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Writing Tips for the Committed Novelist

A Short Course in Structure ~ Writing Tips for the Committed Novelist

© 2012 Jack Remick. All Rights Reserved.

Every Tuesday and Friday, I sit down with a bunch of writers at Louisa’s Bakery Café in Seattle to write for half an hour or more. For years I wrote alone until Robert Ray introduced me to timed writing and timed writing saved my writing life. How and why? Working with other writers—especially writers who know more than you do—gets you outside your head. You get feedback faster, you get to the rewrite quicker. The way I see it, the art is in the rewrite so the sooner you get a working draft the better you’ll write. With timed writing you don’t die in Act Two.

Part One:

Writing Tip 1: Learn about timed writing, writing practice. Using start lines to get yourself in gear.

Examples of start lines that lead to structured writing.

Timed writing—what Natalie Goldberg calls “Writing Practice”—is either the devil’s design to stifle your creativity or the gateway to a paradise of writing. For me, timed writing is liberation. Timed writing is easy to do: you get a kitchen timer, set it for five, ten, fifteen minutes and write as deep and rich as your hand will let you. I like the physical connection of the fountain pen on paper, so I write by hand. Some writers in my group (at Louisa’s Bakery Café in Seattle) write on laptops. That’s okay. The idea is to finish what you start—that’s the major discipline. Finish what you start.

I use “start lines” to get going. If I’m working on a novel, I might use—“Today I rewrite the scene called

A Plague of Locusts. The scene takes place in the Tabernacle…Ricky kneels in the back pew…”

If I’m with my group at Louisa’s and I’m not locked into a novel or a story, the start line “today I’m writing about…” gives me plenty of room to explode. I use timed writing to write treatments, scene summaries, memoir moments, short stories, screenplay scenes. The big thing with timed writing is that you can use it to go nuts on the page, or you can use it in very structured way to create tight, hard, clear, clean sentences, scenes, stories. I don’t think in terms of paragraphs, but I do think in terms of “action” and “image.” I try to get a strong image or a strong action in each line. When I’m writing in a more structured way, I use a more structured set of start lines. For instance, I might write a three-act treatment for a novel (the treatment can come at any time in the course of the writing) as a way to check on how well I’m getting the story down. In other words, do I have the story in my head? Having it in your head means you don’t plot on the fly. Plotting on the fly is a sure way to writer’s hell. Here’s a set of start lines you can use to write a structured three-act treatment:

Set your timer, write for 5 minutes on each start line.

I am writing a story about….

  • Act One opens when….
  • Act One ends when….
  • Act Two opens in a scene called….
  • At the middle of my story, my protagonist….
  • Act Two ends when….
  • Act  Three opens when….
  • My story climaxes in a scene called….
  • My story ends with this final image….

Part Two: Timed Writing, Writing by Hand, Typing up what you write and why

Writing Practice: Type up what you write.

Why? Three reasons:

  • Don’t throw yourself away—This is your life.
  • Honor your words—This is your memory.
  • Discipline is your obligation to the gift—This is your work.

Don’t Throw Yourself Away.

Whether you write fiction or memoir, screenplay or poetry, it is your writing. You invest time and energy in your writing. You set the timer and you write a piece and later someone asks you how long it took you to write it and you don’t say five minutes or ten minutes or even twenty minutes because you know that it took you a lifetime to write it. You had to live it and get inside it and let it get inside you before you could write it.

That’s why you type it up. It has taken you a lifetime to get it and if you don’t type it up you throw it away. When we worked with Natalie Goldberg she said you must not toss yourself away. Tossing yourself away means that you don’t honor what you write.

When you write by hand on paper with a pen, you are getting close to the page and the work comes out of you in a flood. Some writers say “Oh, I can’t use this in my book so I won’t type it up.”

Memory fades. The work is yours. You have a better chance of getting it all if you type up what you write. Don’t throw yourself away. There are plenty of people out there ready to do that for you.

Honor your words.

This is your life and this is your art. When you go deep into the timed writing, you pull small gifts from the unconscious. There is no one but you who sees those words, although if you write with a group, others will hear them. When you write under the clock, you honor the words by reading them aloud. When you type up what you write and read, you honor your words by not throwing them away.

If you leave the words in the notebook, the work piles up and one day you see a stack of a hundred notebooks and you say, “Oh God, I’ll never get that typed up.” And you wind up throwing yourself away. All that time, all those little gifts from the unconscious are gone. And nothing can get them back. If you type up what you write, you have a chance to discover what you said. No one else cares. You are the only one who cares. If you don’t care, if you don’t type up your work, no one else will ever see it and who knows what life you did not change. To be a writer you must honor yourself. You must honor the words.

Discipline is your obligation to the gift.

It takes discipline to become a writer. It doesn’t happen overnight and it doesn’t happen by chance. Discipline. Finish what you start. Type up what you got. Discipline begets more discipline.

If you write one scene a day in writing practice and if you type it up every day, in one year you will have a story with 365 scenes in it. It takes about fifty scenes to make a screenplay or a novel. Do it every day and you become a writer.

But you have to honor your words, you do not throw yourself away, and you practice the discipline. Without discipline you do not finish and you waste your time and your life.

Time is not your friend.

Writing Tip 2: Story treatment versus The Pitch

If you took a shot at the three-act treatment I laid out last time, you’ll see that it’s a working piece. It’s about story, how things fit together, it’s about structure and how the pieces of your story flow and connect. The Pitch is a sell-piece that you use to plant your story, in five minutes or less, in the head of an agent, editor, or publisher. The most famous pitch of all time is probably for Alien—Jaws in space. That’s it. That’s the pitch. The pitch isn’t a treatment. A pitch is a high concept sell piece that doesn’t do the writer much good. A treatment is a working document the writer uses to keep control of the story as it develops. In my own work, I write a treatment at critical points in story development in order to make sure the story is in my head. Why? I want the story to live in my head so when I write a scene it’s like I’m pulling it out of experience instead of making it up. (I’ll touch on this in the following segment where we go over the Cut-to technique.)

After a certain point, the line between history and fiction blurs and you really get into your characters and you report what they say—and that’s called dialogue. Once I have a treatment, I can build a scene list. With the scene list, I can write any scene at any time using timed writing. For example, here’s the beginning for a scene in my novel Valley Boy—Today I’m writing the scene called Blood of the Lamb. The scene takes place in a peach orchard and… Sal slipped the tractor in gear and headed for the clearing at the end of the row where the semi waited to haul the last Saturday load to the fruit packer in Centerville. The trailer groaned as Ricky Edwards hopped on the tail end. He smelled the peaches in their ripeness, felt the peach fuzz grind at the creases of his bare arms, felt the peach fuzz claw at the back of his neck in the sweat in the heat.

A treatment, the way I see it, isn’t an outline and it isn’t a synopsis—synopses and outlines are beasts with striped fur and huge gnashers—and those two boys are worthless as writing tools. The treatment is a guide to deeper writing. Here’s a piece of one of the many treatments I wrote for Blood my novel that came out in 2011. I’ve posted this piece on my blog: http://blood.camelpress.com if you want to see more of it:

Blood tells the story of Henry Mitchell, a mercenary who steals women’s underwear hoping he’ll get caught and lifted from the blood-filled crime-rich life he’s been leading.

It’s a story about a man who sees that there is no excuse for the human race but also sees that he’s been killing the wrong people. It’s a story about blood and semen and the inevitable destruction of the race. It’s a story about a man who is so pessimistic and misanthropic that he wants to see the human race eradicated. It is a story about a man who has the killer gene. It is a story about a man who kills because he’s told to kill until his eyes open and he understands that he’s a tool in the hands of his bosses…

You can see that by repeating it is a story about…you lay down what I call plot tracks. (more on this notion in Writing Tip 6)

Next time, I want to work out for you the Cut-to technique which is another very useful tool for getting control of your story.

Writing Tip 3: Using the Cut-to technique.

Time is money. Compression. Implication. Movement down the page. Structure. White space. Film talk.

Like it or not, screenwriters have changed the way novelists have to write. Think ahead a little bit. Your novel is the raw material for a screen play. What happens to your story between print and script? The screenwriters have come up with a number of techniques that can make our work as novelists richer and help ease us into the 21st Century where the dominant art form is the image—moving or static. We live in a universe of images—TV, movies, youtube, video—all images. Let’s start here:

  • Compression—stories are told with action and image keeping exposition to a minimum. In this sense, screenwriting has more in common with poetry than with prose. Squeeze out what’s not necessary.
  • Dialogue does double duty—dialogue floats on subtext while it reveals character. Don’t tell the story in dialogue.
  • Time is money–Screenwriting is an intelligence test for the viewer—how little does the writer have to put on the page for the viewer to get it? Answer: Very little. Should it be any different for the novelist?
  • Movement down the page—That’s the holy grail—movement down the page. Minimal clumps of black ink, optimize white space to get the job done. Get the reader on the train, make no stops, don’t let’em off.
  • Structure—Scripts are built on scenes. Scenes are built on action and image. Scenes are short so the story moves. For the novelist, learning to think in scenes and white space, makes the writing tighter, faster, smoother by laying out the story line or the through line. That’s where the Cut-to technique gives you a leg up. And here’s the kicker—learning to write like a screenwriter thinks makes you a better novelist. Here’s an example of some cut-to work I did while I was writing Blood.

Blood starts in a laundromat on Third Avenue in a City that might be San Francisco, where Mitch gets arrested when he steals a tubful of white women’s underwear. Objects are laundry tubs, money, magazines. Hook is to searching Mitch’s apartment.

  • Cut to: Mitch’s apartment. The objects are M’s cache of underwear as varied as a Frederick’s of Hollywood catalogue, but all white. The action is the tossing of Mitch’s apartment by the police. The hook is to the courtroom scene.
  • Cut to: The courtroom where the Judge sentences Mitch to five years. Mitch doesn’t fight the sentence. The object is the handcuffs ( opens the manacle plot track) as the guard hauls Mitch away. (opens the guard plot track) The hook is to the prison cell.
  • Cut to: Mitch’s prison cell where he sees René Grosjean for the first time. The objects are René’s hair, his arms, and the metal objects in the cell—bunk, sink, head. The hook is to the measuring scene.
  • Cut to: Mitch recounting how he’s measured the cell. It is 15 by 9. The objects are the bunk, the head, the semen scratches and smears on the walls. The hook is to René’s possessing Mitch.
  • Cut to: The library where Mitch finds a thumbed copy of L’Etranger in French. The words are marked up, circled, almost illegible so Mitch has to guess at the meaning. He doesn’t tell René about the Stranger. (Opens the book plot track with the archeology of writing). The hook is to Mitch’s decision to write his own story.

So that you can see how I laid out Blood, I’ve posted the entire cut-to writing on my blog at http://blood.camelpress.com. Try running your short story, novella, or novel through the cut-tos. I use these words to make sure the cut-tos connect—Objects, plot tracks, hooksEach scene in the cut to has to hook to a scene down the line (manacle plot track; guard plot track; book plot track). All of those linked scenes work together to bind your story into an integrated structure. For example the Laundromat scene that opens Blood hooks to a scene in the prison laundry where Mitch makes a shiv out of a fan blade he rips from a washing machine. This is what I call Pattern and Transformation—a foregrounded object comes back changed.

The Laundromat scene, which focuses on clothing—that white underwear—hooks to the final scenes in the novel where Mitch, shedding his prison garb, dons an expensive jacket. Here’s that hook:

  • 50. Cut to: Mitch dresses in street clothes. Objects are blue blazer, gray slacks, white shirt, black shoes and socks, red tie. He changes one uniform for another. Plot track is Messenger of Death as tanist and lackey of CEO who needs an army of killers. Hook is the release back into the river of blood and the maelstrom of slaughter.

The clothing plot track runs through the entire novel. Check out sister Geraldine’s dressing plot track if you get a chance to read Blood.  Her dresses are color coded.

Next time we’ll look at ways to integrate the cut-to sequence into the Three Act Treatment which will leave you just one step shy of full-fledged scenes.

Writing Tip 4: Integrating the Three Act Treatment and the Cut-to sequence.

Let’s go back to the Three Act Treatment:

  • Act One opens when….
  • Act One ends when….
  • Act Two opens in a scene called….
  • At the middle of my story, my protagonist….
  • Act Two ends when….
  • Act  Three opens when….
  • My story climaxes in a scene called….

 You’ve written a Draft (In the computer age, I’m not sure just what a Draft is…)

You’ve written a three act treatment using the template, now you start using cut-to to fill out, fill in and move on through the story using this template:

  • Act One opens when….
  • Cut to-scene 2 –
  • Cut to-scene 3
  • Cut to-scene 4
  • Act One ends when

Here’s an example from The Deification, my novel just out from Coffeetown Press. For the first couple of scenes, I lay out the Cut to followed by the opening lines of each scene:

Act One opens when Eddie Iturbi, in a stolen car, picks up Layne Hansen at a truck stop in Bakersfield.

Eddie Iturbi leaned against the side of the Chevy wagon, counting the pennies as he filled the tank—6.50 6.90 6.99 7.00 and there the pump shut down and Eddie drained the last drop from the hose. Then he checked the map spread out on the hood—Bakersfield to the City—three hundred miles. Two and a half gallons plus the quarter tank—if he drove 55 and didn’t get blown off the highway when the semis rolled past he’d make it to Fresno.

Cut to: Hideout—Eddie and Layne layover at Granny’s house in Sanger.

Valley Lane was a dead-end dirt road jutting off Bethel Avenue at the Western edge of Sanger. Twin rows of tall, dripping palm trees lined the lane. A valley bungalow painted a washed out yellow with a pitched roof stood at the end of the cul-de-sac. The window trim looked black against the yellow. Concrete steps led up to the screened front porch.

Cut to: Angel of Death—Eddie has a vision of the Angel of Death that foregrounds the fire.

Later, and when he was alone, and while Layne slept, Eddie sat on the couch in the living room smelling the electric heaters in Granny’s room, the liniment and the hot sweet scent of chocolate melting. He then opened his notebook, he set his timer and he wrote about Layne and the gas station and the mist in his hair and how he glistened in the car in the first moments after he got in and Eddie wrote about Granny and the smells in her room and the clothing spread on the floor.

  • Cut to: Granny on fire—Granny’s house burns down with Granny in it.
  • Cut to: The Escape—Eddie and Layne flee the burning house—backstory on why Layne has to run.
  • Cut to: First Transformation—In the Shell station, Eddie trims Layne’s scorched hair.
  • Cut to: Destroying Evidence—Layne teaches Eddie how to trash a car.
  • Cut to: Karl’s Gym—First descent into the Underground, indexes Eddie’s change in Canto Three.
  • Cut to: Second Transformation—Layne becomes a woman.
  • ….(27 scenes in Act One)….

 Act One Ends when Eddie escapes from Fresno in a bus on a deadhead route to The City

At 10:00 p.m., Miss Van Kaennel came for him.

Wearing high heels, Miss Van Kaennel was six feet tall with big hair and healthy teeth. She wore thick makeup on her store model face, and she wore a high tone white blouse and black trousers. She carried a black leather purse slung on her shoulder that gave her the look of gunfighter with a hard-on for men.

In the bus station, Miss Van Kaennel signed vouchers and talked to the ticket agent and showed her badge and nodded at Eddie who stood beside her asking for his pack back. She handed it to him.

Notice that Act One opens and closes with Eddie in a vehicle. The car of scene one changes to a bus in the last scene. At the end of Act Three, that bus figures again, while the car—an object linking scenes throughout the novel—shows up in the Junkyard Ghoul scenes with Jake the Scavenger who is a transformation of the Angel of Death from scene three—(I guess you have to read it to appreciate that.)

This technique—filling in the Three Act structure with the cut-to work leads you through the story. Using timed writing as the foundation, you write a draft.  I write five or six drafts and after each draft I go back to the Writing about Writing to nail down the story line. The cut-to sequence then gives me the structure of the story on the through line.

At the base of all of this is that creative splurge you get when you set the timer and, forgetting how to think for 30 minutes, you write that discovery draft. You get one chance to be creative, you have the rest of your life to be analytical.

The way I see it, the art of the novel is in the rewrite and the Three Act Treatment coupled with the Cut-to technique gives you an entry point for the rewrite. We look at it in three phases: Story, Structure, Style. First, get the story down using the recurring start line: This is a story about. (see the earlier writing tips for more on this notion) You might have to do this fifty times before you cinch it but the work on the front end is worth it. Second, work out the structure using the Three Act Treatment and the Cut to sequence. Third, work on style which comes clear once you have the story line down and the structure in place. Focus on Action, Image, Action-Image using style verbs and concrete nouns.

One final note on all this—If you want to push your writing to the limit, turn the story into a screenplay. Writing a screenplay helps you compress and cut while giving you the speed you want to push on through to the end. Then, turn right around and adapt your screenplay into a novel. You’ll be surprised at the result.

Next time we’ll work on expanding the cut-to sequence into scenes. To do that we’ll look at scene structure. We’ll wrap up in the last session by taking apart the opening scene from Blood to show you how building a scene on fixed elements can give you control of the writing.

Writing Tip 5: From cut-to sequence to scene profile to a full scene.

If you tried the cut-to technique on a piece of your story and if you used objects, plot tracks, and hooks, you’re ready to take a shot at turning the cut-to into a scene profile. One of the many things I learned from working with screen writers is this—get into a scene late, get out early. That means starting as close to the climax or high point of a scene as you can, then working fast to wrap it up. Getting in late and getting out early works for novelists too. Just as novellas, stories, and novels have structure (look back at the Three Act Treatment in Tip 2) scenes have a structure as well. Here’s a rough template for the parts of a generic scene:

  • Setting:
  • Characters:
  • Objects onstage:
  • Dialogue-Monologue:
  • Action & Climax:
  • Closed Circle + Intruder:
  • Secret:
  • Symbol/Archetype
  • Hook

 How do you use this template? What can you use it for? Why use it at all? You fill in the template to build a complete scene profile before you write. You can look at it as front-end work you do before you set the timer to write the scene. You know the story, you’ve worked out the structure, and now you create the scene profile—then you write the scene. Let’s look at two examples.

The first example is a scene from the script for Leaving Las Vegas reduced to the scene parts. The second example is of a scene from a novella called Black Madonna in Blue. Screenplay or novella, the scene is the scene and so the parts will all be there. The complexity and thoroughness of the scene profile depend on how much you know about the scene from the Cut-to work, how much backstory you have written, and how much you know about your characters. Here’s the Biker Bar scene from Leaving Las Vegas:

Scene Profile – Leaving Las Vegas.

  • Setting: Biker Bar
  • Position: scene 93 Act 2 pt2.
  • Ritual: Love Quest, Negotiation, Combat
  • Purpose: Indexes Protag’s death wish and his romantic character.
  • Character and Setting: The place is a Rough English Bar in Las Vegas. A dark, dirty place. It is early morning. Protag enters for a drink when he discovers that the grocery store is closed.
  • Characters onstage: Protag Ben, Biker Girl, Aging Blonde in leather hot pants, a young Biker Girl, Biker Boy in black leather, Bartender. The aging blonde doesn’t have a speaking part. Ben wears the new clothes Sera has given him.
  • Objects on-stage: paper napkin, jukebox, slot machines, beer can, stools, Ben’s clothing, towel.
  • Dialogue-Monologue: Biker Girl propositions Ben who checks with the Biker who gives him permission to buy the BG a drink. BG offers to move in with Ben, to suck him, to spend the day in the sack. Ben tests words, “I’m deeply in love with Sera.” The Biker pulls Ben and the BG apart and offers Ben a way out, but Ben makes the grand gesture of holding his position as knight protector.
  • Action and Climax: The scene climaxes when the Biker smashes Ben in the face. Action chain: Ben enters the bar, orders a drink. BG approaches to make her move on Ben while the Biker slugs quarters into a one armed bandit. BG deepens negotiations, Ben backs away, the Biker calls Ben out then head butts him and drops him. Biker and BG split. The Bartender gives Ben a towel to wipe up his blood, then expels Ben from the bar for fighting.
  • Closed Circles: The closed circles are the Bar; Ben’s space.
  • Intruder: Ben, the outsider intrudes into the dark world of leather bikers. BG pushes into Ben’s space. Biker smashes Ben’s body.
  • Secret: Biker Girl baits suckers to keep her boyfriend on edge; Ben is in love with Sera.
  • Symbol/Archetype: Symbol – Ben’s clothing becomes stained with his own blood. The shirt, symbolizing rebirth and love, is an index to Sera’s acceptance of Ben.  Bloodied the shirt symbolizes Ben’s irrevocable downward spiral that not even love can redeem.
  • Archetype #1 = Outsider/Quester = Ben; Archetype #2 = Temptress = Biker Girl;  Archetype #3 = Death God = Biker.

Scene Profile—Black Madonna in Blue

  • Name of the Scene:  Sonny Bars the Cage
  • Purpose of the Scene: Gets Sonny on stage as Dragon 2
  • Position of the Scene in the story:  Act Three
  • Ritual(s):  Transition; unmasking. Revenge. Combat for the Woman as Resource Base. Secondary ritual is combat for Love (Regis’s Love) and Money (Resource Base).
  • Problem to Solve:  To get Sonny to admit that he stole the money while Falcon has to mask the deal she has with Regis.
  • Label  the Parts: (Beginning, Middle,  End):
    • Beginning:  Falcon draws back the curtains.
    • Middle: Sonny enters
    • End: Kress takes Sonny down, Falcon lays down the law
  • Character and Stage: It’s a snowy day,  8:30, Leo has left Falcon and Kress alone in the house. Falcon has trashed the kitchen. Kress stops here when she sets fire to the house. Broken glass everywhere on the floor. Falcon in her blue robe, Kress in his levis and jeans jacket. Follows the love duet where Kress says he’ll stay. Sonny enters. He wears a parka, black and red, and snow boots. He’s cold because he’s walked up to the cabin from the highway.
  • Dialogue and Monologue:  Falcon and Kress talk about getting away but the snow keeps them trapped. Sonny enters. He confronts Falcon, wants to kill her. Leo has told him about Kress, so he’s wary. Surprise entry. Falcon and Sonny hack at one another about the money and why he stole, and Sonny says it doesn’t matter, she’s dead. Kress takes Sonny down, a face off to make up for the Motel Fiasco, but Kress wins this one again.
  • Action and Climax: Sonny enters carrying his knife. Kress has the pistol Falcon and Kress in the kitchen. Kress confronts Sonny, takes the knife, ties him up, wraps him up on the floor while Falcon cuts into him.
  • Deeper Wishes:  Falcon wants to find what was taken from her when she was a kid. Sonny wants to find his father’s love. Kress wants to find a reason to stop running
  • Secret(s):  Falcon has a deal with Regis that she hasn’t told Kress and that Sonny doesn’t know about. It’s driving her crazy, because she has to go back, but she wants to be with Kress.
  • Closed Circle(s):  The house, the kitchen, the living room. Falcon’s space. Sonny’s space.
  • Intruder(s):  Sonny is Intruder One. He is Dragon 2 behind Leo.
  • Symbols & Archetypes:  Snow is a symbol for dead winter, down time, time to start over. Sonny is the killer; Falcon is the Queen; Kress is the King Replacement in the Making. Money. Sonny uses the money as a symbol of his power and control and as a tool for revenge. Using the money, he will set up Falcon take the fall and win his way back into Regis’ affections when he blows Falcon’s cover.
  • Emotional subtext in the scene:  Fear and Jealousy. Sonny is jealous of Falcon. He wants her sexually but he’s afraid of Regis. Sonny wants to find his daddy’s love. Falcon is afraid that Kress will run off on her again when she reveals her pact with Regis.
  • Hooks and Links:  Hooks to D07, Regis and Leo Onstage.

 Once you’ve written the scene profile, you set your timer and you write for 30 minutes. Start at the top with the Setting. Here’s an example of the opening scene from Black Madonna in Blue:

Metal Burns

The Hotel Pyrenees on Tulare Street stands eight stories of gray brick. Eight stories with time wolves clawing at the bones trying to rip off the face of the past. Plate glass with midnight memories looks into its dark heart.

From across the street, I glance left, then right. Shadows on the north side of the street are deep now. Heat snakes out of the shadows and coils on the concrete. Traffic has let up. Parked cars sprawl against the curb like butchered animals.

I cross Tulare and drop into the parking garage under the hotel. I’m looking for the T-Bird.  It hunkers in a spot beside a steel gray Lincoln Towncar. The right headlight of the T-Bird dangles on four wires from its cracked chrome like the eyeball of a beaten fighter. Squatting, I stuff the headlight home and try to snap the assembly in place. It pops back out. Letting it dangle, I pull my notebook from the pocket of the Levi jacket to start tallying the ruin —

Part                    Damage                              Part and Labor

Headlight          twisted assembly              Four fifty

~*~

To see a full working out of this whole process, navigate to the Structural Analysis section on our blog.

For the last writing tip,  I’ll work through the opening scene of Blood to show you how I wrote it starting from the Treatment up through the Cut to sequence and ending with the scene. Then, I’ll take the scene apart to show you how the elements of the profile shape the writing.

Writing Tip 6: Breaking down a scene into its parts; plot track writing

Let’s break down the opening scene of Blood using the parts we set out in Tip 5:

I’ve dropped the scene profile which is the intermediate step between Cut to and completed scene.

First the cut-tos:

  • Blood starts in a laundromat on Third Avenue in a City that might be San Francisco, where Mitch gets arrested when he steals a tubful of white women’s underwear. Objects are laundry tubs, money, magazines. Hook is to searching Mitch’s apartment.
  • Cut to: Mitch’s apartment. The objects are M’s cache of underwear as varied as a Frederick’s of Hollywood catalogue, but all white. The action is the tossing of Mitch’s apartment by the police. The hook is to the courtroom scene.
  • Cut to: The courtroom where the Judge sentences Mitch to five years. Mitch doesn’t fight the sentence. The object is the handcuffs ( opens the manacle plot track) as the guard hauls Mitch away. (opens the guard plot track) The hook is to the prison cell.

The Opening Scene—Breakdown using Scene Elements

SETTING – TIME, OBJECTS, CHARACTERS, PLOT TRACKS

It was hot in the laundromat. Hot and moist as the inside of a woman’s mouth. Sitting on the hard-backed metal chair beside the door, I waited for the red-headed woman to return.

The magazine, (opens WRITING plot track) an old issue of Car and Driver splayed open on my lap to an article on the Audi R8, a street version of the racing machine that re-wrote history at Le Mans making it the perfect vehicle of the upward bound young man with two hundred thousand dollars (opens MONEY plot track) to burn on new wheels.

SECRET

But I wasn’t interested in the R8 or the Audi record book or anything to do with wheels. I was interested in the contents of the red-headed woman’s dryer. (opens SHIV plot track, dressing plot track, sets up BACKSTORY Plot Track on Mitch’s fixation on white undies) The huge dryer spun to a stop.

I checked the wall clock (opens TIME plot track): 11:30 PM. Maybe she fell asleep at the TV. Maybe her lover called. Maybe they are having phone sex, (Opens SEX plot track) their words burning up the cell towers. Maybe he paid her a surprise visit and their moans are scorching the walls of her apartment.

Standing, I closed the article on the R8 and looked out the window at Third Avenue at 11:30 PM. It was gray with mist and the vague complicated shadows of moonlight and sodium based street lamps with their yellow glow and orange tinge. I looked again at the dryer, saw the whiteness in the glass door, saw the strip of white panties forced against the door, the hooked strand of a bra strap buried in the waist band of the panties. I checked the clock again—11:33. I felt the itching in the palms of my hands, that bitter anxiousness in my mouth as it dried out turning my breath rancid. The door opened. I turned.

CLOSED CIRCLE-INTRUDER

Cool night air pushed in. I expected to see the red-headed woman, but instead two men, wearing Chargers jackets and carrying duffel bags, entered chatting about sports and scores and one of them tackled the duffel of his friend and they both laughed, ignoring me standing at the window. I watched their reflection in the glass moving like ghosts. They dumped their duffels into side by side washers, poured in Tide, too much detergent for the size of the loads and then they searched for quarters. Click, clang, click, clang and then one of them said, Shit, I’m short and he looked at me.

DIALOGUE-ACTION

Hey pal, he said, you got change for a few bucks.

I pointed at the change machine on the wall. He followed my finger. Grinned.

Right, he said. The change machine.

Slipping dollar bills into the machine, he scooped out quarters and then, smiling at me, he pumped the quarters into the washer and then he and his friend walked out of the laundromat.

ACTION CHAIN

As the door whished closed, I ran to the red-headed woman’s dryer, opened the glass door, unhooked the tangled bra strap from the white lacy panties and, reaching into the still warm body, felt the heat of the mass of white and my heart beat faster and I stuffed the still warm underwear into the sleeves of my jacket, felt the heat radiate through me, my heart hammering. I emptied the dryer, closed the door, felt the heat of the white hot metal hooks of the bras against me.

SECOND INTRUDER

I turned. The red-headed woman stood glaring at me. She wore tight black pants, a red sweater. Her hair, curled up in tight ringlets, shimmered in the light. Beside her there were two large men in uniform. Policemen. Big grins on their faces. There was no way out. Not through them, not over them, not away from them.

ACTION-DIALOGUE

The red-headed woman pulled a pistol and shield from the back of the black pants and she said:

We’ve been waiting for you, you son of a bitch.

She smiled. She approached me. I watched the gun hand, watched the hands of the men and I let out a long breath, one I had been holding for years and years and I said:

You’re a cop.

I’m a cop, she said. And these are my cop friends.

I didn’t expect it to be you.

Perverts never expect a woman, she said.

The two men in uniform closed on me, I knew that they had no experience in close combat. They were careless. Loose. Laughing, they joked about catching the Underwear Bandit, the Panty Pervert, the Braless Bandido.

CLIMAX

I knew that once the red-headed woman holstered her pistol I could take them—all three, take them down and leave them gagging, bleeding, perhaps dead—but instead I held out my hands, palms up. I said:

HOOK

Are you going to cuff me?

Scenes are built on action and image. The elements of a scene give you control of the movement. You introduce plot tracks that you’ve either picked up in the Cut-to, the Treatment, or the Three-Act Structure.

When you’ve put the story in your head so you can write any scene from the cut-to sequence you’re inside the story and the characters are talking to you. You’re reporting what they say like a secret agent eavesdropping on a private conversation. When you get to that place, the difference between history or fact and fiction blurs. Dialogue contains secrets that you hear the characters tell you but they never tell you exactly what they’re thinking—they lie a lot so the dialogue is never on the nose. All those objects that you’ve set into the cut-to sequence and developed in the scenes, line up so that you watch an object such as a fan blade transform in a later scene to a shiv and in still a later scene change into a machete and the machete changes into a razor blade. And first thing you know you’re writing a myth. It’s a myth that your readers recognize. It’s Cinderella turned into Working Girl. The myth is the same, the clothes are different.

PLOT TRACK WRITING

Plot track writing: Plot tracks can be built on characters, objects, symbols, actions, images. When I wrote the third or fourth draft of Blood, I went into the text to see what I was doing. I discovered that I had written the novel with a recurring set of object links that kept returning to the story. I called those links loops because I like to create a special language for every novel. In Blood there are 62 of those loops and each of the loops has its own plot track.

If you do a writing on a plot track in which you pull the pieces out of the novel and stack them up in a sequence as if you were writing a short story you will see development from beginning to end. Here’s an example of a plot track on the character Rose from the novel Lemon Custard :

The Rose Story Line:

Plot track summary

There are the 7 scenes on the Rose Plot Track summarized.  I include a few lines of the opening for the first scene below the summary:

Olive first hears about Rose from Megan when Olive tells her she woke up alone in a hotel room naked, no memory. Megan tells her she was drugged and needs to talk to someone and that someone is Rose. Megan sets up the first meeting.

Scene 1 on the Rose Story Line begins in Rose’s office. Rose keeps a cold room but uses an afghan to keep her legs warm. Olive is at first defensive and distant. She’s not sure she wants to talk to a therapist because she has a secret she hasn’t told Megan and hides it from Rose. Olive has always been guarded in both senses of the word—Tim, her husband and soon to be ex-husband—is five years older than she is and always kept Olive on a closer tether—the first animal metaphor of Olive as Horse or Breeding Female—while her mother and father have always been self-sufficient and distant and would rather fall into a meat grinder than admit there was a problem. Six generations of Malones have never talked to  a priest let alone a psychiatric therapist so Olive hesitates. But Rose is a tall thin gray headed Oracle whose words resonate—even a simple please sit down—has such authority that Olive obeys and she begins to talk about the Hotel Episode but masks the Man With Gold Chain Episode. (page 50)

First Encounter

The suite of offices lay just off 49th St. in a small complex across from the Woodland Market. Olive parked her Chrysler in the lot and entered the building and checked the note—Rose Jorgensen Suite 301.

She climbed the stairs still hearing Sheila’s intonation and insistence that she had to talk to Rose at least once. Olive entered a small waiting room with brocaded furniture and a small stack of magazines on a low table. But before she could sit, an inner door opened and a middle-aged woman with iron-gray hair cut to shoulder length held out a hand. Long and slender. No extra meat on her bones. She said,

Olive? I’m Rose. Come in.

Olive followed her into a cold office with a big window that looked out on the Woodland Market. She said,

Please, have a seat. I keep the office cool. If you get a chill, let me know and I’ll give you a quilt.

I’m fine, Olive said.

Rose sat in a leather chair and pulled an afghan over her legs. She looked at Olive with light blue eyes and Olive saw the planes of her face fine as sculpted marble and in the skin the slight marring of broken veins, webbed in the cheeks and nose. Olive felt the intensity of her eyes that once fixed didn’t move, but followed her like a predator tracking prey. Olive said,

I don’t know why I’m here.

Ah, Rose said. That is why you’re here.

Olive laughed and she started to talk.

Scene 2 on the Rose Story line has Rose prodding Olive about her “hunting” techniques as Olive confesses that she goes out looking for men. Tell Rose about her  first pick-up with the Bartender. Olive has broken loose after her new friend, Janey, takes her to The Tomb, an underground club where all the women have elaborate tattoos in intimate parts of their bodies and piercings in places that look painful. Olive tells Rose that she had an orgasm standing in front of a mirror in The Tomb—the first orgasm she’s had since she was seventeen. Rose prods Olive’s past and wants more details on her babies—there are two: Nan and Toby—and more about Olive’s husband. Olive comes unglued as she opens up about Tim and how huge he is and how afraid of him she was and how he smothered her, suffocated her. And that’s why you’re abandoning your babies, Rose says. Olive’s first insight into why she has run away leaving her babies with her mother and father comes here—The Country, the farm is clean. The dirt is pure. It grows things, but in the city, dirt is filth and everything in the city is filthy. Olive gets control again but is hungry to know why and what’s going on in her head because she’s uneasy with abandoning her babies but can’t go get them—there are a million excuses why she can’t go—not enough space, needs a bigger place. Not enough money, needs a better job. But all Rose says is Ah and that pisses Olive off. (page 57)

Scene 3 on the Rose Story Line is called The Daniel Coincidence. Olive mentions that she had gone out “hunting” like a wild dog whose tether has been cut—second and deeper animal metaphor—the tethering—Olive tells Rose about the incident on the windmill, about wanting to jump to her death (hints here of self-destructive behavior that Rose points out means Risky Sex, her “hunting”) and to drown in the huge horse tank at the bottom. And when Rose asks about tethering, Olive again brings up Tim and how he kept her on a tight leash—and here Olive tells about her dream of being strapped naked to the windmill while Tim rapes her with a shovel handle and then puts a saddle on her –and Olive wants reassurance from Rose but Rose says, It’s a dream. Olive mentions the Daniel Coincidence but doesn’t elaborate and Rose lets it drop. (page 70)

Scene 4 on the Rose Story Line is called I See Them Dead. As Olive gets free from her past, she goes hunting more—we don’t hear about all the incidents, just the formative, dangerous ones. Here Rose brings back the Daniel Coincidence and Olive has a minor break down as she recounts the episode in the motel with the Man with Gold Chain and the stinky cologne. It turns out, Olive tells Rose, that he is Daniel, the husband of her friend Megan, the same Megan who sent Olive to Rose, but Olive says she didn’t know at the time. Olive is now haunted by an urge to confess the episode to Megan—but Rose asks if it’s to help Megan or to cleanse Olive of her guilt. How can I feel guilty if I didn’t know who he was? As Olive digs deeper into the coincidence, she confesses to Rose that Daniel had anal sex with her and she’s appalled but also not sure she didn’t enjoy it. Rose sees this as the Fulcrum of her Inner Debate—to accept the anal sex as index to her inner wish to escape her past. No resolution on the confession to Megan. Long plot track on that Item. (page 88)

Scene 5 on the Rose Story Line finds Olive in Rose’s chilly office watching a woman and her two children get in a car across the street. Rose asks Olive what she intends to do. Olive still sticks to her plan to bring the babies to the city, but she has this recurring dream about finding her babies dead and walled up in a blind alley and even though she’s flying overhead, Olive can’t reach them. Now her life is complicated because she has met the Short Fat Bald Guy who has asked her out and he smells of flowers—floral imagery all over the place in this story—and Olive has never been with a short man, a fat man who smells of flowers. Olive asks Rose again about confessing to Megan and Rose tells her she’s like an alcoholic—but a sex addict who needs to “hunt” for sex like dogs hunt bitch in heat—and she has to go to each person she has hurt and ask for forgiveness. Olive tells her that Tim has come to see her, not to ask her to come back, but to tell her he’s found another woman named Kate Younger and he will divorce Olive and ask Kate to adopt his children. Olive is both confused and relieved. Rose tells her the ambivalence is working itself out in that confusion and relief. (page 97)

Scene 6 on the Rose Story Line comes when Olive has found a new job, has had sex with the short fat bald guy whose favorite fairy tale is Beauty and the Beast and she’s now traveling for her job and has a big house—big enough for the kids, but there are no kids. Rose goes back to the animal tether and the albatross metaphor and Olive tells her she left the farm because she was afraid she’d kill her children just to get even with Tim for being so unfeeling and for using her like a breeding animal, useful only to muck out the chicken coop and milk cows. Olive comes to the conclusion that it’s better for her babies to stand on the farm with a step-mother than to be dead. She loves them enough not to kill them. Ah, Rose says, this is a big break through and Olive realizes that she hated being a mother—hated Tim, hated being tied down. That’s because you’re an infantile narcissist just discovering your sexuality. Do you masturbate? Olive at one time would have denied it, but now her self-pleasuring is real and powerful, freeing her from anyone else’s needs. See? Rose says, your narcissism is so strong that you prefer to love yourself rather than someone else.  Olive tells her that Tim has come to see her, not to ask her to come back, but to tell her he’s found another woman named Kate Younger and he will divorce Olive and ask Kate to adopt his children. Olive is both confused and relieved. Rose tells her the ambivalence is working itself out in that confusion and relief. (page 107)

Scene 7 on the Rose Story Line comes at the end when Olive returns to tell her about her brain cleaning dream and in the dream Rose has a small shovel and she’s mucking out Olive’s brain while Olive is tied to a huge stone bed and then Rose shrinks into a tiny person, just a speck of a person, and Olive finds herself with Clifford Kissner the short fat bald man. (page 128)

The Rose Plot track covers 78 pages spaced through the novel. Try this technique on your novel: Identify a plot track on a character. Tag each scene that character owns. List all the scenes with beginning page. Pull the scenes out, stack them up in a file. Rework the story line for continuity and consistency. Plug the scenes back into place in the story. You’re now working like a film editor but you’re a novelist. There’s not a lot of difference.

© 2012 Jack Remick. All Rights Reserved.

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5 Comments

  1. susan wrote:

    An excellent page Jack. Lots of good info all together in one place.

    Saturday, February 25, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Permalink
  2. Jack Remick wrote:

    Thanks for dropping by Susan. Thanks for the comment. It’s good to know people are looking at this work.

    Saturday, February 25, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Permalink
  3. JLOakley wrote:

    Great stuff. I use the 3 Act, but didn’t know about the cut to scene sequence. I can use it as I rewrite my closing scenes in a prequel I’m revising. Worth a tweet.

    Monday, November 26, 2012 at 7:29 am | Permalink
  4. Amazing information equivalent to a full college semester. I have to cut-to my own mind after reading it to “allow” myself to take it in over the next year without throwing myself away in the process. Whew! I think I’ll go have a cup of mind-blow now, thank you very much.

    Monday, November 26, 2012 at 9:49 am | Permalink
  5. Jack Remick wrote:

    Thanks Jodi. Writers such are Jodi Lea Stewart who read this blog are the best reviews another writer can get. Thanks for dropping by and thanks for forwarding the info to other writers. Catch you soon.

    Monday, November 26, 2012 at 10:13 am | Permalink

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