Thursday, December 01, 2005

Contests and Scene Changes

Wow, too long since my last entry. Too many things going on at once. Work, finishing up the new Shandra book (tentatively titled Dead Again,) writing a new national supernatural thriller, the usual change-of-season family illnesses. You name it.

The good news is that the Mystery writing contest was a resounding success. I've received over 30 entries from 10 different states and one from Germany. And let me tell you, the judging is going to be tough. There are some great entries. I've asked five other authors to help me pick the winners, but I will respond to every entrant personally. I was really amazed at the quality and creativity. (The human heart in the BBQ was quite a surprise!) I'll keep you updated on the entries and the judging right here so stay tuned. Winners will be announced on the 12th and if I get permission, I will post all of the entries.

I expect to post the December contest tonight. I think it will be a lot of fun and definitely a change of pace.

My second item of business is something that I will elaborate on further in my next writing tip, but I thought I'd get your feedback first. The other day I read a comment that really struck home. It was in regards to screenplays, but I think it may fit into writing fiction as well. The comment was, "Enter the scene late and leave it early."

What does that mean? Well let's start with the first part.

How many times have you started a chapter with, "The desert sun pounded like a blowtorch on the deserted Indian village. The smell of sand and sage carried on the air like . . . (more description) Tom pulled into the dirt road in front of the dilapidated hut, got out of his car and knocked on the door. The old man peeked through the window. 'Go away,' he shouted. 'No one wants you here!' "

Is that bad? No. But does it pull you into the chapter? Not as well as it could. What if we tried this?

" 'Go away,' the old man shouted through the window of the dilapidated adobe hut. 'No one wants you here.'

'I need to talk--'Tom stepped out from under the shaded porch. Before he could get to the window the wrinkled face disappeared. He pounded on the door again, but there was no response from inside. Great, he thought, pulling a faded red handkerchief from his pocket and mopping at his face. He'd come over five hundred miles to stand out under the blowtorch sun in the middle of a deserted Indian village like a blasted Gila."

See the difference? In the first example we have to read one or more paragraphs before we get to the meat. As an author, our first thought is to set the stage if you will. We want the reader to see the images unfolding in our heads. But what if you jump right into the scene and then provide the background information (scenery, time of day, characters, etc.) as the scene unfolds? This pulls the reader right in.

Let me give you an example from my own writing. In chapter two of my second national, a man is driving down a twisty mountain road late at night. The chapter ends with him hitting a woman who suddenly appears out of the misty night. I found myself struggling over how to begin the next chapter. It just seemed too slow to have him open the door, look back down the road, get his flashlight, and so forth. But do I really need all that? Instead I began the chapter with:

"The woman was dead. If he hadn’t known by the glazed blue eyes staring up into the beam of his flashlight, the impossible angle of her thin white neck would have left no doubt."

Then I have him step out of the ditch where he found her and look around for help as I fit in the swirls of mists glowing red in the car's taillights etc. The reader understands that he got out of the car and found the body, and I get the immediacy I want.

So what about leaving the scene early? Same concept. Get the biggest bang for your buck. How about this example of the end of a chapter.

"Roy glanced down the side of the sheer cliff. He was over two hundred feet in the air. If he fell . . . He shuttered just thinking about it. Concentrating on the job at hand, he shifted his weight to a large white rock jutting from the side of the mountain. Only twenty more feet and he'd be safe. Just as he reached for the next handhold, the rock he was standing on gave way.

"No!" he screamed.

He scrambled for something to hold onto, but everything around him seemed to be in motion. The cliff face in front of him sped by. Rocks and dirt tumbled past as he picked up speed. (And so on.)"

Not such great writing, but quite a cliff hanger huh? (Sorry I couldn't resist that.) Now try ending the chapter at "the rock he was standing on gave way." You have to turn the page and see what happens. Go ahead and start the next chapter with, "No!"

So what do you think? Does this apply to fiction as much as it does to film or am I up in the night?


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