More EZ Scene Writing Tips

Oh no Cold Mashed Potatoes!

Oh no Cold Mashed Potatoes!

Whenever one of my students asks me how to improve their writing most easily and effectively, I always say the same thing: Improve your scene writing skills. Last post we talked about a few simple ways to improve those skills. Ready for a few more?

Writing Tip for Today: Let’s look at a few more easy to incorporate scene writing skills:

Finesse Those Flashbacks

Every storyteller begins with a character, and wise writers know to give that character a goal or a problem. But when we draft our story, it’s common for the character to “dictate” his or her entire life story before the actual real time story emerges. Anything which happens before the story begins is called a flash back or back story. Yet readers want the real story and they want it NOW. What to do? Frustration abounds over flashbacks, but you can use a little rule I made up to help you. I call it Cold Mashed Potatoes. If your character begins to do something in the scene (such as lifting a yummy forkful of mashed potatoes to her lips) but as she lifts her fork, she thinks about how, as a child she loved her mom’s potatoes. This is a flash back (AKA Back story).  Take a look at the number of sentences or paragraphs you devote to this flashback about childhood. If your character were in real life, she’d never get that forkful to her lips as long as we’ve gone back in time. The longer you stay in the flashback, the colder the potatoes become! To fix this, do one of two things: either dip back and forth between real time and flashback, or limit the number of sentences/paragraphs in flashback to three. Much longer and the readers forget where and when they are supposed to be.

Use the Rule of Three

If you limit flashback sentences to three, consider also limiting the number of sentences any one character speaks at a time. After about three sentences of dialogue, your character is making a speech. What’s wrong with that? Readers quickly forget all other details of the scene. Soon the “SPEECHIFIER” is a “TALKING HEAD,” meaning that readers visualize nothing except that character talking. No setting, no other characters, just Max Headroom jawing away. By limiting dialogue lines to three, you can get the rest of the scene before readers so they don’t forget.

Hold the Red Wine, Please

The last EZ scene tip is all about where you begin the scene. Too many writers include far too much set up (where the scene takes place, when, who is there, etc) and risk losing readers by not getting the real purpose or action stated early in the scene. Remember, a scene consists of set-up, build-up and pay-off. The build-up should occupy the most space in any scene. You may have heard the term in media res, which means “start in the middle of the action.” You can visualize this idea by imagining a glass of red wine being served to a woman dressed in a white evening gown. The glass tips, wine arcs out of its container and heads directly for the dress. The moment just before it hits is where most scenes begin. Have questions about scene writing? Let me know–I’d love to help you!

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

4 comments on “More EZ Scene Writing Tips

  1. I have a question! I’m working on a memoir, going back and forth between past and present with each chapter. But a “present” time chapter has the potential to tell a more recent background story. Does your three sentence rule apply the same when writing a memoir?

  2. Hi Susan,
    So glad you asked! For the most part, I believe a memoir should read like fiction–that is, in scenes. Assuming you’re using past tense for the “present day” scenes, I would still be careful in using more than a few sentences or paragraphs (depending upon the importance) of a flash back. Ask yourself what your “character” (you) is doing in the real time scene. If you flash back, is the flash back going to “upstage” or take over? If so, what is the purpose of the real time scene? It can be tricky, I agree, but sticking mainly to the time (past or present) you wish readers to experience in any one chapter seems like it would be the most clear. Then, if you must reference something which happened before, limit it to three or in some way touch back on the “real time” scene. Hope this helps! Keep writing,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *