So, you’re a writer, or a budding writer, or an aspiring writer, and you want to learn how to improve? Jonathan McKinney, author of the Schildmaids Saga, has a series of blogs that can help.
You sit down to write a scene. You’ve got two characters, and you know where your story is going, so your two characters discuss the necessary plot details, and your scene ends. It works. It moves your story forward. It all makes sense. But it’s pale. It’s dry.
This is an easy trap to fall into.
You attempted one thing with your scene, and you accomplished it. But to elevate your writing, you want to be looking to accomplish as many things with your scenes as possible. This is what brings your stories to life, makes them dense and crunchy and vivid.
So, how do we do it?
In Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel Neverwhere, the author has such a scene to write. Around the middle of the story, the two most prominent bad guys, Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar have a conversation that moves the story forward.
The context is: Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar are assassins. Slimy, stinky-breathed assassins. They’ve been hired by someone, whose identity is at this point in the story a mystery, and who we refer to only as “the governor”. Mr Croup, who is the smarter of the two, is growing frustrated that the governor keeps changing his mind about what he wants the assassins to do.
Mr Croup says: ‘Kill her, kidnap her, scare her. Why doesn’t he make up his mind?’
When this scene happens in the story, it’s important, because I was starting to wonder the same thing. This conversation reassured me that the author was also aware of the problem and that it was all part of the plan, and not simply inconsistent character work.
But, the author wants to do more than merely tidy up his plot. He wants to entertain. He wants to reveal and develop his characters to his readers.
So he doesn’t start the scene in Mr Croup’s POV, with what would be a perfectly good, but somewhat perfunctory: ‘Mr Croup was confused’.
No, he starts in Mr Vandemar’s POV, with a simple: ‘Mr Vandemar was hungry’.
By rooting this scene in the terribly mundane, utterly relatable short term goal of “find food”, Gaiman is able to deliver the actual story momentum via Mr Vandemar’s companion Mr Croup, who, while Mr Vandemar goes about sourcing some sustenance, rants about his confused frustration:
‘Scare her,’ muttered Mr Croup, disgustedly. ‘Scare her. That we should be brought to this.’
While Mr Croup has his little moan, Mr Vandemar takes ‘half a prawn and lettuce sandwich [from] a waste-bin’ (notice the detail). Now, reading the book, my first thought was: “Oh, that’s gross. Mr Vandemar is eating an old sandwich from a bin”. But Mr Vandemar doesn’t eat the sandwich. He tears it up and begins throwing it to the stones to attract pigeons.
At this point, I’m really grossed out because I realise that Mr Vandemar is probably going to eat a live pigeon.
Mr Croup gets back to moaning about the governor’s intentions, and when Mr Vandemar runs out of sandwich, he rushes into the crowd of pigeons and grabs one. Mr Croup congratulates him on his catch, and, with a sigh, he closes his part of the scene, saying, ‘Well, anyway. We’ve certainly put the cat among the pigeons now’ (referring to their actions in the previous scene, where they scared the “her” he keeps talking about).
Finally, the scene ends thus: ‘Mr Vandemar held the pigeon up to his face. There was a crunching noise, as he bit off its head, and commenced to chew.’
Now, see what Gaiman has accomplished here.
1: He’s demonstrated that Mr Croup is aware of the fact that the governor’s actions are inconsistent. As I said before, this reassures the reader that the governor is not just acting in ways that allow our heroes to succeed for no reason. Gaiman hasn’t sacrificed the governor’s character so as to allow his protagonists to survive, to allow his story to keep going. No. Something is going on, and we will find out what.
2: He’s provided clear, disturbing insight into the quite grotesque eating habits of Mr Vandemar. Those habits tell you quite a lot. The scene demonstrates Mr Vandemar’s rudimentary problem solving skills, and, given that catching a pigeon probably isn’t easy—I’ve never tried—the scene also demonstrates Mr Vandemar’s impressive physical proficiency.
That’s quite impressive for a scene that lasts for little more than one page. And, fellow writer, keep in mind that Gaiman has done way more with this scene than he was required to do. No, the scene would have been perfectly fine if it had just been Mr Croup ranting to Mr Vandemar, with Mr Vandemar responding. But “perfectly good” isn’t “excellent”, and this scene is excellent.
So, the next scene you sit down to write, try this. You have your main story purpose in your head already. That’s the first thing on your mind. Character A wants this or that. Try to get into the heart and soul of Character B. What does Character B want? It’s likely not what Character A wants. Find it, and root your scene in Character B’s POV, and allow the A story to move forward reflectively.
Food is a strong, mundane character goal. But unless you have an interesting character like Mr Vandemar, you might find that ‘Bill went to the kitchen and took out a biscuit’ doesn’t really cut it.
No. Try and reveal whatever it is that’s exceptional about Character B. See, it’s not the fact that Mr Vandemar is hungry that makes him exceptional. It’s the fact that he catches a pigeon and bites its head off. And that’s what elevates this otherwise C grade scene to an A.
Peace and love, fellow writer. Go and write.