Sunday, January 24, 2016

Such Stuff as Scenes are Made on

In the fourth act of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the magician protagonist says:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Scholars disagree about exactly what has “ended.” Magic? Story? Wakefulness? Life? In any case, Prospero advises that wisdom—and story—intertwine reality and magic. Of course Prospero didn’t add that story blends scene (live-time presentation) with summary (abbreviation of the less dramatic, supporting parts). Yet that mix is a huge part of story magic.

Alas, it doesn’t always happen. Novelists find it easier to condense drama as summary and expand the mundane into scene. But that gets readers thinking about “little lives” and “sleep.” Make your readers happy by plotting with a combination of scene and summary.

~ Hook readers at both ends of the scene.
Though readers want some setting pretty quickly, push the hook as close to the first sentence as you can. It’s not just for readers. When scenes never get off the ground, it’s because the writer knew neither the source of the tension nor where it was headed.

~ Show how the scene advances the protagonist’s arc.
Never let a central character exit a scene unchanged.

~ Create palpable adversity.
If the characters merely shrug and agree to disagree, this shouldn’t be a scene. Raise the
stakes. A lot. Raise them with someone actually doing something.

~ Save scenes for high drama.
Most adults have coffee and drive away in their cars every weekday. Do readers truly want to encounter this over and over? If you need it at all, do it as summary.

~ Develop skill with summary.
Efficiency isn’t inherently tedious. In fact, done properly, quite the opposite. But until you compose intriguing summaries, you’ll put everything in scene. Here’s how to keep your voice when writing summary.

·         View this as a skill—one you can learn. You mostly just need practice.
·         Trace the passage of time with character emotion.
·         Choose specific, concrete language.
·         Emphasize how one event caused the next.
·         Set up the next conflict.

Tip: A mix of scene and summary is the stuff that fiction’s made on.

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