Sunday, October 18, 2009

Creative Writing--Elements of Writing Fiction: Characterization, Story Structure, and Other Elements of Fiction

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In fiction, there are two types of stories: “literary” (character-driven) and “escape” (plot-driven). In terms of literary merit, character-driven stories are superior to plot-driven ones. Of course, there is always a place for good escape fiction; after all, where would we be without Star Wars and the Star Trek series? Still, even escape fiction can benefit from a careful consideration of characterization.

CHARACTERIZATION

Characterization is probably the most important element of a short story. Without well-developed and interesting characters, a story will fall flat, no matter how fantastic the plot. So where do writers find their characters? The people you already know might offer some good ideas for fictional characters. Go ahead. Cull from your past; don’t be afraid to write about weird Uncle Freddie, your rotten neighbor who chopped down your mother’s pear tree, or a favorite teacher who recognized your budding talents as a writer; just be sure to change their names to avoid being sued! Put your heart on the page, force your readers to care about what happens to your protagonist and other characters. If you don’t care, why should I? As a reader, I want to feel the emotions your characters are experiencing; I want to cry, laugh, get angry, etc., when your characters feel those emotions. Consider the different types of characters that writers develop:

Three-dimensional (Rounded or Full) Characters
A main character, like a real person, should be a three-dimensional character, one who struggles mightily with issues having to do with good and evil. Real people are not either/or creatures; angelic people can behave like demons; devilish people can behave like angels. A three-dimensional person may occasionally act in ways incongruent with his/her basic nature. For example, depending on circumstances, a nun might shoplift a package of meat from a store, and a hit man might donate money to the Salvation Army. What might drive these people to act outside their basic natures that would also feel plausible to the reader?
One-dimensional (Stock or Stereotypical) Characters

On the other hand, a one-dimensional character falls into good or evil camp, with no deviation from his/her proscribed nature. These stereotypical characters, who tend to populate comic books, fantasy novels, and cartoons, are the super heroes who fight evil and the villains who want to rule the world. Remember Dudley DoRight (hero of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) and Snidely Whiplash (villain extra ordinaire) from the old Bullwinkle cartoons? These characters would never deviate from their basic good and evil natures. Snidely Whiplash will always tie the virginal maiden to the railroad tracks, and Dudley DoRight will always be in hot pursuit of the villain–after he rescues the maiden, of course. Professional fiction writers try to avoid these stock and stereotypical characters, even in escape fiction, and concentrate on developing interesting characters who inhabit their stories with their complicated personalities and conflicts.
Dynamic Characters

As a result of their experiences within the story, dynamic characters are changed in significant ways, and, therefore, may decide to take a different course in life. This change can either be positive or negative. For example, the nun who has shoplifted the meat from the store may decide to leave the convent. Perhaps she has shoplifted for altruistic reasons, such as feeding a destitute family during a time of war and famine, but her basic good nature requires her to confess the transgression to her Mother Superior, who tells her she must leave. As she goes out into the world, she realizes that her former rarefied life as a nun is, in itself, a sham life, with its unrealistic emphasis on good versus evil. She is still an inherently good person, but now she realizes that she can no longer judge others without judging herself. The nun has changed both her course in life and her way of looking at the world.
Static Characters

Static characters remain the same, no matter what they have experienced. Even if they experience an epiphany, their new realization does not result in any significant changes. For example, the hit man who has donated $1,000 to the Salvation Army may have done so just to make a good impression on his parole officer. He may not feel any real empathy toward the poor people he has helped. In fact, if someone gave him $500 to knock off the local Captain of the Salvation Army, he would do so. Thus, in this case, the hit man, by the end of the story, has not experienced any real change, either in the way he continues to live his life or the way he thinks.
Consider these other important literary terms as they relate to characterization:

Protagonist
The protagonist is the main character, the person who should evolve or change as a result of the events taking place in the story. In the traditional story, the protagonist experiences an epiphany, a realization that results in a turning point in the protagonist’s life.
Antagonist

The antagonist, a person (usually), animal, object, or place (or even an internal struggle) acts as an opposing force (thorn in his/her side, so to speak) to the protagonist. The antagonist is not necessarily the protagonist’s enemy. In fact, a story tends to be more interesting and in depth when the antagonist is a beloved parent, spouse, child, friend, pet, etc.; such an inherently complicated relationship between protagonist and antagonist can add spice to the overall story conflict.
Secondary and minor characters

Secondary and minor characters are often necessary to act as messengers (remember Rosencrantz and Gildenstern from Hamlet?) and service people who help move the plot along. For example, in the story about the thieving nun, a minor character might be the police officer who has arrested her. However, beginning writers tend to overuse these characters; in short, if the character doesn’t function in the story, then he/she should be deleted.
Conflict

All fiction must be driven by conflict, which is usually caused by a sudden turn of events (usually negative but sometimes positive) in the protagonist’s life: unexpected death of family member or friend, promotion at work, divorce, marriage, etc. Without a clash of ideas, desires, and/or goals, there is no story. Period. The protagonist can experience conflicts with an antagonist: another character, a beast, the environment, an event, or from within him/herself. In many current short stories, the conflict is subtle, but if one looks hard enough, conflict can be found. Note that conflict has more to do with the protagonist’s confused feelings about the event, rather than the event itself. As in real life, characters do not necessarily respond to situations in the same way.
Point of view

Consider point of view carefully. For example, ask yourself what you wish to accomplish by using first person, present tense (“I decided that my narrator is unreliable, and I wanted that information to dawn on the reader slowly. I used present tense because I wanted to create a sense of immediacy–that the action is happening right now, not twenty years ago”). Try different points of view for the same story. Which might work best for your story idea? Consider the following options:

First person

“I.” This point of view is excellent for achieving a rapport with the reader and/or establishing a certain speech pattern that might reveal important details about the speaker. The reader identifies with the character when he/she sees “I.” However, there are limitations: everything is filtered through this character, and, therefore, the reader must depend on the narrator alone for all important details. Also, it is difficult to get a physical description of the narrator without resorting to old literary tricks (such as,“I see myself in the mirror and notice how tired I look...”). Still, the writer establishes an “intimate” relationship with the reader, by allowing the narrator to reveal to the reader what the narrator reveals to him or herself. Thus, the reader has access to the narrator’s internal thoughts. In a sense, the reader becomes the narrator by experiencing what only the narrator experiences, such as feelings, thoughts, actions, physical sensations, etc. All other characters/events are filtered/revealed through the narrator’s physical world, such as his or her observations (the five senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch). As in the real world, the reader does NOT have access to the internal thoughts of other characters, and, thus, the reader cannot know firsthand what takes place outside of the narrator’s small world. Interestingly enough, the “I” narrator does NOT need to be the protagonist or antagonist. In fact, the narrator can be a relatively minor character. The writer decides who will best tell the protagonist’s story.
Third person, singular:

“He,” “She,” or (rarely) “They.” The story is told by a single narrator who is, in a sense, an extension of the protagonist, but the protagonist does not narrate his/her own story but is referred to by name or by “he” or “she.” As in the first person, the reader knows what feelings the protagonist is willing to reveal to him or herself. Thus, the reader has access to the protagonist’s internal thoughts. Conversely, this third person singular allows the writer to pull back and make observations about the protagonist and/or surroundings that the “I” narrator could not or would not feasiblely do (physical description of self, for example). As in first person, other characters/events are filtered/revealed through the narrator’s physical world, such as his or her observations (the five senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch). Again, the reader does NOT have access to the internal thoughts of other characters, and, thus, the reader cannot know what takes place outside of the protagonist’s small world. The third person narrator creates a distance between the protagonist and the reader by creating a wall between the protagonist and the reader through the filter of the narrator’s observations.
Third person, limited:

“He,” “She,” or (rarely) “They.” (Usually reserved for novels, novellas, and/or long stories). The story is told by two or, rarely, three alternating narrators who are, in a sense, extensions of the protagonist, antagonist, and, perhaps, another character who may act as a go-between for the protagonist and antagonist, but these narrators do not narrate their own stories, but are referred to by name or by “he” or “she.” As in the first person and third person singular, the reader knows what feelings the protagonist, antagonist, or other character are willing to reveal to themselves. Thus, the reader has access to the internal thoughts of the protagonist, antagonist, and, perhaps, a third go-between character. Conversely, this third person limited allows the writer to pull back and make observations about the protagonist and/or surroundings that the “I” narrator could not or would not feasiblely do (physical description of selves, for example). As in first person and third person singular, other characters/events are filtered/revealed through the two or three narrators’ physical worlds, such as their observations (the five senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch). Again, the reader does NOT have access to the internal thoughts of any other characters (other than the proscribed two or three narrators), and, thus, the reader cannot know what takes place outside of the protagonist’s, antagonist’s, and/or go-between narrator’s worlds. The third person narrators create a distance among the protagonist, antagonist, and/or go-between character and the reader by creating a wall between the narrators and reader through the filter of the narrators’ observations.
Third person, omniscient:

“He,” “She,” or (rarely) “They.” This gender-neutral point of view, often called the “God” or “force-be-with-you” narrator, is a distant and powerful figure who gives the reader “the long view” and knows what is going on inside of each character’s head; often, the narrator will slide in and out of each character’s psyche, sometimes in the same paragraph. The omniscient viewpoint is very difficult to pull off successfully in a short story, and is rarely used in modern fiction of any kind. This gender-neutral narrator knows everything about all characters, including what they are thinking and feeling. This narrator can move freely about the story, making observations about everyone and everything. Many beginning writers use this viewpoint, but do so clumsily and in an attempt to worm out of character and/or plot difficulties. AVOID the God narrator whenever possible; this viewpoint, in the hands of beginning writers, tends to sound cheesy, unfocused, and amateurish.
Third person, objective:

“He,” “She,” or “They.” The narrator, usually gender-neutral, acts as a “movie camera,” recording all the tangible details (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures) in the scene and setting. “Records” dialogue, body language, surroundings, BUT does not comment on them, either from the narrator’s perspective or the characters’. The reader has to fill in the “subtext” (the emotions, meaning, and messages between the lines). If done well, this point-of-view can be very effective, as Hemingway has exhibited in his short story “Hills Like White Elephants.” A very difficult viewpoint to pull off, the objective is often referred to as the “dramatic viewpoint” or “journalistic” viewpoint because it shares many characteristics of playwrighting and newspaper writing, with its emphasis on reportage of dialogue, detailed description of the physical world, and observable action. This means that feelings, abstractions, and emotions are not articulated, except through that which can be directly observed in the physical world. The narrator is neither the protagonist or antagonist, but is often an unknown minor observer who makes observations about the major characters, but does not reveal any personal information about the gender-neutral self. In fact, the narrator will probably not even refer to “I” at all because this isn’t the observer’s story. Thus, the reader knows nothing about the observer, including the internal thoughts of the narrator. If done correctly, the objective is a VERY powerful viewpoint, because, as in real life, actions and dialogue (or lack of dialogue) can speak louder than all the feelings and articulated angst in the world.
Second person (rare):
“You.” This is really a variation of the first person. The narrator wishes to develop a somewhat close relationship with the reader, but not quite an intimate one. The narrator, by placing the “onus” on the reader, does not own up to his/her actions. For example,
You walk to the café, where you buy a mochachino with three sugars and three creams. After slurping down the drink in one swallow, you decide you’ll visit your mother who hasn’t seen you in six months. What will she say to you after all that has happened since Joey’s funeral?
(Another example: Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl.” Some critics, however, argue that this story is just a sophisticated variation of the first person, but technically, “Girl is a second person story, incorporating the “command” tone and process [“how to”])
A combination of 1st and 3nd person viewpoints:
Some professional writers mix and match first and third person to create a mixture of true intimacy and a “pulling back” from the reader. This mixture CAN create a powerful story, but the writer must be skillful enough to know when the mix of viewpoints has been overused.

In her novel Good Enough to Eat, Lesléa Newman quite effectively switches back and forth between first and third (limited) person:
Let’s see, 500 calories. Think I’ll start with English muffins. Liza looked them up: plain, 120 calories; raisin, 130. A tablespoon of butter had 100 calories, so two teaspoons would be about 66. That makes 200 calories for breakfast. I could have an apple for lunch. She turned to the first page of the book: apple, medium (all varieties) two-inch diameter, 80 calories.

So, if I had an apple and a carrot for lunch that would be 105 calories, plus 200 makes 305. Liza paused to grab some more cookies. I could have an eight-ounce container of vanilla yogurt for dinner. That has 200 calories in it, so that would make 505 altogether. Hmm. Liza finished the pile of cookies in her lap and stuck her hand into the bag of potato chips. I really shouldn’t go over 500. I could have a plain English muffin and save myself 10 calories. Maybe I should let myself have 550. (61)
A combination of 1st and 2nd person viewpoints:
Less common is the mixture of 1st and 2nd person; if a narrator is “avoiding” an emotion or situation, he or she might begin addressing him or herself as “you.” For example,
When I saw that I had spilled the milk, I went ballistic.

You ditz. How could you be so careless? What will John say when he sees you have spilled his precious his lactose-free milk all over the kitchen floor? You’d better get this mess cleaned up and your butt off to the store.

Where’s my damn car keys, anyway?
Tone

In many ways, tone is a function of point of view. In particular, first person can be vernacular, slang, elevated, conversational, etc. Also, is the story primarily humorous, serious, dramatic, action-packed?
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Creative Writing–Character List

In developing your characters (or breathing new life into tired, old characters), you might want to work with this “Character List,” but don’t try to work all these details into the story. Knowing your characters well does not mean blabbing everything about them. In case you’re having some difficulties getting your fictional character sorted out, you may refer to the following for brainstorming:
Name and Nickname
Sex
Age
Looks
Education
Vocation/Occupation
Status and money
Marital status
Off-spring
Family, ethnicity (family history)
Diction, accent, etc.
Relationships
Places (home, office, car, summer home, etc.)
Possessions
Recreations/Hobbies
Obsessions
Conflicts
Bad habits/Good habits
Beliefs
Politics
Sexual history/orientation
Ambitions
Religion
Superstitions
Fears/traumas in life
Attitudes
Character flaws/Character strengths
Pets
Taste in books, music, films, sports, etc.
Journal entries
Correspondence
Favorite foods
Handwriting
Birthday/astrological sign
Talents
Present physical and mental condition
Past illnesses (physical and mental)
Don't feel that you have to cover every characteristic–this is a brainstorming list!

(Adapted from What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter, HarperPerennial [New York], 1990, pp 47-48).

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STORY STRUCTURE

Plot
Every story needs a sequence of incidents and events, consisting of a beginning, a middle, a climax, and ending–places along the way where characters can hang their hopes, frustrations, dreams, joy, etc. The plot is the skeleton that holds all the details together and pushes the story to its conclusion. The structure of the traditional story can be charted as follows:

Beginning➔ Rising action➔ Climax➔ Epiphany➔ Falling Action➔ Resolution/Dénouement
Beginning
Establishing a stunning beginning is very important because the opening must involve your readers immediately. How many stories have you started to read, only to put down them down because the openings left you unengaged? Some tips for a strong beginnings: as a general rule, try to avoid openings with pronouns, articles, pedestrian summary, passive verbs, and/or abstractions. Strong openings include vivid concrete language, active verbs, and/or surprising summary. Sometimes, writers choose to open with dialogue, which can be very effective.
Edwidge Danticat’s opening in “Night Women” seems particularly strong:
I cringe from the heat of the night on my face. I feel as bare as open flesh. Tonight I am much older than the twenty-five years that I have lived. The night is the time I dread most in my life. Yet if I am to live, I must depend on it.
Also consider the opening sentence in Marly Swick’s story “The Other Widow”:
In the two months since David’s sudden death, Lynne has stopped eating, started wearing nothing but black, and found herself a therapist in the Yellow Pages.
From that one sentence, what do you already know about Lynne?

Rising action

After a writer introduces the story, he/she builds up suspense, also called “rising action,” until the story reaches its climax (turning or high point).
Climax
The climax is simply a turning or high point in the plot. For the “artist” in Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist,”the climax occurs when the protagonist is at the prime of his career; spectators flock to his cage and admire him. The conflict comes only later when the public grows bored and rejects his art.
Epiphany
When the protagonist experiences an epiphany, he/she “discovers” something important about him/herself. No need to use the “flash” of insight method so famous in 19th and early 20th century fiction. An epiphany can “whisper” its message to the protagonist. For example, Lynne, in “The Other Widow,” realizes that she will never know if David, her dead lover, had ever intended to leave his wife for her; with this new knowledge, Lynn can (and does) move on with her life.
Falling action
After the turning point, the action begins to wind down toward the resolution, thus “falling action.”
Resolution/Dénouement
For the most part, the conflict of the story needs to be resolved (not necessarily solved–know the difference between these two words). However, some modern writers may opt for “intermediate endings,” in which the main conflict is never really settled.
OTHER ELEMENTS OF FICTION

These other elements of fiction work in conjunction with characterization and story structure:

Tense
Present tense (“She plays baseball”) and past tense (“She played baseball”)are your main choices in terms of denoting time. A writer may decide to use present tense to create an immediacy for the reader. On the other hand, if a writer wants to create some temporal distance, he/she will use past tense. If a writer decides to use flashbacks, he/she may decide to use present tense for the “current” and past tense for past events; otherwise, he/she will need to develop clear transitions between main storyline and flashbacks or use the past perfect tense, which can be awkward. As a writer, you should be constantly aware of how you are using tense to move your story forward. Mixing present and past tense without moving back and forth between the main storyline and flashbacks = inconsistency and tends to confuse the reader. So always be aware of how you use tense. The future tense should be used sparingly, probably in conjunction with the present tense. For example,
The property itself is sold to a consortium of buyers who plan to tear down the old 15-room Victorian and build an upscale medical center called “Maple Hill.” The very next Halloween, almost a year after the auction, several neighborhood youths will invade the property and throw stones at the structure, shattering almost every window.
Theme
Each story should offer an overall theme, a central idea or unifying generalization, implied or stated, within the story. For a short story, a reader should be able to summarize the central idea in one sentence. For example, in Marly Swick’s “The Other Widow,” the underlying generalization seems to be that there are other disadvantages to conducting illicit love affairs, other than the obvious ones (e.g., getting caught by a jealous spouse, carrying on with an unstable lover, and dealing with family repercussions). If the theme cannot be boiled down into one sentence, then the scope is probably too broad.
Scope
Scope simply refers to the time frame of the story. Most professional short fiction covers a narrow scope and focuses on one major event, also known as “a slice of life.” As a general rule, one can’t reveal a character’s entire life in 5-20 pages; therefore, a writer limits a story to revealing the repercussions of a major life event. In addition, many modern writers begin their stories “in medias res” (in the middle). For example, the time frame of Mary Robison’s “Yours” covers less than one day, and the story opens in the middle of an event, as the young Allison unloads pumpkins from her Renault while her elderly husband Clark, covered by a shawl, sits in a glider and watches. Many new writers try to cover too much in a short space, and end up with superficial stories, devoid of details, description, and dialogue. Avoid the “I’m-going-to-tell-you-the-entire-life-story-of-this-character” syndrome. Especially for short fiction, keep the time frame brief.
Pacing
Pacing simply refers to story movement, how fast or slow passages might move. Writers strive to incorporate appropriate sentence length to manipulate story movement. (Short, staccato sentences = fast pacing; lengthy, compound/complex sentences = slow pacing. In short, a writer can manipulate pacing via sentence length. Writers often use sentence length variety to reflect changing pace within a story.)
Verisimilitude (“Believability”)
No matter how far-fetched the premise (e.g., science fiction, fantasy, and magic realism stories), you have to convince your reader that your story could be true, thus moving toward suspending the reader’s disbelief. Avoid “Deus ex machina” (“god from the machine”) devices, for example, a character wins the lottery just before HUD repossesses her house. Even though this scenario could (and probably has) happened in real life, it doesn’t quite work in fiction. However, if you write a story about a lottery winner after s/he wins the $15,000,000, then you have already set up your perimeters, and you stand a better chance of convincing your reader that after winning a great fortune, a character might act in a certain manner.
Setting
Setting refers to place and time. Some contemporary short stories don’t give much exposition to “locale,” although “local color” stories can still be found. Still, “place” can establish the mood of a story; for example, a writer could set a story among the glitter and illusion of Las Vegas in which a down-and-out protagonist struggles with a gambling problem. In this case, the setting sets an ironic, somber tone–poverty, pain, and gloom amongst the glitzy backdrop of Sin City. A gloomy setting mostly sets a gloomy tone; however, a gloomy setting could also indicate the opposite; for example, a happy young couple getting married during a thunderstorm could symbolize that couple’s struggle to get to this happy point in their lives. For most stories, it is very important to establish the “time” (at least in a general sense) early on. As a reader, I need to know historical context (Civil War, Depression, WWII, etc.). I don’t need to know the exact time–a story with a contemporary setting might point to a recent event (9/11, Oklahoma bombing, Anita Thomas/Clarence Thomas conflict), commercial product (“Angelique smeared Oil of Olay all over her peanut butter sandwich; she figured that its magic would work better and faster if she got it into her bloodstream”), slang word (“Spin-doctors”). You don’t need to belabor the time element; just establish it, and get on with the story.
Dialogue and dramatic monologue
Dialogue is defined as a conversation between two more people. Dramatic monologue is defined as one character’s internal or external conversation with him or herself. Dialogue or dramatic monologue can reveal much about a character, such as educational and family background, accent, and attitude. Should your story include a lot of dialogue, a little, none at all? It depends on what you wish to accomplish. For example, dialogue allows your characters to tell their own stories without giving up the option of the 3rd person exposition, to interact with other characters, and/or to reveal personal speech patterns. Some stories need to contain more dialogue than others, some less. But, beware: poorly used dialogue is worse than none at all. Just make sure that the speech patterns fit the speaker. For example, if your characters are a gang of high school kids who live in the poor section of town, they probably wouldn’t exhibit the same speech patterns as a college professor who had grown up in Beverly Hills. Also, remember that real human beings, even educated people, use contractions, fragments, clichés, swear words, etc. in their dialogue. Also, if you want to express an eloquent concept through a character of limited intellectual ability, then don’t do it through dialogue! Some successful stories are almost pure dialogue (many Hemingway stories), some have little or no dialogue (“The Hunger Artist,” by Franz Kafka), and some have an equal mix of dialogue and exposition. Also, not every dramatic moment calls for dialogue, and, therefore, you might use “summarized dialogue” (“And then she told her husband the story of the man who walked into the Laundromat with nothing on but a pair of rubber boots”).
Description/details
Description refers to exposition that expands on the physical world (sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell) of character and/or setting. For example,
As Mary’s fingers clacked across the keyboard, the rain, like tiny needles, pelted against the window. In the distance, a bloated black cloud rolled by; she felt the chill of cold wind piercing through her, even though it was a precise 72 degrees indoors, and she sat directly under a bright ceiling light. She tapped the “print” button.

Jackie Smith, from accounting, wearing a white leather mini-skirt and matching boots, sashayed by, her legs sinewy and tanned, her whiff of Opium unmistakable.
Mary pulled the paper from the printer; a spidery smudge of ink, smeared across the page. Mary muttered under her breath and punched the “print” button.
Description can indicate the mood of the character and/or set the tone of the story.

Details are the bits and pieces that make up descriptive passages. All details must accomplish, within the story, one of three criteria: reveal something important about a character, move the plot forward, and/or establish the setting. In short, follow Anton Chekhov’s famous dictum (paraphrased): If you describe a gun on the wall, then, at some point, that gun has to go off. All details have to point toward the resolution of conflict or reveal something important about the main character. Extraneous details should be identified and deleted.
“Showing” versus “telling”
Just about every creative writing teacher has repeated the famous mantra of “Show, don’t tell,” but what does this mean?

Showing: The character’s actions are revealed through dialogue, scenes, and/or descriptions. The reader discovers information about the character through that character’s actions. For example:
Mary printed out the letter and handed it to her boss. She hoped that there would be no mistakes this time; she couldn’t afford to lose this job. Next month, the first payment on her student loan would come due. “I’m too young to owe so much money,” she thought as panic rose up in her chest.

She was 25 years old.
Telling: Details about the characters are told directly to the reader. For example:
Mary was a 25-year-old secretary on the verge of losing her job.
Scene versus summary
Summary: An incident, usually a minor one, that is compressed into a sentence or two. For example:
Mary’s boss called her into the office; he fired her.
Scene: An incident, usually a major one, that is expanded via dialogue and description. For example:
As Mary’s fingers clacked across the keyboard, the rain, like tiny needles, pelted against the window. In the distance, a bloated black cloud rolled by; she felt the chill of cold wind piercing through her, even though it was a precise 72 degrees indoors, and she sat directly under a bright ceiling light. She tapped the “print” button.

Jackie Smith, from accounting, wearing a white leather mini-skirt and matching boots, sashayed by, her legs sinewy and tanned, her whiff of Opium unmistakable.
Mary pulled the paper from the printer; a spidery smudge of ink, smeared across the page. Mary muttered under her breath and punched the “print” button.

Then Mary’s boss called her into his office.

She braced herself for the worst. She knew that her work had not been up to par, but it still hurt.

“Mary,” he said, steepling his fingers. “I’ve made some notes on this letter that you typed for Mr. Meyers. You know how many mistakes I found?” He tapped his pen on the paper.

Mary shook her head.

“Eight. That’s not acceptable for this office.”

“Sorry, sir.”

“I’m going to have to let you go.”
A good rule of thumb: develop key scenes, and keep summary to a minimum, but use summary when you need to impart important information that is not deserving of its own scene. Writing good fiction involves finding and developing a balance between scene and summary.
Finally, be aware that not all elements will receive equal billing in every piece of fiction. For example, in some stories, setting (in terms of locale and specific time) may not be all that important. You need to emphasize some aspects more than others, and what you choose to emphasize depends on the story that you decide to tell. Does that make sense? Still, as a practicing writer, I have discovered that creating interesting and complex characters is probably the most important part of writing fiction. Once my characters are developed to my satisfaction, everything else seems to fall into place.
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2 comments:

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