quite put their finger on what wasn’t right.

One of my mother’s great malaprops was “very close veins,” which arguably describes them. But she mostly mixed metaphors, interchanging pieces and parts like Tinkertoys. Sometimes it wasn’t the zany mixture she came up with that was funny, but the leftovers. She once said, “It’s as plain as the handwriting on the wall,” which doesn’t sound too bad. But my father immediately pointed out the leftovers: “I can see the nose on your face.” And that had us rolling on the floor.

My husband came out with a weird mixed metaphor once, talking about a crazed motorist he’d encountered on the highway: “He was driving from the hip.” That was baffling enough, but I had to point out the leftovers: “He was shooting by the seat of his pants.” Now we’ve got something!

Yogi Berra was probably the king of malaprops and mixed-up metaphors, but here are a few other great ones I ran across while researching this fascinating and time-gobbling topic (most borrowed from

  • “We could stand here and talk until the cows turn blue.”
  • “He’s a wolf in cheap clothing.”
  • “I wouldn’t eat that with a ten-foot pole.”
  • “He’s not the one with his ass in a noose.”
  • “From now on, I’m watching everything you do with a fine-toothed comb.”
  • “These hemorrhoids are a real pain in the neck.”
  • “He’s burning the midnight oil from both ends.”
  • “People are dying like hotcakes.”
  • “We have to get all our ducks on the same page.”
  • “She’s suffering from a deviated rectum.”

Aside from blasting our drinks out of our noses when we read these, we writers need to pay attention to our own metaphors and make sure they make sense. Clichés are bad enough in their own right, but if we mix them together our readers will wonder what on earth is going on. Even when we write something unique, we need to be accurate in our analogies. Here are some funny, not-so-successful analogies written by high school students:

  • “Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had its two sides gently compressed by a Thigh Master.”
  • “The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t.”
  • “Her hair glistened in the rain like nose hair after a sneeze.”

And now for an analogy that really works, written by Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson in her novel Housekeeping:

“…the engine nosed over toward the lake and then the rest of the train slid after it into the water like a weasel sliding off a rock.”

May your own sparkling metaphors come to you as easy as falling off a piece of cake.

Scene 2: More about Writing Scenes

Every scene needs a hook

Scenes and Plot
Plot is only as strong as its weakest scenes. Readers may be willing to forgive other writing sins if they can read engaging scenes with tension and emotional roller coasters. So we need to make our scenes count, every one. Every scene needs to be “HIP”: it needs a hook, some level of intensity, and a prompt to read onward.

Four Chords of a Scene
In his book Plot & Structure (which I’m borrowing from heavily in this blog), James Scott Bell includes a good chapter on scenes. In my copy of that book,  Chapter 7 is dog-eared, with many lines highlighted. He talks about the four chords of a scene. The major chords are (1) action and (2) reaction; the minor chords are (3) setup and (4) deepening. The first two tend to dominate, with the minor chords kind of dropping in here and there.

We’ll start with the minor chords. Setup scenes and beats have to occur in order for subsequent scenes to make sense. All stories need some sort of setup. But even setup scenes should contain a problem or some emotional intensity.

Deepening scenes or beats, when freshly done and dropped in strategically, add some spice to the character or setting. Examples would be a character telling a story, or a flashback taking place in a character’s mind (written as a short sub-scene). These minor chords should be used minimally.

Now for the major chords. Action is when a character does something to attain his/her main story objective. But this would be dry without conflict or some sort of barrier, which create the essence of good stories. So, with action plus some conflict or confrontation, we have the fodder for a great scene. Commercial fiction is usually dominated by action.

Reaction is how a main character feels emotionally when something (usually bad) happens. Literary fiction has a lot more reaction scenes or beats because it’s generally more about the inner life of a character. Reaction is usually done in beats rather than an entire scene.

What on earth is a beat?
Beats are small units within a scene: a line or two, or a paragraph. They are bubbles of action, thought, mood, description or setting which contribute something to character or plot during a scene. They usually take the form of slight pauses, especially during dialog, that consist of a short description of what the characters are doing or what’s happening around them as they speak or pause to think. Beats help the reader keep from losing track of what’s going on or who’s talking. They also tie the reader into the characters’ emotions and to the setting.

Beats are especially useful during dialogue. Dialogue that goes on at length can become like a helium balloon, detaching from the physical world and floating away. No one in the real world chats without at least some awareness of their surroundings or the people they’re talking with. Conversations need tie-downs to the setting. A good rule of thumb to avoid the “talking heads” phenomenon is, every fifth line or so of dialog, ground the reader with a small beat, such as how the characters are relating to their environment, or how they’re reacting with body language. In theater, this is done with blocking: what the actors do and where they stand or walk while they’re speaking. Beats during written dialog are also a way to avoid repetitious dialog-attribution tags.

Scene versus summary
This issue keeps coming up for fiction writers. Not everyone understands the difference between scene and summary, so here is another distinction. Summary (or “telling”) explains something to the reader. It offers information, ranging from long-winded histories of the town your character lives in to pat descriptions or rambling explanations of a character’s behavior or why he/she said something. Summary doesn’t engage the senses, and it rarely involves in-the-moment action. I sometimes refer to summary as moving into “documentary” mode, like the voice-over narrator of a TV documentary.

Some examples of summary material:

  • It was a gorgeous afternoon.
  • Sometimes we would spend hours at the creek, soaking our feet and talking. (This can also be called “representational” material, representing a series of similar events, or serving as an example of events over time. It does not take place in the moment.)
  • She felt rested for the first time in days.
  • She didn’t trust him because her brother had left her alone in the house that night, when the electricity went out, and she now also had a fear of the dark.
  • The reason she said that was because, back in her youth, Martha had made her life difficult.

Some examples of scene material:

They were moving quickly now, Wolgast at the wheel, Doyle beside him, thumbing away furiously on his handheld. Calling in to let Sykes know who was in charge.

“No goddamn signal.” Doyle tossed his handheld onto the dash. They were fifteen miles outside of Homer, headed due west; the open fields slid endlessly away under a sky thick with stars.

—from The Passage, an apocalyptic vampire novel by Justin Cronin

Her hands flew through the scalded feathers, plucking each one until a gray snow pile drifted at her feet and began to swirl in the breeze.

Mabel singed the skin with matches, sulfur rising from each filament, an acrid incense. She dragged on a Lucky.

“You dassn’t go saying bad things about the Doctor.” My grandmother’s cigarette bobbed at me, its orange ember blowing like a hazard light.

—from Daughter of the Queen of Sheba, a memoir by Jacki Lyden

Is it ever appropriate to use summary?
Bell says you can get away with using summary for specific reasons:

Condensing time: When you need to transition to a later time (which, by the way, marks the beginning of a new scene), you don’t need to make your characters wait — unless it’s important to plot, character or setting — while you bring the sun down, describing every color change in the sky. To condense time, you can simply write, “Night fell,” or “Six hours passed,” or “A month later.”

Changing or condensing locations: Readers don’t need to see everything your character passes when she travels from one place to another, unless those details serve some purpose. As with condensing time, you can get characters where they’re going quickly: “They ran three miles,” or “The bus took them a hundred miles past Kansas City,” or “They walked back to her apartment.” (Again, remember that a major change in location means starting a new scene.)

Summarizing information previously revealed: Let’s say an event takes place earlier in the narrative in scene form. Later, one of the characters from that scene needs to tell another character what happened. Rather than using dialog to repeat all the action and description, you can summarize: “I told him what happened before the explosion,” or “She filled him on on the argument,” or “She related everything she could remember about that night.”

Always know when to show and when to tell. But be vigilant about summary material. Ask yourself, is this going on too long? Would this be more effectively done in scene? When it’s appropriate to use summary, shorten it, tighten it, and make it sparkle.

Getting the Setting

Riding my horse this past weekend through our wooded trails, I was struck by how immersed I was in my surroundings. Not just with my tactile, visual, auditory and aromatic senses, but the feeling of being in the woods in spring. In April the tall weeds haven’t taken over yet, and wild flowers are everywhere, carpeting the clearings and lanes: buttercups, marsh marigolds, violets, Dutchman’s breeches (isn’t that a wonderful name?) and grape hyacinth. The river snakes alongside the trails, reflecting purples and yellows. And exposed are gnarled fallen logs, huddled in cloaks of moss, poking up like knees and elbows from the low greenery.

In writing about a particular setting, we know how important it can be to get the “essence” of a place. This enhances the story and can reveal a lot about how characters are feeling, without telling or summarizing. If they’re depressed, they’ll view their environment one way, and another way if they’re feeling good. Or maybe their environment changes the way they feel. In some books and especially for certain genres that require world-building, setting is so important it’s almost a “character” in the story. Even in literary fiction, this can be true; I immediately think of Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson. Her descriptions of Idaho mountains and the lake are haunting. Like her, we can also use setting to expose themes.

This doesn’t mean we start each scene with a long description of the setting, because that’s not action, conflict or character, and it can get boring and lose the reader. But if we build the feel of the setting as we go, throwing in little glimpses and sensory details—not all the details, just the right details—as the story moves along, a complete setting takes shape like magic in the reader’s mind. If we do it right, the reader will feel immersed, transported into another world. Setting can evoke tension, suspense, depression, fear, joy, exhilaration… all those things we love to evoke in readers. We can use setting and a character’s response to it instead of saying, “John felt melancholy.”

While in the saddle, I spent time just wandering the woods, immersing myself in it, breathing it in, watching how the shadows played across the forest floor, observing the contours of fallen walnuts and limbs and the way a red squirrel launched itself fifteen feet from the ground into a tree. I thought to myself, how would I describe this? What unique similes and metaphors would work? What strong verb would absolutely nail this?

Good authors of historical fiction, for example, don’t just sit in a library or in front of a computer and do their research. They visit the locations they plan to write about. They walk the ramparts, hike the old Roman roads, spend a night or two in the Arabian Desert, ride an elephant in India. An old saying goes, “Write what you know.” To do that, we have to know and experience our world, so we can borrow from our memories and impressions. We need to sit and meditate in locations, pay attention to how they make us feel, and then use that to the fullest when we create setting.

Making a Scene

This week in my writers’ group we’ll each be sharing a scene. Scenes are the building blocks of stories. We might even continue this topic next month, since it’s so important to fiction writing. Since I was charged with researching reference material, I thought I’d share some of what I found.

What’s a Scene?
A scene is action that occurs in a certain location within linear time (in the moment) that moves the story forward, reveals characters and has an arc to it. Unless the characters are traveling during the scene, the moment we change location or setting, we’ve started a new scene. Also, if we jump in time or skip any time period, we’ve begun a new scene.

Scenes usually dramatize interaction among characters, but they almost always dramatize at least one character in the moment, even if the events are part of a flashback. Scenes tend to include narrative, description and dialogue.

Summary should be minimal. Some say summary, explanation or background material should never be more than 20% of a scene, but unless it’s done so well it sparkles and doesn’t slow things down, less is always better. When writing coaches urge us to “show” rather than “tell,” they mean to write in scene rather than summarizing action or events. If we write good scenes, we won’t have to summarize; readers will draw their own conclusions. And when we write in scene, we pull readers into the narrative, exposing them to the experiences the characters are going through.

Scenes can evoke emotion and reaction, suspense and excitement. They can make us connect with characters. Summarizing can’t. Leave summarizing and explanatory writing mostly to nonfiction writers — in fiction and memoir we’re going for scene.

What Scenes are NOT

  • Scenes are not an opportunity to take your character on a long, leisurely detour into situations or with characters that have nothing to do with the protagonist’s dramatic action goals (that’s a character profile or vignette)
  • Scenes are not passages that explain something or lecture to your reader (that’s a pace killer)
  • Scenes are not long histories of people and places (that’s dull backstory and summary)

What Makes a Good Scene?
It should have real-time momentum. Scenes crackle with energy and rhythms that make readers feel as though they are right beside (or inside) the character as he experiences situations and scenarios. Consider it a self-contained mini-story with a rising energy that builds to an epiphany, a discovery, an admission, an understanding or an experience. The reader should feel as though every scene has purpose, deepens character, drives the story forward and ends in such a way that he or she just has to know what happens next. Like any good writing, scenes should be heavy on strong verbs and light on adjectives and adverbs.

A Stylized, Sharper Simulacrum…
Sometimes we succumb to the temptation to “go deep” and end up describing the living daylights out of a character, her feelings, or the setting. Instead, think of a scene as a stylized, sharper simulacrum of reality. By stylized we mean that nothing in our scene appears by accident; we have crafted every moment, every interaction, and every image. To the reader something may seem benign, but we know nothing is.

By sharper simulacrum we mean the scene offers a heightened, more fulfilling version of real life, with all the boring bits excised. In our bid to create a realistic experience, we don’t list every single action or detail in our scenes, such as the mundane, dull, insignificant moments and boring pleasantries of real life. We include only those that lend themselves to character and plot development and are rich with tension and suspense, those that contribute to the feeling of not knowing if things will play out in the character’s favor or if antagonists will prevail.

Point of View
We should never change point of view during a scene. Stay in one character’s head and see the world through those eyeballs only. If we want to change point of view, we need to start a new scene, or — even better — a new chapter or section.

Each scene creates consequences that must be dealt with or built upon in the next scene. This way, scene by scene, we tell a compelling story that has the dramatic power and emotional impact of a great piece of music. Like a piece of music, the rhythm and pace of the prose is important. We need to pay attention to the intensity and dynamics of a scene and where it’s placed in the story. Is this a key scene where tension grows to a fever pitch, or is this a spot for a little break in the intensity? Think of how music expands and ebbs; the softer parts have a purpose, often to create contrast and catch a breath in preparation for the crescendos to come.

There’s much more to the story (so to speak), so more on scenes later…

Welsh Oak

Trees made durable by surviving the elements

Cracking open a fortune cookie last week at a Vietnamese restaurant, I read a fascinating line:

“Good timber does not grow with ease
The stronger the wind, the stronger the trees.”

For some reason this struck a resonant chord. Curious as to where this little saying came from, I whipped out my cell phone and looked it up. The line comes from a simple poem by Douglas Malloch titled “Good Timber.” Known as the lumberman’s poet, Malloch grew up at the turn of the last century amidst the forest, logging camps, sawmills and lumber yards of western Michigan.

The stanza of his poem goes on to say:

“The further sky, the greater length
The more the storm, the more the strength
By sun and cold, by rain and snow
In trees and men good timbers grow.”

This reminded me of something I read once. In the 18th century, Welsh oak was highly prized for ship building. Admiral Rodney of the British navy requested it specifically, and the trees were cut and floated down the Severn River to Bristol. Welsh oak was valued because it grew in difficult conditions–unrelenting wind, rain, snow and cold–making the wood slow-growing and the grain more dense, and therefore more resistant to cannonballs.

Malloch’s poem ends with:

“Where thickest lies the forest growth,
We find the patriarchs of both
And they hold counsel with the stars
Whose broken branches show the scars
Of many winds and much of strife
This is the common law of life.”

His poem also got me thinking that the stories we write, no matter the genre, usually concern individuals facing conflict and obstacles in their lives and emerging changed and stronger. It’s the common law of life, something we can all connect with. This is the universal story.

Provoked by a simple line from a fortune cookie, I rediscovered that our God has no intention of making our lives easy and comfortable.  Those who suffer and survive hardship are equipped to minister to others going through similar travails. We are meant to endure stiff winds and the lashing of the elements. It increases our dependence and trust in our Creator. It builds character, makes us strong and solid, and increases our usefulness in this life, wherever we are planted.

We are being refined into Welsh oak.