Plotting To Be Scene – Part Four
My next area of study is plotting. I am using James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure as a companion piece. I am plotting a new project, Scepter’s Sacrifice, and hope to use some of his techniques in finalizing the overall story. His fourth chapter, Beginning Strong, includes five exercises at the end of the chapter. I will bravely post my answers.
You can see my answers to Part Three.
EXERCISE ONE: Go over the opening chapter of your work in progress (or write one now). What techniques will you use to grab the reader from the very first paragraph? Are you establishing a feeling of motion? If not, rewrite it using the techniques you have learned in this chapter.
I have a true confession to make. Until I got to this exercise, I had no first chapter of my story, Scepter’s Sacrifice. In fact, beyond a bunch of Scapple diagrams, I haven’t quite got a story yet. This exercise forced me to write my opening.
Only time will tell if my opening sentence draws a reader further in:
Pure whiteness seared Deheya’s eyes, burning away any hint of darkness or doubt.
Continuing in the first paragraph, I want the reader to experience a powerful thunderstorm, through my character.
Holding her breath, she cradled her swollen belly. Counting heartbeats, she reached seven before the crashing sound shook the smoky glass, straining to escape the lead linings. She waited for the little panes to shatter on the hard, unforgiving stone floor. Tiny feet kicked in her belly, demanding her attention. She murmured wordless phrases, soothing the unborn, willing it to quiet, to wait. It’s time had not yet come.
In my first writing, I chose the storm as a foretelling of conflict to come. I knew this violated one of the ‘rules’ of successful fiction – don’t write about the weather. It evokes, “It was a dark and stormy night…”
I tried to avoid this when Deheya reacts to the violence of the storm. And, her unborn child is also frightened by it. Does this put her in motion? While, not literally, I hope it places her in her world, and the reader with her.
EXERCISE TWO: What is your story world? How well do you know it? How are you giving the reader a sense of it in detail, without just dumping blocks of description.
I have another confession to make. I read a lot of fantasy, and adore The Wheel of Time. Robert Jordan marvelously paints his world, and I feel know it well. I must force myself to explain setting. So, at the moment, I feel it seems forced. I need to better integrate it in.
Here are some examples of the setting.
She watched them relax, eyes drifting back to her, no longer staring at the windows or the high vaulted ceilings. Rain began to hiss on the slate roof, far above.
A short time later, I have her look at her surroundings, inviting the reader to join her.
She did wonder what they saw in the thick, unyielding stone walls which drank in heat, warmth, and light, giving back only dank, clammy bleakness. No number of tapestries, some displaying Jaeni feats of arms over her own people, could soften the grim drabness. Nor did they focus on the occasional dream catcher, hung at Hiiloo’s insistence, which only punctuated the alien feel of the Palace of the Dukes of Jaeni.
And I finish, further along, with a comment on the floor as she walks to meet a group.
Deheya stepped toward them, her moccasin clad feet sinking into the thick, rich rug, filled with delightful reds and blues and greens. How strange it felt, hiding the unforgiving gray stone floor.
EXERCISE THREE: How are you introducing your Lead character? What is going to make your Lead memorable? Brainstorm five possibilities for your Lead in the following categories:
Identification: How is the Lead “like us?”
Deheya is like us, in that she has been thrust into a strange situation, far from home, with little help. I haven’t described this very well.
Rather than have her continue to make speeches, which she does several times, I will have one of the minor characters comment on it.
She does depend on two ladies in waiting, one from her own people, and one from her husband’s people. I need to better relay that.
Sympathy: Think about jeopardy (physical or emotional); hardship; underdog status; and vulnerability.
She is a foreign Princess, far from her home and family. She well into her eighth month of pregnancy, which should make her vulnerable. I allude to it a few times, with tiny feet kicking her, and I don’t want to overdo that, but I can work on that more.
I do mention the hardships of pregnancy, and how her people expect a woman to endure them and carry on. So, she doesn’t really expect or want sympathy for what she is doing.
She is an underdog. Her Father married her to a foreign prince, to build an alliance between their two nations, nations that have been at war for a very long time. And she is having to cope with it, changing people’s attitudes, one by one.
Likability: Witty? Cares about other people?
One of her dominant characteristics is charm, although she also suffers from pride. As part of Save The Cat, she does give coins for the orphans and widows, and is, in fact, appalled that Jaeni does so little for the helpless, something her own people handle with family ties.
Still, giving them coin needs to be done with more grace and charm. I need to go back to the Positive Characteristic Thesaurus and look at the hints for Charm and Pride, and continue to work them into the scene.
Inner conflict. What two “voices” are battling inside your Lead?
My lead character, all through this story, will struggle between duty and romantic love. Born into a high station, and always intended as a tool in her Father’s diplomacy, she accepts the idea of duty and honor. She never expected romantic love. And when it happens, with her husband’s brother, the consequences will echo through the rest of the story.
EXERCISE FOUR: What is disturbing our Lead’s ordinary world? What change is causing ripples or waves?
My main character is about to give birth to her first child. The child, if it is a boy (it is), he will succeed his father as the Duke of Jaeni. Even though he is half blood, he will also probably lead his Grand Father’s Clan, and might become leader of the Five Clans.
Deheya, having received the platonic support of her brother-in-law through her pregnancy, has heard the rumors that they are, in fact, lovers. Worse, some whisper her child is not the Duke’s. So preserve her son’s chances, she must stop seeing her brother-in-law in private.
EXERCISE FIVE: Give your opposition character his due.
How can you justify, from the opposition’s standpoint, what he’s doing?
The opposition character, her brother-in-law, was also in a loveless political marriage. Shortly after Deheya arrive in the Palace, his own wife died. He was grief-stricken.
Deheya, after laying with her husband, the Duke, became pregnant. After doing his duty, the Duke returned to his Mistress, leaving his wife, alone, in a strange land that little likes her people.
In the ensuing months of her pregnancy, she could no longer endure her own loneliness, or the grief of her brother-in-law, and reached out to him. Together, in their platonic relationship, she helped each other.
All he really wants, after she breaks off with him, is to return everything to five minutes before he came to her for the last time, and she blind-sided him in ending their relationship.
What is there in his background that explains the way he is?
He has always been the second son of the Duke, a spare Lord. His brother received all the statecraft training, while he learned to be a soldier.
He is patriotic, bold, but prejudiced against Deheya’s people. Once she leaves him, he finds more and more reasons to dislike his brother, wanting what his brother has, including his wife.
Finally, in one tragic moment of anger, as the two brothers fight, the Duke will die. He must make a choice – either call the authorities and tell them what happened, or call a key ally and take over the government. Sadly, he makes the second choice.
What aspects of his character are charming, attractive, or seductive?
He is an introvert. Inside the shell of the tough, seasoned, professional soldier, he is shy and sensitive. He hides his imagined weakness behind a remote exterior. Still, he is very perceptive, knows himself, and constantly seeks to understand others.
In many ways, he would have been a better Duke of Jaeni than his brother. But, he suffers the fate of all second sons, until the fatal fight removes the barriers. Now, he is free. He uses his freedom to save his country, and take what he wants most of all, her.
So, what does this all mean?
I have discussed this project on Scribophile for some time, and have received some wonderful feedback. Without their help, I would have stumbled on into this story, making a complete hash of it. The real writing of a story is solitary. But, brain-storming, trying new things, and working through ideas need not be done in isolation. Almost every writer will more quickly create a new, vibrant work others will read if they share their ideas.
Without the prompting of the book, I would never have attempted an opening. I had no idea how long it would turn out to be. I created, either one extended scene, or a shorter and a longer scene with my opening notes. In my first writing, I put down about 5,000 words. I wrote the first, setup scene, in a morning. I wrote the longer scene, the one I thought was the opening, in another morning.
I worked from detailed notes I created using Scapple. I had very strong, concrete ideas of what I wanted to do in the scene. I needed to introduce the main character, and her villain / love interest. I needed to foreshadow the rest of the story, and I needed to establish the setting. Was I heavy-handed? Of course.
As I brought the scene to life, parts of it were crystal clear in my might, just like a movie. Other parts, even though I had my notes, I still had to feel my way through it. And, even though I have not yet used all my notes, I felt very comfortable following the script, and not pantsing it.
Is there more to do? Oh, yes. My two scenes are still not well focused. Nor do I think I’ve captured the tension that wants to exist in them. I plan to go back and rework them, to bring out the goal Deheya has in each meeting, the first with a group of town people, and the second with her brother-in-law. I need to sharpen the opposition to what she is trying to do, and really heighten the disaster that comes out of the meeting with her brother-in-law, to give him enough emotion, especially hurt and anger, that will make it believable enough to power his mistakes as he risks Civil War to get her back.
I am also reading several other books as I prepare to tackle my story. And I need to see what points they want me to bring out as I prepare to write the strongest opening I can manage. I want to apply more of what Les Edgerton writes in Hooked, Jack Bickham in Scene and Structure, and a book I just picked up, Raymond Obstfeld’s Crafting Scenes.