Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Craft Book of the Month:The Fire in Fiction

Week Three: Striding Forward, Falling Back

It's a beautiful sunshiney day in Portland, Oregon. So my "goal" is not really to blog. My goal is to be in the sunshine, letting it dapple my strong and manly features as I speed-read through the Hunger Games Trilogy. (I've just started Mockingjay.) How am I going to do this, and still remain true to my blogging schedule...?

I suspect the above paragraph appeared because I've been ruminating on Donald Maass' advice about scene creation. Send your character into a scene with a goal. It seems obvious, but Mr. Maass says we'd be surprised at how many middle scenes in many novels have characters having no particular reason to do something.

If I may segue back to the Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins' novels work as well as they do because the characters have clearly defined goals. The most important one being: Stay Alive. On a micro level, not all of the goals are articulated so forcefully, but they are always there under the surface, so that when they are artfully revealed the reader says: "Why, of course! Now I see why she was doing that. It makes sense."

As writers, we have to have at the forefront of our minds what it is our characters want or need in each particular scene. Maass puts it far better than I could:
At the end of a scene, we want to feel that something important occurred. A change took place. The fortunes of the character and the path of the story have shifted. We won't get that feeling unless we get, in some way, a prior sense of what we're hoping for--a hope that in the scene is either fulfilled or dashed and delayed.
At the end of each chapter, Maass has a series of exercises. I found the ones on this topic to be very helpful:
  1. Write down what it is in this scene that your protagonist or point-of-view character wants.
  2. Create three hints in this scene that your protagonist or POV character will get what he wants. Also, build three reasons to believe that he won't get what he wants.
  3. Write the passages that express the results of Steps 1 and 2. In rewriting the scene... incorporate those passages. Eliminate as much else as possible.
  4. Discussion: Just as stripping down dialogue helps punch up a scene, reducing a scene to a few strong steps toward or away from a goal also lends force and shape. Many authors wander through scene drafts, groping for the point. You can do it differently. Instead, start with the point and enhance from there.
So... Mike got up from his computer and set his strong and manly features towards the sunshine streaming through the back door. He was on the point of opening the door when he remembered his book was still on the bedside table. He turned to get it, and heard the chain-rattling sound of the school bus as it bumped down his street. Now his children were coming home. Sod the book, he thought. He raced out the back door and rejoiced in the sunshine for 15 seconds before a chorus of "Dad!".... (You get the picture.)

Happy writing, everyone.


  1. I love it, Michael! And it was something I needed to read today! Thank you1 And you say it so well!! It's been gorgeous here in Seattle, too! Better enjoy though, it's on it's way out!
    Have a lovely evening1


  2. Sod....uh huh!
    I checked your profile...A Brit!
    loved how that snuck in
    Loved this post...I may go and get this book
    You did a courageous job of physicals on your character (you)
    you are a funny it

  3. Thank you, Sylvia and Suz, for taking the time to read and to comment on this blog post. I appreciate both of you very much.


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