Monday, January 10, 2011

Something new

My mom gave me a book for Christmas. It's "Self-Editing For Fiction Writers." The authors are a couple of editors, trying to give some insight into the editing process and what a writer needs to do to improve their work. They took the approach of 'things you should do to revise your first draft' but it struck me that a lot of their advice could apply to writing at any level, including on the first draft.

Last week, I mentioned some things that would be changing around the blog and this is one of them. Mondays and Tuesdays will now have a regular feature that incorporates the things I am learning and practicing from this book.Monday will be a description of the concept. Tuesday, I'll post my attempts to incorporate that idea in my writing. Every one is welcome to join my in practicing and you can post your own in the comments or on your own blogs. I hope it helps my writing in general.

Today's topic is Narrative Summary versus Scenes. You might have heard this described a different way: showing versus telling. For most of us, especially when we start out, the easiest way to write is the narrative summary. It's the travelogue version of your story. You take the action, characters, dialogue, whatever, and condense it into a few short sentences or paragraphs. This is great every once in a while, especially when you want to vary the pacing of your story or cover a lot of ground quickly. If this is the only thing you write, however, your story will stay pretty one-dimensional. It doesn't ever take on a life of its own, drawing the reader in and letting your pages breathe.

On the other hand, showing is harder to do. There's two different layers to showing. The first, and most often talked about, is in the details. Instead of saying the lady was crazy, you give us some little detail that shows us she is crazy. She taps her spoon repeatedly against her plate, following the swirling pattern of the flowers around the edges. Instead of telling us that the man walks down the road after his car breaks down, you might say, "The burned rubber smell followed him as the red gravel at the side of the road crunched under his shoes." It's not describing everything in minute detail. It's giving just enough that the reader can picture what is going on and feel grounded in the scene.

The other layer of showing happens on the grander scale. You take those paragraphs of narrative summary, that just cover the events, and broaden them to let us have a glimpse of what is happening. This is where the word Scene comes in. A scene is a snippet of small pieces of "showing" woven together to make a bigger chunk of story come to life. Scenes pull the reader in, give them understanding of the situation, help them to imagine the action better.

As with most things, you don't want to use one tool exclusively over another. It would be like trying to hammer a nail with a screw driver. You can do it; it's just not terribly effective. Narrative summary can be used to link significant scenes. Changing from one method to the other can emphasize what is happening in the story.

So, there you have it, friends. Tomorrow, I'll post my attempt to use a scene instead of narrative summary. Here's a prompt for you: Expand on the idea of the crazy old lady eating her breakfast or the man broken down on the side of the road. (You can also use your own ideas.) Let's see what we can do.


Jennifer Shirk said...

That sounds good. I'm pretty sure I've heard of that book and thought about buying it. Thanks for giving us glimpses into it. :)

Kristen said...

I received a book similar to that for Christmas last year. Good stuff!