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Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Guest Post: How to Write Scenes by Steve Catto

I was never any good at school, especially not at English. I found it boring and I never understood the purpose behind reading a book and then taking it to pieces to see how it worked. To me, that spoilt the story, it destroyed the magic. I did like to read stories, just not the ones that the school wanted me to.

Perhaps the story books I read in my childhood gave me the ability to visualise and create. I don’t know, it might have been the television programs, but whatever it was I always visualise as part of the creative process, and I visualise the story as scenes in a movie. That means I see each scene in my mind, and the task then is to convert that to words, and that is where I find that the artistic part comes in. Perhaps it’s easier to describe that process using a specific scene from Snowflakes.

So, let’s take the scene at the start of the ‘Many Worlds’ chapter and see how it pulls to pieces and goes back together again.

What I want to describe is a scene where a little monkey is watching the four main characters who are lying beside the fire after dinner, and one of them is going to tell you about her dreams. The monkey has its eye on some of the food.

Okay, well I could just say that, in fact I have just said that, but it doesn’t sound very good to me and it doesn’t allow me, or my reader, to conjure up any real visualisation of the scene and the characters that I see in my mind. On this occasion I’ll start by telling the reader what is happening as the scene opens. So, let’s write:
"Sparks from the fire crackled upwards into the night sky and disappeared." 
That gives the reader a description of something that is currently taking place, it’s a description of something that is moving as well, which I find somehow powerful. At this point in time they’re finishing off dinner, so let’s make that a past tense thing and say:
"It had been a good evening, and the food had been especially tasty."
So far so good. We’ve said they’re finishing off dinner without actually saying ‘they’re finishing off dinner’. It doesn’t seem enough to leave it like that. Let’s write something that talks a bit about the dinner and about Sam’s hunting skills, just to reinforce what I’ve said elsewhere. How about:
"Sam had fetched something back the previous night that looked like rabbit." 
No, it still doesn’t sound enough. More needed:
"and it seemed to tear apart and cook so well, despite not having been hung."
An improvement, but still not enough because that sort of floats with no ending.
"Meat on the bone usually did cook nicely, and he seemed to have the knack of bringing back a wide variety of different things."
Yes! That’s better. Let’s read it back again as a complete section.
"Sparks from the fire crackled upwards into the night sky and disappeared.
It had been a good evening, and the food had been especially tasty. Sam had fetched something back the previous night that looked like rabbit, and it seemed to tear apart and cook so well, despite not having been hung. Meat on the bone usually did cook nicely, and he seemed to have the knack of bringing back a wide variety of different things."
Nice! So I’ve started by describing something dynamic about the current scene, then I’ve gone to past tense and told the reader that they’ve just had a nice dinner which Sam had caught, and I’ve reminded the reader that he’s good at it. This means I’ve said something and then pulled the reader off to something else, but not for long. So now in their brains there are two things going on. I’ve also told the reader roughly what it is that they’ve been eating, which is important if the monkey wants to steal it.

Now what?
"Now the four of them were all laid on the grass around the pit."
Yes, but again not enough.
"watching the last of the fire die away, and enjoying the warmth."
Great, that’s better because it tells you what they were feeling as they laid by the fire too. What about this food that the monkey wants to steal? At some point I’ll have to describe it, and now seems like a good place.
"A few morsels of meat on a discarded bone sat on one of the stones that surrounded the fire."
Good, because I said it was like rabbit so it’s small and it has bones. And the monkey? Well, I could just say that there was a monkey up a tree, but let’s not give away the fact that it’s a monkey yet:
"From a safe vantage point a few feet away up a tree, a pair of eyes was watching them with great interest."
Read it all back. Yes, it sounds good, and now the character is going to talk about her dream and I can be direct about that, so let’s just change the subject now.
"'I had a dream,’ said Tilly."
Sounds OK, but this is the evening and they are tired and lazy and chilled, and the world is slow, so let’s make it:
"'I had a dream,’ said Tilly eventually, watching a particularly large spark float upwards."
That sounds a whole lot better, and it sounds dream-like too.

Read it all back yet again.

I notice that the eyes were watching and Tilly was watching, so I’ve said watching twice in two sentences. I’ll say that the eyes were observing them. That sounds more mysterious and I’m not repeating the word watching.

Put it all together and read it yet again:
"Sparks from the fire crackled upwards into the night sky and disappeared. 
It had been a good evening, and the food had been especially tasty. Sam had fetched something back the previous night that looked like rabbit, and it seemed to tear apart and cook so well, despite not having been hung. Meat on the bone usually did cook nicely, and he seemed to have the knack of bringing back a wide variety of different things. 
Now the four of them were all laid on the grass around the pit, watching the last of the fire die away, and enjoying the warmth. A few morsels of meat on a discarded bone sat on one of the stones that surrounded the fire. 
From a safe vantage point a few feet away up a tree, a pair of eyes was observing them with great interest. 
‘I had a dream,’ said Tilly eventually, watching a particularly large spark float upwards."
Now take it apart again:

I’ve described what is currently happening in the scene using the sparks from the fire because that’s a movement in what would otherwise be a fairly static picture. Then I’ve gone to the past tense and told the reader what the characters had been doing, which was having dinner, and I’ve told them what they were eating and reminded them that Sam fetches back a lot of nice things.

Then I’ve returned to the present again and told the reader what the characters are doing now, and how they are feeling, and described some of the remains of dinner, which I’ll need later.

I’ve then told the reader that the characters are being watched by a pair of eyes, but the characters don’t know that and, at this point in time the reader doesn’t know what they are. That’s a bit of pending suspense, which I can return to during the chapter and resolve later, so it provides an additional element of ongoing interest.

Now I can get down to business because the scene is set, and I can cut to Tilly, who we know is lying by the fire. I want to make it clear that she is probably on her back looking up, so that can be done by referring to the sparks. That seems to close the little loop quite nicely because we’re now back to visualising movement again, which is where we came in.

I’ve read it through at least half a dozen times, so any obvious typos are fixed, I’ve spotted that the word ‘watching’ was repeated in two adjacent sentences and fixed that because it sounded wrong, so it’s pretty much done now.

Now I’ll read it through aloud so that I can get the commas in the places where I need to pause, and make sure that one or more complete sentences can be read properly in one breath. That helps when I narrate the audiobook because I know it will read well and sound nice. I don’t want to change it at all for the narration because then the published text won’t match the audio.

At some point, probably after a few days, I’ll return to that chapter, read the end of the previous one as a run-in to it and check that they join together without sounding odd. By then I’ll have lost the immediate memory I had of the scene when I was writing it, so that exercise will tell me whether the words rebuild the image of the scene properly in my mind, or whether there are things in the picture that need to be there but which I didn’t describe.

I enjoy the process. There’s enjoyment in the thinking and the writing, and satisfaction in reading back the finished fragment of work. It’s an odd situation to find myself in, for someone who failed English and didn’t like analysing books.

About Snowflakes

snowflakes, book, steve-catto
Image: Steve Catto
Two lost girls become involved in a love triangle with Sam, a hunter, after setting up house in an abandoned old cottage near a river. Life appears perfect, until one of the girls discovers what Sam really does when he goes out hunting at night, and then the fabric of their dream world begins to unravel. 

Can following their dreams take any of them home, and what does that mean anyway? Who is the girl that never speaks, and what are the strange shapes that appear in the half-light? Is their existence being shadowed by a darker force and, if so, why does it seem determined to help them? 

A journey involving secrets whispered on the riverbank under Arcadian skies, evenings around the fire and deep introspection about the meaning of life. Also mystery, suspense, swords, guns, assassinations... and a small monkey.

Snowflakes is available to buy now.

Have you found Steve's advice useful? Let me know in the comments below!

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