Scene Helper

How's that new outline method working out? (I forgot to tell you, I've dubbed it "Scene Helper.TM"*)

Awesome, thank you.

At least for the material that I've already written for Wing.

I've had insights into what I need to edit, external vs. internal action and the problem of empty characters. If I were a better blogger, I'd make each of these its own topic and schedule them for days when I don't write any posts, but I'm honestly too lazy. I'm just going to throw it all at you, and you can re-read it during the next three month period I neglect my blog. (Uh huh, Tara, that's how to build traffic. Woohoo!)

Outlining To Edit

So, yeah, I went back and retroactively applied it to all the scenes I've written so far. In that sense, it was a good aide to planning edits. For one thing, I could see clearly that I'd left out any smells, sounds, tastes and touches, and sometimes even any visual descriptions, out of about two thirds of my scenes. Oy.

On the bright side, by playing around with the order of the scenes in the outline, I was able to overcome a problem which has been plaguing me since I started working on Wing. One of the reasons this book is taking me so long is that (a) it was coming out to be about 100,000 words, or twice the length of Initiate, and (3) I need to make sure the story arc flows smoothly from Wing to the next book, Blood, so am I also working on Book 6 at the same time.

One of the things I saw in my outline was that I was trying to stuff too much action into Wing and not leaving enough of the relationships started in Wing more time to mature in Blood. So I found a way to cut Wing from 100,000 words to 80,000 words. It's not that I tossed those 20,000 words -- they aren't fat (well, MOST of them aren't fat), but I think they will work better in Blood.

The real test will come over the next day or two as I apply the outline to Blood. That book is a mess, which is sad, since in an earlier draft of this series, it used to be one of the strongest sections. But as I've revised, I've pulled out this bit and that bit, to give to other books, earlier and later, and now Blood is anemic.

External and Internal Action Arcs

By the way, I thought of another two categories I might want to add to my scene: External Action and Internal Action. Not every scene is strong on both. Not every scene should be strong on both.

Dem's fightin' words, so let me explain.

Battling Internal Demons

External Action could be mundane ("They journey through the boglands and reach a lakeshore") or battle-packed ("The bog mummy drags Dindi toward the water.") The seemingly dull scenes, those with less external action, are often the same ones with the strongest Internal Action. That's not surprising. While Dindi and Umbral are battling a bog mummy, they aren't going to have time for Deep Thoughts. It's in the quiet scenes before and after that they converse and clash. For instance, the fight with the mummy, while it brings them together temporarily during the fight, drives them further apart philosophically. They each come out more convinced than ever that the power the other represents must be stopped. At any cost.

Battling external demons

A book with predominantly Internal Action will be "literary" (or else very boring). A book with predominantly External Action will be an adventure or thriller (or else very boring). Poorly written fantasy books read like the transcription of a D&D campaign, the novelization of a Scifi Monster of the Week movie. (*Shudder*), with the heroes battling a baddie every chapter, but not much else. A fight scene without a emotional stakes turns punches into yawns. On the other hand, I fear I lack the writing talent to make 5000 words about a man falling out of a chair riveting. (To see Scott Bailey pull off this feat delightfully, see here -- you have to look in the Comments for the actual excerpt. It's gorgeous. Ah, Literary Lab, how I miss you!)

Empty Characters

Meanwhile, the outline of Wing has helped shine a light on another problem with my draft, which is empty characters. I've been aware of this problem for along time. It's bugged me, but I've felt helpless to fix it. The outline reminded me that the longer I put off fixing this, the harder it will be to fix at all.

Empty characters occur when you don't have a good fix on a character. They're just sort of blank. They move around and talk and may even have drives and motives and goals, but they still don't have a clear personality.

Maybe they are plot-born characters. Plot Puppets. They need to be there to serve the plot. But who in Cthulthu's name are these assholes? What makes them different from the other bit players and sidekicks?

There are 3 problems with Empty Characters. 

The first problem is that when I have Empty Characters, I end up drawing them all like me. Don't get me wrong, I do this with my main characters too. Dindi and Kavio both share neurotic characteristics of Yours Truly. But there are things Dindi or Kavio would do that I would not. They are their own people. When I get to a point in the scene where one of them needs to make a decision, I no longer ask, "What would I do?" I ask, "What would Dindi do?"

But with the Empty Characters, I fall back on inserting my own reactions for theirs. It's just the default. Someone called my guy a pig's tail! He might be hurt but smile and shrug and pretend he doesn't mind, because that's what I would do.

But... how stupid. I already know how *I* would respond. I want to know how *he* will respond. If he would do something I never would, like fly into a rage, like snap back, or laugh because he really *doesn't* mind, or maybe he'd feel utterly dishonored and go kill himself.

The second problem with Empty Characters, related to the first, is that they begin to blend together. Every character in the book has a similar personality, because they are all just Authorial Puppets. No, no, no! Begone, Plot Puppets! Cut your strings! Strike out, become works of art, not stamps!

I have a few scenes that I want to completely re-write now, not because they are bad scenes, but because I want to differentiate the characters in them more, to make them distinct, from me, and from each other. It's a little scary, because it may also mean letting some characters be less well behaved, less kind.

Because that's the third problem with Empty Characters. They pull their punches too often. They aren't really a reflection of me, but how I WISH I were, my IDEALIZED reaction: a bit too nice, too clever, too strong, too good, above all TOO MECHANICAL. They don't have enough foibles. And that robs them of the chance to be human. Even the characters who aren't actually human deserve to be full people.

 *No it's not really trade marked. Yet. Don't you hate it when companies trade mark obvious things like that? Well, if Company Who Shall Not Be Named, mainly because I can't remember which one did this, or because they all do, can copyright "online shopping," I can trademark some obvious crap like this. BWAHAHAHAAHAHA!


I like the Scene Helper(tm). I'm pretty anal about having to have an outline and knowing the ending of the book before I write much at all, but I've never had a good or thorough method for revisions. I've certainly never had a checklist for scenes.

(I miss the Lit Lab, too! Thanks for calling that excerpt "delightful!")

The thing I do with side characters (especially Plot Puppet characters) is always have them dislike the protagonist, at least a little bit. They serve the dual purposes of advancing the plot and adding friction to the narrative. Sometimes they dislike the protagonist's good characteristics, sometimes they dislike the protagonist's bad characteristics. Whatever you want to highlight at the moment. But any character who doesn't emotionally interact with the protagonist is just a prop, and those are Not Allowed!
Tara Maya said…
I like your advice about having the Plot Puppets dislike the protagonist. I've too often seen the reverse, to the detriment of the story. There's a character who exists only to be a loyal confidante, or worse yet, a yes-man who mouths praises about the protagonist, when it's Author's cheap way of trying to convince the Reader to believe this about the protag. IT's a way of Telling Rather than Showing (yes, that; sorry) but somehow because it comes from a third party, we're to believe it. "Oh, he's so handsome," "Oh, he's so kind." How much better to have a jealous husband sniff disdainfully, "He's got less hair than I do. And I bet he rented that car."

Sometimes liking the protag can cause conflict too, however. For instance, the main rival of the hero in my story is quite attracted to the heroine. Jealousy never gets old. And since my characters are often literally trying to kill each other, if they like each other this can create more conflict than if they hate each other, as they "should."

Sometimes, alas, my side characters are off doing their own thing, not directly interacting with the heroine or hero or anybody. Then I still have to think what to do with them....
dolorah said…
Sounds like you've got a good system going to make progress.

I remember that scene by Scott. It did work well :)