Writing Three-D Scenes

Mamma Mia! is on the case.

So excited! Tomorrow I’ll be teaching some workshops for a writing conference called Between Two Worlds for high-schoolers in the Salem, Oregon area. One, a class on fiction, focuses on creating three-dimensional scenes.

Writing Tip for Today: How can we craft 3-D scenes?

The Heart of Character

Begin by creating a strong POV character. Give this person strong emotions, attitudes and wants. I once had a student whose character, in midlife crisis, drifted aimlessly across the pages—because that’s what people in midlife crisis often do. Unfortunately, readers would likely drop out before the character’s passions were reignited. Don’t wait long to introduce an event that shifts your character into desperation—whether it be for love, acceptance or to solve a crime.

You’ll also want your character to lose a lot—especially at first. Another of my students told me about a story of a boy who wanted to play the French horn in the school band—so he did. That’s not much of a story. Readers crave the struggle, the determination and the battles in order to reach a goal. One way to know if there’s enough at stake is by asking, “So What?” If the answer isn’t earthshaking, you may wish to give your character a better goal.

Another trick for writing strong POV characters is to get another character on stage with her/him fairly quickly. I call this The Wilson Principle, after the movie “Cast Away” with Tom Hanks. If your character has no one to interact with, a monologue without movement may be the result. Resist the urge to plunk down your character in a field or somewhere alone, just sitting and thinking. Readers can feel trapped inside the character’s head.

3-D Scene Mechanics

When scenes feel alive, it’s often because the writer understands
how to construct a scene.  Long passages
of set-up or description, monologues or separation of action from emotions can
weigh down a scene. Instead of chunky passages of description at the beginning of
the scene, learn to weave scenic details in and around the action and dialogue.

But how many details are needed? In draft, go ahead and pack the CSD (Concrete Sensory Details) into the scene. But in revision, choose the best ones and use details intentionally—that is, to draw attention to important things the character would notice. Delete the extras.

Don’t allow your characters to shoot the breeze, and I
believe you can also edit out hesitations such as ers and ums. Instead make
every line of dialogue point to the story. As you write dialogue, the Rule of
Three may help you ensure there are no “talking heads” or “speechifying.” If
the dialogue carries the story, put your characters somewhere besides around a
table sipping a drink. In life we do this a lot, but in a story, movement
enlivens readers. Could your characters have the same conversation as they are
wrapping gifts or working horseshoes in the smithy’s shop?

Write in Micro Tension

Let every sentence of description, action, dialogue reflect
your character’s attitudes and emotions. What I might describe as a great
homestyle restaurant might be viewed by another as a dive. Flavor your prose
with these little judgments to reflect not just your character’s attitudes, but
the ways in which he/she changes those attitudes over the course of the story.

Consider who is narrating your story. If you have more than one narrator, be sure the voices are distinct and different. If all the characters sound like you, readers may not have a strong attachment to any of them. This is especially important in romances where the POV bounces between the two characters.

Finally, use body language and interior thoughts to convey micro
tension through emotions. If your character says something yet rolls her eyes,
readers get the micro tension. You can improve your sense of micro tension by
becoming a keen observer of people in your life. What do people do when they’re
saying one thing but meaning another? How do you react when you get mixed
messages? All these nuances can be incorporated into your characters’
repertoires to bring a flat scene to life.

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 “Writing Three-D Scenes

  1. Linda, I rarely comment, but I read your posts diligently and find them very helpful, even as reminders of some things I already knew but hadn’t been paying attention to. Thank you for the great tips on writing. They are useful to beginners and experts alike. None of us can ever know it all or remember to use these writing skills every day. These refreshers are super!

    • Anneli,
      Your comment means so much! I sometimes wonder if I’m only showing new writers these things, when I myself often need basic reminders. Thank goodness I’m not alone.
      Keep Writing,

  2. There you go again! Teaching good stuff we need to know. What would we do without your insight and your wonderful cat photos??

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