Make the scene mean

In November, Bob Mayer and Jen Talty presented a workshop for our LCRW “Write On!” conference. One of the take-aways for me was Bob’s practice of using a spreadsheet to track every scene in a book, including with the scene’s contribution to the book. The technique came to mind as I progressed with Justin’s and Gianessa’s romance Coming Home to Love. As I recall, Bob tracked many details with his spreadsheet; knowing me, though, a wide open spreadsheet would be an invitation to go wild with columns and color coding, so I kept it simple this first time.

I created a simple 3-column table in Word, labeled the columns “Chapter-scene number,” “Brief summary,” and “Contribution of scene to book.” (Then of course it took me 15 minutes to resize the columns because this is Word 2011, which has some new features that make simplicity harder to achieve.) Finally ready to begin, I reviewed the twelve chapters-in-progress, scene by scene. I learned a lot.

I was surprised by how long it took to create the table, even with all the chapters on hand. Identifying the main purpose of each scene took time, and as often as not that purpose was not clear in the existing scene. It’s tempting, as a new writer, to think I have terrible technique when I see something like that; however, when I think about my writing process, it makes sense for it to happen that way. When I’m writing a scene, the characters are telling the story, and they don’t know how it’s going to work out five chapters later. They may not realize the significance of a detail; they may not realize a remark foreshadows a scene two chapters down the line. So, for me, having a scene analyzer (surely there’s a better name for it!) is a necessary adjunct to writing the scenes.

When I say I was surprised by how long it took, I’ve been working on this table for three hours over the past couple of days, and I’ve done 9 out of 12 chapters. Lots of thinking involved, which tells me it’s a very worthwhile endeavor! Using an approach like this potentially enriches each scene.  There aren’t any “filler” scenes now, no “transition” scenes, no “need some comic relief here” scenes. By doing the analysis, each scene contributes to the story in an important way. Maybe the same two characters are having a light-hearted exchange, as before, but there’s more and it’s meaningful.

Working on the table also helps me see where I can tie up a minor thread earlier in the story or use an earlier resolution to give more weight to a decision later in the story. In other words, it’s a good way to let my characters do their thing in each scene and also have me orchestrating the whole start to finish. Ooh, I like that orchestra metaphor.

This is a fascinating learning process for me. Each workshop, each speaker, each article gives me new ideas to try and new ways to look at the craft of writing. Write on!