Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Pile On: Combing Scenes for Dramatic Punch

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

When I first got my critiques back for Darkfall, I knew I had an issue with the ending (no surprise there). My friend tossed out an idea to fix it that I knew instantly was the right move.

Mash the ending together.

In that early draft, there was Major Event A (ME-A) that set off the third act and climax of the book/series. It culminated at Major Event B (ME-B). Lots of stuff happened between those two points, but the tension and stakes never really rose after ME-A, so the ending didn't have the punch it needed.

But once I shoved ME-B on top of ME-A, well, then I had a whole new ballgame. An awesome ballgame, really, and my stakes went through the roof, the tension rose and the conflicts crashed so much better. ME-A was hard for my protag, but it became so much harder when Nya also had to deal with ME-B at the same time. And it also fixed an issue where it felt like the book ended, but then there was still all this other stuff to do.

If you're currently revising and staring at a bloated first draft (or even one that isn't quite working as you'd like), you might try seeing where you can pile scenes and events onto each other.

1. What events can be made harder if you combine them?

Look for scenes in which the goals might be similar, or the timing of events is close. Maybe the goal of one scene will cause more trouble or increase the difficulty of another in you introduce that second problem at the same time.They find out their husband cheated on them during a scene when they have to give a career-making speech.

2. How can you up the tension in each act?

From a more macro-level, are there any story arcs that can be deepened if you combine scenes in that act? Look at each act independently and see how combining scenes might make it more unpredictable. Give your protag more choices, make the choices themselves tougher, and it might be more unpredictable which choice is the right one. If both choices happened in the original draft and each had consequences and outcomes, what happens if the protag has to pick one over the other? What changes? All kinds of cool opportunities can come from this.

3. Where can you deepen the emotional conflicts?

Now it's time to examine the micro-level. Look for situations that tweak the emotions this time, not just the external goal-focused plots. If the protag faces an internal struggle in scene A, and an external struggle in scene B, what happens if they face both at the same time?

4. Where can you raise the personal stakes?

Bad things happening can be exciting, but it's the personal that really gets us. Look for scenes that are big and exciting, yet impersonal, and see how you might add a personal moment to it from elsewhere in the novel (maybe one of those "I need this but I'm worried its a boring scene" types). Themes can be helpful here, as a larger-than-life moment can mirror or symbolize a deeper internal issue.

Now, don't just mix things willy nilly. There has to be solid reasons to combine scenes that work for the story as a whole. But there's a lot of weaving that can be done and braiding those events together can make the book better as a whole. Like braiding a rope to make it stronger.

You never know where you can pile on the trouble until you look. You might discover two ho-hum scenes have major punch when combined.

Have you ever combined events or scenes? How did it work out? Are you currently facing a revision that could benefit from a little mashing up? If you've never thought about it, what scenes might go well together in your current WIP if you mashed them?  

Find out more about conflict in my book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).

With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) teaches you what conflict really is, discusses the various aspects of conflict, and reveals why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work. It shows you how to develop and create conflict in your novel and explores aspects that affect conflict, as well as clarifying the misconceptions that confuse and frustrate so many writers.

This book will help you:
  • Understand what conflict means and how to use it
  • Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
  • See why conflict isn't a "one size fits all" solution
  • Determine the type of conflict your story needs
  • Fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back

Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how conflict works, so you can develop it in whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of what conflict means and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I like the phrase 'pile on the trouble.' Makes me think of multi-dimensional angst. I'm currently revising my second ms. Now that you've pointed it out, I guess I have mashed before. Never realized it was an actual technique. You've state it really clearly, here. Thanks.

  2. I often find myself in crit group telling people they need to 'drag their characters through hell and back.' From now on, I'll just send them here.

    BTW, my sister just finished Shifter and she's itching for the sequel! She stayed up late to finish it and when I came in the room she looked at me and said, "I can't stop."

  3. Multi-dimensional angst is the best. I reiterate, you are amazing at making things clear! And explaining things I just knew but couldn't phrase/name! Crazy good post!

    So many exclamation points.....!

  4. Just wanted to tell you how much I enjoy your blog. You do a terrific job with it. I am forever posting your columns on (I always include the links to your blog). It's packed with tons of information and you have a great voice. Thanks for all you do, Buffy

  5. I had a conversation with a friend during which I said, "My book is different. Every word counts, there's no fluff." She looked at me and said, "I don't think any author would admit to writing fluff." Sure enough, I've since edited out & combined scenes to tighten the book. Glad to read it's working for you.

  6. Great tip. Sounds like a good way to build more tension as well.

  7. This is an awesome post. It brings home the reality of what I love: good, tight writing. Achieving that takes more than one pass through the manuscript. There is some immature place inside me that whines every time I realize 'it's not there yet', but when I get to the final re-write...that manuscript sings. What would we ever do without crit buddies?

  8. That's great, Sarah, tell her I said I'm glad she enjoyed it. And thanks Buffy :)

    Stephanie, I think I have that little puppy whine every time I get crits back, even though I KNOW I'll have editing to do. But editing is part of the fun (at least for me), so it thankfully doesn't last long. Crit buddies rock :)

  9. Crit buddies certainly do rock!

    My novel-in-progress has a scene that combines two emotions that usually don't go together. I was sure it would flop to a reader and need rewriting (AGAIN), but I didn't tell my friend that when I gave her the draft. She actually brought up that scene as one she loved! ^_^

    I'm with salarsenッ in that I've merged stuff without realizing it was an actual technique. For my current WiP, pretty much every scene, when it doesn't fit or is b(l)eh, has worked in some form being melded elsewhere in the story. I'll have to study this post and see if it can help me get some epiphany for that scene that's bothering me--oh. Epiphany just hit. Now I need to find a new scene to add entirely, because that'll leave me one short.

    *headdesk* Ms. Hardy, if you ever think you want to try your hand at framed narrative, you may want to do yourself a favor and not tie the number of scenes in one substory to the number of overall chapters.

  10. I love your idea about mashing scenes together. I can't wait to read book 2 & 3 to see how you do it all. Maybe it'll help me even more to see it in action.

  11. I'm just impressed y'all have books to mash up. Gotta love the pile on.

  12. Yep, in my most recent edit of my novel, I mashed together a number of scenes. I'd needed to introduce a character a bit sooner in the story, and I swiped a scene from the begining and pushed it into an ending section, and the result was bringing an antagonist into an area the main character was unfamiliar with.

  13. This is a technique I'm going to have to try. I'm currently just re-reading my WIP and making notes for editing. I'll be on the watch for mashable scenes now.

  14. And this is yet another concept of writing rarely explored. In fact, I hadn't seen another blog entry on this topic. Into my round-up this goes!

    While I hadn't really mashed any scenes in my current draft together yet, I did use a previously tame scene to start a sub-plot, move along a sub-plot, and hint at a sub-plot that won't appear until Book Two. Once I get to writing it, all I got to do is to keep the other character's motivations in mind.

  15. SBibb, that's awesome, you know just what I mean then :)

    Imogen, good luck!

    ChihuahuaO, thanks! Layering works very similarly, and I've found that's another great way to deepen a scene.