Announcer: This is why we write. A podcast of Lesley University. Every episode we bring you conversations with authors from the Lesley Community to talk about books, writing and the writing life.
For this episode, we’ve got a Writing Master Class, a new occasional series where we’ll share wisdom from our MFA in Creative Writing program. Today, we’re sitting in on a seminar with A.J. Verdelle, author of The Good Negress, who will talk about scenes – what they are, what they’re not and why you need them to craft a successful story. For all the writers listening, get ready to take notes! As always, we will also have a transcription of the episode on our podcast page where you will also find a graph of the narrative arc, which A.J. mentions in the episode. Links are in the show notes.
A.J. Verdelle: I would like for you to be convinced that writing in scene is what you must do. Now obviously, in writing, we say the rules are made to be broken. Some professionals even say whatever works, works. That's to accommodate experimental writing, that's to accommodate risks we take in our narratives but the truth of the matter is that the scene is the basic unit of construction of narrative fiction. For me, it is the most under-discussed, understudied, under-explained, under-emphasized aspect of narrative writing. Quite honestly, learning to write in scene is what separates the aspiring writer from the writer who can become professional. Learning to write in scene or to write scenes, in order to construct your narrative can separate you from being a perpetual amateur and becoming a professional.
I got an MFA in an interdisciplinary program many years ago. While I was revising the novel that I drafted while I was in the MFA program, I couldn't figure out what was wrong with it. I'm reading and reading and changing and making my sentences better and choosing better words and making my characters more real, but I could tell from my attention to the narrative, "This is not reading like the books I'm reading. What is wrong with it?"
I started scrambling around looking in craft books. This was way, way back. I encountered William Sloane, who has a little blue book called The Craft of Fiction, and chapter five in that little blue book is called scene or something. In that chapter, he says, "A scene is a series of actions and a novel is a series of scenes," point blank, end of story. I thought, "A scene is a series of actions." Then I started really scouting around trying to expand on, "Well, a scene is a series of actions but does it begin does it end," and that's when I developed the definition that I think holds and holds water, that a scene is a series of actions that take place in one location.
In other words, a scene opens, a scene closes, and something happens in between. If the characters change-- Remind me of your name, “I couldn't print out my scene.”
Chrissy: I'm Chrissy.
Verdelle: Chrissy. When Chrissy came into the room, the scene changed. Yes, we have a new complement of characters. We noticed her. We noticed she was out of breath. She was concerned so she explained why she was coming in at that time. There's a line of dialogue that comes with that change in scene. The dialogue of our scene before Chrissy was going in a direction and because of her entrance, the dialogue shifted because I began to speak to her. The scene definitely changes. The scene that occurs because Chrissy has entered could not have happened if Chrissy had not come.
Here's the thing about writing. Nobody comes into your stories willy-nilly, even if you're writing non-fiction, wherein non-fiction you select from true history the way fiction writers invent. What we imagine and decide we're going to put on a blank page, Mr. Tulsa, who's name is Rick?
Participant 1: Steve.
Verdelle: Steve is selecting from the story that he's trying to tell about things that have already happened in the context of a true past. Selection and invention are basically the same parallel notions. Nobody comes into your stories willy-nilly. If Chrissy comes in, it is because you as the author have decided she's coming in. It's time for her to come in and you have a reason for her to come in. There is never an occasion in narrative writing where something shows up on the page that isn't by your design, and that's important to take responsibility for.
Often I say, notice that the word author is inside the word authority because the author has complete authority over the story even in non-fiction because when we write non-fiction, we're not trying to write the whole truth, the full truth, the long truth, you're selecting all the time based on what is the story you're trying to tell. You might be writing a non-fiction story about working in a corporate office and becoming an author afterwards, or you might be writing a non-fiction story about living abroad. Well, that slices the truth in a way that helps determine what you should select. Similarly, when you write a story, you're not just writing anything. Bricks, for example, may have no place in your story but if you're writing about everything, bricks, of course, are allowed.
The idea of your story and your scenes, because stories are made of scenes, your scenes being populated by anyone or anything is a result of your determining as author, that this object, this action, this person belongs in that scene. There's a woman who's still here actually, she's still a student in the program, she came to the magazine workshop and I was saying what I always say, "You can write for five months with characters in common, and as long as you're writing scenes, you can put a narrative together. " Whether it's a short story- some people can write a novella in five months. If you have nothing else to do, you can draft a novel in five months.
As long as there are characters in common and you're writing in scene, you can put a narrative together at the end of five months. You can write for five years without writing in scene and have nothing. It's not possible to put an interpretable narrative together, a narrative that is interpreted as a memoir, a story, a non-fiction treatment, a young person's novel, even a screenplay, if you're not writing in scene, it's not going to come together.
Now that isn't to say you can't make it come together because, of course, once I realized and could further William Sloane's definition of scene, what I did was I went back through my novel and I changed every aspect of the novel into scene after scene, after scene, after scene. When I did that, I did not demand of myself that the scene before it be connected in some way to the scene after it because I figured I can do transitions. Transitions actually are quite easy once you get the hang of it. It's the scene building that's tough.
The story I was telling about the woman who was here, who's still in the program, she raised her hand, she's in young people, she said, "I'm that person. I've been working on the same story for 14 years and after I read your chapter on scene I knew right away that's why it's not coming together." Understanding scene was that much of a revelation for me so much so- because in my program you chose a person you wanted to work with and that became your primary mentor, that's the word we use here, for three years.
In my MFA program, we met three summers and for the two years in between, you outlined what you planned to do and there was no engagement. You went for the summer eight weeks, you made a contract at the end of the summer, you fulfill the contract on your own until you went back for the summer. When you went back for the summer you had a reading like you hit the ground, bam, reading. Then you worked in the summer and you had a reading to close and you made a new contract. That's how I drafted my novel.
Well, after I read the William Sloane, and after I went further, which meant I was going back because, at that time, the Sandra Scofield book had not yet been published-- Sandra Scofield has written a book on scene. The cover of it is like a composition book. Some people like it. It's not my favorite but it is there and it does explain many things. There's also a book written by Jordan Rosenfeld, who is a woman. It's called Make a Scene. It's a writer's digest book. We don't often recommend writer's digest books. You're supposed to hide the writer's digest books you read. I'm just telling you how to handle yourself if you're around literary people. You don't want to be seen with writer's digest books.
In fact, when I was in college, which was way before I became a writer, I actually was planning to become a lawyer- because my parents had convinced me that I would not be able to eat if I became a writer, but Alice Walker came to my college and so I, of course, went scurrying to the English department begging to be let in. They allowed me to sit in on her class and I asked her about craft books back then because I was secretly reading them. What she said, I was 19, I'll never forget it, she said, "All of us read craft books but none of us admit it."
I've revised that. We all read craft books. They're all on your list at Lesley. We encourage you to read craft books. We don't encourage you to be embarrassed about it. There are a lot of craft books at this point written by literary figures like Charles Baxter, and of course, Virginia Woolf has craft books. There are many. Writer's Digest books, they fall into the Alice Walker category, read them at home.
Having said that, the Jordan Rosenfeld is a writer's digest book, and it is my favorite book on scene. I think it's the book that is most easily read. I also recommend the William Sloane. William Sloane was a very big important writing teacher much like-- Is it Stegner? Yes. Stegner has a writing book as well. There are a lot of literary types who write writing books now. In the process of trying to develop my own understanding of scene, I found a book called The Short Story by Kenneth Kempton.
I don't know what it is about chapter five, but chapter five in the Kenneth Kempton book, which was published by Harvard University Library in 1940- it's the book I love. It's written in very antique language, so it's not sexy, but it does have a chapter on action. Here I'm expanding my notion because I did not get the information that I needed in order to write a novel in scene. I had a novel and it had characters and it had enough pages and it had enough story but it wasn't the way I thought it needed to be. What I finally discovered was, it was just running commentary without acknowledgment of when new people come in or when you move locations, you now have a different project, which is a new scene.
Let me just tell you the takeaway of the chapter five from The Short Story, which was published way back in 1940, I think. A few of my students have located this book and have found it useful. I'm not saying you need to find the book. Jordan Rosenfeld, I suggest you find, especially if you feel like you need more work on this. Kenneth Kempton identifies three different types of action. The first one is immediate, it's called immediate action. The second type is called synoptic action, S-Y-N-O-P-T-I-C. The third type is called habitual action, H-A-B-I-T-U-A-L, habitual. I'm spelling in case I'm not clear. I'm not spelling to suggest that you can't spell.
Immediate action is what we're accustomed to. Jared stood up, and we noticed he was tall or is tall. Stood up, immediate it happens in front of us, noticing immediate happens in front of us. “Is tall” is not immediate and not action. It's a description. We'll come back to what it does for you or doesn't do for you in a little bit. The class began at 9:00. That's immediate, it's past tense. Georgia brought the recorder up to the front of the room, action, immediate, visible. Immediate action is really what you want to be writing.
About 80% of what goes into your scene should be immediate action. If you neglect to write immediate action when your work goes to an editor, that's going to be one of the things that they try to get you to revise for if they love your story. If they don't love your story, they're just going to put it in the circular file because you're not writing immediate action. Immediate action is discernible. It's visible. It happens in front of the reader.
She comes into the kitchen, tears open the Quaker oatmeal packet and adds Earl Grey tea instead of water, and that's her favorite breakfast. That's immediate. We see her doing something. We learn about her that she eats instant oatmeal, which says something to some of us, that she's fancied it up with Earl Grey tea, lets us know she has a certain kind of taste palate. She probably thinks she's really something, an instant foodie or something, and she's probably in a rush. It's the same thing as saying, "This is something this person does all the time." If you just say she would or she does it all the time, that is actually habitual, which is your third list.
One of the things that I encourage you to do, one of the activities that I encourage you to undertake when you leave the residency is to start reading what you read with an eye for scene and action. I will say a little bit more about that. The immediate action is the reader can see it, it happens in front of the reader, and because the character is taking action, the reader is learning about the character from what they're doing.
Moreover, your characters need to be doing stuff otherwise you have no story. They need to be in a place with other people, presumably, or preferably and they do stuff in that place. Then once you've told that mini-story, M-I-N-I, scenes are mini-stories, meaning you're watching something go on. Usually, when something goes on, something changes as a result of what has happened. Change, as we all know, hopefully, is one of the key elements of narrative overall. A narrative that has no change, the characters don't change, the circumstances, don't change, will not be read as a narrative. It will be read as a report.
This is the arc of fiction. This little shape. If this is the first time you're seeing it, it won't be the last. Basically, this is the climax of the story. This is the end of the story. We call this part here, either falling action or dénouement. If these words are new to you, they won't be new for long. This is the beginning of the story. This, of course, is rising action all the way up here. The diagram is actually not this symbol because scenes actually are like segments that drive the action to its climax and to drive the story to its end. This arc is what you really need to have because I'm saying to you, what we're here doing is concentrating on writing in scene. You can almost not pay attention to that crosshatch part but the shape of narrative is pretty consistent.
Now in postmodern writing, which we're sort of in the postmodern era, sometimes the narrative is split. Sometimes you start a little bit and then you have a big climax in the beginning of the story and the rest of the story is kind of backstory, back to how they got that way. 90% or so of stories are written according to this strategy. You will not be penalized, you will not be suspect, you will not be looking strange in any way if your stories are shaped like this here. This will inspire questions when you do this successfully. You can do this successfully, usually after you've mastered this.
The reason I put this here though, is because where the story ends there's a big gap. That's why I'm saying this is very messy. There's a big gap between where the story ends and where it starts. That's change. This change is critical. It distinguishes narrative writing and storytelling. From narrative writing that is factual or reporting or information delivery. Change is absolutely essential. Your scenes as mini-stories, and at the same time, I often say scenes are many stories, each scene doesn't have to have that arc so much because it's hard to get an arc in a small space, but there should be change.
Let's say I have a scene where Miss Oatmeal, let's just keep going with Miss Oatmeal and Miss Earl Grey, she eats her oatmeal in her pajamas. That scene would happen in what location?
Participant 1: Kitchen.
Verdelle: Kitchen, absolutely. The kitchen is the location. This is one character and we're watching her food taste. Is there any change in that scene?
Verdelle: No? Everybody agree no? She's not hungry anymore. Right, she started her day, she's having her breakfast and presumably, she's not hungry anymore. I think it is a natural thing to say no change, but as an author taking authority of her story, you got to be sensitive to the most minute kind of change because, in a novel, there are 30 to 150 scenes. I clocked it because I had to learn this. Again, I learned this after my MFA program. You guys are so lucky.
I called my mentor on the phone, the woman that I had gone to study with, who will remain unnamed because I'm on tape. Normally, I say her name, but I'll tell you the story. I went to study with her, just as an aside when I started she did not like my work. I was like, "Oh, god, this is not beginning well." Then I just decided I know her work, I think she's an amazing writer. I'm already in here. My goal is going to become, "She's going to like my work by the end," and I went with it. When I finished, she gave me a little teeny piece of paper like this that had 12 notations on it from my draft of the 12 phrases from folklore that she wanted to tell me she was thrilled that I had resurrected, that I had brought up from African-American cultural history, and I had made every one of them up. I won.
It was a lot of work, but the two years that I was trying to revise this novel that she so misinterpreted and discover this business of scene and decided that's what's wrong with my work, I called her. I said, "I just have a question. How come I didn't learn about scene in my three-year MFA program?" She said, "Oh, A.J., we don't tell everybody everything." I was like, "Well, you're lucky we're on the phone." Really, because I just was like, What? I'll punch in the nose.
Anyway, this is why this workshop, because you can't get anywhere if you can't write in scene. I almost feel like my discovery was accidental, even though it wasn't. I was determined. I was getting up at 4:00 in the morning. I was writing long hours. I knew this was a story that could work, but it took me-- I stumbled on what it was. The reason I know there's 30 to 150, is because what I began to do as I read as a professional, which once you decide you're going to be a writer, once you start this MFA program, you don't get to read just for pleasure anymore. You got to read as a professional.
The very minimum that you do reading as a professional, is read the end of whatever you're reading first so that when you go to page one, you are watching the author do what you know is about to happen, how are they making that happen. If you have time to read twice, then you don't have to read the end first, but I don't have time to read twice. After I started studying writing, after I decided I was going to become a writer, I always read the last 50 pages first. Then I go to page one, and I read the last again, but because I know what's going to happen, what I'm encountering as I read, is showing me how the author is getting there.
You need to develop a strategy for that. You also need to be willing, I think, to mark in your books. Some people hate that but it’s really helpful when you need to go back. So that is how I figured out the number of scenes. It’s a wide range because some people write long and some people write short. Scene variety is an important aspect of scene building. The oatmeal scene could be three-quarters of a page long. What would be a scene in this woman’s day, Miss Earl Grey Oatmeal, that could come after the oatmeal? Since I said, hint hint, she eats in her pajamas.
Participant: Getting ready for her day.
Verdelle: Yeah. She goes to get ready which means to get dressed. Can you learn a lot about a person watching them get dressed? Absolutely. Now, I do not recommend that you allow yourself a lot of solo scenes, meaning scenes with one character only. They’re hard to make enough happen and it’s hard for the reader to have enough interest. Some people, even in this program, write novels where most of the novel is one person. It’s going to be tough. I recommend while we’re studying scene that you consider minimizing the solo scenes because interacting with other people, getting other people to do what you want them to do, having conflict or consensus with other people, that is part of how we live. And that helps keep your story afloat, quite honestly.
Anyways, so she goes to get dressed. And we watch her getting dressed and, to me, that’s pretty much the extent of the solo scene that you want to have. Once she’s dressed, you want to send her out into the world and let her interact with some other people. But does the location change when she gets dressed? Absolutely. To where?
Verdelle: Bedroom, yes. I had a student not too long ago who had four girls who lived in a house together, or a place together. I don’t know if it was a house, it might have been an apartment. It’s her fault that I don’t know. I’m just kidding. They lived in a house together and they were coming in and out of the closet modeling clothes for each other as they were preparing to go to a social thing. The girls coming in and out of the closet had a certain resonance beyond closet. And you, as author, are responsible for that as well. So, when the students in the workshop are like “Well, are they gay?” And she’s like, “No. They’re going out clubbing. They’re going out to pick up guys.” But she had this extended scene where they were going in and out of the closet. So, of course, from my perspective, I’m saying, “Well inside the closet and outside the closet, those are separate scenes.” And she goes “A.J..” And I say “No, don’t A.J. me.” They are two different locations, they are separate scenes. If you don’t accept that, then what you’re doing is being casual about one of your locations and there’s no willy-nilly in writing. Every decision is made. Because she had them going in and out of the closet, we have really no sense of what the other room was. She hadn’t thought about it, she hadn’t populated it. But also, she hadn’t thought about the closet. She didn’t register that the closet means a place of hiding for gay people and even if that’s not what you mean, you are writing into the culture that you are writing into. You are responsible to know what those references might mean. So, what she did was she moved the whole dressing scenario into the room that was not formally described. That’s how she solved that problem. That was her choice. I was glad about it because it made her give attention to that room that she had just let float into her manuscript which is disallowed. No floating.
You follow me so far? Scenes. Mini stories. Let us just consider scene variety for a minute. There is such a thing, I think this is covered in the chapter, called a “set scene.” A set scene is just one of the major scenes in your narrative. Set scenes are the big drama, the most telling of moments in your narrative. A short story will have usually one set scene. A novel will have three to seven, and a novella might have two, three, five, something like that, which is just scenes that have the biggest drama. Now, a lot of what I'm talking to you about scene can be really easily studied by watching film. The film opens, "Oh, there's a whole series of row houses," but it doesn't look like America. It looks like England. "Oh, they're aiming for the house with the blue door," and the camera goes into the blue door. Then the blue door opens. "Oh, there's Sissy Spacek." She is in a business suit and she's wearing heels and she comes out with a big purse. "She must be going to work." Then she gets in the car and drives away and drives up to the courthouse. "Oh, she must be a lawyer."
You watch the film, you watch the scenes change, you watch what happens on the street, there's driving. In the house, there's leaving for work. Once she gets to the courthouse, you actually find out that she's getting divorced, whatever. You watch the location change, you watch the locations change, and narrate for yourself in your mind as you're watching film, you will be earning a lot of what I'm trying to communicate to you. The climactic scene is usually a set, set scene. It's S-E-T, meaning it sets so much of what the story needs. That's why we call it a set scene. There's always a big set seen in the first 20,30 pages of a book because you're trying to establish what's the problem here? What journey are we going on? What are we going to watch these people work through?
The way I managed to learn this is I took my five favorite books-- That's one of the things you get from an MFA program. Your favorite books become isolated. They become elevated. Probably, when you finish, if you have 5 or 10- I try to have a dozen books that I can go to at any time. Some of them never change. The God in Flight is always on my shelf. The Good Negress, which I wrote, is always on my shelf. Paradise, which Toni Morrison wrote is always on my shelf. Then there get to be some new things, some contemporary books.
You should do the same because the books that you know, you can analyze better. You read those books that you know and love for a second time, you recognize the material, you recognize what the author is doing. I started with my dozen books, and I actually studied 150 books, to try to get myself ready for my novel. I drew a line every time the scene changed across the page. Sometimes the line would look like this, and I'm talking about in the text. Sometimes the line looks like this. This is at the end of a paragraph. Sometimes the line would look like this because the middle of the paragraph, they would say, "She was hiding the joint," let's say there's a teenager, "because the door open, and her father came in."
According to my definition, when her father comes in, the scene changes, right? Yes? That's why the line is jagged like that. Now, some people want to object. Some people want to say, "A scene can’t change in the middle of a paragraph." Well, her father's coming in, duh. The scene, when your father comes in and you're a teenager, the scene has definitely changed, no matter what you're doing. Whether you're sleeping or reading or doing homework, being polite, practicing the violin, it doesn't matter, your father comes in, the scene has changed. That's true for anybody because as a writer, nobody comes into your story except that you say, "Come into my story."
Even if you're writing non-fiction and you're selecting some moment of history, you could select the moment before that person comes or you can select the moment when there are three people there or you can select the parade, where there is a bazillion people, but you're doing it, you're in charge of it, and you have to manage it. You have to be in control of it. Her father needs to come in the door for a reason, even if it's just he's coming home from work. What are you saying when you have a father come home from work?
Participant: Financial support.
Verdelle: Financial support, dinnertime, yes. The financial support that's a certain kind of thing. A father coming home for dinner, that's a certain kind of schedule. Party's over, that's a certain perspective from the teenage place. You're also saying there's a father in the house, which there aren't always, fathers in the house, and maybe he's the only parent in the house. You get to decide.
The point is, the father is a character, the teenager is a character, and you are in charge of when they show up. Once they show up, you have to make them do something, otherwise, you don't have a scene. You can't just say, the father came in the house, and he would always hang up his coat and disappear into the-- You have to give him things to do. If disappearing is part of what he does, then okay, but you can't have him disappear. You have to write it out and make it important.
That's the thing about set scenes. The set scenes tend to be longer, and they tend to cover what is most important in the narrative. I'm arguing that you need at least three to seven if you're putting a novel together. You can have more. It's hard to have fewer than three. If you're putting a short story together, you're working on an essay, something 20, 25 pages you can get away with one.
One of the rules for scene building is, anything that's important to the story, you must make a scene of it. Anything that is important to the story, you must make a scene of it. Miss Earl Grey oatmeal, if her story is actually about her first time working in an office and her struggle working in cubicles, and how she doesn't like the guy who's across the cubicle from her, maybe he smells like garlic all the time, or maybe he only eats fast food, something- and you notice I'm going to food because I started with oatmeal.
I could have started with anything. I could have started with her getting dressed, in which case they would be pressure to go to fashion in some way because nothing can be in your story that isn't critical to the story you're trying to tell. You set up expectations by the objects that are in your scenes. The shorter your work, the fewer your scenes, the more careful you have to be about those selections. Yes, sir?
Participant 2: Not just objects but movements for this and I did, in one of my stories, I had the character pat her belly. She meant that she was hungry, but it didn't read so I ended up making her pregnant.
Verdelle: I was going to say it reads like she's pregnant. Yes.
Participant 2: Yes, you're right, but it was just kind of a random, sometimes oh that none for me things. It was an action that was there and why is it there so [crosstalk]
Verdelle: Yes, all of that has to be carefully chosen with the authority you have as an author. A reader reads always giving the author complete authority. It goes with this idea of omniscience, which is what the biggest widest, most masterly point of view, the reader comes to whatever you have written as if you are an omniscient person as if you have chosen carefully to do everything that has constructed this world that they're encountering. They come with 1,000% faith in you. All of your choices will be read as significant and as carefully selected.
Just like I was saying, because I started with oatmeal, it sets an expectation about food. I was talking about the closet, and how, even though the girl was trying to choose-- The woman who was writing was kind of dreaming about a closet where there's all these clothes in it. You could be four people in a closet at the same time. It was a fantasy that she hadn't thought about very much because most closets are not that big, unless you're like Oprah Winfrey or something or you have a little mini Oprah closet in your house, which means you have to have a lot of space for that.
Plus, you either have to have that designed as a homeowner or you have to buy a McMansion that has it in it. This closet idea that she had was so unformed. That's how she could make that mistake because it wasn't that-- They were living in an apartment. They were college students. She hadn't thought this through very carefully, see, but the reader interprets it like you've thought it through very carefully.
Because Andy is writing in a culture where some lady with her hand on her belly suggest pregnancy period, because the rest of the time the ladies wanted her belly to be disappeared, she wants to look like she has no belly. Nobody would really do that unless their stomach hurts, which that wasn't what you wanted, you had a gentler approach, or they're pregnant. In response to the cultural expectation, Andy resets it to the cultural expectation, which is the same thing the closet writer did, except she got rid of her closet.
Yes, okay. If it's important to the story, you have to make a scene of it. A set scene sets up the big drama. You can't get away without it. A set scene then sets up the idea of scene variety, meaning you don't want all your scenes to be the same length. You certainly don't want all your scenes to be set scene length, because there maybe scene like set scenes and they'll be too long. I think the set scenes- at least one of the set scenes in the book I published is seven pages long, which is very long for me. I have scenes that are seven lines long. I like a lot of scene variety.
That takes us back, so I said, if it's important, you have to make a scene of it. If you were working with me, which none of you are, you might get your manuscript back for me with these letters on it. M-A-S-O-I, it looks French, but it actually it was an acronym, make a scene of it. People pay attention to it because they think it looks French. Because I'll encounter something in the story- let's go back to Miss Earl Grey oatmeal. She forces herself to go out to lunch even though she doesn't eat much lunch because she likes to be skinny, but she can't be around Mr. Garlic, and then that's all that happens.
We know that she doesn't like being around him because he eats too much garlic or smells like garlic or burps garlic, I don't know, whatever it is. She doesn't like being in a cube, which the story is going to advance to, you could kind of see that, but then she goes out to lunch all the time because she's trying to escape him. I don't see anything about him and his garlic anymore, I'm like, "Well, if you're going to have this, you need to make a scene of it." You need to get them together and let her ask him, "Hey, what's up with the garlic? Can we can make a truce, or can you do that at night, or--"
It gets funny because you're making a scene of it. If you just mentioned it and keep going. It makes your narrative really lopsided, and it shows a lack of attention. Whatever is important to the story, that's how the reader interprets what's important to the story, that you make a scene of it. Yes, ma'am.
Participant 3: I just wonder how do you do that with backstory?
Verdelle: It's the same. It just happened in the past. Denise, who's the protagonist of my novel, it opens where she's being dropped off at her grandmother's house, she's seven. Then within 50 pages, her mother comes back to get her, she's 14. She's been living with her grandmother for seven years. That's the whole beginning of the novel, set up to let you know that this child has left her family and has been living with her grandmother and then her mother comes back to get her.
Well, when she goes back to Detroit, the next whole part of the novel is about her re-entry into Detroit. Her brothers are seven years older, so they're men, and she's weirded out. Her mother has a new husband so she got a stepfather. You see this whole series of things going on. She gets back to Detroit. She goes to school, a whole different world of school because she's been down the country. Then after that, you find out that the reason that she went down south in the first place is because the father died and the mother was a widow with three kids. Denise was so young that she couldn't-- The mother felt like, "Well, at least the boys can make their own peanut butter and jelly, but she's seven, so I need to take her to mama."
It's just double double-spacing between. I give you the scene of when her father dies and it comes to page 136. Your double double-space is your best friend in narrative writing because if the double double-space, that's like blank space- because everything is double-spaced, that's why I'm saying double double. The reader interprets that as, "This is kind of a big transition," we're either going to be in a different place in time or we're going to be in a different part of town, we're going to see some other characters. You can double double-space all the way through your manuscript and then once you're done, wherever you think it needs to be better connected, you can write in a transition.
Just write the history, the backstory, as a delivered immediate action scene in past tense. I just want to go then back to finishing up about Kenneth Kempton's three types of action. Then you have visual action is often identified by a woed, W-O-E-D. She would get up in the morning and go into the kitchen and turn on the oven and open the oven door, because the kitchen was always called boring, but also “woed” is not a word that supports narrative writing. It suggests to the reader that they're reading about routine, and readers do not come to books to read about routine.
The next big deal is objects. What's in the room? What's in the location? Where is your scene is taking place? Now I'm going to give you a very important tip. If you, while you are in this program, register for yourself, "Where's my scene taking place?" If you acknowledge for yourself the location for each one of your scenes and you make a list of objects in that scene in that location, your scenes are going to get immensely better.
What we often do is we decide, casually, where our scenes are going to be, and then we just write what happens in that environment. I'm suggesting that while you're practicing becoming a professional writer, that you say, "Okay, bedroom," or, "Scene number three," in your story, and regardless of what you drafted, or if you haven't drafted it at all, that's still fine, you list objects in that bedroom because as you list objects, you will imagine what can happen and you might have better actions.
In my book, it’s set from 1859 forward. I have a little enslaved girl. Her name is Anna Mays and because she's the daughter of a rape, the rape of the master to a slave woman. She's bi-racial. She has obvious big hair. Her mother, the slave woman is anxious about nothing more than what's going to happen to this child because of how she looks. She wraps her hair up in this-- That's like their big mother-daughter thing that happens is the mother's keeping the hair under a light kerchief like slaves used to wear.
Anyway, because of how she loves the child is a house slave and her work is to attend to Miss Elizabeth. One day Miss Elizabeth is taking a bath, she's washed her hair, this child has helped her and Miss Elizabeth is sitting in a chair and she's wanting the child to brush the tangles out of her hair. She's mean to her because it hurts. She's mean to them both, as the scene, the bath and the hairbrush.
That was my draft. Then I have my little piece of paper, bedroom. I list the objects in Miss Elizabeth's bedroom. Well, the brush that the child is using, I actually see over on Miss Elizabeth's dresser, it's one of those big 19th century brushes with the-- They like heavy little ivory things on the back, matching brush comb, mirror set. That wasn't the way I thought of it. When I was drafting it, it was like a CBS brush because-- There's no CBS, but that's what I'm writing and I'm not thinking, I'm drafting. It's a hairbrush. It's about the tangles. It's about the action.
Once I made the list of objects, I was like, "Oh, that's the brush." When I revised the scene, Miss Elizabeth who's very mean, she grabs this big old brush and beats the child with it. It's very appropriate for a slave story. It's very demonstrative but I never would have thought of that had I not listed the objects in the room. One of the reasons there are scenes, as we're aspiring writers, one of the reasons that there's been is because we haven't looked around our locations very much. We just pick the action we want and we write the action in the room. I'm suggesting that if you list the objects in the room, it's going to make your action choices much more robust. I didn't change my action. I just got clear about the object, and then I realized Eureka, that list of objects is the universe of things you have for your characters to take action with.
It's actually a big deal, what the objects are in the environment because that is their universe for that scene. If you can be thorough, each scene will get more robust. I recommend that you not only make those lists, but keep those lists because when you come back to that bedroom, three-quarters of the way through the novel, you can pull out those lists, and I bet you will add to it, and then you have some new options. I'm a big believer in list thinking. In fact, when I'm revising novels, I have a big working list of all my scenes, a numbered list, so that I am not waiting through all these gazillion pages trying to remember when this happened, where that happened, blah, blah, blah.
One last element, dialogue. I want to say something that people are dreaming crazy that I say, that dialogue is not memorable and your success, your reputation as a writer will ultimately depend on whether people are going to remember your work. Memory is a very big deal. Memory is the first test of the writing. Dialogue, hard as we work on it, necessary as it is, it's not memorable. Anybody in this room can tell me 25 scenes they remember. Remember when in Benjamin Button or remember when in Poisonwood Bible, every time we say remember when you're calling up a scene. Dialogue is very hard to retain, the verb that half the work has to go into the scene. Again, you do work hard in dialogue because dialogue in narrative writing is very complex.
It's not like where you go, "Hey, Susan, hey, Margaret, how are you doing? I'm fine. How are you? How's your brother?" You pass each other in the hall. No. Hello in fiction is, "You lost 30 pounds. You dyed your hair. What happened to your tooth?" or something. You just go straight to something that tells us about the character. That's what dialogue is in narrative writing. There's no fat, no excess. If you have it, it's going to slow your narrative down a lot. If you get your story into consideration, they're going to ask you to tighten that up.
The important thing to remember, from the authority perspective is that dialogue is not going to be remembered so make sure you concentrate on the scene around the dialogue. In inventions terms, you might make a mistake and have people say to each other, "How have you been?" When really what you want them to say is, "You have food on your face. Okay, spinach in your teeth," or parent to the child, "Did you brush your teeth this morning." Go right to something that delivers about the character that the reader can learn so that it doesn't matter if they don't remember the dialogue because they'll remember what they've learned about.
Narrative writing is drama. You are writing drama. You are not writing life. Readers live routine, unsexy lives, which is why they read and watch television and go to the movies. To see drama, to see people survive things that they aren't sure they can survive. It seems the only way to deliver action, is by way of a verb. That's the only tool you have, and what, scenes are made of action, books are made of scenes, so action is the core. Your verbs need to be great.
If you can't find somebody to read whose verbs inspire you, Barbara Kingsolver is the one. She's the queen of good verbs. Eventually, scene will come to you that naturally, but right now, you need a list of objects and the objects of things people have to take action with, fill your locations with objects, thinking about my hairbrush story, how more dramatic it got once I actually saw the hairbrush. Then start looking at your verbs and then start reading as a professional, so that you see in your favorite books what it is I'm trying to encourage you to do.
Everybody should consider getting Rodales, R-O-D-A-L-E-S, it is the writer's Thesaurus. It's much better than a regular Thesaurus or Roget's. It's R-O-D-A-L-E-S. I think it might be called a dictionary of similar words or something. It's available in paperback. It's red. You will be so happy that I told you about that book.
Announcer: Thank you for listening to our first Writing Master Class with A.J. Verdelle. We’d love to hear what you took away from this episode. Tweet us your favorite quote, and make sure to tag @Lesley_U. For a list of books mentioned in this episode, to learn more about our MFA program where A.J. teaches and for the complete transcript, check out our show notes or go Lesley.edu/podcast.
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