Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Write Ingredients

Every high school freshman knows the criteria for a story by heart. Without characters, setting, and plot, you have nothing. "Without conflict," I always add, "you have nothing." But that's because they're freshmen; you already know that.

Gavin of Mechanical Hamster writes, "Every scene - every scene - needs to contribute something to all three of these story elements." This started me to thinking. And reflecting. And researching.

Let's look at Poe, master of horror, and his short story "The Tell-Tale Heart." The story is no doubt familiar to you: the narrator murders an old man because of his 'vulture eye' and then confesses the murder to the police because he imagines hearing the dead man's beating heart. I've chosen the second and fourth paragraphs of the story.

It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture --a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees --very gradually --I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.

To say that this scene furthers characterization is to put it mildly. Never have I been more completely convinced that a narrator is obsessive-compulsive, paranoid, or insane. The scene also furthers plot. Plainly. He's going to kill the old man. Now we know where the story is going.

A paragraph in a later scene reads: I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph. To think that there I was, opening the door, little by little, and he not even to dream of my secret deeds or thoughts. I fairly chuckled at the idea; and perhaps he heard me; for he moved on the bed suddenly, as if startled. Now you may think that I drew back --but no. His room was as black as pitch with the thick darkness, (for the shutters were close fastened, through fear of robbers,) and so I knew that he could not see the opening of the door, and I kept pushing it on steadily, steadily.

Characterization-wise, we know that the narrator is not only insane but giddy with his evil, his own daring. He not only worries about what others think, but he's intent upon proving how courageous he is. He is also aware of the old man's fear of 'robbers'. As for setting, not only are we in a bedroom with fastened shutters, but we are in a thick, black as pitch darkness.

There is something to this layering of each scene with character, plot, and/or setting. I'm not certain I agree that every scene needs to include all three pillars, but it's true that every scene should further the cause of at least two of them.

My research is not ending here with Poe. I shall continue combing through stories and books I love. But what do you do in your own writing? Do you consciously seek to include all three of these elements in every scene? Or do you leave that for revising? Or do you just write what comes to mind?


Doug said...

Alex, you've hit again on something that I am currently grappling with. I am doing a rewrite of my second novel and in every scene I evaluate does it add to the plot, the character, or the setting? Needless to say, I have thrown out a few scenes because they didn't. Maybe these scenes were initially meant to add conflict, but eventually added nothing to the overall story, so, out they go.

I specifically do not throw things out until rewrite though. I don't want to censor too soon. I let it all out, then keep the good parts during a rewrite. Often a scene that may not seem to fit initially, will trigger something in a later scene that ties it in, and may causes it to add value.

P.S. Hope you enjoy the book, thanks for picking it up.

stu said...

I think there probably shouldn't be any dead scenes in there, but that doesn't seem to preclude wandering off the point in the middle of otherwise entirely relevant ones.

laughingwolf said...

i like to overwrite, then go back and cut the crap as best i can

good post, alex

Nils said...

"what comes to mind" it is, though naturally I attempt to not produce too much clutter. My approach is decidedly unscientific, but hey, "I am not a writer!" (it's still my mantra.)

inlandempiregirl said...

I usually write what comes to mind first, then later add more details with revision. I am always afraid I am going to lose some thought if I don't get it down.

KatW said...

Interesting post. It is making me look at my YA book. I'm worried about something not ringing true. I shall look again keeping your post in mind. Sometimes we need reminding of those 3 things.

Kat :-)

Lindsay said...

I love to write dialogue, and it's easy to let my characters ramble on and on. One of the toughest things for me is to cut out a page of humorous dialogue just because it doesn't advance the plot, but the scenes are doubtlessly better for it.

Alex Moore said...

@doug: good point, there. i've found sometimes that the oddest little snippet jogs a new line of thinking that really opens the plot up. no need to slice & dice until the rewrite :)

@stu: all who wander... you know

@laughingwolf: thanks:P every teacher i've ever had always said: it's easier to cut than add. i'm with you; write too much. cut later.

Alex Moore said...

@nils: every writer or nonwriter has a method, even if it's non-scientific in nature! i'm curious how you go about things, though i think you're pretty organized (prolly even more so than me!)

@inlandempiregirl: you and me both! if i don't get the idea down, it's lost forever.

@katw: honestly, it's the simplest things that we sometimes forget. or, maybe we're doing them subconsciously, but we just need to remind ourselves that we're actually doing them purposefully :)