Revising Your Creative Fiction Writing Help (page 2)
Revising: Check Your Scenes for Action, Wants, and Subtlety
Jordan Rosenfeld, author of Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time, thinks of scenes as using different amounts of the same ingredients, depending on the use of the scene toward the story's goals. One ingredient is what the characters want, both overall in the story and in any particular scene. Another ingredient is action. Something has to happen in a scene. "Scenes function as a bit of a chain reaction; one scene builds upon another, upon another, upon another until we get a full sense of the world" inside the story. A third ingredient is subtlety.
When you are revising what you have written, go through your work and see where you might build longer scenes rather than move through events too quickly for the reader who wants to feel as if he or she is in the scene with your characters. Think about where events lend themselves to slowing time down and moving the reader closer to the emotional core of your story.
Look for places that you have created repetitive scenes when one summary scene can let readers know something about your character's personality or dilemma.
Look to see if you emphasized scenes with dialog when they would serve the larger story better as silent scenes.
Finally, locate the places where protagonist and antagonist face off or where an insight is arising for the protagonist. Practice combining dialog with images from the place the scene is happening to build a long scene that reads as if the action is happening in the now of the story.
Working on Subplots
What is a subplot? It is a smaller story inside a larger story and it illuminates the life, times, personalities, themes, and issues of the main characters, often by introducing peripheral characters and events.
In novels (and in films) subplots are typically the place that readers make their identification with the main character. Writing for the website helium. com, freelance editor Leigha Comer writes about the wildly successful Harry Potter novels:
How many people reading these books can sit there and understand how it feels to have a crazed, evil wizard try to kill us? Probably not too many. But how many of us know how it feels to lose a loved one, to have a crush, to fight with our best friends, or to despise someone so much that we consider them our greatest rival? Without its subplots, I can guarantee that the Harry Potter books wouldn't be the success that they currently are. While none of us can go to Hogwarts, or pick up a wand and perform magic, we can still identify with Harry and other characters in the books. And with all of these different things going on in Harry's life, and all the day to day problems, it becomes believable and true to real life.
Comer reminds us that in life, we are never confronting a single problem. Even as our boss is making life miserable for us, we also have situations in our personal and social lives. That's what makes life interesting and seeing the main characters in several aspects of their lives makes them believable to us. How they cope in the many aspects of their lives helps us understand them better. Is the person who has the difficult boss, Comer asks, ignoring her children and husband to show she can do the job at work?
I think of the television series Nurse Jackie here. The main character's work with patients and co-workers at a hospital is the main plot. Her life with her two daughters and her husband is a subplot. The way she seems always to halfheartedly spend time with them as opposed to her deep involvement in the high stakes world of the ER where she works informs readers about who she is and the risks of doing the kind of work she does. She has many secrets concerning drug and sex addiction, and as she tries to compartmentalize them in the different areas of her life, they threaten to get out. This adds suspense for the viewer.
Even in short fiction, which usually doesn't have well-developed subplots and focuses on one event, thinking about the character's life outside the event pays off. Comer asserts that "when writing your story about a person on a sinking ship, don't concentrate solely on the fact that the person needs to escape. Add some internal dialogue about that distant lover, and make it so that the urge to be together fuels your protagonist's will to live."
Here are two exercises in which you can gain practice with subplots by writing subplots that are missing from stories you know. In addition to gaining practice with subplots using the exercise ideas, you might also find you can develop the exercises into short stories of their own.
- Do you remember the classic short story "The Lady, or the Tiger" (www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/LadyTige.shtml) by Frank Stockton? In it, a king has a particular method of dealing with those he doesn't like—they must go into a ring and choose one of two doors—behind one is a beautiful lady and behind the other, a ferocious tiger. When the king discovers that his daughter is in love with a young man who is below her royal station, he wants to get rid of him by putting him in the arena, to either be torn apart by a tiger or married to a beautiful maiden of his station.
- Do you know the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard? In it, the playwright builds a plot using two of Hamlet's minor characters, schoolmates and friends of Prince Hamlet. The action of Stoppard's play is described as taking place "in the wings" of Shakespeare's play, with occasional appearances by Hamlet's major characters in fragments of the original play's scenes. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are, of course, confused by events that they did not participate in during Shakespeare's Hamlet. This clever idea for a play helps illustrate subplot because it reverses what we normally view—events involving the play's main characters become a subplot and the minor characters take center stage.
"The ranks of maiden youth and beauty throughout the land were carefully surveyed by competent judges, in order that, the young man might have a fitting bride in case fate did not determine for him a different destiny." We learn that ultimately the maiden chosen is one the princess believes she has seen making flirtatious gestures to the youngman. The princess has gotten word to her lover that she will know what is behind which door and signal him which to choose. He assumes she means the one with the maiden. But the author asks us to think about which we think she would choose—one that allows her lover to have a life with someone else or the one that will destroy him because of her jealousy.
In the story of the king's intervention between the lovers, there is to be a search for the beautiful woman who is suitable for the lover, but the search is not written. The princess figures out a way to learn what is behind each door, but we don't learn what that way is. The daughter and the father don't interact about his decree.
For practice with subplot, read "The Lady, or the Tiger" and imagine where you might fill out the story. You could write the story of the men who must search for the maiden who will be behind the door. You could write the feelings and thoughts of the maiden chosen to be behind the door to illustrate her knowledge of and troubles with the princess. You could write interactions between the king and the princess. You might figure out where the queen has gone and what she has to say.
You can borrow this idea for a writing exercise: Find or create a minor character for a story you have read—the kid across the street or a dogwalker who passes by each day, or an unhappy worker, for instance.
Write about an event in the story from this minor character's point of view. What was this character doing at the time of the events? What was happening in his or her own life at the time? Why is talking about this event important to the minor character if at all?
If you'd like, write a scene in which the main character does what he or she always does—writes a book, runs a company, keeps house—and comes up against obstacles you plot—writer's block, a difficult worker, something going wrong with the kids or the plumbing. Write a subplot in which the main character meets the minor character you have expanded or invented. What happens that illuminates the main characters' concerns? What happens that ultimately helps the main character overcome an obstacle? What happens that keeps the main character from overcoming an obstacle? You may have a good story there.
More on Subplots
There are several kinds of subplots. Parallel subplots go on for awhile in parallel, allowing the author to tell a story from more than one point of view. Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper (http://books.google.com/books?id=0ubs8rj-h1QC&printsec=frontcover&cd=1&source=gbs_ViewAPI#v=onepage&q&f=false) has parallel stories as the boys trade lives and live in the situation they each thought they wished to live in. Hailey Mills's movie The Parent Trap has a similar turn of events, as twins meet at summer camp but return to one another's home, unbeknownst to the parents. Of course, the main plot is the story about what happens as a consequence of the trading.
Episodic subplots form a chain of adventures involving the main character; these are stories in and of themselves, and readers follow the character's journey through these adventures to safety and/or home. Stories with episodic subplot structure that we've read in school are A Thousand One Arabian Nights (http://books.google.com/books?id=xSIYAAAAYAAJ&dq=A+Thousand+One+Arabian+Nights ) and The Odyssey (http://books.google.com/books?id=ezJJAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=The+Odyssey&cd=1#v=onepage&q&f=false). Imagine the Harry Potter stories presented in one novel instead of a series; they would be episodic.
Some stories, such as Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, are told entirely in flashback inside a frame of the present. If, however, flashbacks are not the whole story, they can be considered a kind of subplot. Authors warn, though, that using flashbacks is risky because they interrupt action in the now of the story, which can frustrate readers. Still, well-placed flashbacks help readers accumulate knowledge of the character motivations. When post-traumatic stress disorder is a part of the main character's life, for instance, events in the now of the story set off memories from before the story began. Seeing aspects of the character's life in well-placed flashbacks can inform the story, build interest, and set up suspense about what the character will do given the back story.
In the novel Flash Forward by Robert J. Sawyer and in the recent television series loosely based on the novel, writers have played with the concept of flashbacks by using flash forwards. In the story, everyone on earth becomes unconscious at the same time and sees themselves in a situation that will occur in the future; it is presumed that those who didn't see themselves in the future will be dead. The stories that come of characters trying to find others who were in their flash forwards, and of characters trying to ward off what will happen to make them lose their lives, create subplots, while the main story is about a core group of FBI agents trying to figure the event out and prevent it from happening again.
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