Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Follow the Leader: Moving From Scene to Scene

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Before I dive in today, just a heads up that my monthly post is up over at Pub Crawl, where I'm discussing the benefits of volunteering as part of an author's marketing plan. Come on over and say hello.

Back when I was writing my third novel, Darkfall, I was skimming my chapters and trying to work out how to better weave all my various plot threads together. Since it was the last book of the trilogy, there were four major plot ideas that all had to be tied together and wrapped up, and I wasn't happy with how they were weaving together. Things felt too unfocused, even though I liked what was happening on a scene by scene basis.

I found myself checking the ends of every scene and chapter and making notes on the plot and narrative flow, because scene and chapter endings are where a lot of plot-advancing things happen--character decisions get made, secrets are revealed, surprises occur, and carrots are dangled. Endings are natural hook points, and hooks typically involve major plot points.

Going through the scene and chapter endings made me see much more clearly where my plot was going, and when an ending left with one problem and picked up somewhere else, it was blindingly clear where my disconnects were. I was ending scenes with cliffhangers from one plotline, but picking up the next scene with a goal from one of the other problems. It made the novel feel disjointed--it was a narrative flow issue.

Once I realized what the problem was, it wasn't hard to fix it. I reminded myself what the major plotlines were that I had to weave together, then read each scene with those goals in mind. I kept my protagonist's motivations clear and prioritized, so when she discovered something from another plot point, she could deal with it, but not jump the track and head off in a new direction. (Unless of course, the story needed her to do that) When I got to the scene end, I revised so the next scene picked up where the last one left off plotwise. I made sure my narrative flow was flowing in the same direction, even if that direction took a sudden left turn shortly into it.

Whatever the goal or problem was that ended a scene, I made sure to start the next scene with that goal still driving my protagonist. That sometimes transferred to another plot point as that scene unfolded, but I didn't end with one goal hook and pick up with an entirely different goal.

This is a great first draft trick to use to make sure your plot is flowing the way you want it, and it's much easier to identify major plot points and character goals this way.

It's also handy for quick reminders of what you've already written when you need a plot refresh. Instead of reading everything you did before, you can take a quick skim through the endings and get a feel for the flow of your novel.

It can also be useful for figuring out what to do next as you write. If everything is unfolding nicely, your endings will point you in a particular plot direction. Goals and stakes will follow a logical pattern and you can build on that to keep the plot moving. Like having an outline without actually having an outline (pantsers might enjoy this aspect). Chances are, you'll be ending your scenes with information critical to your plot in some way.

If not, that could be a red flag you need to take a few steps back and line up the plot better so you can move forward.

If you're stuck, it might be because the plot is going in too many directions and you've lost focus. You might even be ending scenes with "cool stuff" that really has nothing to do with the plot, but sounds good as a hook. The endings could be working in that single scene, but when you look back at the total story, they're the weak links in your plot chain.

Think of your plot like a train. All the cars may look different--one might be a passenger car filled with characterization, another a box car filled with action--but they all link together as the end of one fits into the beginning of the other. Look to see where your cars start and end, and you find the key points of your story are all right there, waiting to be snapped together.

Let's look at some examples from The Shifter to help clarify what I'm talking about. Now, unless you read the book, these lines won't make a whole lot of sense to you, but to me, they sum up the entire scene (and the entire book so far). You'd be just as aware of what your endings mean.

My first scene ends like this:
They nodded hard enough to bounce their eyeballs out of their heads, but boys that age can't keep a secret. By morning, the whole League would know about this.

Tali was going to kill me.
The first scene is all about Nya's secret being exposed and how that's going to be bad for her. This ending sums up the problem and stakes--the League was going to know what she could do, which is bad, and then it introduces Tali, the younger sister and a critical piece of the plot. Since the next scene is Nya going to visit Tali at the League, it connects the two scenes while at the same time summing up the plot-driving problem.

Scene two begins like this:
"Oh Nya, how could you?"
This connects to the end of scene one, because this is Tali speaking, and Nya knew Tali was going to "kill her." While other things happen and are revealed in this scene, it picks up plotwise where scene one left off.

Scene two (and chapter one) ends like this:
I stepped forward, wondering what time they served lunch in Dorsta Prison.
Chapter one ends with Nya "getting caught," which is exactly what she was worried about at the end of scene one, and what Tali was afraid of as well. From a plot standpoint, the scenes are linking up and moving the story forward, and that's clear in how I ended them (which is why checking my endings was valuable). Nya was worried because she knew people at the League were going to find out about her secrets and now we see the results of people at the League finding out her secrets. Now that she's been "caught," the next chapter will pick up with the results of that and move the story further.

Scene three starts like this:
The Elder stared down at me, looking as solid as the thick columns that supported the entrance-hall balcony behind him.
This picks up with the person who "caught" her at the end of the last chapter. Which is a result of the end of the first scene.

Scene three ends like this:
There might be guards looking for me, but bright green League uniforms were easy to spot. Folks tended to give way when they saw armed men coming.

My stomach rumbled again. A painful rumble that twisted up my guts and said it was way past breakfast. And lunch. And supper. I headed for the docks, but my guts also said I was too late to cut bait.
Nya has gotten away, but guards are still after her, and she faces a new problem that still keeps the story moving. She has to find work so she can eat, and she has to do it with the threat of getting caught hanging over her head. Nya trying to survive both her daily life and the plot are recurring events in the novel. They're very interconnected.

Scene four starts like this:
"The boats are out, Nya. I've got nothing for you."
Since scene three ended with her worried she would be "too late," we see here that she is indeed too late, and this is going to cause her more problems. This sends her more on the subplot path, but that path will lead her back to the main plot path before long.

Scene four (and chapter two) ends like this:
Breath died in my throat.

Saints save me, the fancy man was back.
Nya has a new problem, and everything has connected to get her to this point. This line actually ties back to an earlier scene as well, (several actually) so the subplots are indeed being woven in and helping to move not only that plot but the main plot as well. I know how the events since she left the League in chapter one affect this and where it's going to go from here. I can see that my story is on track. I know what happened before this and why this is important to the overall plot and subplots.

Had these scenes not connected up so neatly, that would have been clear from looking at the start and ends of these scenes. The plot wouldn't have sent Nya in a logical direction, she would have been pulled off in a new direction without a lot of credible motivation on her part. The subplots would have felt tacked on and not a logical outcome of the events as they unfolded.

It's a neat little trick to double check your plot and help keep your transitions smoothly flowing.

Do you ever examine your scene endings and chapter transitions?

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Fixing Setting & Description Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting immersive settings and worlds that draw readers into your story and keep them there.

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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. The train analogy made it very clear. Nice trick and good metaphor >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  2. Thanks for the tip. I'll definitely give this a try!

  3. I sort of have this problem. Sometimes I have scenes with problems that are subplots, but I'm not sure how they fit in. I'm just hoping that I'll manage to wrap everything up in the end. :)

  4. I'm trying to keep this concept going in my current WIP. I have two stories unfolding uniformly, one from the past and the other present. To say it's tricky to twine the two together cohesively and NOT lose the reader is making light of it. One always plays off the other. (Hugs)Indigo

  5. Nice. I will go through my WIP with this specifically in mind. I have a lot of plot threads and I'm not sure if I weave them together all that efficiently some times.

  6. That sounds like a good idea. I know I once noticed that one WiP has multiple scenes that end with the narrator blacking out. I've been eyeing that to make sure they're necessary and aren't for the same reasons.

    As handy as this idea sounds, though, I'm not getting a good handle of it outside of the abstract. Do you think you could maybe do some examples from The Shifter, sometime?

  7. I'll do the first few scenes as examples. I'm going to go ahead and edit them into the original post since others might find it interesting down the line.

  8. Thanks! That does help. :)