Updated: Jan 7, 2019
So you’re watching out for the pitfalls specific to your style.
What about universal ones, I hear you ask? Oh boy… now that’s a whooole
other ball ache.
Structure. Read up on it and how it can look, I’ll leave talking about it for another time. Right now, try to think about what you read that feels like it stayed with you forever? I can guarantee that the sequence of events the author chose had a hand in that.
Let's copy it! Creativity is the art of hiding your influences, after all.
First, let’s look at scenes. As in: a slice of time during which stuff that is important (or aesthetic) happens. Try to go thru this checklist when constructing a scene:
- Does it expand on your world building?
- Is it a showcase for character development?
- Are you using it to display characterization?
- Do the events you describe advance the plot? Like, at all?
- Failing that do they advance any of the side plots?
And most importantly of all:
- If I were to ditch this scene, would the story suffer? What would be different?
Rule of cool does NOT apply! Not here at least. It's normal to torch your work, even if you just sunk days into building to this point from the last place you were solid about keeping. Don't cry, I know them feels. You can always use it somewhere else in the future or the good parts of it at least.
No, how do I even construct a scene? Glad you asked! Well first, glance at the theme of your work, the overarching idea you are trying to hammer home here.
Next, think about the mood of the scene. Is it elated? Is it lonely? Is it paranoid? Is it dispassionate examination of a human beings slide into oblivion? What evokes those feelings in you? Beware of clichés and paint it out. The secret to evoking a proper mood is to emphasize details that paint the picture you want to convey, while minimizing others. Example?
Fear - mystery, threat by hinting and some light obscuring of what it is that is feared. People are jittery and uneasy by the use of short words and actions while surroundings are unclear and the familiar becomes strange.
The children stare at you with eyes that are glassy and round from shock. They scamper away as you approach, whimpering as they retreat into the shadows to hide their pale faces in the dark. All of them avoid the iron door looming at the other end of the cellar. A door, covered in hoarfrost.
You get the idea. Write down what a feeling looks, sounds and smells to you and go into detail. We're going to get into setting moods for a scene in another post.
So you always need to describe everything in detail?
No. You don't and then you just hint at where people are in broad strokes: I have lived long enough to have a generic kitchen in my mind, you can skip the tile colors, thanks. Or a description of the parking lots asphalt. Or a sunny day in a park even, i can imagine these things with ease - no need to waste our time if you don’t aim to evoke a certain mood in me with this. What I’m saying is: Unless the flavor of the tea is important to the story somehow, skip it. Twas tea she drank. Oddly enough, a survey of self-reported writer habits found women tend to be more guilty of over description of pointless detail.
What about this situation; “He walked into the house. The room smelled of …. of...”. Now you will spend fifteen minutes just sitting there thinking of an interesting word to describe : a sense of musty smell that implies someone once died there long ago, after living in a couple together for a lifetime of love and light that slowly faded away into bitterness, and eventually old age and loneliness. Guess what. You don’t have to do it right now. It breaks your flow. Put a note there in parentheses of what you wanted to write and come back to it later. If it doesn't really matter that much, or if you can't think of how to express it quickly, focus on the story and finish the actual details that set the mood of the scene later. This one trick alone can speed up your work so much it’s disgusting, once you think back to all the years you spent poring over a blinking cursor. I’m not joking. Try it.
Dialogue..... is hard fam, not gonna lie. We’ll keep the ins and outs for some other time.
For now, just know that if your characters are just standing around talking at each other, it’s bad.
No actions to punctuate the speech? Bad.
No characters actually doing anything just, vomiting forth expository dialogue? Bad. No sense of conflict to even drive what’s being said? Evil!
“B-but muh post modernism!”; you stammer?
Fair enough and good luck, I hope for your sake you’re hysterically funny and your characters witty in their slide down to oblivion.
Now, you might think yourself safe in your usual, run of the mill normie stories from this pitfall. But it can happened even in those. It is us, nerds that need to particularly beware of an exceptionally vile thing in fantasy/sci-fi literature. The Gutspill. You can tell a Gutspill is happening when one character is suddenly and out of nowhere (usually several minutes into the first encounter) awkwardly telling someone (usually the protagonists) his or her "Oh so tragic!(tm)" backstory, along with any intimate details you would perhaps send to a stranger on the internet while drunk at 2am.
Never Gutspill; visualize yourself telling something like this to someone at work. Feel stupid yet? Bonus hate points when this conveniently contains things the character is struggling with. Which, you know, they are aware of as if being a written character.
Half of the struggle in life is actually figuring out, what it is you want and what are you really struggling with to get it.
This is dumb. People don’t do this, ever, unless they are Vegan, British on a stag trip or a character in a (badly) written book concerning a certain Beverly Hills area code. Beware the Gutspill, for it is cringe.
Where does this idea even come from and why is it so prevalent in fantasy and sci-fi? Tell me in the comments! I blame Anime.
Join me up in part 3 where we talk about how to wrap this giggle up.