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Monday, November 13, 2017

Light the Dark: What Inspires You?




A few weeks ago, something really cool happened! Penguin Books sent me one of their latest writing books, Light the Dark. In it, 46 of the most acclaimed authors in the industry answer the question, "What inspires you?" by beginning with a passage from literature that had a profound impact on them. I'd like to participate in the concept by answering that question myself and asking you to participate in the same way. You don't have to post your answer online if you don't want to, but how cool would it be to flood the online world with this?

While you can all probably guess that I would point to Harry Potter for mine, and while that did have a big impact on shaping my relationship with literature and my career, I'm sure you are all tired of me talking about Harry Potter. So I've picked something different:

“Eating Poetry” by Mark Strand

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.

The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.

Their eyeballs roll,
their blond legs burn like brush.
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.

She does not understand.
When I get on my knees and lick her hand,
she screams.

I am a new man.
I snarl at her and bark.
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.


I encountered this poem in my creative writing poetry class in college. It comes across as more of a lighthearted, joyful poem. And while I don't know that it was necessarily a life-changing piece, I felt an immediate bond with it, because it captures exactly how I've often felt with storytelling. The idea being that, it's something I love so much, that I wish I could ingest it--live off it. Reading or watching a story isn't enough for me. I need to chew on it, swallow it, digest it, have it give nourishment to my brain, my heart, the marrow in my bones. And on difficult or monotonous days, the promise of a good story waiting for me once I've finished my responsibilities, has sometimes helped sustain me.

It's really the first stanza that speaks to me most:


Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.


There is no happiness like mine. I have been eating poetry. Reading, watching, and writing--especially writing--stories has given me a happiness like none else. On a good writing day, I could sing. The sky could fall down on me, and I'd still be happy. There is no happiness like mine. All I want to do is eat stories.

I like that the librarian doesn't understand. And she must be a lover of books or literature. But there is nothing as delicious as consuming literature--to the point that it is dogeared and bent and marked up--and none of the pristine things that a volume should look like an a library shelf. The dogs are great too. Not only are dogs known to eat things up, but they are known to love life and everything in it. (I'm sure we've all seen how happy dogs are when they get something delicious to eat.) That's how I feel when I have a good story. I love life and everything in it.

I am a new man.
I snarl at her and bark.
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.

I am a new man. Literature changes people. And the impacts are joyful. Even as a young child, after a good story, I wanted to run outside and romp with joy. I wish I could eat literature.

These experiences and feelings have undoubtedly shaped me. So many of my life choices have been decided based on my relationship with literature and storytelling. Writing down a scene just right--it's like there is no better feeling in the world! I would give anything to be a master storyteller. And I'm willing to put up with a lot in order to make the journey--more than I ever would have, if I'd never tasted the full sweetness of literature.

And this is partly what Light the Dark is all about. In the preface, editor Joe Fassler discusses how literature can literally change us--"I read something, and wasn't the same afterward." And what I like about the book is that although every writer starts by talking about a passage or a life-changing line of literature, from there, they wander into topics about ethics, adversity, identity, or the craft of writing, and explore life experiences, wise revelations, significant career choices, and their relationship with their own literature. I could go on with mine, but I'd rather you take a look at what the masters have to say.




Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process


A stunning masterclass on the creative process, the craft of writing, and the art of finding inspiration from Stephen King, Junot Díaz, Elizabeth Gilbert, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, Roxane Gay, Neil Gaiman, and more of the most acclaimed writers at work today

What inspires you? That's the simple, but profound question posed to forty-six renowned authors in LIGHT THE DARK. Each writer begins with a favorite passage from a novel, a song, a poem—something that gets them started and keeps them going with the creative work they love. From there, incredible lessons and stories of life-changing encounters with art emerge, like how sneaking books into his job as a night security guard helped Khaled Hosseini learn that nothing he creates will ever be truly finished. Or how a college reading assignment taught Junot Díaz that great art can be a healing conversation, and an unexpected poet led Elizabeth Gilbert to embrace an unyielding optimism, even in the face of darkness. LIGHT THE DARK collects the best of The Atlantic's much-acclaimed "By Heart" series edited by Joe Fassler and adds brand new pieces, each one paired with a striking illustration. Here is a guide to creative living and writing in the vein of Daily Rituals, Bird by Bird, Draft No. 4, and Big Magic for anyone who wants to learn how great writers find inspiration—and to find some of your own.

CONTRIBUTING AUTHORS: Elizabeth Gilbert, Junot Díaz, Marilynne Robinson, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, Aimee Bender, Mary Gaitskill, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Roxane Gay, Angela Flournoy, Jonathan Franzen, Yiyun Li, Leslie Jamison, Claire Messud,  Edwidge Danticat, David Mitchell, Khaled Hosseini, Ayana Mathis, Kathryn Harrison, Azar Nafisi,  Hanya Yanagihara, Jane Smiley, Nell Zink, Emma Donoghue, Jeff Tweedy, Eileen Myles, Maggie Shipstead, Sherman Alexie, Andre Dubus III, Billy Collins, Lev Grossman, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Charles Simic, Jim Shepard,  T.C. Boyle, Tom Perrotta, Viet Thanh Nguyen, William Gibson, Mark Haddon, Ethan Canin, Jesse Ball, Jim Crace, and Walter Mosley.


You can learn more about Light the Dark or pick it up here.


Monday, October 30, 2017

Answers to Backlogged Questions




Awhile ago I got a bunch of questions (and some anonymous comments), which I loved, but with everything going on, it's been difficult to get them up here. So, here are some of the smaller questions.

Anonymous said: What are your favourite YA and NA books? :) I love your post about creative writing!

Well, I really love Harry Potter and The Hunger Games! I know Harry Potter is shelved as middle grade, but as the series progresses, it eventually becomes YA. As for NA books, most of the ones I’ve read aren’t published as of yet–they are ones that I’ve edited. So I don’t have an NA to share. In fact, most of the books I read these days are just from editing O_o. It’s hard to come home and read some more after I’ve been doing it for hours already. But, hey, I’m not complaining, I get paid to read ^_^

Thank you! I love hearing that people like my blog! 

Anonymous said: Hi September, how are you doing? I'm looking forward to reading your YA series :) Have you finished the first book?

Hey Anon! I’m doing really great! I’m glad you are looking forward to it. So … I’m not sure who knows or who doesn’t but I’ve been working on rewriting that entire book because it wasn’t very good, and I’ve gotten so much better at writing. It was hard to make the decision, but honestly, it’s become one of the best decisions I’ve ever made because it’s SO much better!! Anyway, I’ve rewritten all of the middle. Then I got stuck on the last chapters–not because I didn’t have any ideas, but because I had too many I couldn’t get to fit together. So then I worked back on the beginning, but was having trouble there too (the beginning is so hard to write well!) Now I’m back working on rewriting the last chapters, and I figured out what to do.

Anyway, some people may have noticed I’ve taken my description down of it on my blog. It’s not because I’ve given up on it or anything it’s just that as I’ve been rewriting it, the description gives the wrong first impression, and I haven’t wanted to worry about writing a new one yet.

Thanks for asking!

SteveJones313 said: If you had the attention of the entire world for just one small moment, what message would you want to give?

That is a great question. I’d probably prefer to give a few super short messages, and it should go without saying that nearly all things should be done in moderation. Anything taken to an extreme becomes a vice.

1. Love and accept everyone–doesn’t mean you have to like and accept everything they do, but over the years, I’ve become more aware of how powerful love and acceptance is. If you look and start *really* paying attention, you’ll see that it does amazing things in almost all aspects of life–it’s like a magic itself. It also broadens people’s vision and hearts.

2. Those who give up or stop trying are those who fail. Doesn’t mean you can’t let something go–which to me is different than quitting–but true failure only comes from giving up.

3. Nothing is a waste of time if you learn something from it.

4. “If you want something you have never had, you must be willing to do something you have never done.”

5. Don’t stunt your own progression and work on overcoming behaviors of self sabotage.

6. Dedication, real commitment with hard work, isn’t usually required, but more is always acquired by it.

7. When we are judgemental, we alienate our brothers and sisters.

8. Trials and tribulation facilitate transformation

9. Too much skepticism can narrow your vision. But if you are too open-minded, your brain will fall out.

10: To achieve great things, we don’t have to be perfect, just worthy.

11. The difference between confidence and arrogance is how you treat (and think) about other people. True confidence comes from accepting *all* that you are as you are.

12. How we cope with difficulties greatly impacts our quality of life.

13. Let others be themselves. Let people change, including yourself.

14. Spend more time paying forward than paying back. Often the person who lent you help doesn’t need that help back–they were able to give it to you in the first place–instead, pay forward to someone who needs it more.

15. There is nothing wrong with noticing and acknowledging others' weaknesses, but it is cruel to take advantage of weaknesses.

16. Take care of yourself. When you take time to take care of yourself, you are able to better take care of others.

17. Accept your talents, blessings, gifts, and opportunities–even if others try to make you feel bad for having them–you can always bless more lives with them than without them.

18. “Nothing is stupid to someone who takes it seriously.” –William Zinsser.

19. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. Everyone deserves to be heard. But too often we take opinions that are contrary to ours as personal attacks. When we respond that way, we limit our ability to learn and understand.

20. It’s better to endure others’ derailing comments over and over again, than to endure a lifetime of unpursued dreams.

21. “Some of the greatest battles you will face will be fought within the silent chambers of your own soul” - Ezra Taft Benson


Anonymous said: Are you LDS?

Yes.


Anonymous said: Thank you so much for your post on talent and success. I was in a pretty awful mood. Been beating myself down. And ive been comparing myself to others non-stop for a while and seeing this really helped me. I still feel bad but I guess seeing a post like this just reminded me that struggling is fine. And as long as im moving forward, i'll be fine. Thank you so much i really needed this today. 

I’m glad it was helpful ^_^ I think all of us writers beat ourselves down from time to time. Uugh, yes, comparing–it can be so depressing sometimes, and worst of all, I think it’s human nature to want to compare others’ best to our worst. Often we compare our personal lives to someone else’s public life, or we compare our worst drafts to someone else’s polished and published stories. And struggling is fine. Lately I’ve been thinking about how what I feel about my writing at the time is not an accurate way to gauge. Sometimes when I feel that my writing is crap, it’s actually when I’m being most productive. Other times when I feel like my writing is amazing–I’m actually not getting really anything done, but just basking in my polished scenes. It’s weird. Hope things are getting better for you!


Monday, October 23, 2017

How to get a Job as an Editor




Anonymous said: Hi September, do you have any suggestions for someone who wants to get into the field of editing but currently has a full-time job (in a not-related field) and can't drop it to take up an internship? Are there other ways to build up experience in hopes of getting a paid editing job? Thank you!

Sure, I have some ideas!

So, I’ve said before, the tricky thing about the writing industry is that there are pretty much never set paths to do something--which can be great, because it means there are many ways to get there, but it can also be bad, because it’s hard to figure out what will work. Also, keep in mind that because there are so many different paths, a different person in the industry may have very different opinions than me, but I speak from my own perspective and experiences of course.

I’m not sure how involved you are in the writing community, but I’d start with getting active in the writing community outside of your work time obviously. Often you can find writing groups or events in your area, but you can also join online groups. I realize this is a question about editing--but who are you going to be doing editing work for? Other writers. You can also look at going to conferences and conventions.

Like most things in the writing world, a lot of the education is something you need to take the initiative to do yourself. I don’t know where you are at in the area, but definitely start learning about writing and storytelling (I’m assuming you want to do fiction editing). There are different types of editing, but the two big ones are content editing and line editing. I’d suggest working at learning how to do both. There is also proofreading, which is one of the last edits, if not the last edit, where the editor goes through and fixes typos, dropped words, misspellings, punctuation errors, things like that. Learn what makes a good story, how to fix a broken one, and learn all the grammar and punctuation rules too.

To get better at editing, probably the best thing to do is to start reading unpublished fiction (in addition to the published fiction you've read). Joining a good writing or critique group would be great for this. Maybe you don’t participate by writing, but you participate by reading and giving feedback. Obviously the more you do this, the better you’ll get at developing an eye for what works and what doesn’t.

Being involved in the writing community is also helpful because it helps you network. I hate thinking about the concept of “networking,” but really, in the writing industry, it’s not that hard. Just start meeting and interacting with people in the writing community and industry. You don’t need to be desperate, just friends. Networking/friendships can lead to other opportunities, and other people telling others about you.

As you start learning and growing and gaining experience and getting better at critiquing and editing, you might want to ask for a few testimonials or endorsements from people you have worked with, or make a list of solid references.

From there, you have two paths. You can start looking for editing positions at publishers, and try for those, or you can try doing freelance editing. You can even try for both. Thank heavens for the internet, because it’s revolutionized the freelancing world. Build a nice freelance website--and you can look at other editors’ sites to see how they did theirs. If this is your first job in the industry, you might want to start at like $10-15 per hour, and then work on getting some clients. As you get better and better and your business grows, you can increase what you charge. Unless you are a celebrity in the writing world, the top editors hit their ceiling at $60 per hour. I’m sure like any business, this takes a lot of work, because it’s all on you to find your clients, market yourself, etc.

You do not need an English degree to become an editor--but you need to have a lot of same expertise that someone with an English degree has. You can take the initiative to learn that on your own, or you can consider taking a journey through an English program at a University, and maybe getting a degree. I have an English degree, and I know other editors who have degrees also.

On a final note, I wanted to say thank you to everyone who helped my with my Thunderclap campaign! With your help, I was able to reach my goal, and I have had plenty of visits to my new editing website at FawkesEditing.com.  If you haven't shared it yet, I'd appreciate it if you did. If you haven't looked at it yet, click here and check it out. Thank you!


Monday, October 16, 2017

Working with Teasers




About a year ago I went to the bookstore and started pulling books off the shelf to see how many of them had prologues, then I grabbed about a dozen books with prologues, sat down, and started reading them.

A lot of people in the writing world say prologues are horrible and that you should never ever ever ever ever write one.

I've always had mixed feelings about that advice.

Especially since all growing up, I liked prologues. Still do.

As I started reading all these prologues, I realized not only did the books do a no-no by having a prologue in the first place, but so many of the prologues broke dozens of writing rules. It would be enough to make any aspiring author want to rip out her hair. How come everyone who is teaching me to write stories tells me not to do these things, but then a quarter of the books on shelves are doing them in the very opening?

But I realized when reading through prologues that day, that most of them were teasers. A teaser functions different than other parts of the story, and if you don't know how to discern them or understand them, it can mess up your writing. Not enough people talk about teasers, which is why I'm doing this post.

Teasers inherently break a lot of writing rules, so it's unfair to compare them to everything else. They have a different purpose and function in storytelling. Teasers function off emotional promises to the audience.

Let's start with where the general public has heard the term--in reference to movie trailers. There are two main types of movie trailers: theatrical trailers and teaser trailers. A theatrical trailer is longer than a teaser trailer. It conveys the basic plot of the story. It communicates what the story is about.

Since I'm getting excited for the second season of Stranger Things to come out this month, let's look at their trailers for examples.

Here is the Stranger Things theatrical trailer.




Notice how the trailer guides us through the plot's set-up. It conveys to the audience that the story starts with a boy who has gone missing, having met some kind of ill fate, and his mom and others are looking for him. Eventually, his friends meet a girl who might know where he is.

Now, most theatrical trailers will have some kind of voice over or text on the screen to guide the viewers, and tell them what the story is about.

A teaser trailer is different. They're short. They usually don't really guide the audience through the plot's set-up, but instead show flashes of what kinds of emotional appeals the story is making to the audience.

Watch this Stranger Things season 2 teaser.



While there is text on the screen, it doesn't actually tell us about the plot of the story. But what it does do is make promises to the audience about what kind of emotional appeals it has.

- We get the retro 80's feel from the very beginning, which appeals to that feeling of nostalgia.

- We get yelling and then heavy breathing, which appeals to the feeling of fear.

- We see friends together, which appeals to the feeling of camaraderie--buddy stories.

- We see hints of a government conspiracy, which appeals to a feeling of wonder and horror and stirs the intellect.

- Finally, we get the feeling of wonder and horror when we see a dark creature outside.

Teasers don't tell us a whole lot about what the plot is about--just glimpses of it. They don't give us much, if any, context. They promise the emotional journey that will be delivered if you watch this show.

However, what else teasers promise, is that if the audience watches, they'll get the context.

One of the most important things about teasers is that they are short. If you want to do some research, look up theatrical trailers and teaser trailers for the same movies. The teaser is always shorter.

This is because an audience will sit through a lack of context for only so long. If it goes on too long, especially in the opening of the story (prologue usually), they'll get antsy. They need meaning. They need to be able to interpret what they are viewing or reading on their own, in order to become invested in the story, in order to care. They have to be able to participate, not just be dazzled with camera shots of creepy creatures. Maybe once that would have been enough to hold an audience back in day, but not today where so much entertainment is so accessible.

The less context a teaser has, the shorter it needs to be.

If it has a little more context, it can be a little longer.

If it has a little more context than that, it can be a little longer than that.

But one of the defining qualities of a teaser is the lack of context. If you give full context, it's not a teaser. You might have a theatrical trailer prologue, which is perfectly acceptable, but it's not a teaser.

So how do you handle a teaser? You appeal to emotional promises and beats. Luckily, you do not have to appeal to all your book's emotional beats in a teaser prologue. This is why often after teaser prologues, you get a chapter one that appeals to different emotional beats, and hopefully having dual openings gives your reader a sense of what kind of emotions this story is going to sate overall. And again, not everything needs to be in the opening, just the promises for what kinds of things will be in the story.

If you watch multiple teaser trailers for the same movie, sometimes you'll see that each teaser focuses on certain types of emotional beats. For example, in the Harry Potter movies, you may see how some may focus on the slice-of-life stuff at Hogwarts, while others focus on the dangerous Voldemort stuff. Usually, you'll see appeals to both, but if the movie has a big marketing campaign, you might get emotion-targeted teasers.

Teasers don't only appear in prologues. They may also appear as short scenes in the story, usually in the first half of the story. When you are working with a story where the threat is at a distance until the midpoint, you might get short teasers about what that threat is doing or planning to do, to remind the audience of their presence, promise again that trouble is coming, or sate the audience's emotional need. The movie I am Number Four, is a good example of this. The Twilight movie also does it.

Again, these teasers function the same way. They are short. Have less context. They make emotional promises.

Teasers that take place in the story, as opposed to the prologue or opening, don't have to necessarily promise trouble. They can speak to other things. For example, in a fantasy where your protagonist hasn't yet discovered a magic system, you may show a teaser of the mentor character using it in a fascinating way, with the promise that we will learn more about it in the future.

There are obviously differences between movie trailers and books. For example, movie teasers will often show short clips, quick shots, that inherently appeal to certain emotions. So for romance, there might be a quick shot of two people kissing, then a shot of a couple holding hands. These shots might come from two entirely different scenes from different ends of the movie. We can't and shouldn't write our teasers like that (usually). As a teaser in a story, especially a written one, you're more working with a teaser scene. The audience already lacks some context. Trying to jump between multiple scenes is just going to be more confusing. As a rule of thumb, don't intermingle and jump around scenes like that in your teaser passage. You can probably get away with sequential teaser scenes, as long as the teaser passage doesn't go on too long.

On a micro-level, some teasers aren't scenes, but lines in a scene--a sentence here or there that has that emotional buzz attached. And some of those bleed into this post on the Mechanics of Rendering Mysteries and Undercurrents.



Monday, October 9, 2017

Boom! Bang! Pow! Using Onomatopoeias Well



Today's article is going to be rather short, because that's all it needs to be for this particular lesson. But first, a couple of announcements: 1) I was recently in the news for one of my Comic Con panels. You can see and read that here. 2) I only have about 4 days left of my Fawkes Editing Thunderclap campaign, and I only need 7 more people to reach my goal. It's completely free to pledge! So please help me get the last 7. Go here. Thanks!

An onomatopoeia is a word that expresses a direct sound. You learned about them when you were a toddler: meow, oink, woof, moo. Then there are also the other sounds: ka-ching, sizzle, squawk, whoosh, zoom, and onward.

In creative writing, we are taught to appeal to all senses: sight, smell, touch, taste, and sound. That's when onomatopoeias become relevant. However, there are good ideas and not-so-good ideas on how to use them.

Not-so-good

I went out into the backyard. My neighbors next door had a thing for raising pigs to compete in fairs. 

"Oink! Oink! Oink!"

I hoped I'd be able to ignore them as I practiced my lines for my next audition.

"Oink, oink, oink, oink."

I hoped.

Many new writers will approach onomatopoeias this way. I think by default, we are taught about them in this way, as toddlers. But when you use them like this, unless you are writing a children's story or maybe even middle grade, it usually cheapens the story. We aren't toddlers anymore.

Another exception to this is comic books, manga, graphic novels, and maybe even visual novels--stories where pictures convey much of the story, usually in panels, and the classic onomatopoeia usage is naturally tied to the medium.

Personally, I think this is largely because these mediums are more visual than a typical novel, with little narration (usually) so that's naturally how to convey sound, similar to how in a movie, you would simply hear the sound effect. I could be wrong; I'm not an expert on these mediums by any means, but that's the vibe I get.

Good

I went out into the backyard. My neighbors next door had a thing for raising pigs to compete in fairs. I closed my eyes in a moment of annoyance as they oinked to unprecedented volumes.

I hoped I'd be able to ignore them as I practiced my lines for my next audition.

The oinks reached a new obnoxious pitch.

I hoped.

For typical fiction writing, you handle onomatopoeias by turning them into verbs or nouns or adjectives. "They oinked," "The oinks," and its work with other words.

Seagulls cawed along the shore.

Bacon sizzled in the pan.

The scooter zoomed down the street.

The child's screech could have made us deaf.

He had a barking tone.

This way you convey sound in a way that's natural to narration, without it drawing too much attention to itself.

There are some exceptions, particularly with dialogue. Sound words that actually are naturally said are usually fine. For example, "Oof!" is a sound that people actually make. However, pigs don't actually sound like "Oink!" Oink is just a way us humans invented to describe and convey the sound. This is why in different languages, you may have different sounds. In America, cats say "meow." In Japan, they say "nyan."

So the following are often going to read fine, and you'll see them in fiction sometimes:

"Uugh, that was the worst meeting I've ever sat through," Sandra said.

"Uh, is that . . . a spider?" Jeffrey asked.

"Oof--what was that for?" Mitch rubbed his head. "That hurt."

"Pfft, like that would ever happen." 

"Ahem, are you listening?"

However, some words do sound a little strange, unless you are using them jokingly.

"Boo-hoo!" Sally cried.

No one I know actually makes that sound when crying.

There are some cases where the classic Boom! does work, but almost never ever. Other than a few of those common dialogue words, like "um," "er," and "uh," you almost always want to turn the onomatopoeia into a verb, noun, or adjective.

Monday, October 2, 2017

On-Page or Off-Page? Discerning Significant Scenes




Like a lot of writers, you've probably, at some time, been at a point in your story where you wondered if an event needed to be a scene or not. Could it happen off-page and be referred to? Does it need its very own scene? Can it be shuffled into the beginning, end, or middle of another scene? Or you may have found yourself writing scenes about events that you later realized didn't really merit a scene.

Once in a while when editing, I come across stories where an important event of a viewpoint character happens off-page. Sometimes this is done simply to try to surprise the audience as to a character's decision. It might create false suspense. Other times it might be done to shorten a story. Some writers might do it because they don't want to write the scene or don't know how to.

In contrast, some writers may include every event of their viewpoint character on-page, which may lead to drawn-out pacing and inflated storytelling (and readers wondering, do I really need to know this?)

Of course, like all writing rules, what does and does not merit a scene can be somewhat subjective. That's why they are more like guidelines rather than rules. For organic stories, this may be even more true. In formulaic stories, especially if you are following a beat sheet, it's clearer what should have a scene and what shouldn't. In any case, there is some leeway, and of course, it depends on the story you are telling and effect you want on the reader.



Generally speaking, however, significant events in the story should happen on-page, in a scene. The exception to this is backstory. We don't need a flashback scene for all of your character's backstory. But in most stories, from the moment the story begins to its ending, significant events should happen on-page. The more significant the event, the more likely it should happen on-page. This means that if one of your plot lines deals with romance, and someone confesses they are in love with your protagonist, it should probably happen on-page. If the Grinch's heart grows two sizes, it should probably happen in a scene. If your protagonist battles an enemy, it should probably be on-page.

The less significant the event, the less likely it needs to be on-page. What your character ate for supper each night probably doesn't need to be in its own scenes (unless your story deals with cooking or worldbuilding, or magical creatures that eat a lot like Peregrin Took). A full-blown scene on the drive to work probably doesn't need to be in your manuscript.



But trying to explain all this is like trying to hold water in your palms. There are a lot of different stories, so what might merit a scene in one story might not merit one in another story. It's not black and white. For example, in a story that has a rich fantasy world, like Harry Potter, a scene about what Harry had for dinner during the sorting ceremony might be completely appropriate, as one of the main draws of the books is to transport the reader to Hogwarts.

So another important factor is why the audience is picking up the book. If you have an adventure story, you darn better include the biggest adventure moments of your character on-page. If you are writing fantasy, the moments that have the highest amount of wonder that your viewpoint character experiences, should probably be on-page. In a horror, the scariest moment of your protagonist should be on-page.

Moments that significantly affect your protagonist personally or moments that influence their character arc or alter their motives should probably be in a scene.

If these things don't happen on-page, the writer should have a valid reason for not including them. What you definitely don't want to do is leave your reader feeling cheated. If I pick up a romance story, I sure as heck better see the moment where the protagonist and love interest confess their love for one another and kiss.

Remember, the more significant the event, the more likely it needs to happen in scene.

Other times, you may have important events that the reader needs to know, but aren't significant enough for a scene. In these cases, you can put the information in summary. For example, if you are writing a story of an adventure, but there is a stretch of land where the characters have to get through a huge bog that is difficult (but rather boring) and only a couple of interesting things happen, then you would probably want to summarize the bog. Now some people may say you should replace the bog with something else or find a way to make it exciting. You can try that, but it depends on what your story is. My point is, in almost every story, there are parts that needs to be summarized.



I don't need to read full scenes about every one of Harry's Quidditch practices. I just need a summary to convey how hard the players are working, what their interactions are like, and the rivalries that are building up.

However, keep in mind, that summary still needs to be interesting, either in content, or in the way it's told (preferably both).

Almost all stories should have information or events that happen off-page. Why? Because it makes your story feel more real and authentic. It also makes the story "bigger than itself." Often this sort of thing best happens with backstory. Your characters don't exist in a void. They should feel like they were alive before the story began, even if it's in small ways, like your protagonist remembering in passing a time when she slept through church. Side characters should also have their own lives off the page, which should be alluded to.

In any case, here are some questions I've come up to help you discern if an event should happen on-page or off-page:


- How significant is this event?

- Does the event alter the storyline? How much?

- Does it alter an important character in a significant way? How much?

- Does it convey important information to the audience? How important?

- Is it a very thematic moment? (Often thematic scenes do not seem important, as they are often just two characters talking, but usually they are significant in conveying the theme, and should be included.)

- Does it feed the audience's emotional needs? (for example, in a story about a traveler, chronicling what happens each day fulfills what the audience picked up the book for.)



As for writing scenes, you can find a lot of great information online. Ideally, scenes accomplish multiple things at once. So for example, if your protagonist tells his mom he lost the love of his life, and later tells his best friend the same thing, you might want to see if you can set-up a scene where he tells both of them at the same time. When looking at your theme, you might want to ask yourself if there is another scene you can fit into.

Some scenes are better left simple. Deeply personal moments or vulnerable moments might happen better in mostly their own scene (though you can still convey other things about character). You don't want to stack things inappropriately. For example, in some classic romances, it might be inappropriate to have your character confess his love when his sinking ship is being attacked by the undead. HOWEVER in an adventure story, it might be entirely appropriate for them to get married in that moment, like in Pirates of the Caribbean. 



Almost all scenes should show a change. In rare cases, the point of the scene might be to show how things stay the same. But 9/10 times, the scene needs to convey change. It can be external and part of the plot at hand, or it can be internal, about how a character changes. Some changes are very small. Some are big. But scene should almost always change the story in some way.

And with this topic, we could try to get very nit-picky, but storytelling doesn't always work that way. Often what is significant or not significant depends on how the story is set-up to the reader, so don't give yourself a headache trying to nail all this down like science. Many writers have a good internal sense of what should happen on-page. What should only happen off-page may be harder to discern for people. Take this article as a guideline to help you consider when to do which, and don't feel like you have to adhere to everything perfectly. There may be special cases where something very significant is much better in summary than scene, or off-page than on.

Thunderclap - Thank you to everyone who has helped my with my Thunderclap campaign for my new editing website, FawkesEditing.com. We now have 70 people who have pledged on it. Yay! But I still need 30 more! So if you haven't helped out yet, I would really appreciate it if you did. You can learn more and help here