Monday, December 7, 2009

Event sequence in scenes

When you're revising a scene, pay attention to the most dramatic sequence of events. Now sometimes that's a no-brainer-- Event A has to happen first because it causes Event B. But sometimes several things happen that are not clearly causal, and you can manipulate the sequence for dramatic effect-- and to cause something later.

For example, I have a story I'm working at (slowly), where, to summarize, two friends have reunited briefly one evening. Actually, he has sought her out tonight. They are occasional lovers, but for complicated reasons can't have a romantic relationship. But they do love each other. So anyway, he's come to the town where she lives, and just in time, because she's about to leave town and disappear. He's the only one who knows why (it's a situation they share-- they have to move on every couple years to avoid The Bad Guys).

Anyway, I had the long scene like this:

1. Re-meet, dancing, a bit of romance.
2. They make love and re-affirm their affection.
3. He tells her why he has found her, what he has to tell her (that another in their group has committed suicide, apparently because he can't deal with the anxiety of the constant threat of the bad guys).
4. She gets mad at him for waiting to tell her, and they talk it out.
5. He sings (he's a musician) a song that's just for her, and she realizes she still loves him, not just as a friend.

Okay, now really, as a short story, it would work okay, because it ends with her realization that she can't get over him.

But it's a scene in a novel. And I read this over and reminded myself that scenes that end on a resolution have no forward thrust-- the reader has little reason to turn the page.

And putting the song-singing at the end also decreases the tension, because it shows immediately-- not even in the next chapter-- that she has forgiven him for not telling her first, and also that the revelation of their comrade's suicide has not harmed their relationship.

And there's also a really useful romantic convention, that the disaster should happen AFTER the greatest show of trust between the couple. There's a lot more emotional force when the disaster is going to threaten something we've already seen is powerful and important to them.

So I'm going to rearrange the events so that all the romantic stuff comes first, and after he sings to her, he feels (okay, this is a guy, after all :) that now he can tell her the bad news, because, well, he's gotten the sex and the love. Wouldn't want to tell her first and not get lucky. :)

So it's plausible enough with his character. And it's more dramatic structurally. I also think it helps delineate them and show one of the major conflicts between them-- he lives utterly in the moment, and she's more of a long-term thinker. So as long as he's not focusing on their friend's suicide, he can enjoy being with her. He actually can put that away for long enough that they can have this lovely evening together-- but he knows that she simply can't, that she'll be dwelling on the suicide and get all sad and depressed, so why not put that moment off?

And it leads to more conflict, not less. As I had it, the conflict of him withholding the information and also of the horror of the suicide dissipates because she realizes this is just how he is, that she can't blame him for being himself, and she forgives him. That quick. And the conflict dissolves into dust. But the conflict will remain solid if I end with it. Even that bit of white space between this and the next chapter is enough of a pause to allow the import of the conflict to grow in the reader's mind. And remember, what we put at the end, we're showing is important.

So just a thought about scene design. I think this is really an essential part of making the reader experience the action and get the emotion you want her to get.

Alicia

12 comments:

Mit said...

I think you must be part psychologist. I am always amazed about the impetus behind people's actions. I think my characters (and their author) is always going to walk around clueless.

Thanks for laying this out. Now if only ALL my scenes were JUST like this one. (ha!)

Sierra Godfrey said...

I think this is a really important post because of how subtle these things are.

My question though: in your scene outline, you have "4. She gets mad at him for waiting to tell her, and they talk it out."

If you rearrange the elements to that he tells her his news AFTER the loving and affirming, she's still going to get mad, and they still need to talk it out. What did I miss? It still ends on resolution. What did you do to solve that?

Edittorrent said...

Sierra, good question-- I think the chapter should end with what he tells her, and maybe her immediate mad reaction. She can end with "Why didn't you tell me first?"

Or something else-- "This is just like you, refusing to tell me until you got what you wanted." So conflict.

Then the next chapter, they can have the argument and she can decide that he is who he is... but then something else happens, and so her decision is not at the end of the scene, and so isn't an ending, and so there's no sense that this is the actual resolution. I can have a lingering sense from her that this still bothers her. But soon the bad guy is going to find them, so the lingering disquiet will be somewhat underground.

Thanks for helping me think this through!

A

Wes said...

"And there's also a really useful romantic convention, that the disaster should happen AFTER the greatest show of trust between the couple. There's a lot more emotional force when the disaster is going to threaten something we've already seen is powerful and important to them."

What a great technique!!! I love it and am gonna use it.

Simon C. Larter said...

"So I'm going to rearrange the events so that all the romantic stuff comes first, and after he sings to her, he feels (okay, this is a guy, after all) that now he can tell her the bad news, because, well, he's gotten the sex and the love. Wouldn't want to tell her first and not get lucky."

See, this is just an example of my gender being pigeonholed. Some of us wouldn't approach things this way. Some of us, it must be noted, just wouldn't mention the suicide at all...

:)

On a more serious note, this is a very helpful post, good lady. Thanks!

Edittorrent said...

Simon, this guy is REALLY sensitive, so he does mention the suicide. :)
A

Iapetus999 said...

I definitely have rearranged scenes so the important bits are either at the start or end. So I think the suicide should be either first or last.
Also I agree the singing is kind of lame if they've already shtupt. And talking after sex??? ;)

I've heard advice to the effect of "never finish writing a scene when you're drafting so it's easier to pick up the next time." I think it's better just to not finish the scene. Let the reader guess what happened. You could even leave out the part where he mentions the suicide and just start with her reaction.

Edittorrent said...

You guys are so unromantic... but yeah, maybe he sings to her and then she surrenders her virtue. Again. :)
A

Jami G. said...

Mit said: I think you must be part psychologist. I am always amazed about the impetus behind people's actions.

Good observation. Isn't writing really a form of commentary on some aspect of the human condition? So the better you are at analyzing and understanding people, the better you'll be able to reveal humanity in some form.

I came close to minoring in psychology and have always been an analytical person, so I love this kind of stuff. :)

Alicia, Who needs a crit group when you've got us for a sounding board? :)

Jami G.

Dave Shaw said...

Definitely a lousy stereotype. Some guys would tell her about the suicide up front and count on using comfort and sympathy afterward to get laid. ;-)

Edittorrent said...

Dave, hmm, I didn't think of that. He could tell her and then look all pathetic and say, "Could you just... hold me?"

That would work too. It has worked.
Alicia

Dave Shaw said...

You could go either way, Alicia, depending on just how you want to portray his personality and play your readers' emotions. Different guys do different things, stereotypes to the contrary. ;-)