Friday, July 08, 2016

The Benefits of Talking Through Your Scenes

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I'm blessed with two amazing (and chatty) critique partners. We regularly talk over scenes and ideas for our books, and more than once I've had great discussions that helped me solidify something in that project. Ideas and realizations appeared because I had to sell the idea to another person. It was a solution to a problem I probably wouldn't have even known I had until I sent the novel out for critique.

Talking through that scene saved me a ton of time and frustration.

It's not unusual when we write/plan/outline our stories, to write down details that carry a lot more weight in our heads than they do on paper. We know a detail is important, even if we can't say precisely why. Maybe we haven't figured it out yet, maybe we have an inkling that still needs to be developed, maybe we just haven't found the right words to describe it yet. Or maybe, it's not actually clear at all and just feels that way because we haven't spent time trying to articulate it.

When we get to that scene, we hit a wall, or it doesn't work at all, or worse--it looks fine and later we're slammed with negative comments in a critique and have no idea what we're going to do to fix it.

This is where talking out a scene with a friend can be pure gold. Forcing ourselves to give words to our ideas helps clarify them in our heads.

(More on brainstorming ideas here)

Let's say I had a conversation like this:

WRITER: So this is the scene were Bob has to decide if he can trust the new guy, Maurice, or not. Maurice has done some shady things, but nothing too bad to set off any red flags.

FRIEND: Is Bob already suspicious?

WRITER: Not really, he just doesn't know if he can trust him or not, and he needs to be unsure about Maurice's motives or he won't put the "just in case" plan into action. That has to happen for Sally to get caught up in the nets.

FRIEND: Yeah, but wouldn't any shady behavior make Bob wary? And if he's wary, he wouldn't trust him on this mission anyway, right?

WRITER: True, but Maurice really needs to be there and be a potential threat.

FRIEND: I don't know. Why trust Maurice this long, then turn on him now? He'd either need a reason to trust him, or be so stuck he had no choice but to trust him.

WRITER: (Scratching her head because she doesn't know why, but knows the plot needs this to work and it made sense to her before she poked at it) Maybe Maurice has done something to gain Bob's trust? He did risk his neck to save Jane from that pack of zombies a few scenes back. (Things start to click into place) And he also had reasonable excuses for some of the shady things Bob saw him do. His methods were a little unusual, but so far his heart has always seemed to be in the right place. He kinda trusts him, just not totally.

FRIEND: (makes a face) I'm still not sure why he'd suddenly start questioning the guy.

WRITER: (final piece clicks into place) Because Bob finds proof that Maurice lied to him about why he was there when Jane almost got eaten! So now he's questioning everything Maurice has ever said.

FRIEND: That I can buy. What proof and where does he find it?

Obviously a good critique partner is key to these types of discussions, because you want someone who will ask you tough questions and force you to be specific about your answers. You want them to push you on why a character would do or think something, and what specifically they do about it. They won't let you take the easy way out if something doesn't sit right.

(More on things to think about while brainstorming here)

Let's say I'd written the above scene without discussing it with a friend first. It's pretty clear that I wasn't sure about Bob's motivations or what specifics were causing the problems between him and Maurice. I wasn't even sure there was a real problem with Maurice. I can easily see where I'd feel everything was working plotwise, write the scene, then get hit with comments like this in a critique:
I don't understand why Bob suddenly gets suspicious of Maurice.

Bob's change of heart here feels contrived.

It's so obvious Maurice is up to something, so why isn't Bob taking the threat more seriously?
Who knows how far off the mark it might have turned out, but a short conversation let me spot the trouble areas before I wrote them.

Naturally, not every scene needs to be talked through, and don't feel you have to do this if it doesn't feel right to you. But if other brainstorming or outlining techniques haven't worked, this could be an option. I have a writer pal who talks through every scene in her book before she writes it. She has the cleanest first drafts of anyone I know.

I like talking through plot points myself. The bare bones, the critical turning points and elements of a chapter that give the story its backbone. This allows me to build a solid story foundation and still maintain spontaneity in the actual writing.

I've found talking through a scene an invaluable tool during the outlining stage, because I can figure key points out before I write a single word. I can also get those first ideas out there to make way for the more original ones. Plus, there's just something about putting words on paper than makes them feel permanent and harder to change. Verbal ideas are so much easier to cast aside if they're not working.

(More on plotting a novel conceptually here)

Whatever your writing or editing process is, next time you're not sure about a scene, try talking it through with a friend. You might find it opens up a whole new way of thinking about your writing.

Do you talk through scenes with friends? What do you find valuable about it (or why wouldn't you do it)? 

Looking to improve your craft? Check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel. 

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include 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. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), and Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).   
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  1. I definitely do this. Sometimes it's a friend picking up a problem I didn't even see, and sometimes it's a problem I know about, but haven't figured out how to solve.

  2. I like this. I suspect writers know, more often than not, which scenes aren't working and just can't put their finger on it... Those would be perfect to talk through with someone. I don't have a lot of in-person writer friends to do this with, but my 8th grade daughter has been able to help me out quite a bit. She's a huge reader, and she's been able to point out things that don't work for her.

    And Janice - I like having the dates back! I know what you mean about not wanting to discourage new comments, but I feel more... oriented! Maybe it's the accountant side of me that's pushing for that sense of order, as geeky as that is!

  3. I talk through scenes with my husband. He helps a little but mostly it helps my own brain wake up and see things that didn't exist when they were just bouncing around inside my head.

  4. I tend more to talk at people till something clicks for me....

  5. "Plus, there's just something about putting words on paper that makes them feel permanent and harder to change. Verbal ideas are so much easier to cast aside if they're not working."

    This is actually something I work against in my professional life. Its not just for writing, but any creative pursuits. Once something is put into type written words or digitized specs, people feel its blessed with a certain amount of permanence and are reluctant to question. I've started small initiatives to do more things as verbal and hand drawn, in order to inspire curiosity and in a way give people permission to question and contribute.

  6. Great article, Janice.

    Just yesterday I was talking through some plot points with a friend of mine (one of my usual beta readers). The conversation didn't directly point to the problem, but it allowed me to voice some of my concerns in a new way, and by dinner I'd had a breakthrough.

    Writers internalize so much. Taking a concept or problem outside the field of "you" is quite helpful.

  7. Not just scenes. I've had some wonderful conversations fleshing out a new idea I wanted to work on. Conversations open the mind to other ideas since they're coming from other brands...that whole two heads are better than one thing is actually really true :-)

  8. Our critique group is an infant, but this might be a great idea to try. This makes a lot of sense and could really save on revision time. *Bonus*

  9. Absolutely. Brainstorming is a good test for plausibility and a great way to kick your muse in the pants and get unstuck.

  10. Another great post Janice! I have discovered that sharing my thoughts with someone else is helpful when it comes to plot development. This process has also helped me discovered that choosing who you share your ideas with can be instrumental in your progress.

  11. I can see how this would be very helpful! I don't have any REAL life conversations with writers very often though--just at a writer's retreat, perhaps. I do bounce ideas off my CPs via emails, which is also helpful. :)

  12. Mostly I just bounce ideas off my CP via email. I don't have anyone else around to talk with about the plot, except for my thirteen year old daughter.

  13. Love this idea! I've talked through a book premise, but not individual scenes. I can see how it doing this ahead of time would really help later. Thanks!

  14. This is a great way to fine-tune ideas. You're lucky to have such a critique partner! :)

  15. Thanks all! It's great that so many have folks they can bounce ideas off of.

    Khanada, glad I put the dates back, then. I come from a family of accountants, so I can understand that :) That's so nice you have a young reader to help you. Something you guys can do together.

    Elaine, very interesting. I like the hand drawn aspect of that. It's very disarming. Smart!

    Angela, absolutely. Verbal brainstorming sessions are one of my favorite things. There's such a wonderful energy that gets going.

    Rubianna, cool! Let me know how it works out.

    Carol, email is still "talking" to a certain extent. Upside of that is, when you figure out good things you already have your notes on paper.

    Veronica, I know! I'm blessed with a fantastic group of writer friends.