A group of us on a Twitter group chat session (#steampunkchat) were discussing the “How” of writing. One person commented that they had a ton of ideas, but could not seem to get them out on the paper. Another lamented that they weren’t even sure what to do, per se, but they had a story they wanted to tell. Both said they “weren’t really writers yet”.
I’m going to intentionally split being a writer apart from being a storyteller. As I have said in an interview or two, I consider myself less of a “writer” as a storyteller that happens to currently to be working in print. A lot of writers are not storytellers, and vice-versa.
So, let’s talk about getting your story out. A story, to my mind, has a beholder, at least one scene, and at least one actor. Perhaps there are more educated words for these terms, but just bear with me. Let me explain what they are to me and how I use them in how I tell my story. Hopefully, it will help someone else get started, if not finished.
The “beholder” is who the story is being told to. Is it an intrepid reporter, interviewing a centuries old villain? Is it a sick boy in a bed, listening to his grandfather? Is it a more virtual construct, such as a fixed-view “camera” that is used by the storyteller to keep the focus of the story on one location or character? Is the beholder the actual audience, where we punch a hole in the fourth wall who is treated as actually being present during the story?
The “scenes” are times and places that the story happens, as seen by the beholder. If you’ve watched “Star Wars, A New Hope” and I say “the Death Star trench scene” you know –exactly– where and when in what part of the story arc I am talking about. If you’ve watched “xXx”, and I say “the army attack on the drug camp in Columbia”, you can probably see Vin Diesel ramping that dirt-bike off the roof of the shed pretty clearly. A scene defines and constrains that event within the context of the story.
The “actors” are people, events, or things that take an action that have an effect on either other actors or the next scene. So, an avalanche that we see block a crucial mountain pass is an actor. The frantic convoy leader trying to navigate his rag-tag band through the treacherous mountains, is an actor. The third armored transport in the convoy that always seems to break down at the worst time is an actor. The dog that you see hanging out with the cute kid but who doesn’t seem to do anything but bark and get petted, is a prop, not an actor.
So, what does all this mean? From my point of view, a story is really a group of scenes strung together, where actions caused by one or more actors take place where the beholder can witness the results. So, when you abstract it like that, the question about how do I write is answered “once scene at a time”.
I define my story as a group of one or two line scene descriptions. I then expand each of those short descriptions to be a distinct and detailed scene. In each case, I decide where and when my scene is, who the actors are (both people and things), and then I decide how my beholder will view the scene.
The scene is then written with no attempt to directly transition it from the previous scene or into the next scene. Take a moment and describe what the beholder sees of the scene, even if it is a place that has been viewed before. You don’t need as much detail, but even if you just comment on small changes that compare it to previous visits, then you have done what you need to. By re-presenting the scene as the beholder sees it each time means you are already adding to the richness of detail of your story. If you take the time to also mention the who the actors are, as well as where they are at the start of the scene, then that scene stands by itself even better.
I am not advocating mindless repetition. I am advocating using a visual approach to how you present your story. Our senses of sight and spacial placement are two of the most highly developed parts of our brain. If you appeal to those at the beginning, then you set the stage to have the heart pay attention long enough to get involved.
Once you have your scenes all written as individual bricks, you can start rearranging them in a way that will best deliver your story. Now go back and decide how you want to move from one scene to the other. I tend to literally cut from one scene to another. Another author I know uses “mini-scenes” she calls “bridges” to span the gap of space and time to get from the end of one scene to the start of the other.
There are two last elements that makes a story, that has to be kept in mind, but I don’t think belongs in every scene. That is emotion and purpose. Some actors don’t have them; the aforementioned avalanche, for example. Thus you don’t have to define them at the scene level. It needs to be defined at the actor level. However, you should try and have a clear idea of what purpose and emotion each actor in a scene has, at least at the start of the scene. You should –express– those purposes and emotions as part of exposing the actor in the scene. If our convoy driver is tired, pissed off, but is determined to get his wards through no matter the cost, then show that by the beholders view of the actor, and the actions of the actor.
Now, before anyone goes all Oxford on me, please understand I am not saying this is the One True Way to write. I’m saying this is what works well for me. If nothing else is working for you, maybe give it a try. I have received a lot of feedback saying my setting and character descriptions; action and cafe scenes; character motivations and actions in “The Sauder Diaries” are rich and believable. This is how I achieve that, one scene at a time.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this concept as well as if it works for you. Leave some feedback and tell me what works for you.
Thanks for reading.