Charlie Jane Anders is writing a nonfiction book—and Tor.com is publishing it as she does so. Never Say You Can’t Survive is a how-to book about the storytelling craft, but it’s also full of memoir, personal anecdote, and insight about how to flourish in the present emergency.
Below is the sixth chapter, “The Secret to Storytelling? Just One Good Scene, and Then Another, and Another.” You can find all previous chapters here. New chapters will appear every Tuesday. Enjoy!
What’s A Story, and How Do You Find One?
The Secret to Storytelling? Just One Good Scene, and Then Another, and Another.
There’s only one thing more intimidating than a blank first page, and that’s a blank tenth page. At least when you are starting a new piece of writing from scratch, anything is possible. But once you’ve made a bunch of decisions and started weaving a bunch of narrative threads, you have to stay committed—unless you decide to start over from scratch, which is always an option.
So what do you do when you’re struggling to find a way forward, in the middle of a piece of writing? There’s no one answer, and we’ll keep coming back to this question in later chapters. But one solution is just to try and write a good scene. And then write another one, until the scenes start to add up to something. A big part of writing any first draft is just seeing what works: how do these characters fit together, and what can we do with this premise and this setting? If you can get three halfway decent scenes in a row, then you’re cooking: the characters are clicking, and the story is taking shape.
The scene is the basic unit of storytelling, most of the time: one or more people, in a particular location (or set of locations), having some kind of interaction. Sure, there are some exceptions—like you can have a passage where six months go by in a few sentences, or the narrator can go on a rambling digression about noodles. But most of the time, a story will break down into separate scenes.
And each scene is a little story unto itself, in which the characters have a problem or a conflict, and they grapple with it, and then by the end of the scene something has changed. There are twists, and unforeseen developments, and revelations. Things may have gotten worse by the end of the scene—in fact, if this is the middle of the story, often it’s better if things get worse rather than better.
And just like a whole story, as a general rule a good scene is one where something changes. Or at least, something happens. The thing that happens doesn’t have to be huge: some of my favorite scenes are just people hanging out, arguing over lunch, or buying a new hat. But if a scene is good, then usually by the end of the scene, things aren’t the same at the end as they were in the beginning.
Just to be clear: when I talk about a “good” scene, I don’t mean a well-written one, or a polished one, or even one that you’re sure belongs in this story. In this context, “good” means “interesting.” A good scene leaves you wondering what’s going to happen next, or makes you more interested in the characters and their issues. A good scene should probably feel as if things are cooking, and like the story is going someplace, even if you don’t yet know where.
Also, “good” doesn’t mean “realistic.” In real life, people take forever to get around to saying what’s on their mind, and a lot of interactions are pointless or boring. Even the most literary piece of fiction, with the strongest commitment to realism, will edit stuff out, or streamline, or stylize. Just look at Dave Eggers’ preface to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, in which he explains that all the dialogue in his memoir has been rewritten, edited, and then rewritten a second time, to make the author and his friends sound less dorky.
My thoughts about this were somewhat influenced by a 2008 essay by screenwriter and novelist Frank Cottrell-Boyce, in which he argues that sometimes the best storytelling consists of a good bit, followed by another good bit, and then another. Cottrell-Boyce also says “emotions create their own suspense,” which is a piece of advice that’s stuck in my head for years.
And after watching approximately 10,000 hours of The CW, I’ve started to notice just how ruthlessly efficient the scenes in a typical episode of The Vampire Diaries or Arrow are. Each episode is juggling a dozen subplots, so every scene needs to carry its own weight and move at least one subplot forward, if not several. Characters on The CW enter each scene with an axe to grind, or a problem they need to solve, or often a need to kill each other. They interact, and something shifts in their dynamic, often heightening their conflict (if it’s the middle of an episode), and then each scene ends with some kind of knife-twist—or neck-twist, if it’s Vampire Diaries. No lie, I spent a lot of time studying how these CW shows pack so much into each moment, and I decided that a lot of it has to do with stripping everything down to the bones of the scene.
How to find a scene
Often a scene will start out with one of two needs: something needs to happen, or two or more characters need to talk about something.
In the first case, you might know what happens, but not how it happens. For example, Marjorie the dancing witch is supposed to leave home to search for the Lost Clogs of Basingstoke—but she could leave in a sweet tear-soaked farewell, or in a screaming rage. If the point is just to get Marjorie out the door and on the road, then you can accomplish that in a couple sentences. But you want this to be a moment that will stick in people’s minds. And the better the send-off, the more you’ll be able to keep following her on her journey.
So I end up spending a lot of time thinking about the best way to dramatize an incident. The most boring version of the scene is easy to reach, because I’ve already seen it a million times. The more interesting version, the one that makes the characters feel real and compelling, often takes a lot of brainstorming and questioning.
To create a moment that feels coolest to me, I have to really put myself in the scene. And ask myself a million questions:
What is Marjorie thinking/feeling as the scene begins?
Did she already decide to leave home, or does she decide halfway through this interaction?
Does everyone else know she’s going to leave, or is this a surprise to them?
If I know in advance that something needs to happen in a scene, then I try my best to make that action a surprise—or at least introduce some minor wrinkles. If Marjorie goes into the scene knowing she has to go on a clog-quest, then maybe she ought to be confronted with a surprising reason why she should stay at home. The best iteration of a scene is usually—not always—the one that generates the most conflict and suspense.
In the second case, sometimes you know that two characters need to have a conversation about an issue between them, which could be something that’s happened, or something that one of them just learned about. This is my favorite thing in the world to write. I love getting drawn into a character’s obsessions, and exploring a world is terrific too, but I get even more excited when I feel like two characters have something to say to each other.
Any interaction between two or more people is a conversation, really. A fight scene is a conversation, and so is a sex scene. And I just love writing any kind of moment where relationships shift, someone’s baggage gets unpacked and/or repacked, and conflicts are deepened. Perversely, the more action-oriented the scene, the more you might need to be aware of the emotional content and the POV, because the stakes are always at least somewhat personal, even if the fate of the world is at stake.
Sometimes I’ll know that two characters can’t really meet up and talk about their issues with each other for another hundred pages—but that’s the scene I’m most excited to write, so I just go ahead and write it now. In general, I often just write the scenes that I’m most stoked about writing, and worry about putting them together in some kind of order later. (And yes, that does get me into trouble on a regular basis. But I’d rather have a mess than a bunch of false starts.)
Again, I don’t worry about making these scenes perfect, or polished. I know from experience that the first draft of any scene will be clunky as hell. The characters will blurt out their innermost thoughts in a way that’s not realistic, or they’ll speak the subtext out loud. People will be way too easy-going, because I haven’t found the intensity of their feelings yet. Conversations will feel lifeless, and people will make decisions that don’t make sense in the moment.
But at least there’ll be little moments here and there where people say something revealing, or their personalities will shine through. And maybe I’ll notice that Marjorie and her sister don’t really get along, and that’s a thread I can try and pick up again in later scenes.
Psyching yourself up
I don’t always outline a story or a novel before I write—though I definitely will outline something after I’ve already written it, to see if it makes sense or not. But I frequently find myself outlining a scene, beat by beat. Like, does it start in the middle, or do we follow a character into the scene? What are the bits that I need to have happen here, and in what order? What’s the through-line that carries us from the beginning of the scene to the end?
A lot of making a scene work is a matter of psyching yourself up, and trying to figure out at least some idea of what’s going on, even if the action ends up surprising you as you write it.
Here’s a good place to introduce a couple of ideas that I’m going to keep coming back to:
1) Every writer is also an actor.
The process of getting inside the head of a character, figuring out their motivations and shouldering their baggage, is more or less the same for writers as for actors. (Full disclosure: I was a failed actor in high school and spent a fair amount of time learning to get into character before I realized I was just bad at it.) You have to focus on trying to put yourself in the character’s shoes until it becomes second nature and you start to know this person, inside and out. Sometimes, I’ll act a tricky scene out—even doing the voices out loud in the shower. (I know, I know.)
2) Suspension of disbelief is just as important when you’re writing as when you’re reading—or maybe even more so.
A scene only works if you can convince yourself that it’s real to the characters, and that the stakes matter. In his indispensable book About Writing, Samuel R. Delany says that when writers go back and change an event in their fiction, they have to “convince themselves that the story actually did happen… in the new way,” and that the earlier version was hearsay, or a misunderstanding of the events. In other words, you almost have to hypnotize yourself into thinking that the events you’re writing about are real, and they actually took place.
Once I’ve got the basic elements of the scene down, then I go back and think about the details more carefully. Like, where does the scene take place? And what are the characters doing during the scene?
I’ll frequently write a conversation between two or more people, and it just takes place in a blank void at first. Then I’ll try and think, what’s the most interesting location for this to happen? Are they eating lunch at a restaurant? Are they at fencing practice? Are they doing a spacewalk? It’s usually more interesting to have a relationship conversation while flying over an active volcano than while sitting in a Starbucks. And the same way that I often need something to do with my hands when I talk, it’s always better if the characters are doing something instead of just standing still.
I also try to make the scene-setting stuff do actual work, conveying information or setting up stuff that’s going to happen later. Or establishing a location where the characters are going to hang out regularly. Their clubhouse, so to speak.
And speaking of suspense, a relatively quiet and benign conversation can take on an extra charge if the reader knows that a ten-ton kaiju is about to show up and stomp on the characters’ house. These people are sitting there processing their feelings, and you’re like, “Stop being introspective and get out of there before it’s too late, you twerps!” It’s also always fun to do a Henry V-style “little touch of Harry in the night” scene where various people have One Last Talk before the big battle.
And once I know where the scene takes place and what else is happening, I’ll often start a scene with the characters talking, and then do the scene-setting in the third or fourth paragraph, once we’re already in the flow of events.
For my novel All the Birds in the Sky, I wrote tons of scenes, just trying to find the characters and their voices. My hard drive is full of documents with titles like “5000 words of Laurence and Patricia getting closer” and “5000 words of people trying to tear Patricia and Laurence apart,” and “A series of emotional vignettes about Laurence and Patricia.” I wrote scene after scene, and then only used a small fraction of the scenes I wrote.
I also ended up combining lots of scenes—which is a thing that happens to me regularly. I’ll have three scenes where a group of characters talk about something, and I’ll realize that I only need one scene, but it should combine some elements from all three of them.
And all too often, the scenes that make me most excited about the story when I’m writing a first draft are the same ones that I end up having to cut in revision.
Before, we talked about how your characters can be your “imaginary friends.” And to me, part of scenework is just hanging out with these friends I’ve created for myself. (Why yes, I was a social outcast when I was a kid, and frequently wandered alone making up stories in my head while the other kids avoided me. Why do you ask?) The more time I spend taking my characters through different scenarios, the better I know them, and the more I can lose myself in their world.
Every scene is about conflict, one way or another. And as I’ve said before, following characters through their fictional conflicts is a good way to cope with all the conflicts and arguments in the “real” world, which are never as clear-cut or easy to cope with as fictional ones.
Charlie Jane Anders’ latest novel is The City in the Middle of the Night. She’s also the author of All the Birds in the Sky, which won the Nebula, Crawford and Locus awards, and Choir Boy, which won a Lambda Literary Award. Plus a novella called Rock Manning Goes For Broke and a short story collection called Six Months, Three Days, Five Others. Her short fiction has appeared in Tor.com, Boston Review, Tin House, Conjunctions, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Wired magazine, Slate, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Lightspeed, ZYZZYVA, Catamaran Literary Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and tons of anthologies. Her story “Six Months, Three Days” won a Hugo Award, and her story “Don’t Press Charges And I Won’t Sue” won a Theodore Sturgeon Award. Charlie Jane also organizes the monthly Writers With Drinks reading series, and co-hosts the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct with Annalee Newitz. She is writing a Young Adult space fantasy trilogy, to debut in early 2021.