Worth the Plunge

A scene in a novel begs to be filled up with details, whether they be lines of dialogue, pieces of the setting, or a character’s point of view. The wealth of them determines how much the scene comes to life. It is hard for a reader to care much what happens until you fill out a run of pages—let’s say three double-spaced manuscript pages at a minimum. Anything less can be considered a narrative summary or a partial scene designed to set up a later full-fledged scene.

Why does some arbitrary length matter? Why not just jump into a scene and let it rip? The reason I raise a caution flag is the effect of these blocks of scenes in the aggregate. While you’re immersed in a single scene, the juices are flowing. All is right with the world. Yet what happens when you’ve written 50 pages and you decide to read over those blocks in sequence? 

What can happen is a growing disenchantment with the larger direction of the novel. Your initial impulse to follow, for example, the dissolution of a meth addict starts off crisply, but soon the story is so depressing, you want to die. Just lay me out on my keyboard—that’ll be fine. Worse than the momentary gloom is the thought of all the work you put in. All those scenes with such well-plumbed details, and I end up with this? Depending on how misguided the project seems, you can pull back from writing more for weeks at a time.

You have to make better choices about the blocks you immerse yourself within. You might have thought at first that the older sister would serve as a good measuring stick for the addict’s fall, and so you wrote out a seven-page scene when she first notices he’s acting psychotic. The idea is solid, but maybe that scene should have waited until she feels compelled to do more than the older-sister lecture that, frankly, sounds like a lot of other older-sibling lectures.

You might be better off drawing up a plot chart. Write out a synopsis of each scene you’ve written in five lines or less. Then look at your initial notes, whether on characters or plot, and write down the gist of scenes based on those points. See if you can work out several hundred pages of projected material—or 20 chapters in your chart. That way you can more clearly tell how the steps into hell really progress. You can see if the sister really is going to matter later in the book. 

An outline changes as a novel grows. You’re not being pinned down. What you’re doing is setting forth relative dramatic weights of plot events and characters. That way you won’t be stumbling in the dark when a character suddenly grabs you by the lapels and demands that more be written about them.

“The heart of another is a dark forest, always, no matter how close it has been to one's own.” —Willa Cather

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.