19 March 2010

Description or Scenework: The Paradox of Story Telling

Description vs. Scenework. Hmmm . . . .

I've been told since day one of the first creative writing class I took and I pay many dollars a year to attend (and I've been paid many dollars to present at) conferences where I am reminded (and I remind others) ad naseum to write in

Perhaps if I wrote my scenes the way artists painted Good Girl Art covers for those steamy potboiler pulp novels of the 1950s, I'd be able to quit my day job, eh?

When I write a scene, do I view the scene as though I am writing a textbook or putting on a stage play?

Some tales I've read lately go into great protracted descriptive verbiage as though we, the readers, were sitting in our comfy chairs in our parlors in the 19th Century with no other distractions other than the occasional whippoorwill outside our collective windows and little more to do with our time except read long-winded descriptions of the setting, the characters, the time, et cetera.

I know. I wrote such a scene in my WIP YA fantasy tale “Barmaglot”. Worse yet, it was the opening nine pages!

My eagle-eyed critique partner pointed that out to me. I had written fine protracted purple prose. I was quite proud of my wordmanship and expertise with broadsword sentences and extravagant razor-sharp adjectives.

I should have used a dagger instead—quick, simple, efficient, to the point, and much more deadly, as well as (often) unseen until it’s too late.

I thought I had learned my lesson.

In a WIP short story I’m slicing out now, I had what I thought was a strong, well-written paragraph, but something about it bothered me. I showed it to my teaching partner at school, and she was frustrated with the long paragraph, actually a single 60-word sentence broken up by a serious of commas.

All the commas were used properly and sitting in their proper places.

But the scene was exhausting to read.

“Break it up,” she said.

“You don’t like it? I think it conveys the idea nicely.”

“Well, obviously you think something is wrong with it, or you wouldn’t have shown it to me.”

She was right, of course, as usual.

I went back and broke up the long single 60-word sentence into several short, choppy sentences, and the scene tightened up immediately. It gave the reader a sense of hurried walking, which is what I was trying to do with the elongated sentence.

I love the theatre and acting and plays. I’ve written a couple of one-act dramas and still envision a play I’ve written being performed in regional theatre and then on off-off Broadway and then off Broadway and, finally, on Broadway! (Dream big or don’t dream at all.)

After the experiences of my critique partner and my teaching partner, I realized I needed to approach a scene in my novels and short stories the way I would approach a scene in a stage play—action and dialogue to move the story forward and avoid long rambling description, prolonged narrative, and extensive character exposition.

If the scene doesn't play out on stage, it doesn't play out on paper.

Description is necessary in telling a story in written form as a reader only views the setting, characters, and actions through the written word, unlike a stage play or movie.

However, the 19th and early 20th Centuries are long gone and buried with them are the multitude of paragraphs and proliferation of pages of protracted descriptive prose.

Today’s readers just won’t sit through such verbiage. Unless they are being held hostage on the tarmac of a shut-down airport or spending a very long two-day weekend with in-laws they prefer to see as victims of a major crime.

I’ve striving to achieve a happy medium: description with an emphasis on scenework rather than description apart from scenework. The two must be imbued as much as possible if the story is to move along and keep the reader engrossed and entertained and turning those pages and buying my next Great American Novel.

From now on, I'm using a dagger when I write my scenes rather than a broadsword. Using a dagger rather than a broadsword when writing scenes allows me to sneak in the bladed information before my victim (my reader) knows what has happened.

See you on the bookshelves.

Take care,
Larry Mike Garmon

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