How to Simplify and Focus the Scenes of Your Novel

novel-focus-scenes

by Susan May Warren, @SusanMayWarren

Why can’t readers just be inside my brain? That’s the problem, isn’t it? Trying to help the reader grasp a scene without giving them too little information, or also overwhelming them.

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So often, I have my cast of characters, and I want to throw everybody into the first scene, treating them as old friends (which they are to me), without remembering that my reader hasn’t met them yet. Here’s a scene of my book, Reclaiming Nick. I wanted to portray Nick as the hero he is…but with all the players in the scene, it became clunky, and hard for the reader to follow. Let’s take a look. (My comments are in italics)


When the lanky form of Saul Lovell walked into the Watering Hole Café, dragging with him the remnants of the April chill, Nick Noble knew that his last hope of redemption had died. (SMW: I don’t know why, but I felt that this sentence needed a beat. Also, I wanted to pinpoint what time of year – early April or late April. )

Nick didn’t have time to deal with the arrival of his father’s lawyer. Not with one fist wrapped in the collar of Stinky Jim’s (SMW: Stinky Jim sounds like a caricature, let’s dump that) duster and a forearm pinning his cohort Rusty to the wall.

“We were simply offering to buy her lunch,” Rusty snarled.
“I’m not stupid. I know exactly what you were offering.” Nick motioned for the girl (SMW: because there are so many names, esp. in this first scene, let’s focus on just the main players) to move away from the pair as he upped his pressure against Rusty’s Adam’s apple. “It’s okay, honey. They’re just fresh from riding fence. You go home now and say hi to your folks from me.”

He didn’t comment on her low-cut shirt or the way it seemed to have material missing at the waistline, either. And a run into Miles City (SMW: ditto on all the places referenced in the first chapter. Focus on where they are, and why it is important) for looser fitting pants might be in order. He’d have to swing by the Carlisle place tonight, warn Erma and Bill (SMW: cut out this name, and just put in the place holder – her parents) about their daughter’s recent bent toward trouble.

Only, that wasn’t his job anymore, was it? He had to stop thinking like a cop before it landed him into more hot water.

She glanced at Rusty, as if hurt, then turned on her boot heel and flounced toward the door, followed by her best friend, blonde and dangerous Carla Wainwright. (again, cut out the names to make it smoother)

Nick didn’t like the way Stinky watched them leave. “If I see you within ten feet of them, I’ll run you all the way back to Rapid City.” (SMW: Now I’ve mentioned both Miles City AND Rapid City…and they’re actually in a town called Wellesly! Too confusing)
Stinky shoved him away, and Nick let go, not interested in swallowing one more whiff of day-old whiskey breath.

Now, let’s look at the changes I made to smooth it out:

When the lanky form of Saul Lovell walked into the Watering Hole Café, dragging with him the remnants of the late April chill, Nick Noble knew that his last hope of redemption had died.

novelist-starter-kit

Nick didn’t have time to deal with the arrival of his father’s lawyer. Not with one fist wrapped in the collar of Jim’s duster and a forearm pinning his cohort Rusty to the wall.
“We were simply offering to buy her lunch,” Rusty snarled.

“I’m not stupid. I know exactly what you were offering.” Nick motioned for the girl to move away from the pair as he upped his pressure against Rusty’s Adam’s apple. “It’s okay, honey. They’re just fresh from riding fence. You go home now and say hi to your folks from me.”

He didn’t comment on her low-cut shirt or the way it seemed to have material missing at the waistline, either. And a run into Miles City three hours south for looser fitting pants might be in order. He’d have to swing by her parents’ place after closing tonight to warn them of their daughter’s recent bent toward trouble.

Only, that wasn’t his job anymore, was it? He had to stop thinking like a cop before it landed him into more hot water.

She glanced at Rusty, as if hurt, then turned on her boot heel and flounced toward the door, followed by her blonde best friend.

Nick didn’t like the way Stinky watched them leave. “If I see you within ten feet of them, I’ll run you all the way back to the border.”

Better, huh? Rule of thumb – only name the characters and places essential to the scene, streamlining it so that readers can capture the conflict, and aren’t bogged down on names that they will only forget. (Because the point is for them to remember — the hero!)

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READ MORE WRITING TIPS

Sparking Emotions in Your Readers by Kathleen Freeman

5 Types of Rough Drafts by Michelle Griep

The Rhythm of Rest by Allen Arnold


Troubled Waters (Montana Rescue Book #4)

Billionaire Ian Shaw can have everything he wants–except a happy ending. Or at least that’s what it feels like with his fortune recently liquidated, his niece, Esme, still missing, and the woman he loves refusing to speak to him. In fact, he doubts she would date him even if they were stranded on a deserted island.

Despite her love for Ian, Sierra Rose knows he has no room in his life for her as long as the mystery of his missing niece goes unsolved. The only problem is, Sierra has solved it, but a promise to Esme to keep her whereabouts secret has made it impossible to be around Ian.

When the PEAK chopper is damaged and Sierra lacks the funds to repair it, Ian offers a fundraising junket for large donors on his yacht in the Caribbean. But the three-day excursion turns into a nightmare when a rogue wave cripples the yacht and sends the passengers overboard. Shaken up and soaked to the bone, Ian finally has a chance to test his theory when he and Sierra do indeed find themselves washed up on a strange, empty shore.

It will take guts and gumption for the PEAK team to rescue the duo. But it will take a miracle to rescue Ian and Sierra’s relationship.

Susan May Warren is owner of Novel Rocket and the founder of Novel.Academy. A Christy and RITA award-winning author of over fifty novels with Tyndale, Barbour, Steeple Hill, Summerside Press and Revell publishers, she’s an eight-timeChristy award finalist, a three-time RITA Finalist, and a multi-winner of the Inspirational Readers Choice award and the ACFW Carol. A popular writing teacher at conferences around the nation, she’s also the author of the popular writing method, The Story Equation. A full listing of her titles, reviews and awards can be found at: www.susanmaywarren.com. Contact her at: susan@mybooktherapy.com.

How to Show and When to Tell

by Susan May Warren, @SusanMayWarren

“Show, Don’t Tell.”  Listen, I know it can be confusing.  Especially since there is not only misinformation and bad teaching out there, but also because there IS a time Tell!
Showing, not Telling is not about describing everything that happens. And Telling has nothing to do with narrative and backstory.  Narrative and backstory (and even action) get a bad rap because often, during narrative, backstory, and action, authors drop into “telling” without realizing it.  Describing ACTION by saying “John shot Bill.” is not telling.  It’s action.  But adding:  “John felt sorry when he shot Bill,” would be telling.
See, I know. Confusing.
Here’s the bottom line:  Showing is about helping the reader experience the emotions of the character. Showing brings us into the mind and heart of the character to understand their emotional journey.
Here’s how:  If you say, ‘She felt grief,’ or even, and this is more common, ‘Grief overtook her’ you are not just telling us what emotion she’s feeling, but you’re pinpointing one emotion your reader must feel with the character. Instead, show us how despair makes her feel through how she acts, what she thinks, what she says and how she sees her world. Let us into your character’s head.

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Telling is when you tell someone how to feel. It relates to the emotion to the story, not the narrative, backstory, and action.
Here’s an example:
Let’s say your character has just lost her husband. She’s come home from the funeral to the quiet house and gone upstairs to her room.  Here are some options:
 
You could say: She stood in front of the closet and grieved. However, we feel like an onlooker, a voyeur into her world. We are told how she feels but don’t experience her grief.
Further from that, but also a telling, is: She stood in front of the closet and felt grief course through her. We’re closer to understanding how she feels, but we’ve still been told exactly the emotion she’s experiencing.
Better is: She stood in front of the closet and wept. Here, we’re closer to experiencing what the character is feeling. We might understand what it feels like to stand there and simply weep.
But what if we took it further. What if we let the reader into the character’s skin to feel the grief?
She stood at the edge of the closet and stared at his polished shoes, at his pressed wool suits, at his crisp silky red ties. A tidy man. Not the kind to wrap his car around a tree. But there, in the back…she pushed aside the shirts and pulled out his letter jacket, the one he’d wrapped around her the night they’d met. She inhaled. Thirty years, and still his scent lingered. Please, let it linger. Please let her rewind, go back to the fight, erase her words. Erase his anger. Without a word, she stepped inside the closet, closed the door behind her, pulled the jacket over her, and wept.
Never once do I say that she is grieving. But I weave it in through her perspective, the five senses, and rich details and finally her actions.
Here’s the part that people confuse. Often I see people over-showing in their effort to not tell.  What happens, then, is they write, “She bent at the knees, lowering herself into the chair,” instead of simply saying, “She sat.”  Don’t laugh – I’ll be you could find this in your early drafts! (I know I can!)  Authors spend precious words showing how a person rises from a chair, or how they get dressed. Don’t do this! Tell actions that are common to all of us.  She tied her shoe, she made coffee, she answered the phone.  We all get what this looks like.
However, show actions that you want to make an impact. If you want answering the phone to have impact, then have her reach for the phone, check the caller id, maybe hover her thumb over the receive button. Then push it before her courage fails.
Here are the easy rules for Show Don’t Tell:
Tell us everyday actions, SHOW us the important ones that reveal emotions.
            Show us the emotion, don’t tell us about it.
Are you bogging down your story by showing actions that have no emotional connection to the story?  Here’s a litmus test. Ask: How does the emotion impact your character?  Are you showing this emotion through words, action, thought and perspective?
Better yet,  Write the scene without naming the emotion! It’ll make you stretch and help you become a better writer.
Go – write something brilliant!
Susie May

Troubled Waters (Montana Rescue Book #4)

Billionaire Ian Shaw can have everything he wants–except a happy ending. Or at least that’s what it feels like with his fortune recently liquidated, his niece, Esme, still missing, and the woman he loves refusing to speak to him. In fact, he doubts she would date him even if they were stranded on a deserted island.

Despite her love for Ian, Sierra Rose knows he has no room in his life for her as long as the mystery of his missing niece goes unsolved. The only problem is, Sierra has solved it, but a promise to Esme to keep her whereabouts secret has made it impossible to be around Ian.

When the PEAK chopper is damaged and Sierra lacks the funds to repair it, Ian offers a fundraising junket for large donors on his yacht in the Caribbean. But the three-day excursion turns into a nightmare when a rogue wave cripples the yacht and sends the passengers overboard. Shaken up and soaked to the bone, Ian finally has a chance to test his theory when he and Sierra do indeed find themselves washed up on a strange, empty shore.

It will take guts and gumption for the PEAK team to rescue the duo. But it will take a miracle to rescue Ian and Sierra’s relationship.

Susan May Warren is owner of Novel Rocket and the founder of Novel.Academy. A Christy and RITA award-winning author of over fifty novels with Tyndale, Barbour, Steeple Hill, Summerside Press and Revell publishers, she’s an eight-timeChristy award finalist, a three-time RITA Finalist, and a multi-winner of the Inspirational Readers Choice award and the ACFW Carol. A popular writing teacher at conferences around the nation, she’s also the author of the popular writing method, The Story Equation. A full listing of her titles, reviews and awards can be found at: www.susanmaywarren.com. Contact her at: susan@mybooktherapy.com.

Tips on Creating That First Line

by Susan May Warren, @SusanMayWarren

How you hook your reader on the first page?

I love this quote by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who won the 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature for 100 years of Solitude.

“One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph…in the first paragraph, you solve most of the problems with your book. The theme is defined, the style, the tone. At least in my case, the paragraph is a kind of sample of what the rest of the book is going to be.”

By the way, that book sold over 10 million copies.

The hook paragraph, your first paragraph just might be the most important paragraph you write in your entire story. Yesterday, I talked about four ways to begin your story. Today, I’m going to share with you my technique on how I figure out the first sentence.

I use an acronym, SHARP which stands for:

  • Stakes
  • Hero/Heroine identification
  • Anchoring
  • on the Run
  • Problem (Story Question)

Before I write anything, I start with understanding the big picture of my story and my scene.

Step One: Figure out what is at Stake.

Stakes are what is going to drive your reader through the story, whether they are personal or public, and hinting at them in the beginning will give your reader “something to fight for.”

Public Stakes: Public stakes have much to do with public values, what matters to people. Ask yourself…what matters to me? If it matters to you, then it matters to others. What’s the worst thing you could think of happening to you? Then others fear that also. And that’s where you find your public stakes.

Personal Stakes:  Personal stakes can be found in the root of our values. The things that drive us, or the things we long for. How do you find those personal values of your character?

ASK:

  • What matters most to him in life?
  • What would he avoid at all costs, and why?
  • What defining incident in his past has molded him to the person he is today?
  • What are his goals, and why?
  • Find two different values, and then ask yourself: in what situation will these values be pitted against each other? These are the personal stakes.

Finally, ask yourself: What could go wrong in this scene? This is the answer of what is at stake.

Step Two: Create Hero/Heroine Identification, or Sympathy for the character from the reader.

You’re trying to create a connection with the reader by helping them identify with the character. How do you find that sympathetic element? Ask yourself: What do I have in common with my character? What need, or dream, or situation, or fear, or past experience do we share? And what about that can I extrapolate that fits into my story?

Step Three is called Anchoring, or using the 5 W’s to create a sense of place.

By the end of the first paragraph, and for sure the first scene, you should have anchored your character into the scene by using the five W’s. Who, What, Where, When and Why? The 5 w’s can evoke emotions, and give us a feeling of happiness, or tension, even doom in the scene. Ask: What is the one emotion you’d like to establish in this first sentence, paragraph, scene? Using the five 5’s, what words can you find for each W that conveys this sense of emotion? You’ll use these in the crafting of your first paragraph.

Step Four: Start your scene on the Run.

Dwight Swain says, in Techniques of the Selling Writer, “a good story being in the middle, retrieves the past and continues to the end.” Your first sentence hook should be something that begins in the middle of the action. It is a blip in time in the middle of that incident that zeros in on the character and gives us a glimpse at his life and why this situation is important.

Step Five: Set up the Problem or Story Question.

The story question is the one thematic question that drives the book. This question permeates all the decisions of the hero and/or heroine throughout the story, and needs to be hinted at in the sentence, in the first paragraph, and in the first scene. How do you find a theme? Ask: What is the lesson my character will walk away with? The question that accompanies that answer is the theme.

Take these five elements, and sift them together, looking at each one. Can you highlight one of  these elements to serve as the first line?  Of, could one of the four openings from yesterday’s blog offer the biggest curiosity? Try this – if you are writing in Deep POV, ask: what is my character thinking right now? Could this thought serve as the first line?

Happy writing!

Susie May


A Matter of Trust (Montana Rescue Book #3)

Champion backcountry snowboarder Gage Watson has left the limelight behind after the death of one of his fans. After being sued for negligence and stripped of his sponsorships, he’s remade his life as a ski patrol in Montana’s rugged mountains, as well as serving on the PEAK Rescue team. But he can’t seem to find his footing–or forget the woman he loved, who betrayed him.Senator and former attorney Ella Blair spends much of her time in the limelight as the second-youngest senator in the country. But she has a secret–one that cost Gage his career. More than anything, she wants to atone for her betrayal of him in the courtroom and find a way to help him put his career back on track.

When Ella’s brother goes missing on one of Glacier National Park’s most dangerous peaks, Gage and his team are called in for the rescue. But Gage isn’t so sure he wants to help the woman who destroyed his life. More, when she insists on joining the search, he’ll have to keep her safe while finding her reckless brother, a recipe for disaster when a snowstorm hits the mountain.

But old sparks relight as they search for the missing snowboarder–and suddenly, they are faced with emotions neither can deny. But when Ella’s secret is revealed, can they learn to trust each other–even when disaster happens again?

Susan May Warren is owner of Novel Rocket and the founder of Novel.Academy. A Christy and RITA award-winning author of over fifty novels with Tyndale, Barbour, Steeple Hill, Summerside Press and Revell publishers, she’s an eight-timeChristy award finalist, a three-time RITA Finalist, and a multi-winner of the Inspirational Readers Choice award and the ACFW Carol. A popular writing teacher at conferences around the nation, she’s also the author of the popular writing method, The Story Equation. A full listing of her titles, reviews and awards can be found at: www.susanmaywarren.com. Contact her at: susan@mybooktherapy.com.

Genre Makes You A Better Writer

by Susan May Warren, @SusanMayWarren

I’ve written more than 50 books.  Many of them have been on the best-seller list.  A number have won awards.  And at least half are….romance.

When I get to that last sentence, whatever literary cred I’ve earned with the first three statements seems to vanish.  “You write Romance?” someone will ask, (as if they haven’t heard me) and sometimes add an accompanying look of…disdain?  Disappointment? As if writing romance is somehow less highbrow than general fiction.  I hate the assumption that general fiction is better written. Hogwash.

Words are words, and the truth is, writing fabulous genre fiction is harder than general fiction. You have to stand out in a category with your words while delivering a plot that follows the genre constructs.  General fiction can be wonderful…or it can be a “the emperor has no clothes” moment – everything thinking the same thing, but afraid to say it.

Here are some truths:
~ Genre fiction gives a writer framework that allows them to hone their wordsmithing.  Because genre fiction comes with expectations about plot, the author must adhere to them – and then work diligently on emotional layering and wordsmithing to stand out.

~ Genre fiction gives an agent or editor a niche in which to sell the novel.  It helps them find the right market or line, connects them to the right editors.

~ Genre fiction makes it easier for an author to find a following. If they can construct a story within the structure of genre, but with a winning, distinct voice, fans of the genre will champion them and their following will build….even over to other genres.  Look at JD Robb, aka Nora Roberts.

Here’s how to make Genre fiction work for you.

1. Find a genre and stay in it long enough to master it.  Work on one element of storycrafting or wordsmithing at a time.  I would use each book as an opportunity to hone dialogue, or storyworld, or emotional layering, or the romantic elements…whatever.  Eventually I felt confident in every area, and my books got better with each story.

2. Study the best-sellers in the genre and ask: what do they right?  Keep a highlighter with you and mark up your stories with passages or techniques that stand out.  How can you apply the principles you’ve learned from these best-sellers into your stories?

3. Look at the plot constructs and ask: what works, what doesn’t?  If you are going to have a rogue agent that kidnaps his former handler in a romantic suspense, how does the author make that agent likeable?  Or is he?  Find the nuances that make a story powerful.  Look at the rhythm of when these constructs occur.  How do they add to the character’s emotional journey and make the story more satisfying?

4. Ask: How can you make your voice stand out?  What unique element do you bring to the genre?  I wrote six novels for Steeple Hill/Love Inspired…all of them with an international theme.  But I lived overseas and could easily write stories set in an international – especially Russian (where I lived) setting.  This became part of my voice.

5. Focus on character.  Because you are writing inside genre, you’re plot will be a “repeat” to some extent.  (let’s be honest  – there are only 7 major plots in the world anyway!).  So, it has to be your characters who make your stories powerful.  Dive deep and create characters who live and breathe.  (we have a few techniques here at MBT.)

Quick Skills Exercise:   Read a genre novel (in your genre!) this week. Write down the genre constructs in the novel, and when they occur. How does the author make their voice or character stand out?  Are there any techniques you can apply to your own writing?

Genre is an author’s friend.  Make it work for you as you build your career and you’ll become a better writer.

Susie May


A Matter of Trust (Montana Rescue Book #3)

Champion backcountry snowboarder Gage Watson has left the limelight behind after the death of one of his fans. After being sued for negligence and stripped of his sponsorships, he’s remade his life as a ski patrol in Montana’s rugged mountains, as well as serving on the PEAK Rescue team. But he can’t seem to find his footing–or forget the woman he loved, who betrayed him.Senator and former attorney Ella Blair spends much of her time in the limelight as the second-youngest senator in the country. But she has a secret–one that cost Gage his career. More than anything, she wants to atone for her betrayal of him in the courtroom and find a way to help him put his career back on track.

When Ella’s brother goes missing on one of Glacier National Park’s most dangerous peaks, Gage and his team are called in for the rescue. But Gage isn’t so sure he wants to help the woman who destroyed his life. More, when she insists on joining the search, he’ll have to keep her safe while finding her reckless brother, a recipe for disaster when a snowstorm hits the mountain.

But old sparks relight as they search for the missing snowboarder–and suddenly, they are faced with emotions neither can deny. But when Ella’s secret is revealed, can they learn to trust each other–even when disaster happens again?

 Susan May Warren is owner of Novel Rocket and the founder of Novel.Academy. A Christy and RITA award-winning author of over fifty novels with Tyndale, Barbour, Steeple Hill, Summerside Press and Revell publishers, she’s an eight-timeChristy award finalist, a three-time RITA Finalist, and a multi-winner of the Inspirational Readers Choice award and the ACFW Carol. A popular writing teacher at conferences around the nation, she’s also the author of the popular writing method, The Story Equation. A full listing of her titles, reviews and awards can be found at: www.susanmaywarren.com. Contact her at: susan@mybooktherapy.com.