1. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    How do you pace a scene?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Link the Writer, Dec 18, 2014.

    Yeah, I probably should've asked this when I first joined the forum, but how do you pace a scene? My problem is that I want to get right into the dialogue rather than take the time to describe where my characters are. Why? Because I feel it'd be too much info dumping and padding. Does it really matter if the fireplace is carved out of mahogany with little horse carvings? Or that one of the bookshelves is a bit slanted with stacks of books shoved underneath to provide balance? Or if outside, that there's a billboard with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck in knight armor promoting a movie? I've always stuck to the method of 'if it's not important to the plot, don't include it', but then my world becomes bland and boring.

    While I do think they would add nice touches, I'm always afraid I'd pad out the scene for too long so I simply have them go right to the talking. As a consequence, I have little to no context to where they are, or what they're doing.

    So I'm basically struggling with the following:

    + Describing a scene (with the touches like Bugs and Daffy in their metal suits of armor) without padding it out.

    + Judging when to add details to a scene that would amplify the scene but without detracting from the plot. Even if the plot doesn't revolve around the movie scenario, would it still be a good idea to include that this billboard exists anyway? Or would readers think, 'That has nothing to do with the plot at hand, why did he mention it??' Or take the examples of the little horse carvings or the stacks of book propping up the slanted bookshelf. They could be useful to tell the readers a bit about the character who owns the place, but if they have no purpose to the main plot, should they still be in there?

    Thoughts?
     
  2. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Hmm. I wonder if you might be thinking that 'dialogue is good, description is bad?'

    In actual fact, what you want to do is tell your story in a way that the readers can see, hear, feel, taste and smell it. Just giving us dialogue won't do, because without a setting to put your speakers in and the circumstances that surround them as they speak, they are just talking heads. The dialogue might be interesting, but it would take some skill to make that into a whole story.

    I found the trick is to give the 'description' from the characters' point of view. Don't tell us there is a Bugs Bunny billboard outside the house. Let the characters tell us what they think of it. The POV character can tell the reader what it looks like, and what it reminds him of, and whether he finds it funny, irritating, a blight on the landscape or whether it makes him want to see the movie ...and preferably WHY it makes him want to see the movie. That way you not only give us the fact the sign is there and a little bit of what it looks like, but you get to do some character development too. Maybe somebody comes to the house to visit your POV character, and THEY say something about the sign. So that can give you an opportunity to present a clash of opinion ...or the opposite.

    Make the details work within the story. Make the details be something the characters themselves are aware of. Don't just step back and start describing a 'scene' as if you're preparing a movie set. Throw the characters straight into the scene, and let them filter the details for you. Focus on what they are focused on. If they are running away from a demon chasing them down a dark alley, they won't be concerned about what kinds of flowers are planted in the window boxes above their heads. They'll be running for their lives, maybe looking for a sideways exit from the alley, or an open doorway, or watching their feet so they don't trip over the cobbles ...etc.

    Just make an effort to see the scenes through the characters' eyes, fit what they see into what they're actually doing, and you should be fine.
     
  3. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    You want to put the reader in the shoes of your POV character. That means the reader has to be able to see what the character sees, hear what (s)he hears, feel what (s)he feels. So, you want to make sure the reader is oriented in the time and place of the scene. If you're writing of a different time - be it the historical past or deep in the sci fi future - you need to provide the reader with reference points. That doesn't mean describing everything about the scene, just enough.

    I'm currently reading a novel written by a good friend, set in the late 1800s. I just finished a scene yesterday that immersed me completely in the details of a frontier kitchen - not by describing the setting, but by what the POV character was doing in that setting. Not a single sentence of it was "telling" - I experienced it all through this young woman's morning routine; when she wiped her brow, I wiped mine.

    To get to your question about the Bugs/Daffy billboard: you can use details like that to set a mood, if not time and place. Maybe the mc is terribly anxious as she heads into a meeting that will determine her future; on her way in, she pauses to stare at the billboard; describe in one sentence or less; suddenly, the sight of Bugs in knights armor brings a smile to her face, and she relaxes just a little; maybe this isn't so life-or-death after all, and she proceeds to the meeting with greater confidence.

    Beta-readers of my novel, which at the First Draft was heavily weighted toward dialogue, urged me to rely more on narrative for scene setting, which was lacking. I found that I was able to set scenes much the same as my friend did, by what characters were doing, seeing, smelling, hearing...and feeling. One caution: when you do this, be very careful to avoid "filtering" - "he saw", "she heard", "he realized", "she felt".

    Good luck.
     
  4. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    Thanks for the tips. :) So basically look at the scene as the MC would. Does he/she notice certain things around them and what do they think of them? If he/she sees the slanted bookshelf, does he/she think the person is innovative or sloppy? Make the scene come alive through the main character's four senses. Also keep in mind what the characters are doing at the time. If he/she is running for his/her life, they won't notice the same billboard that, in other situations, they would actually look at and ponder.

    I struggle with the filtering as well, especially with first person. There's a lot of 'I saw that...', 'I noticed...', 'I observed...' with a dash of 'I felt...', 'I smelled...'
     
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  5. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Filtering can be a really difficult habit to break, especially with a 1st person narrator. But it's also easy to fix - "I saw him rushing at me waving a machete" can be replaced with "He rushed at me waving a machete". And it saves on word count.
     
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  6. SwampDog
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    SwampDog Contributing Member

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    One tip I've just been reading is to relate your story as if to yourself. To start, that cuts out a lot of extraneous material and keeps to the meat. No padding.

    Then weave in some setting as you would naturally tell a friend.

    For example: Freddy came legging it towards me. He stopped and looked at me. Clearly he thought I was pissed off about something. I was. Rain from the Mickey Mouse billboard was dribbling down my neck.

    That type of thing. Participants, action, location, weather, effects etc., A simple weave all in five short sentences, and which doesn't involve blocks of dialogue or blocks of scene description.

    Just a thought.
     
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  7. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Think of the setting as a character or a part of the story. Why does the reader need to see the room? Make the room meaningful.

    Is it a castle, intimidating to one of the characters, familiar, unfamiliar, painful to see the picture on the desk, is it bleak, is there a letter burning in that fireplace ...

    The idea is to make the imagery part of the story.
     
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  8. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Here's an example from my WIP (it still needs editing):
    The scene is two other people arguing and this character is embarrassed to be there but she can't leave. The fire turning on adds to previous description of the automation in the house.
     
  9. Hwaigon
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    Hwaigon Contributing Member Reviewer

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    @jannert

    "I found the trick is to give the 'description' from the characters' point of view. Don't tell us there is a Bugs Bunny billboard outside the house. Let the characters tell us what they think of it."

    Yop, I agree.

    @Link the Writer

    Brandon leaned against the carved, mahogany fireplace the way he always had.
    Julia watched him trace the carved horses on it with his finger.
    "I loved it here," he said and looked around the living room; his look seemed to
    be reaching far behind the confines of the house. Their childhood was far reaching behind the confines
    of the house; the billboard of Bucks Bunny and Duffy they saw on their way here recalled it even more.
     
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  10. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    I like description and details. I like when they're concise and meaningful and I like when they're a bit flowery. But most important I like the fact that they let me know where I am.
    Too often writers want to jump into a scene ( I'm guilty of this ) and what's perfect in their head isn't conveyed because the character is in a blank space. The readers have no idea where they are. The character might be running and shouting but the reader hasn't a clue as to whether they're outside, in a giant rat maze or in a Hunger Games clone. Time, space etc are lost and so is the reader.

    I keep knowledge and interest within the character's grasp - if he doesn't or wouldn't care about a Bugs Bunny billboard than I don't need to mention it. This is where details can come to a fine point and actually become more interesting. But for the start of a book I like to make sure the readers know where the character is, what he's doing and what sort of book this is going to be.

    I really like what everyone has suggested so far. Seems like Pace is really wrapped up in character - interesting.
     
    Last edited: Dec 19, 2014
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  11. Hwaigon
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    Hwaigon Contributing Member Reviewer

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    @peachalulu

    "I keep knowledge and interest within the character's grasp - if he doesn't or wouldn't care about a Bugs Bunny billboard than I don't need to mention it."

    I love that.
     
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  12. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    Wow, very helpful responses here. I had no idea that setting was that important, I had figured it was just a blank box for the characters to run around in, but in some sense, the setting is another character to look into. It gives us deeper insights on the motivations of not just the main character, but of other characters surrounding him/her. If one character looks at the Bugs Bunny billboard and recoils in horror and the other wonders what that was about, that little detail could go a long way to making the story more life-like.

    Very interesting, insightful responses. :)
     
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  13. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    It's really not that hard. For example, Tom and Julie are late for a party in NYC. Tom won't stop complaining about the traffic lights, or the traffic, or the tourists running in front of the cars, or how overrated Xmas in NY is. Then a horse and buggy get in the way and he flips a **** and Julie says she wants a divorce. It's an action scene dependent on the setting, even down to the smallest details. Setting is meant to be dynamic, not just padding. FYI, I think setting is even more than that too, but that's a larger conversation.
     
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  14. Fitzroy Zeph
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    Fitzroy Zeph Contributing Member Contributor

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    Question regarding filtering as given by @EdFromNY One caution: when you do this, be very careful to avoid "filtering" - "he saw", "she heard", "he realized", "she felt".

    How do you let the reader know they are in a particular head if you don't occasionally use such a filter?
     
  15. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    He saw: He couldn't keep his eyes off the top button of her blouse. It was threatening to come undone.

    She heard: The screech of skidding tires rang in her ears. Mary slammed on the brakes.

    He realized: That was it! The key to the mystery had been right under his nose the whole time.

    She felt: The words hurt. She fought off the tears.


    I'll often write the scene, then go back and take all the filter words out. My brain still tells the story in filter words and I have to compensate.
     
    Last edited: Dec 19, 2014
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  16. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    I do it by making sure the POV is established quickly in the scene, usually by some action performed by the POV character. For example:

    Marica was feeling better, and took a walk through the central square and down along the waterfront. A ship had tied up that morning, larger than most of the other ships in port. The deck was jammed with at least fifty black men chained together and shirtless, and a foul stench hung in the air.
     
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  17. Swiveltaffy
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    Swiveltaffy Contributing Member Contributor

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    Essentially stated, but use details that, through inference, demonstrate setting, themes, character personality, what-have-you. Sure, maybe houses have fireplaces, but maybe this fireplace could be special because the character has nostalgia for them. Just a mediocre example, but try to incorporate the multifunctional.
     
  18. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    This is the perfect kind of beginning. We have a character whose state provokes a question ( what is she feeling better about? ) which provokes reader curiosity. It gives us place, action, details and time all in three smooth sentences. Good example Ed!
     
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  19. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Thanks very much. High praise, indeed, coming from you, @peachalulu! However, in the spirit of full disclosure, I took this out of context and simplified it a little to show how one can set a scene, indicate POV and give a description of the setting without filtering. It's the beginning of a scene, but the character's state of mind is known to the reader from a previous scene.
     
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  20. Fitzroy Zeph
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    Fitzroy Zeph Contributing Member Contributor

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    I read this and it seems very natural to me, however, I see no difference between what you wrote and she felt. I am not criticizing, just trying to gain insight into the nuances of this technique.
     
  21. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    One is reporting what she felt. The other is showing the reader what made her feel that way and letting the reader feel it.

    ETA: And you know what, @Fitzroy Zeph? I'm very glad you asked because, in answering you, I was reminded of an edit I have to make. Thank you.
     
  22. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    But he's right, Ed. Consider the sentence with a substitution: "She felt better and took a walk."

    That's not different. This is different:

    The sip of water stayed down. Now to try moving. The vertigo from bending her head down relented long enough to put her shoes on, so far so good.
    The rest of the sentence was showing, but it wasn't related to how she felt or why she felt better.
     
    Last edited: Dec 19, 2014
  23. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Ginger, two things. First, the focal point of the example is not that she felt better. As I have already said, that relates to a prior scene (sorry I included it here, as it detracts from the operative part of the example).* Secondly, the focus of the example is what she heard and smelled. And the revision I made after posting was what she smelled, not just that there was a foul odor in the air.

    *Lesson - within the context of a novel, the component parts are intrinsically interrelated, and when we take them out of context, we degrade the meaning.
     
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  24. Fitzroy Zeph
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    Fitzroy Zeph Contributing Member Contributor

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    Using part of GC's example (I hope that's okay GC) I get: She felt sick, but the sip of water stayed down. Now to try moving. The vertigo from bending her head down relented long enough to put her shoes on, so far so good.

    You see, I don't find that too offensive. But again, I am really trying to figure out this filtering thing. Maybe I'm trying to be too analytical for my own good.

    Perhaps if all that is said is: She felt sick. Then that would an infraction?
     
  25. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    A person can definitely feel sick. I think, "She felt sick," is just fine and is often just what a story calls for. It was just a coincidence I used illness in my example.

    I think you may be taking the word "felt" out of context. Here are some examples that might better explain the issue:

    I felt it wasn't right.
    I felt like I should have done it differently.
    It made me feel like crying.

    Remember there are no absolutes here. Sometimes one needs to use these sentences. But they are plain, filtered and there are often better ways to say the same thing.

    "How could he! How could he steal from me, his own brother?"
    The low marks on my paper told me the teacher didn't get my humor.
    Tears welled up but I kept a straight face.
     
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