I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Thursday, November 08, 2007

Stories are made out of scenes; scenes are made out of nouns

This post may fall into the category of "pretty darn obvious." Still, I've been participating in writer's groups and critique circles for fifteen years at this point, and I've read a LOT of unpublished and unpublishable writing. Heck, the majority of stories I've written are unpublished and unpublishable.

The number one problem I've encountered over the years in reading unpublished stories is a pretty simple one: I get to the bottom of the first or second page and I don't have a clue what is going on. Often, I get to the end of the first sentence and know that I'm in for a rough ride. Writing fiction isn't exactly the same as writing a lead paragraph for a newspaper article, but some of the principles are the same. If I'm reading your story, I want to know the following things as quickly as artistically possible: Who is your lead character? Where is she at this moment? What is her problem?

Yet, again and again, I pick up stories where these simple bits of information remains elusive. One common pitfall is the first person voice. The story starts off with someone telling the story: "I was sitting in the chair thinking about my grandmother, etc, etc." Time and again, I'll be two or three pages into the story and find that the only thing I know about the narrator is that he or she calls herself "I" a lot. I won't know her name, I won't be certain of her sex, her age is a mystery, I'm unclear as to what time period she's living in, and, while I sometimes have learned her back story, I have no picture of where she is in the here and now.

A few years ago, I figured out that one quality my writing possessed that people were responding to was a sense of immediacy. I wasn't interested in the character's long and complex history so much as I was interested in what their immediate problem was. I could write a good moment in a character's life, and people responded to it. On the other hand, when I would write fuzzy, sceneless prose with backstories and flashbacks, I would lose readers. So, I printed out in large, bold letters these two words:

I taped these to the walls above my computer and have tried to abide by them ever since. I never write without being able to answer the question, "Where is my character? What is happening to him now?" Even if the scene is one where a lot of backstory will be revealed, this backstory is revealed in the frame work of a scene. One of my most successful stories, "Final Flight of the Blue Bee," the first story I ever sold reprint rights to and foreign rights to, has a tremendous amount of story that happens forty years before the current story. The present story is taking place in New York City. The action is unfolding in a hotel room, then atop the Empire State Building. To reveal the back story, however, I didn't use the typical flashbacks where the character slips into memory. I simply cut between two parallel storylines. In my odd numbered scenes, the events of the present day unfolded. In my even numbered scenes, the events of the past unfolded--but they unfolded in moments that had immediacy. They took place in specific locations, with a specific set of characters, and were written as if they were unfolding now. The reader had no problem, hopefully, shifting gears between the past and present. Keeping all the events immediate and specific helped keep the reader engaged. If I had fallen into a memory based flashback, or into a page long speeches explaining the past, I would have risked losing the reader.
So, it seems very simple and obvious, right? Build your story out of scenes. Each scene unfolds in a definitive place, in a specific timeframe, to identifiable characters. Each scene exists to accomplish something--we get introduced to an important character; we learn a clue to the mystery; we discover a terrible secret; we get to see a character tested by conflict, either internal or external. In my novel Bitterwood, I can tell you what any given scene was meant to do. The scenes existed to give the reader a piece of information they needed to understand the plot, the settings, or the characters (often all these things at once). If you don't know what you are trying to accomplish in a scene, then the scene may not belong in your story.
Which isn't to say there isn't room in fiction for sidetracks and diversions and meanderings; Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is one of my favorite novels, and it's almost nothing but diversions and meanderings. But, the strange places that book takes us to work because Hunter Thompson was a masterful enough writer to actually take us places. While he can go off on rambles about history or politics or drugs, these things occur in the context of his here and now.
As long as I've brought Hunter Thompson to the party, we can use him to move into my next point: Scenes are made out of nouns. The opening line of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is, "We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold." Brilliant! In one sentence with very simple language he's introduced his setting to us--the desert near Barstow--and his problem--he's tripping on drugs. As the page unfolds, he describes his convertible as a Great Red Shark. He talks about bats swooping down from the sky. Images form in your mind as you read--the attorney in the car next to him pours beer onto his chest to facilitate the tanning process. He builds a here and now that intrigues us in his first few hundred words--then swings into a quick bit of backstory explaining how they got into this situation. But, he doesn't use the backstory until he's already hooked us with his setting and characters. We want to read the backstory because the front story is so fascinating.
When you study Thompson's style, it's built of very simple words. Nothing on the first page is going to send anyone running for a dictionary; we may not all know where Barstow is, but we know it's in a desert, and since "Las Vegas" is in the title we can figure it's taking place in the American Southwest. Later he introduces us to a rather formidable catalogue of drugs the two men are carrying; a few of these exotic items might throw a reader, but they are exotic in the best possible way--we know from the context that they are drugs, and the fact that they aren't all familiar drugs gives us insight that these are hard core users on a far different level from your friendly neighborhood pothead.
Hunter Thomson is writing his novel in first person, which provides a special challenge. We know a little bit about the characters from their immediate situation, but the first person voice means he's talking to you as if you already know who he is, and you don't. So, he does a very simple yet brilliant thing: He has the characters pick up a hitchhiker, then they introduce themselves to this new character, providing a formal introduction to the reader. We learn their names, their jobs, their mission, and quick summaries of their world view. Simple, straightforward, and completely effective. I've never read a critique of this novel that complained about the rather naked storytelling device of introducing the hitchhiker as a way of getting this information onto the page. The fact is, it's information the reader wants. He tells it to us in an engaging fashion. And when the plot device of the hitchhiker has fulfilled its usefulness, the hitchhiker runs off into the desert and plays no further significant role in the book.
On the first draft of this post and the previous post, I wrote that "scenes are made from words." Which is true in a very broad sense; every word is important. Your choice of verbs and adjectives are vital. But, I revised "words" to "nouns" as my essay developed. It's nouns that truly paint the pictures in people's heads. And not just any nouns--you want concrete nouns all over your page. Words like love, justice, god, and antidisestablishmentarianism are all nouns, and may all be important things to write about, but they don't build scenes. You build your scenes out of concrete elements, things your characters can touch and taste and feel and see. Your story may be about the absence of God from the universe, but your scene should be full of things like cigars or pines or elephants or t-bone steaks.
Time and again I've read the advice that writers can punch up their style by avoiding the verb "to be," and choosing verbs with a lot of action. But, let's return to Thompson: His opening sentence has three verbs: were, began, take. His verbs are almost invisible in order to let the nouns take center stage and build the scene. Would the opening be improved in any way by more active verbs? "We zoomed toward Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs gripped us." Ug. Save your action verbs for actual action. Don't be afraid to let your nouns do the heavy lifting.
Here's a simple exercise: Grab your favorite book, go to the first page, and circle all the nouns you see. Good, scenes are built out of familiar, quickly grasped, specific nouns. Thompson first talks about the bats swooping around the car--the juxtaposition of bats and car is interesting to our mental eye. Then, he gets specific about the car--a huge red Chevy convertible. He gives the car a name--the Great Red Shark. If you were to erase all the words on the page but the nouns, you would still have a good chance of building the scene in your mind--drugs, desert, bats, beer, convertible, highway. I'm guessing that your favorite novel will possess the same quality--strip it down to the nouns, and the nouns tell you who, what, when, where. Good nouns are like flashbulbs, popping in the darkness of the mind, lighting up a picture. Here's a trashcan, here's pizza cheese stuck to a cardboard box, here's a raccoon.
I'm sure there are exceptions. The only nouns on the first page of your favorite novel might be utterly bland--man, woman, building, city. And it may be that you are a brilliant enough story teller that you can draw readers into your world even with generic language. But, I would challenge you to think about how much more story you can wring out of the right nouns.
So, here's a second exercise: How much story can you get out of four nouns?
Take "man, woman, building, city" and replace them with more evocative nouns.
"Cop, nurse, Superdome, New Orleans" There are hints here. I can see a story taking shape.
"Shuttle pilot, astronaut, launch pad, Cape Canaveral" Hmm. Throw in a diaper, and you've got something.
"Cowboy, princess, sushi bar, Havana"--Okay, perhaps the story isn't obvious, but you've at least got my attention.
One last note on nouns: I find that one effective tool is to mix something sinister or strange with something fairly mundane. My first sale to Asimov's starts: "There was a shark in the kitchen." It's the juxtaposition of the dangerous thing--the shark--with a familiar setting--a kitchen--the makes the mind sit up and pay attention. A skull in a graveyard is okay; a skull on the coffee table is better. A lion in the zoo provokes a yawn; a lion in a laundromat opens the eyes. A giant lizard attacking Tokyo creates interest; a giant lizard reading to a kindergarten class demands explanation.
Scenes. Nouns. Here. Now. Go write something.


John Brown said...

I still love this noun insight. It's as good in this essay as it was, what, a year ago when you shared it on Codex.

A fat man, a shade tree, the Bible, and a snake.

James Maxey said...

Thanks, John!

Steve Claridge said...

Great article. These two sentences summed it up for me:

Take "man, woman, building, city" and replace them with more evocative nouns.
"Cop, nurse, Superdome, New Orleans" There are hints here. I can see a story taking shape.

I was getting your point from the rest of the article but that snippet really drove the point home. I go no pictures in my head from "man, woman, building, city" but I am instantly picturing "Cop, nurse, Superdome, New Orleans".