Scene construction

Julie posted a link to a writer blog I hadn’t read: http://www.joshilynjackson.com/mt/ and the writer had a MEME I found intriguing.  Google your first name and NEEDS together to see what comes up.  I Googled Barbara Needs and the first thing was "Barbara needs to blog more," so I’ll take that as a nudge from the universe. 

3 For two days, I’ve been hunched over my desk taking scenes apart.   I’ve had four reads on the MIP from various sources and have compiled a list of revision notes, and now it’s time to tug up my sleeves, pull back my hair, and see where the construction is wonky.  (The photo to the left is a "solar system map" of the MIP, more below.)

I tend to like this stage, honestly.  The free flight of a rought draft is exhilarating, a process of discovery, but it’s also very demanding emotionally and creatively.  It’s tiring to continually be wide open to that flow of image and bubbling spice. At this nit-picky construction stage, it’s like taking out a level to make sure the wall is exactly square–very clinical, hands-on, clear steps.   Often, readers can pinpoint a problem.  It’s my job as a craftswoman to figure out how to correct it. 

I use the techniques in Robert McKee’s Story almost exclusively at this point.  I would not recommend this book at the draft stages or even for a newish writer—it’s quite laborious reading and very, very detailed, and might cause frustration until you’ve got a handle on the the basics of scene and character and flow.  (At this point, every writer I’ve ever met is going to be running for the book….:) ) Story is a very geeky examination of craft (my friend Christie and I can talk for an hour on the negation of the negation, probably mostly to burn time, but also because it’s just really exciting to think about).   

The book is FULL of geeky tools to play with.  One thing I tried this time was to make a solar system map, with the protagonist as the sun and all of her traits listed. Each secondary character reveals a subset of traits.  Illuminating.  I discovered my very nurturing chef is also unforgiving.  Nice juxtaposition there

At this stage of construction Story offers a solid set of tools to analyze why a scene is soft or not quite working.  What is the desire of the character driving the scene? What is opposing that desire? What beats are missing? What beats are going on too long?   Often it’s only a single sentence that needs polishing/adding/subtracting for an entire scene to work more cleanly.

I numbered the scenes (97, if you’re wondering) and have created a form taken from McKee’s scene analysis chapter tha I can use to examine each one–opening, antagonist, closing value.  Many scenes are fine and don’t need a lot of analysis.   I notice that the ones that have bugged me all along are usually lacking focus, either because the character involved is not clear about her goals or because the opposing force is missing.  Thes weak scenes also reveal the spots where the characterization has gone wimpy, too. 

If I get through twenty scenes this morning, I can go downtown to the local art movie theater and see The Namesake, the new Mira Nair movie.  Good reward. 

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4 thoughts on “Scene construction

  1. Barb – Is this the manuscript you just finished, or one you’re going back to work on?

  2. The one I just “finished”, Alison. Draft #5. Or so. I imagine there will be one more after this, too.

    And jeez, lots of typos in that blog, but hey…this is blogging. I should try to remember to run the spell check.

  3. Ah, I had been reading quickly so thought you’d hit the end end. :)

  4. Another question. Do you build in a certain amount of time between finishing your full rough draft and doing these final tweaks/analyses, etc.?

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