Friday, February 25, 2011

The Scrapbook - Get In Touch With Your Characters

This is an exercise designed to help you get in touch with your characters. It might even give you fodder for some new scenes. Try it, play with it, have fun!

Nowadays they have whole aisles in the craft stores devoted to scrapbooking, and some folks have turned this from a hobby to an artform.

When I was a kid, it was just a blank album that I could stick mementos in. I was probably 10 or 14 when I stopped keeping mine up. I remember that I had a napkin and invitation from a wedding where I was a flower girl, some autumn leaves pressed in wax paper, birthday cards, lyrics from a girl scout rally, a piece of cardiograph tape from my heart operation, some drawings I'd done, a copy of my first (abysmal) short story, a few A+ papers from school,  a couple of my best report cards and some photos from our family vacation in Colorado.

What's in your charater's srapbook?

Take note of the general condition of the scrapbook. Is it kept together with loving and painstaking effort? Are photos carefully pegged in with beautiful borders and caligraphed descriptions of each item? Or is it more like mine was, a loose collection of junk thrown in between the pages? Sometimes they got taped in, more often not. Was it rescued from a fire or flood? Burned on purpose, then pulled from the flames?

Does your character maintain it herself? Or is it a gift from someone in his family? If so, why is that person taking the effort? How does your character feel about that?

Is the scrapbook dedicated to a specific time or event in your character's life? Their junior year in high school? Their first year in college? The year they had a major operation? The summer they spent at camp? The year they won the 4H with a giant pumpkin?

Does it have a specific subject, such as their sports career? Their courtship and wedding? Their rise in their law career?

Is it dedicated to a specific person? A parent who left? A grandparent or a child who died? A child who is now grown? A beloved dog or horse?

Does your character have one scrapbook? Three? One for each year of their life? One for each major event?

Where does your character keep her scrapbook? Is it prominently displayed on his coffee table? In an old trunk in the attic? In some junk boxes in the closet that she hasn't bothered to unpack yet? Under the bed covered with dustbunnies?

Some characters will refuse to keep an actual scrapbook. Maybe he's got a drawer in his toolbox that he fills with mementos. She might keep a file folder, or even an entire file cabinet drawer. Or a tiny drawer in her jewelry box. Or a junk drawer in the kitchen. The mementos might be on display in a china cabinet, a set of artful shadowboxes on the wall, or maybe her refrigerator door acts as her scrapbook.

If your character is on the move a lot, their "scrapbook" might consist of just one or two items in their wallet, or a photo or birthday card--or divorce papers?--kept in their front pocket.

How often does your character look at his scrapbook? All the time? Almost never? Does he look over it with his children every night? Does she find it, forgotten on a shelf while she's packing?


Make a list of 10 items in your character's scrapbook. If you're ambitious, make the list 20 or 50 items.

Pick one of those items and write a scene involving that memento. You can set the scene in the now, and have him get angry and tear the item up. Or have her place it tearfully back into the scrapbook. Or write it as a flashback, and show us the scene that makes this item important.

Try it with a couple more items.

You might not use these scene in your final story. That's fine. This is just an exercise to help you know your character better. Or you may find that the scene becomes so strong and integral to telling your character's story that you leave it in.

Have fun and happy scrapbooking!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Unnecessary Scenes - What I Learned from Nancy Drew

PLEASE NOTE: No, I don't hate Nancy Drew. In fact, she's one of my favorite childhood heroines. That said, the Nancy Drew books are an excellent example of writing that could use improvement. If we want to be good writers, we have to read a lot and face up to when we or others (even our icons) are less than excellent. For a detailed explanation of my feelings on this writing series, go here.

Nancy's Mysterious Letter (Nancy Drew, Mystery Stories, Book 8)SPOILER ALERT! I'll be discussing the one of the pivotal climax scenes of Nancy's Mysterious Letter.

In Nancy's Mysterious Letter, Nancy is about to fly to New York to confront a missing heiress and the villain of the story.

Several pages ago we are told that Nancy is planning this trip. However it seems that the author needed to up her word count. Nancy wakes up early with "a persisting thought in her mind" and suggests that Bess and George join her on the trip. She seems to have forgotten that this was already her plan. Maybe the new part of the plan is that Bess and George are coming with her. Okay, I can let that part go.

Nancy goes downstairs and asks her father for permission to go on the trip. He suggests that Nancy can stay with Aunt Eloise while they're in the city. We find out that Nancy's aunt is a school teacher and that all three girls adore her. Nancy calls her aunt. They have a long talk where Nancy tells her aunt about the case and Eloise is thrilled about the visit, but this conversation is summed up in exposition, except for Eloise saying, "I'd love to see you."

Then Nancy eats breakfast. She phones the airport, she makes reservations. Bess and George go home to pack. Nancy picks them up in her car, and plans to leave her car at the airport.

The girls purchase their tickets, get seat reservations, sit down to chat. Then Nancy decides to call the old postman who'd gotten her into this mystery in the first place. This conversation is also sumarized. Nancy is glad he feels better. She decides not to tell him about her info on the villain (whom he's related to). Then Nancy is accosted by one of the villain's henchmen and chloroformed.

What's wrong with this?

The entire scene from Nancy waking up and suggesting that Bess and George accompany her, to Nancy hanging up the phone and being accosted by the henchman (henchwoman in this case) takes about a page and a half.

It feels like it's way longer, and slows the pace of the story to a crawl.

First, do we really need the conversation with her father? We can assume that if Nancy ends up on the plane, she's got permission. Incidentally, why does she even NEED permission? In most versions of the stories she's eighteen at the time. Though in some early versions she was sixteen. And according to some of the novels, the age of consent is 21. Besides which, since Nancy is unemployed, so I guess Dad is paying for all this. Still, if she ends up at the airport we can assume that Dad doesnt object, right?

Next, we never actually meet her aunt. Eloise doesn't play any part in the rest of the story. Nancy never ends up going to her house or visiting with her. Nancy doesn't even end up having to stay at a hotel, so far as we know, because the story ends at the New York airport. Why do we need to know where Nancy will be staying once she gets to New York? For all we care, she could have hopped a plane straight home once the story ends.

Then there's the whole business of having breakfast, making reservations, driving to the airport, parking the car, getting their tickets, and finally going off to make that fateful telephone call which allows Nancy to be seperated from her friends.

The story would have been much better with Nancy suggesting that all three of them go to New York. Then we could have had a smooth transition:
The three girls arrived at the River Heights airport late that afternoon. They got their tickets and as they were waiting for their flight, Nancy said, "I'd like to find out how Ira Nixon is and tell him where we're going."
How is this better writing? Because it doesn't drag. It doesn't slow down the action or put the reader to sleep. If you thought my summary of Nancy's trip to the airport was dull, and uneventful, you'd be right. The problem is that the actual passage in the story is almost as bland as my summary. And nothing important happens until after she makes the phone call.

Make Your Words Work: Proven Techniques for Effective Writing-For Fiction and NonfictionIn Make Your Words Work: Proven Techniques for Effective Writing for Fiction and Nonfiction, Gary Provost makes much the same point.
For example, lets say a writer needs to get his character, Sam, from a scene in Sam's apartment to a scene at church, and nothing important to the story is going to happen between those two places. A simple and obvious transition would be "Sam drove to the church." The writer simply acknowledges that Sam did get from the location of one scene to the location of another, and goes on with the story. It might look like this.
    As Sam placed the books back on the shelves, he felt a tear form at the corner of his eye. He knew he would miss this apartment.
    Sam drove to the church. Susan was waiting for him and she was not smiling. "Where have you been," she asked.
We only need to know about Sam's drive if something important happens along the way. Since his trip is uneventful, we don't have to hear about how he started his car, what turns he made, the year, make, model and color of the car he drove or anything else. 

If the scenes leading up tp the airport are bad, an earlier scene makes even less sense. Anyone who knows Nancy Drew knows that she's accident prone. In the last few books I counted several instances of capsized boats/canoes and multiple car accidents or near accidents. Not to mention the times she gets locked in closets, tied up and otherwise menaced by the bad guys.

This time Nancy trips on her dress (she wasn't wearing high heels, since she was just trying it on) and pitches down the stairs when she goes to answer the doorbell. The dress tears and Nancy opens the door to a small boy with a clue.

Could Nancy just as well have answered the door and been told the clue without ripping the dress? Yes. Is the torn dress a plot point? No. Hannah the housekeeper easily fixes it, and we never hear about the torn dress again. Does it add characterization? Nada. Other than we learn that Hannah is a resourcefull seamstress (which also has no bearing on the story) we learn nothing about the characters. Did Nancy get hurt, thus leading to other plot complications? Nope. She grabs the banister, stops her fall and she's perfectly fine.
About the only reason the author seems to have added this scene is that Nancy hadn't had a near death experience in a while. Perhaps some of the guidelines for the series is that Nancy has to be in danger x number of times per story, or x number of times per y number of words.

Throwing your character in hot water isn't a bad thing. Whether you're writing a mystery or some other kind of book, your character SHOULD be offered complications on a regular basis. But when you do get your character in trouble it should be related to the plot, it should have consequences that affect the plot, and it should offer an opportunity for characterization.

 If it does none of these things, then cull it from your writing.

The What I Learned from Nancy Drew Writing Series:
Intro to What I Learned from Nancy Drew
Part 1: Contrived Beginnings
Part 2: Lack of Red Herrings
Part 3: See Through Bad Guys
Part 4: Undescribed Characters
Part 5: Too Many Characters at Once
Part 6: Adverb Abuse 
Part 7: Unnecessary Scenes

Nancy Drew Mystery Stories
Nancy Drew Games