Friday, May 29, 2015

Think Movies, Not Sitcoms

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a love of all things literary. When she isn’t writing, she spends her days with her husband, Matt, imagining things unseen and chasing their two children around their home in Northern California. To connect with Shan, check out her website, FB, Twitter, or Pinterest.

I'm stealing advice again, you guys. Stealing it and passing it along. To be honest, I can't remember where I read it first, but Missy Tippens over at Seekerville, has a great post on the topic.



There's a lot of great stuff out there--on the internet and in craft books--about writing a novel one scene at a time. The idea is that by focusing on individual scenes, you can ensure that each begins with a hook--something to snag the reader's attention--and that it ends with something to keep the reader flipping the pages--maybe a revelation, reversal or turning point. 

There are huge advantages to drafting a novel this way. Scene by scene by scene. Among other benefits, you can even write your novel in whatever order you feel inspired to. You can start at the end if you want. Or in the middle if that's what grabs you. And you don't have to worry about how you move from one scene to another. Just get them drafted and connect them all later. Takes a lot of the pressure off and oftentimes words just flow.

Writing this way has helped me more often than not, but it can also be a two-edged sword. The downside, is that sometimes when we try to cram all the THINGS into each scene, it's very easy to become an episodic writer.

Have you heard that phrase before? It means you're taking your characters through problem after problem, but not really showing much forward movement, in either the character or the plot. It is especially easy to fall into this trap if you're a character-driven novelist. You have a character you love, so you play with them, torture them, solve their problem and then start all over again. That might make a great sitcom, but it's not going to cut it as a full-length feature film.

To avoid episodic writing, you must quench the desire to solve your character's problem in every scene. In situational comedies like The Big Bang Theory or (a favorite in our household) Everybody Loves Raymond, a problem is presented, squabbled over, and solved in thirty minutes, but when the next episode airs, very little has changed. God bless Raymond Barone, but the dude is the same slacker in the finale that he is in the pilot. Life has not transformed him.

Readers need to see change. It's real. We're either growing or regressing in life and you have to show that in your story. Good movies handle this well. 

Take Space Camp, for example. Have you guys seen Space Camp? You should TOTALLY watch it this summer. Anyway, at the beginning of the story, Kevin is lazy and spoiled and flat out refuses to take responsibility for anyone but himself. Even when he's made Shuttle Commander. But when the shuttle is accidentally shot into space, and they almost run out of oxygen, and Andie is hurt, and Kathryn is scared, Kevin grows. He has to. He is forced to be the leader they need.

But it takes an entire movie to show that. A little bit of growth or regression in each scene is real. Transforming a character over the course of a single scene, is not. And that's why you should remind yourself of this tidbit every now and then. 

Think movies. Not sitcoms. 

Name a novel in which a character's growth either surprised you or inspired you. Tell me why.


26 comments:

  1. Great post! I tend to go scene by scene if I don't have much of a plan (which I usually don't), but my characters' problem is huge and won't be solved for 300+ pages, so hopefully I'm doing okay.

    Ruby, the MC of Alexandra Bracken's The Darkest Minds trilogy, grew in a way that was kind of surprising to me, yet completely realistic. She goes from being scared of her powers and the world, and never being able to stand up for herself or others, to being a fiercely loyal heroine who doesn't hesitate to defend her friends. There's a scene in the last book--I won't spoil it for you guys, but she managed to be defiant even when she was facing her worst nightmare, alone and probably about to die, and that really showed just how much she'd grown. Those few pages might be my favorite scene from the entire series. Her development was just incredible.

    Ellie
    http://thespellboundreader.blogspot.com

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    1. I love that you're thinking about it! In the drafting stage, we should ALWAYS feel free to write, write, write. It's in the editing stage that we need to really be sure our scenes are moving the story forward. So, keep writing!

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  2. Great advice as always, Mrs. Dittemore! For character growth, I think of an oldie: On the Far Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George. Sam starts off as irritated with his sister Alice when she runs away, but at the end of the novel, when he discovers [no spoilers] that she ran away to get something special for him, he realizes just how much she cares for him.

    An unrelated question, if you don't mind--I've always written fast-paced contemporary fantasy and figured I always would. But now I have an idea for a thriller that I want to try, and I'm dying to go for it even though I know writers should try to stick to one genre. Suppose I were to land an agent, would s/he be okay with repping a writer who writes both thrillers and fast-paced contemp fantasies? Or would that be stretching my brand out too far?

    Thanks, Mrs. Dittemore!

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    1. Definitely write WHATEVER you're passionate about. I worried about this too at one point, but my agent put my mind at ease. If you're not writing what you're passionate about, you're just going to give up on it. There may come a time in your journey when you decide to be more selective about your projects. But not now. Now, write whatever you want and ENJOY it.

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    2. Thank you! I've been writing contemp fantasy for about eight years now and was worrying when I had the thriller idea, but you've encouraged me to go for it! Thank you, Mrs. Dittemore. :)

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  3. The first thing that comes to mind regarding character growth is Lord of the Rings, particularly Frodo. At the beginning he's just a young, innocent little hobbit going about life without a care in the world, blissful and quiet. But then when he gets stuck with the Ring and the responsibility of getting rid of it, he starts to realize that there's something very serious going on, and the task he's meant to complete begins to change him. By the end of the story he's such a different person, it's heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time.

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    1. Oh yes! Frodo is an EXCELLENT example of a transformed character. Heartbreaking and inspiring, you're right.

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    2. Growling Gimli! Emily, that was EXACTLY what I was going to say! High five!!! :D

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  4. Wow. This is a really cool way to think about it! I've definitely heard the scene by scene thing a lot, but it never really helped me except when I'm freaking out about how long a novel is. Then I just remind myself to take it a bit at a time. But now that you mention it, I think this is probably why thinking like that never worked for me--because a novel is one big story. Sure, it's got subplots, but whenever I tried to think about each scene having its own story it confused me and...yeah.

    Not to say that what I've read is wrong, because I think the point was that each scene needs to have a reason for being in the story, and conflict, that sort of thing. But I guess I got confused with that and forgot that while doing that, it's important to look at how the scene fits into the story/drives it forward.

    Thanks so much for helping clear it up!

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    1. Oh yay! I'm glad this helped, because yes! It can be confusing. Keep writing, friend.

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  5. In The Mother-Daughter Book Club series by Heather Vogel Frederick, the girls all mature and everything that's happened to them help shape who they are and who they become throughout each book.

    And thank you for this, it opens up my mind on how to think about character development now.

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    1. Hooray! I haven't read the Mother-Daughter Book Club, but you've got me curious.

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  6. So true! As for a book...Nico di Angelo from Percy Jackson/ Heroes of Olympus. It was nice to see him change, for the worse and then the better. And there were many surprises along the way, too :). I often include too *less* into a scene, and they come out dwarf size. Not good. I'm generally a short writer, which is strange, for I adore long chapters. But not scenes, for then I'm like *get on with the story!* :D

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    1. *slaps forehead* YES!!! Why did I not think of Nico? So much character growth, and I somehow missed him when trying to think of characters with surprising development!

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    2. I LOVE NICO! What a great character he is. Don't beat yourself up about the length of your chapters. Keep writing. Your style and preferences may change as you journey on or they may not. It's not a cause for concern.

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  7. Awesome advice!!!!! I use this book all the time :) Lyddie by Katherine Paterson :) The girl Lyddie has grows considerably through out the book :)

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    1. She learned to accept the way things we're after trying to change them and be in control. She at first gave freely, then became greedy. Her social life slacked. Then circumstances changed that again so that she was even better than before.

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  8. Hi!
    To be honest, one character in the "Blood of Kings" trilogy is what jumps out at me lately when I think of character development.
    I love how we get to meet Vrell Sparrow at first, then meet Averella Amal in the veil. It shows the major changes that have happened over the last year, and in a awesome way! (The Veil was fascinating!)

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  9. I've been writing a book scene by scene, and I'm really enjoying it compared to writing it the whole way through (mostly because I get to write all the good bits now). I'll have to watch out and make sure it doesn't turn into a sitcom, though. Thanks for the great advice!

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  10. I loved Space Camp! As to people in books, I go back so often to Frodo, who goes from thinking it was a pity that Bilbo did not kill Gollum to having pity on him himself, who goes from being scared to death of his calling as Ring-bearer to fearfully but completely embracing his vocation, who has a deep faith and trust in the One Who chose him even though he does not know Who that is. He is such an inspiration in so many ways!

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