Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Craft Book of the Month: James Scott Bell says you should be HIP to your scenes

In Chapter 7 of Plot and Structure, James Scott Bell describes an "unforgettable scene" as having "something surprising, and emotionally intense. It has characters we care about doing things that we must watch." He describes what he calls the "Four chords of a scene"--(they are action, reaction, set-up, and deepening."

And then he shows us how to get HIP to our scenes.

HIP stands for hook, intensity, and prompt. (And yes, I love acronyms!)

Bell claims that many writers stumble with their HOOKS, those things that "grab the reader's attention from the start and get him pulled into the narrative."

So he shows us some effective hooks in action, with the exhortation to quit thinking in a linear fashion. The examples he uses are from Harlan Coben's Gone for Good.

Dialogue hook: "What happened to your nose?" Pistillo asked me. We were back at his office. I sat in the armchair in front of Pistillo's desk."(Dialogue is the stronger hook here. It starts the scene off with a question, and makes us want to know what the narrator is going to answer. Coben then drops in one paragraph of setting and gets back to the action.)

Teaser hook: "I fell into such a deep sleep that I never heard him sneak up on me." (Who is he? What happened after he snuck up on the narrator? Coben teases first, then unfurls the answers.)

Action hook: "Claudia Fisher burst into the office of Joseph Pistillo." (This raises the question of why Claudia burst into the office, instead of knocking or strolling. We read to find out.)

Description hook: (This one's from Stephen King's story "All That You Love Will Be Carried Away." "It was a Motel 6 on I-80 just west of Lincoln, Nebraska. The snow that began at midafternoon had faded the sign's virulent yellow to a kinder pastel shade as the light ran out of the January dusk. The wind was closing in on that quality of empty amplification one encounters only in the country's flat midsection."
(Even though this is description, notice the mood created by fading light, dusk, wind, emptiness. We are being set up to feel the inner life of the character even before we meet him. And when readers feel something, they want to keep reading.)

I stands for Intensity:

Bell uses Dean Koontz as an example of a master of creating intensity in scenes. Basically, once you've caught your reader's attention, you must reward it with tension. And tension is best found through the "writer's best friend: conflict." As Bell says, "when two characters with opposing agendas meet, you have built in tension."

P stands for Prompt:

The prompt here is what prompts a reader to read on. "One of the best read-on-prompts is impending disaster... another is portent." Here's a list of other prompts to end scenes with:
  • A mysterious line of dialogue
  • A secret suddenly revealed
  • A major decision or vow
  • Announcement of a shattering event
  • Reversal or surprise--new information that turns the story around
  • A question left hanging in the air
And lastly, some great advice: "If a scene seems to sputter to a close and you're not sure what to do... try cutting the last paragraph or two. You don't have to write each scene to its logical conclusion. In fact, it's often the best choice not to. Cutting creates interest, a feeling of something left hanging--and that makes readers want to find out why."

I'll be getting more HIP to my scenes from now on, that's for sure.
[Next week we'll end the month with Bell's thoughts on "The Character Arc in Plot."]


  1. You could combine all the hints in one blockbuster of a sentence . . . sorry, feeling silly today!


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