Wednesday, November 29, 2017

One Brick at a Time: Crafting Compelling Scenes

Barbara Ashford  Barbara Campbell
By Barbara Ashford

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Many layers go into a great scene. Some we add on instinct, while others require a little thought or a lot of effort. Barbara Ashford visits the lecture hall to day to share tips on crafting compelling scenes.

Award-winning novelist Barbara Ashford has been praised by reviewers and readers alike for her compelling characters, heartfelt storytelling, and powerful scenes.

Barbara's first published series was the dark fantasy trilogy Trickster's Game (written as Barbara Campbell). Published by DAW Books, Trickster's Game was a finalist for the Mythopoeic Society's 2010 Fantasy Award for adult literature.

Barbara's background as a professional actress, lyricist, and librettist has helped her delve deeply into character and explore the complexities of human nature on the stage as well as on the page. Her musical adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd has been optioned for Broadway.

She drew on her musical theatre roots for her second series, the award-winning Spellcast and its sequel Spellcrossed, set in a magical summer stock theatre. In 2014, DAW Books released the two novels in an omnibus edition: Spells at the Crossroads.

A graduate of the Odyssey workshop, Barbara has taught five previous online courses for Odyssey and has served on the staff of the Odyssey Critique Service for more than ten years. You can visit her dual selves at and

Website | Goodreads |

Take it away Barbara...

“From the floor to the sky you can soar if you’re wise enough to climb one brick at a time.”

--From the musical Barnum, lyrics by Michael Stewart

I’ve been involved in theatre since my sisters dressed me up as a Pilgrim one Thanksgiving and had me sing “Over the River and Through the Woods.” My years as a professional actress not only gave me the inspiration for my novel Spellcast, but taught me a lot about creating memorable scenes in fiction.

One of the most important things I learned was the importance of “being in the moment.” Not just saying the lines you’d memorized or moving where the director tells you to go but truly listening and responding to what is happening onstage. That helps audiences enter the world of the play and experience the characters and their struggles as real.

I think a similar relationship develops between writer and reader. Readers can only truly care about your characters if they feel those characters are “in the moment”–not marionettes dancing on the strings their creator pulls, but living, breathing individuals facing real challenges, making difficult choices, and scrambling to get out of tough situations.

As an actress, I’d drill down into a scene to identify its beats–the moments where the emotion of the character shifts. That not only helped me understand the character’s arc but to depict it convincingly. The same technique can help you craft more compelling scenes in fiction by discovering the emotional truth of every moment and determining if the actions and reactions on the page are making those emotions clear–and vivid–to the reader.

Take a scene where a character is walking down a deserted alleyway at night and hears a noise. The most obvious emotion to portray is fear. But there are many other colors to explore that will deepen the complexity of the sequence. Because dialogue is often my way into a scene (my acting background again), I’ll sometimes sketch out a scene using dialogue and inner monologue to capture the flow of a character’s emotions:
[External stimulus – a faint sound in the darkness]

(Beat – startlement)

Did I imagine it? (Beat – doubt)

Maybe it came from one of the walk-up apartments. (Beat – reassurance)

[External stimulus – another sound from the darkness]

What was that? (Beat – puzzlement and anxiety)

Keep walking. Main Street’s just a block away. (Beat – determination)

[External stimulus – another sound, closer this time]

(Beat – fear)

“Is somebody there? Quit screwing around.” (Beat – anger)

Why did I take a shortcut? Stupid, stupid, stupid. (Beat – self-blame)
That’s just a starting point, of course. But the technique helps me avoid pingponging between two emotions (like fear and reassurance), stretch suspense, escalate tension (by moving from startlement to anxiety to fear) and infuse the scene with greater complexity.

After my first draft, I go back and analyze the scene. Do the emotions feel true to the moment? Have I captured the full range of emotions for the character? Have I chosen the best way to portray each–thought? action? dialogue? Are the emotional shifts clear? What setting details do I need to heighten the tone? Where do I need a mini-release of tension before ratcheting it up again? Do I need to draw out the moment to create more suspense? Have I drawn it out too long or written past the climax? Then I'll get down to the micro-level–sentence structure, word choice–to fine-tune pacing and capture the sequence as viscerally as possible.

A beat analysis can be especially useful to ensure that your major plot points are firing on all cylinders: the Inciting Incident, Act One/Act Two climax, Act Three Crisis, and Story Climax. These are the moments when you’ll want to slow down the action to ensure that the reader shares every moment with the character. But the technique can be helpful in problematic scenes, too–the ones that just aren’t popping. Breaking them into beats can show you if you need more emotional shifts to fully capture the moment and evoke a more powerful reaction from the reader.

If you struggle with creating complex characters or building emotional resonance, try analyzing a moment from a story or novel that you find powerful. Break the scene into beats to determine the moment-by-moment shifts of emotion(s) that the character experiences. Then try the same exercise with one of your own scenes. Not only can it help you fine-tune a scene, but discover some surprising things about your characters.

If you'd like to learn more about writing powerful scenes, check out my upcoming online class, One Brick at a Time: Crafting Compelling Scenes, application deadline December 7
. It's one of three online classes being offered by the Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust this winter. Odyssey is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to helping writers of science fiction, fantasy, and horror improve their work through winter online classes and a six-week summer workshop in New Hampshire. There is nothing like Odyssey—exceptional writing classes, critiques, and community encourage you to move outside your comfort zone and build new skills.

Apply by December 7th through 15th for the online classes. This year’s topics are Compelling Scenes, Meaning and Resonance Through Subtext, and Short Stories with That Crucial Spark.

Apply by April 7th, 2018 for the summer in-person workshop.

About Spellcast

Spellcast by Barbara AshfordMaggie Graham's life is a mess. First, she loses her job. Then, her bathroom ceiling collapses. Hoping a weekend getaway will restore her spirits, she drives to Vermont and stumbles upon the Crossroads Theatre. Although she has no intention of auditioning, she soon finds herself part of a very odd summer stock company that includes moody and mysterious director Rowan Mackenzie, a man with the uncanny ability to transform a train wreck of a show into something magical. Before the season ends, Maggie is determined to discover the truth about the Crossroads. She never imagines that she'll discover secrets about her past - and Rowan's - that will change their lives forever.

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  1. Great advice and timely for me, as I'm struggling with a scene on my WIP. I know the direction I'd like the characters to go, but I don't want it to feel forced, because both characters are at a crossroads with each other, and in life. Drafting out scene beats will help move them along in a way I hope will make sense.

    1. Glad it was helpful, Dominique. Good luck with the scene!