Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Story Notes - Writing Big Scenes Vs. Little

Jumping to the Big Scenes... or not

Great post on Dave McFarland's blog (by Kami McArthur, I think) about not futzing around with little scenes but jumping straight into that big scene you have vividly in mind.

This is, generally, how I write.  If something is vivid in my mind, I write it.  Even so, her description of writing around an important scene did strike home: because I do write little scenes to procrastinate about the big ones sometimes.  It can be a form of "cat vacuuming." (I.e. "I can't write that scene now! I've got to... vacuum the cat!" even though cats are self-cleaning.)

But this is not always a bad thing.  Often when the cat suddenly looks really dusty to you, and the pencils need sharpening, and oh, that email needs checking right now, it's because your unconscious mind is working on something.

And while going after Mittens with a Hover is not useful to the cat or your writing career, I have to disagree with McArthur on the potential usefulness of writing the little scenes first.

Those little scenes can be a form of exploratory writing. You may have parts of the big scene vividly in mind, but some small details - the details that make the story live - aren't there. Writing the little set up scenes can populate the setting, give you details to work with.  These are, for me, very often the details that make that big scene sing.

All the same, I do advise writing the important stuff first -- the stuff that is vivid and you know how you want it to come out.  Because those less important scenes can squirrel around on you. You can write yourself into a situation where you can't get to the big scene that was so important to you. (Nothing wrong with that if you are willing to give up the big scene, though.)

Like I said, that's how I normally work anyway.  It's how my mind works.  However....

The Big Scenes and The Serial

Writing out of sequence doesn't work with serial.  Sure if a scene is really vivid, I'll scribble it out ahead of time.  But as often as not, when I get to that scene, the story will have changed.  And because the earlier scenes are now live, I can't go back and change them.  They're set in stone, and that big important later scene isn't.

And oddly, that works.  Writing those big scenes ahead of time doesn't work, and concentrating on the current, very next scene does work.

There's a reason for that:

With a serial, EVERY scene is a big important scene.
Nothing in a serial is ever as important as the next episode.  If the next episode is dull, then that is the major overwhelming problem for the writer, and nothing else matters.  Once it's published, though, it no longer matters.  It's set in stone.  Nothing you can do about it.  All of that importance and energy is transfered to the next episode.

The great thing about short episodes like I'm doing is that they can't hold too much.  I often struggle to make the episode do more than it can handle, but in the end, the episode improves when I remember that I can push details or information into a later episode.

I'm having a hard time remembering that for this story, though, because it's a mystery thriller.  This genre is normally filled with background -- conversations, memories, thoughts, straight exposition from the author.  You have to fill it up with info and details to help set up twists while hiding them.

You can't, for instance, just have a character conveniently remember that he always keeps a spare gun strapped to his ankle (which you've never mentioned before) at the exact moment he needs it.  That feels like a cheat to the audience, like you just magically put it there to get him out of trouble.

You can get away with that more in pulp fiction, though.  It's expected to be more of a "made up as it went along" kind of thing.  And a serial resembles that more than a classic thriller.  The mystery writer in me still likes to lay groundwork, but the groundwork doesn't have to be laid the same way is it is with a book. As a matter of fact, in a serial, it works against you.

First, with a short-episode serial, people aren't going to remember a bunch of details. They'll remember one or two from an episode, maybe.  If the hero has a spare gun in his boot in episode 3, odds are your audience won't remember at all ten weeks later when you're at episode 23.  In a book, you have the space to set things up -- such as the character's habits -- right at the beginning, all at once, or trickled out in pretty nice detail over a few chapters.  It would feel weird NOT to know the character really well.  With a serial... the character set up takes time.  And with the time involved, it's actualy a waste of space to introduce details you'll use much later in the first few episodes.

What you have to do instead is draw broad strokes -- a cartoon -- which gives the audience an impression of the character which is compatible with later revelations.  (Twists are harder, but they still work.)  And you save details for later. Set it up only an episode or two ahead of where you will use it.

This is also true of the background world of the story.  Exposition has to be trickled out in small memorable chunks, or left until it's needed.

In Episodes 6, 7 and 8, I had originally planned to introduce a little of the politics, with Antonio's background and nationality, and the miss-mash of nationalities of the gang of toughs searching his house.  Then I realized that I would be throwing a terrible mess of names and nations at the audience all at once with no real context to hang on to it.

So I backed off, and just introduced the mysterious American... er, I mean Freedonian boss, and one sidekick with a name, Bains.  I threw in another set of names, the Awarshi brothers, in the next episode, but I suspect that won't be memorable at all.  (There had been a scene with them, but I cut it.)

Confession time: These characters - the murderous guys searching the house - were originally intended to be anonymous thugs.  I really hadn't nailed down the specific personalities here.  The Freedonian, who I think will become known as "Mr. X" in Plink's mind, just stepped in as I wrote it, and took over.  The Varishkins, Bains, the chauffeur guy -- all sort of coalesced out of thin air at that time.

That isn't to say that these guys aren't important. They're very important. They are no key players in the story.

This is one great thing in the nature of writing those little scenes before the big ones.  This is how those later scenes and turns of plot get populated by interesting facts.  It provides opportunities for later things.  What's amazing is how such things hook up.

For instance, this story crosses paths with the previous story, The Case of the Misplaceed Hero, and I've been fretting about how to do it.  Some of the events from that story will be unexplained and inexplicable in this story.  Now, suddenly, I have a mysterious Freedonian connection which gives me opportunities to blend these two stories together much more smoothly.

Little scenes are all about discovery.  Sometimes when writing a novel, you only discover false trails and have to cut them.  But as a "big scenes first" writer, I have to admit,  the little scenes matter. And sometimes matter more than the big ones.

See you in the funny papers.

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