Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Arriving fashionably late

Big time thanks to everyone who entered last round's writing prompt. 39 entries - awesome! Tomorrow I'll post a list of the 20 who advanced, and then I'll email out feedback. The next writing prompt will go live on Monday, April 25th.

On Monday we talked about how all scenes should advance the story in some way. It should help deepen our understanding of the characters, push the plot along, and build suspense and conflict. Creating scenes full of tension = Creating a page-turner of a book.

One of the ways you can keep the tension high is to arrive late and leave early. In his book, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, Donald Maass, agent extraordinaire, likens it to a party:

Did you ever arrive early for a party? It's awkward, isn't it? The music isn't yet playing. Your host and hostess make hurried conversation with you while they set out the chips and dip. You offer to help, but there's nothing you can do. You feel dumb for getting there too soon.

That's how I feel when I read the opening pages of many manuscripts. Pieces of the story are being assembled, but nothing has happened just yet, and often the guest of honor, the protagonist, hasn't arrived. In fact, no one I like has shown up yet. Later on the story will be in full swing, but for now I wonder why I bothered to accept this invitation.

The first time I read these words, they were so groundbreaking to me that I called my husband at work to share with him. "Isn't that just fabulous?" I said, practically breathless from the excitement of finding such wisdom. My husband is an engineer and couldn't relate at all, but he was very sweet about the whole thing.

Mr. Maass is talking specifically about openings of stories, but this same thing applies to individual scenes. Don't force your reader to be there for the set-up and tear-down of the scene. The reader gets to be the bride or groom, okay? They get to enter the church after everyone has gathered, and they get to jet out early while others stay behind to sweep up the rice.

This is something that takes practice. And rewrites. I can't tell you how many times I've started a scene, then been like, "Ack, too much set-up! I need to fast-forward 10 minutes."

Here are a couple of examples of ways to start the scene mid-swing:

"You're leaving for Madison's already?" Mom asked as I entered the kitchen.

We're not hanging around in Skylar's room while she debates which outfit to wear, if she should take the time to paint her nails, etc.

I didn't get a chance to ask Abbie about Chris until we'd eaten lunch, cake had been served, and everyone else was occupied by Curtis and his gifts.

This sentence tells us something good is coming - Skylar's convo with Abbie - but here's what happened in the time we just skipped over.

"Sixth grade," Jodi said into her custard.
"Sixth grade?" I said. "How did I not know this?"

This builds the question of what happened in sixth grade and draws the reader into the conversation, yet doesn't force us to endure the girls ordering their custard, settling onto the grass, bemoaning how Sheridan's doesn't have more benches. And so on.

My first opportunity to be civil to Jodi arrived Wednesday night.

I arrived late at the sports complex because I left the house wearing outfit number seven and hairstyle number four. When I finally spotted our church team (Connor had neglected to tell me which field they'd be playing on), I found Jodi seated in the bleachers with Amy Ross and Cameron and Curtis.

This is a technique I'm fond of and that I think works well. There's a hook that tells us what's about to happen - Skylar's about to see Jodi - and then we back it up just enough to get a bit of context - she changed her clothes a lot, she had to wander all over the stupid baseball complex to find the game she wanted - before plowing back into the situation at hand, which is seeing Jodi.

This can also be done in a bigger way. Sarah Dessen utilizes this a lot where a scene starts us
several days later, goes on for a couple paragraphs, and then backs us up for a scene. Like in This Lullaby, Ms. Dessen finishes up a chapter with the main character, Remy, breaking up with her boyfriend, Dexter. In the next scene, Remy and Dexter are at an event together. The reader is brought right into the action ("Come on, who wants to KaBoom?" I looked at Lissa...) but then a page or two later, when Remy has spotted Dexter, she says, It wasn't the first time I'd seen him, of course. The morning after we broke up, in fact, I'd been standing in line at Jump Java...

We then read a couple pages about what happened at Jump Java, and then Dessen brings us back to what's going on now. That had been two weeks ago, and since then we'd talked several times...

I think this technique should only be utilized a couple times a book, but it can be a very effective way to fast forward your reader in time and maintain the tension in your scene.

That's all for today. Tomorrow keep an eye on Go Teen Writers for a list of the top 20 entries from last prompt, and on Friday we'll talk about "leaving early." Have a great Wednesday, everyone!


  1. This is great! I love learning new tricks and things.

  2. Hi! I am new to your blog and, can I say, it is fabulous! Very helpful and chalk-full of info that I think will propel my writing further. Plus make it better (I hope!).

    Thanks for the tips. :)


  3. This is a great devise I've been thinking about recently, too. I've noticed it being used a lot in TV dramas, and it's always interesting to see how the same ideas can translate from writing-for-TV to novels.

  4. Emii, isn't that so fun? I love that there's so much to learn about writing.

    Em, welcome to Go Teen Writers! I'm so glad you're finding the blog helpful.

    Roseanna, plus then you can excuse away all that TV watching with, "I'm studying." :)

  5. Like the bride and groom - genius! That explains it perfectly!

  6. I'm usually never early for anything in real life! But I totally see your point. Start with a bang, that draws the reader in.
    Can't wait to see who made it!

  7. I was telling my english teacher about your blog today in class, and she was so excited to look it up that she let me stay after and pull it up on her laptop to show her around your blog haha :) you've gained a new fan today !

  8. Aww, Lyra, thanks! How lucky you are to have such an enthusiastic English teacher!

  9. This is great advice. I believe Kurt Vonnegut said something like "start your story as close to the end as possible." He is the master of brevity, ha ha.

    I have a blog about starting my journey as an aspiring writer. I'm 18, so that's technically still a teenager, right? :)

  10. Anna, that's an awesome quote! I'm so glad you shared.

    What a fun blog idea! And a good discipline too. Yeah, I think you're a teenager until your age starts with "2" :)

  11. I really like this post, thank you for writing it! Is there a technique for setting up a scene in a way that builds tension though? I'm thinking the technique you mentioned in this post is going to be very useful. But, say for a huge, epic battle, I would want to take some time and set things up a bit, while building tension and excitement for the battle, you know what I mean?

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  13. Jeremiah, it seems to me that arriving late/leaving early for a battle doesn't mean a lack-of build up. If it were me, I wouldn't put the entire battle in one scene. You can have several scenes leading up to the battle, maybe even from multiple point-of-view characters as they prepare. Then when it's rumble time, you can open with, "Charge!" or whatever, let your character's duke it out, and then cut with some variation of, "As John watched the man approaching, ax swinging, he knew his chances of surviving were not good." End scene. Open new scene with another character who's in the battle. We'll get back to John in a bit.

    I think you can actually use arrive late/leave early as a way to increase the tension in a huge, epic battle.