Does Your Scene Pop?
Writing a novel is a lot like home decorating. The blank page is like an empty room, like a white wall. My natural instinct when I sit down to write is to try anything – just get words on paper. This is not a good strategy for home decorating. Or writing. What connects one scene to the next is the plot, driven by each character’s conflicting motivations. Because I just moved, I’ve learned that what connects one room to the next is color. A color palette. Deborah, my co-writer, introduced me to this concept while we were at Bed, Bath & Beyond.
There’s this word that writers and decorators use. Pop. As in: Let’s make that character, or that color, pop. The idea is that everything is part of a blended whole, and yet one thing draws the eye and captures the attention. When the right color pops, the room looks vibrant. When the right character pops, a scene comes to life.
To make this work, the decorator and the writer know that the person viewing a room, and the person reading a novel are engaged at several levels all at once. The surface, the predominant color or plot, is what your eye lands on first. Then you begin to absorb the stuff beneath the surface, like subplots and accent colors. And then there’s the character that can’t be ignored, the unexpected plot twist, the color that pops in a way that delights and surprises. It makes people look for more. Good writing, like a well-coordinated room, is complex, using layers of color and texture.
This doesn’t come naturally to me. My instinct is to keep putting words on paper and shoving them around, the way you move furniture when you’ve bought things on a whim. Nothing really fits, but you’re going to make it work. Keep moving the sofa; maybe it will look better on the other side of the room. Keep rearranging the scenes – if each individual word, each sentence, each plot point is good, then eventually the whole thing will turn into a book.
Smart shoppers bring a tape measure to the store. Deborah (a Realtor) keeps an industrial strength one in the trunk of her car. People who know how to decorate keep the whole home in mind. In addition to the color that pops, they use the same colors and similar textures to create a flow throughout the home. What happens is that the body, the psyche, and the emotions are drawn seamlessly from one room to the next. When it’s done correctly, it is sensed subconsciously.
In a well-written novel, the plot and the subplots work like fabric and patterns, capturing the mind and emotions and pulling them through each scene. Ideally, the reader becomes submersed in and feels at home in the story. They have a satisfying sense of it had to happen that way, and yet they feel surprised and delighted by those characters that pop and come alive.
Writing a book takes a lot longer than decorating a house. The characters get bossy. They wake up on the page and have their own opinions. This is like the sofa suddenly deciding for itself that it wants to go under the window. And it makes you move it. In a room, accent colors are useful because if you get tired of the way things look, you just swap out the pillows. Voilà! Same palette, but something else pops. But in a book, you can’t just toss another character into the scene the way you casually add a cushion, because that can change EVERYTHING.
In The Chamber And The Cross, right up until our very last draft, we had a nebulous intruder who threatened Laura in a vague way. He was always off-stage, and we were never really sure who he was. Some kind of vagrant, probably a guy with a drug problem. Dangerous, but not specific. Then Deborah made him pop. She gave him a name: Oliver. She gave him a reason for being in the story: he wants what Laura has. Suddenly the plot took a very creepy twist. Like good decorators, we shifted and moved other characters and scenes, and basically re-measured and restructured the book. That final rewrite took a long time. We weren’t just painting a room; we were rebuilding the story from the foundation.
The book took so long to write that we doubted we would do a sequel – until our readers demanded one. This time we’re planning ahead, working out the plot and creating our book’s color palette. This time, all the subplots will match. Our characters will pop, look good in their scenes and know exactly where they fit into the story. I’m certain of this the way I’m certain that I never want to make another change to my décor.
Oops – gotta go – Deborah has more coupons for Bed, Bath & Beyond.
Scenes Should Work Hard