How do you eat an elephant?
This is a favorite question bandied about by business gurus, especially entrepreneur experts and motivational speakers. The elephant question is framed around discussions about how to tackle big projects. You know, the projects that seem insurmountable and feel like they’ll take forever to accomplish.
Kind of like… you guessed it, writing a novel.
The answer to how do you eat an elephant? is one bite at a time.
Very few people can hold an entire novel in their head. In fact, I’ve never met somebody who could. And if I ran across such a person, I’d have unspoken doubts about their claim. Perhaps an already completed story can be contained in your head, maybe. But a novel you haven’t written yet? Nope.
Just doesn’t work that way.
Even if you outline the story ahead of time, you still won’t be able to do so. I write into the dark (meaning, no outline), sure, but I’ve experimented with outlines. Every time, no matter what style outline I played with (Randy Ingermanson’s snowflake method, Lazette Gifford’s phase outline, nine-act movie outline, etc.), the story always turns out different from whatever I originally envisioned. (When I’ve completed the story I outlined, truth be told. Outlining sucks out the joy of discovery for me, so a number of stories never got finished because I already “knew” what happened.)
Read enough how-to books by long-term professionals, you’ll find the common advice is to not enslave yourself to your outline, no matter how “perfect” it may seem at the time you write it. The outline is a great way to organize a novel before you write, which is why people use them.
So, in the act of eating this novel-sized elephant, if outlines help only marginally and writing into the dark (or “pantsing”, for those who prefer that term) has few built-in mechanisms for organization… How do you eat the elephant?
The answer is summed up by two words: write scenes.
Pin that phrase to the top of your computer where you see it every time you sit down. Repeat it like a mantra. You’re not writing a novel overnight. Write a scene instead.
Only focus on one little scene at a time. What is the character doing? Where is he (the setting)? What does he want? What’s stopping him from getting what he wants? Answer questions like that for every scene. Then start another new scene.
Now for the obvious question.
What Is a Scene?
A scene is a short part of the story (500 to 1,500 words long) that features: a character in a setting with a problem. The character tries to solve the problem with his own training, skill, or brawn; and fails. The failure results in either a cliffhanger or a plot twist, which leads into the next scene.
Novels are a collection of these try/fail cycles. The character continuously tries something, fails, tries something else, maybe has limited success, but fails, and keeps trying/failing until the final try (a.k.a the climax).
A single scene can make up a chapter. Or a chapter can be several scenes stitched together, with white space in between (or no white space). No wrong way, just your own.
Note the word count range… 500 to 1,500. A quick scene can be 300 words. A long scene can go as high as 2,000 words. But the thousand word average is the sweet spot for Western readers (those in the Americas, Europe, and Australia primarily). If the scene drags for too long, you test your readers’ attention span.
The chapters in this book are averaging around 1,000 words. I’ve written so many scenes by this point, that this length is nearly automatic. At 500 words in I have a good sense of where I’m going. When I hit around 1,000 words, I’m looking at how to wrap up. And I usually manage to do just that within another 500-so words, though occasionally I’ll write past my cliffhanger. No big deal when that happens. I simply cycle backwards a bit, find the cliffhanger (and it’s always there, my subconscious plants it without me knowing), and chop off the rest.
Then, new scene. Or with non-fiction like this book, new chapter.
How Do You Build Scenes?
On to the business end of scene writing. Where do we start?
At the beginning of a story, I often start with a setting. I pick a place—a house, a room, a garden, whatever—and climb into my character’s head. Sometimes I don’t know who my character is until I’ve written a few hundred words. Some characters, like Brin Callahan, have a certain “voice”. I’ll be typing away, poking along with the story, and around 300 words in I’ll suddenly say, “Oh yeah, this is Brin talking.”
I add in five senses. Taste, touch, smell, sight, sound. I show my reader the setting. Never, never intrude in authorial voice and tell your reader, “He turned his head, and saw this, that, and that.” Show the reader by pulling her under surface of the words and into the story through the character’s experiences.
They’re not just pretty flowers in a garden. Oh no… These are dark red roses, the color of blood in the moonlight. Dead and wilted, but crisp and fragrant to an oversensitive nose. The sweet, funereal scent mixes with the coppery taste in your mouth. The gravel crunches under your weather-worn boots. A western wind blows early snow in your face, minuscule icicles pelting your skin like a million mosquitoes. But you don’t feel the cold. No shiver traces a finger down your spine. Just the ancient rush of the hunt… (Just a random character I made up on the spot to show sensory detail.)
Now, let’s discuss the real problem. What is your character’s problem?
Problems can be anything, but they can’t be easily solved. A problem could be: I want a ham sandwich. But nobody’s around to fix it for me. So I plug in the toaster, and open the fridge, and…
Get sucked into a vortex and dropped into a desert.
Already, my mind has turned this into a Bruce Campbell character (Evil Dead movies, for those who don’t know). Getting sucked into the vortex would be the cliffhanger of scene one. I’d cycle back and add in some mystery as well, to make it more interesting. Such as: Where is everyone? Why is Bruce alone in the house?
In scene two, Bruce has bigger problems than being hungry. Now he’s lost. But there’s a fortress in the distance. Maybe he can get help there. But he gets captured along the way. Who are his captors? Another cliffhanger, more mystery for Bruce to fathom.
Add in five senses every 500 words or so, to make it feel like it’s all inside Bruce’s head and he’s the one with the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin. And keep repeating the try/fail.
Until the end when Bruce saves the day, kisses the damsel, and tosses the Big Bad Guy into a catapult and sends him flying to the horizon. (Maybe even in that order.) Or whatever endpoint comes naturally to the story.
The key is to keep writing, one bite-sized scene after another.
Have fun, wherever the story takes you next.
Copyright 2015 David Anthony Brown
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This book has not been reviewed by National Novel Writing Month. “National Novel Writing Month” and “NaNoWriMo” are trademarks.
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