Hey! Listen!

Have you ever played a Zelda game, specifically Ocarina of Time?

If you have, you know how annoying Navi can be. (Hey! Listen!)

Don’t watch the whole video. It’ll drive you crazy.

For those of you don’t know, Navi is the main character’s guiding fairy/guardian angel/annoying pseudo parental figure. Whenever there’s something she thinks you need to know, she says, “Hey! Listen!” and you have no choice but to do so. It’s maddening because she does it often, occasionally she repeats things, and her info-dumps detract from the action of the game.

Sometimes writers do this too. You want your reader to pick up on something important about a character, so you spell it out for them. And then three chapters, you spell it out again. And again. And again.

Why do we do this? Sometimes it’s something really important about the character. Sometimes we think it’s too subtle for the readers. Sometimes we forget that we already did it once.

My main character in Shaken is an alcoholic. I never come out and say it, especially because the book is told from her point of view, and she would never say, “Hey, I drink too much.” No, I just show her drinking coffee from the thermos she carries. She drinks from it several times in a chapter. Awhile later, she mentions that the coffee is laced with whiskey.

This isn’t a great example because I’m being vague.

Okay, let’s play ‘Bash Twilight.’ Sorry. It’s been done, and I know we’re all tired of doing it, but it’s an easy example. And, yes, I’m about to reveal just how much I know about the Twilight series. Let the shaming commence.

In the final book, Carlisle gives Bella a long speech about how the immortal children  (human babies turned vampire) were Very Bad. They killed people, had no control, and ultimately bought their makers a nonnegotiable ticket to an irrevocable death by dismembering and burning.

This speech is revealed in retrospective: a conversation Bella had awhile ago with Carlisle about yet another character’s back story. Bella then has a dream about these evil babies.

This is the author smacking us in the face at the beginning of the book: THIS WILL BE IMPORTANT LATER ON.

We get it. These kids are scary–but how about letting us decide that for ourselves? Show us what they look like, show us how they act, let them scare us, but don’t tell us to pay attention to something revealed out of context. Work it into the action.

And before you start nagging me in the comments, I know why Meyers did it, that the books are meant for perhaps a less sophisticated audience, et cetera. It’s still a poorly used plot device.

Have you seen other examples of an author playing Navi? Have you done it yourself? I know I have.

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Scene, Sequel, Scene

Newton’s third law of motion says, “To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction.”

While that’s not exactly the law for fiction, it’s still true. Any time something happens, a person reacts and then acts based on what happened earlier. I think the following is safe to say:

For every action against your character, your character will have a proportionate reaction and call to action.

That doesn’t have the same nice rhythm like Newton’s law, but it does get the point across. Good ole Jim describes the action-reaction chain like this:

It breaks down into something really simple, though. Something happens to your character (stimulus). Your character reacts to it (response). Your character takes an action (stimulus). Something happens (response).

That extends over the whole of the novel, creating the scene-sequel-scene pattern this blog post takes its name from.

Let’s look at the waffle story again. Say you write a scene in which I go to my car and discover that the pirates have dismantled my engine so I can’t get to the grocery store. Then you realize I still need to get to the store, so you make me take the bus. Scene, scene.

But normal people don’t just say, “Oh, darn. My car is mysteriously and expertly broken. I guess I’ll take the bus.” No, normal, living, breathing people say, “Why is my car broken? What is going on? Who is conspiring against my desire for waffles?” They rant and cry and kick up a big fuss before they decide to get on the bus.

That moaning and wailing scene is called a sequel.

Sequels are what happens as an aftermath to a scene. They do several specific things:

1) Allow a character to react emotionally to a scene’s outcome.
2) Allow a character to review facts and work through the logical options of his situation.
3) They allow a character to ponder probable outcomes to various choices.
4) They allow a character to make a CHOICE–IE, to set themselves a new GOAL for the next SCENE.

You get the idea.

I followed this pattern meticulously for Shaken. You should really read Jim’s whole post, because it’s very good, helpful, etc. He will do an excellent job of convincing you why it’s a good thing to do.

I’m going to talk about the flaws in this approach.

First, if you think of every sequel as separate from its preceding scene, you’ll end up writing a lot of dull, junk scenes. Real people don’t spend hours ranting about the evil pirate-mechanics. Nope, a real person will probably just carry on an interior rant while simultaneously taking the bus. In fact, taking the bus, while it’s the obvious CHOICE made after the broken car scene, is not really the next action. It’s a reaction. While I’m on the bus, I’ll decide what I’m going to do about those evil pirates.

You can avoid those dull inner-monologuing sequels by turning them into action-packed scenes that are in fact cleverly disguised sequels. A character can discuss her reaction with a friend. She can react to the store’s lack of waffles by picking a fight with the manager. That’s much more interesting than an angsty walk down the aisles, bemoaning her waffle deficiency, although sometimes angst has a place.

You can also write a quick sequel that’s buried at the end of the scene. Sometimes it doesn’t take long to react, anticipate, and choose your next course of action. Don’t interrupt an action-heavy sequence with a lot of dull emoting: just react, think, choose, and move on to the next scene.

Second, writing a sequel after every scene can get repetitive. This is especially true if you’re writing a mystery. If, after every clue, you include a scene where your character thinks, “What? How mysterious! What does this mean? What should I do!” it gets old. Yes, your character still has to sift through the information she has received, but people are capable of analyzing information as they receive it. We don’t require thinking periods during the day, and even if we did, would we have new information to consider during each of those periods?

Think about it.

You’re probably reacting to this blog post as you read it. Do you sit down after reading a blog post, look at the blank comment box, and think, “Hmm. What occurred to me as I was reading that post?”

Nope. You’re reacting as you read.

Write the same way. Make sure your characters consider what’s happening to them and react in a reasonable fashion. But blend their reactions with their actions. People do occasionally decide to do things on the fly. Let your characters act like real people.

Logical people, sure. Readers need to understand why the characters do what they do. But don’t make your characters act like robots.

Unless you’re writing a Dalek. They’ll just exterminate without asking why.

Crime of a Scene

Yesterday I/Jim Butcher said every scene needs a conflict. Today lets look at what scenes are, what they do, and, specifically, how conflict operates in every scene.

Jim (don’t you love how we’re on a first-name basis now?) says this:

Ah, conflict. The heart of every story. If you screw up absolutely everything else about a scene but GET THE CONFLICT RIGHT, you’re gonna be way closer to getting published than most people ever manage.

Conflict is what happens when someone, for some reason, up and decides that your character needs to fail in his goal, or else is pursuing a goal which, if met, will prevent your viewpoint character from reaching his goal….

And, done right, the conflict poses an implied SCENE QUESTION. Will your character succeed? Or even better, WHICH character is going to succeed?

The scene question is where Jim really helped me. For my first book, I had two types of scenes:

  • the “inspired” scenes, where I knew exactly what would happen and how, and daydreamed about the scene for days, weeks, and months before I wrote it
  • the “in between” scenes where I knew I needed something to happen, but I wasn’t sure what, and it took me days of yawning and sighing to write a ho-hum scene.

For Shaken, I knew where the novel was going, and I set up a trail of scenes as stepping stones (or roadblocks) to Mitzy’s final goal. When I got started, I wrote a scene question for each of those planned, plot-driving scenes and chose answers to those questions before I started writing.

Jim says there are four answers (and you should really read his post for his descriptions of them): yes; yes, but; no; and no, and furthermore!

Answering all scene questions “yes” leads to a boring story. Looking at yesterday’s ninja-waffle story, answering, “Can Kristin get waffles?” with, “YES,” leads to a pretty boring story. But answering it “NO, AND FURTHERMORE she can’t even get to her car without falling prey to a band of marauding pirates,” is a little insulting to me, but plenty interesting to read.

Now, here’s the question I don’t want you to ask: Did I do this for every scene?

The (interesting) answer is, “No, and furthermore…”

I did not sit down before every scene and list the goal, conflict, and setback. Why not? Because that format gets a little repetitious.

An author I love has a third book that does this, and it’s maddening. Can the characters happily reunite? No, and furthermore the male main character is married to someone else. Can the main characters make it to America? No, and furthermore, the female gets kidnapped by pirates. Can the male main character rescue the female main character? No, and furthermore, she jumps off the ship and swims to a tropical island… you get the idea.

It became a series of zany hijinks, and just plain annoying. Sometimes you need to a little “yes, but” to move the story along so that the reader doesn’t pull her hair out in frustration at your characters’ increasingly outlandish antics and inability to achieve any of their goals.

And sometimes you need scenes to do more than just push characters toward their final ends. Sometimes scenes need to be funny. Sometimes they need to be loooove scenes. Sometimes they need to offer character development. If you’re smart, you’ll make scenes do double-duty.

Take a scene from Shaken. Mitzy needs some information from her mother, and her mother wants to spend time with her daughter. The conflict is mild, because there’s really no point in me denying Mitzy the information. Still, there is a conflict (Mom wants to hang out with her daughter, daughter wants to get her job done) and that conflict also serves as character-building for both mother and daughter. There’s some humor in there, too.

So, takeaways:

Scenes need conflict of some kind or another, because otherwise it’s just a bunch of characters sitting around congratulating each other.

Try setting a goal for each scene in the form of a question. You can still free-write, if that’s your style, but answer the question you asked with the scene’s action. This will keep your scenes from meandering all the map, kind of like this blog post did.

Make scenes do double-duty. You can write a scene in which I go to the ATM for my waffle money, and you can answer the scene question with yes, but: perhaps I’ll also meet my longlost ninja brother without knowing him and think he’s sexy or something else that’s weird. There you have goal-reaching, character development, and creation of a really twisted subplot, all in one zany episode.

Tomorrow: scenes and sequels.