Writing in Scenes

My friend and fellow writer, John Worsley, asked me to recap what Nancy Kress taught in her workshop. So this is the very summarized view, recreated from my notes. Since I’m not the best note-taker, this whole post will be kind of rough. I’m trying to recreate the main talking points without me filling in gaps with false details that I’ve confabulated. There were also handouts, which we referred to throughout the course of the talk.

I don’t remember exactly when each page was covered, or what order they were presented in. (I’m mainly vague about #2 and #3 in terms if which came first.) I’ll try to mention them when I think they make the most sense. Part of the delay in this post was that I was waiting for PNWA to post the handouts to their site. I can guarantee the links work now. But I can’t guarantee they’ll be there forever.

For those who would like more information from the source, Nancy Kress has three books on writing that have been published:

Ms. Kress, I’d like to apologize now for any butchering or incorrect statements I make regarding what I learned.

Opening up, Kress laid out the main characteristics of a scene:

  •  Purpose: You know why you are writing it. It is either advancing the plot and/or advancing the character.
  • Shape: I don’t entirely remember this part, but my notes imply that it covered both how you open the scene and close it.
  • Part of Story Flow: This one is obvious. Kress emphasized the maxim of killing your babies here. If it doesn’t fit with the rest of the story, it doesn’t matter how much you like it. Cut it.
  • Dramatized: The old “show don’t tell.” She compared it to story telling in theater, where you have mostly have just dialogue to carry your play along and a few bits of blocking. The actors were needed to bring the tale to life. With writing, you I found it interesting that Kress had more positive things to say about dialogue in the role of “show don’t tell” than I got at the Kansas workshop.

I believe it was here that she had us review the first handout, which illustrated the distinction between telling and showing.

Then she covered the different narrative modes:

  • Dialogue
  • Description
  • Action: Which she said was basically description in action
  • Characters’ thoughts
  • Exposition

Then we did an exercise, in writing dialogue. Specifically, we were asked to write dialogue with between two characters arguing. We were asked to leave a couple spaces between each line. I can’t remember if we looked at what I believe to be the second handout before or after the exercise. The handout highlighted the differences that non-dialogue description can make with dialogue.

After this we went into description, in which we were told to choose what details we use and the order we put them in. Good description should have:

  • Specific details
  • Slanted to a character
  • Show relationships
  • More senses than sight

We were also told that three details are minimum to really define a character. We did an exercise about this point where we were asked to write a description of a room at the hotel. Half the room was to write the description from the point of view of someone who loves the room, the other half from the point of view of someone who hates the room.

Between this and the third handout,  we segued into an exercise where you took our arguing people and wrote out their thoughts from each perspective. Then, since we left extra spaces in our earlier dialogue, we wrote descriptions of the non-speaking parts of the scene.

Then we covered the section on “Shape” for a scene, which I believe covered how you open and close a scene. Opening a scene you establish the orientation of : POV, time and location. And with this we wrote the opening to the scene which contained the dialogue we wrote. For the end of the scene, Kress said that it needs a rise in tension: There’s a new piece of information, a statement of confusion, or something else that hints at the next scene.

From here we covered the three kinds of scenes, and I think this is where the fourth, and perhaps most useful tool for everyday writing, came: The Scene Grid. The grid breaks down a lot of things that you should ask yourself about each scene you put into the book. Anyway, the three kinds of scenes Kress talked about were:

  • Story time
  • Flashback
  • Expository (summaries)

She also introduced what she called “The Kress Swimming Pool Theory.” The first scene is your kick off from the side of the pool. The stronger it is, the more you can glide. She also offered up a simple formula for pacing:

Pace = Events/word count

After this she talked about balancing expository scenes with what you decide to dramatize. Then she answered the question of, “How do you pick a point of view character?” Which is that the POV character should be someone who has an investment in the action and who will change. She emphasized that character is plot. (I thought that important enough to put a box around “Character is plot.” The illustration of this she gave that I thought interesting was The Great Gatsby. The point-of-view character is not one of the primary actors in the story because the two main characters won’t change.

And then she talked about possible outcomes at the end of the story. Options she mentioned included:

  • Character gets what she wants (but it should cost her something)
  • Character doesn’t get what she wants (but you can soften that by having another character who does)
  • Character gets what she wants, but it costs her a LOT (the Pyrrhic victory)
  • Character gets what she wants, doesn’t want it anymore, then goes back to what she had before.

And this all filled about three hours.

2 thoughts on “Writing in Scenes

  1. John R Worsley

    Cool, thanks. As I suspected, much of what she says applies equally well to screenwriting. From that perspective, my take on the “shape” of a scene is that scenes should, whenever possible, have a beginning, middle, and end of their own.

    I really like her answer to choosing the POV character.

  2. John R Worsley

    And now I’ve taken the time to look at the handouts. I love examples. I learn much faster from examples. I think you could’ve handed me those examples and I would’ve completely understood without any explanation. Thanks again!

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