Take Five: #22: Scenes and sequences

Take Five

Five-minute reads about writing
to help you with NaNoWriMo
Nov. 1 - Nov. 30, 2011
Courtesy: Sasha Soren (Random Magic)
Twitter: @RandomMagicTour

#22: Scenes and sequences

Writing a novel is definitely more like finishing a marathon than running sprints - in overall effect.  

You do have to get to the finishing line - all the way over there - or you won't have a novel. No matter how well you do in a sprint, a sprint is not the entire journey, just a part of it. 

There'll be some slower patches and some faster ones, but the experience overall is that slow and steady wins the race. 

You can stop for refueling, but you can't stop. But that doesn't mean you have to look at the marathon as one long race, looking at the distance to cover - and there's a lot of it! - in one block of geography, one long road. Because it is but it isn't. 

If you look at the writing as one long road, or one long thread, or like walking the length of a single plank of wood that goes on for hundreds of miles, it might be enough to put you off completely. 

Writing a novel is a huge commitment, and it does require time and focus. But you can break that up into segments, rather than having to write it all at one time... 

Of course you should know your beginning and ending, but in the meantime, there's a lot to cover. Rather than handling it as one lengthy and unified thread, it can help to think of events in the middle of the novel as scenes, instead. 

That is - you can set out on the plank of wood that's hundreds of miles long, hoping you have enough energy to put one foot in front of the other for those hundreds of miles, until you can finally drop from exhaustion. 

Or, you can think of the process more as a chessboard; still the same long field, but made up of squares of shorter distances to cover. You have to get from this side of the board to the other side of the board - or, at least, accomplish the goal of capturing the other side. 

But that doesn't mean you have to always go in a straight line; you can zig-zag, replace, skip over things and even retreat, as needed. You can swap figures of the story (or, in this case, the game) for others.

Your goal is the other side of the board, or capturing the other side, even if the final skirmish takes place somewhere you didn't expect it to be; as long as there's resolution, in chess or in writing a novel, the game is complete. 

So, thinking of writing a novel as playing chess is another way to handle the work. A useful little freedom that stems from that is to think of your story in scenes, rather than as one long stretch of story. 

Of course they'll connect to each other in some ways, because they're building blocks and they belong together. But that's just it - scenes are building blocks. And, like building blocks, you can move them around to redesign your story if you find a better way to create something with them.  

So, yes, getting to the end of the story is a long stretch of time, and a long road. But the elements you use aren't static - you can move small pieces of them without disrupting the overall arc of your story. 

Rather than looking at the long road as a solid and immovable kind of plank, you can consider your story to be a chessboard, and move at will, depending on what changes along the way. It's the same thing for writing in scenes; actually, you can even think of it as the difference between editing film stock or editing digital information. 

You might want a specific sequence in the final result, but that doesn't mean you have to necessarily write the footage in sequence - you can write out of sequence, as long as you know your start and end points. 

That is, you don't have to look at the story as going from point one to point two to point three - it could go from point one to point nine, circle back past point four and skip the second point completely, as now being unnecessary. 

If you'd rather just have a simple chess analogy to keep in mind - rooks, though powerful, are restricted to linear paths. The king, though the most powerful by rank, can only move a hop at a time, rendering the piece valuable in status but useless in battle.

A pawn can move diagonally, but has to be within striking distance to be effective. The most valuable or powerful piece, therefore, is often a queen - who can move in nearly any direction and therefore adapt to almost any situation. 

This isn't always the case, as combinations of other pieces can be just as effective. But, overall, the queen isn't as limited in movement as the others; her abilities are basically a combination of nearly all the others.

So, you can choose to make plot the most important, and stick to the linear path, like rook. Or you can choose to make characters the most important, with plot sort of developing from the paths they cut as their intentions criss-cross.

You can cut a line or a phrase, or an entire page. You can tell a character's story by being very close, almost from inside that character's head - or telling the same story from a distance, a more objective viewpoint, or as a narrative, as one by a storyteller. 

To enjoy all of those tools in the arsenal, can think of the process of delineating a story in action as moving like a queen, changing to suit the situation. 

So, to summarize: 

* It's best to write slow and steady, for the long run - but there can be some short sprints in there.

* Know the beginning and ending and you can step out of sequence as needed.
* Writing in scenes will keep your story intact, but give you more flexibility in assembling it.

* Give yourself freedom to move in different directions, even some that weren't anticipated, because it could be a single move that wins the game.

* There are definitely guideposts or markers in every story, but the points you reach might not necessarily be in sequence - either while writing or in the final result. It's okay to move scenes around if needed - but it will definitely be easier to feel comfortable with this if you think of scenes as moving separate blocks, rather than breaking a single narrative thread.
- Sasha Soren, author of Random Magic

About this series

The Take Five series is curated by Sasha Soren, author of Random Magic. You can find out more about the book here, if you like:

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