Tuesday, January 21, 2020

3T Writing Tidbit -- Special Guest Helen C. Johannes

Helen C. Johannes is one of the smartest writers I know. She's also kind, witty, and a great teacher. Today we're lucky to have her present one of her gems of writing knowledge!

Read on for her guest post...

Layering a Scene 

by Helen C. Johannes

Plot, or what happens, is the basis for a scene. If nothing happens relative to the overall plot, the scene should be cut. But just recording what happens isn’t enough to make a scene memorable or create enough of a hook to keep the reader involved. To do that a writer needs to put flesh on the bare bones of the plot. That requires using these tools in the writer’s toolbox: the five senses, the character’s emotions, elements of conflict, and symbolism (if possible).

Consider the following bit of plot:

She paused at the foot of the stairs. The doors above were open. Swallowing, she went in.

Let’s flesh this out first by adding the five senses with time and place:
  • Who? Name the character.
  • Where exactly is she?
  • When? What’s the time of day? Day of the week? Year? Season?
  • What does she see? Texture, color, temperature? Objects?
  • What does she smell? Hear? Dialogue?
  • Are there others—people, animals—in this scene?

Now add the character’s emotions:
  • How does she feel about being in this place?

Bring in elements of the conflict, either main or contributing:
  • Why is she here?
  • What’s at stake?

Enhance symbolism, if possible:
  • Stairs can represent choices and decisions. A character can go up to something new, or down into something bad, or refuse to participate and remain aloof.
  • Are these stairs central to some particular conflict or memory?

Here’s an example:

     Jennifer Bryant halted at the foot of the courthouse stairs.
     Twenty-four granite steps, two flights of twelve with a six-foot wide landing in between, stretched toward the colonnaded portico above. As a child she’d raced up these steps and dashed from end to end amid three-story high pillars only to stand panting in the middle at the precise spot where the boulevard ran straight to the steps.
     “All roads lead to Rome,” her grade school teacher had told her. McKintock County wasn’t Rome, but to her fourth-grade self, that spot up there had been the center of the universe.
     All around her, a steady stream of people flowed upward, not a single one pausing at that special spot. Men clad in suits, ties flapping, women dressed in conservative brown, black and tan, all carrying briefcases in one hand and cups of varying descriptions in the other. The strong smell of fresh coffee wafted in their wakes.
     She breathed the aroma, and wished for the third time in as many minutes she’d stopped at Coffee Joe’s for a brew of her own. Having something to cling to just might galvanize her into taking that first step.
     When had the simple act of climbing these steps, passing under those Doric columns and entering her workplace of the last six years become so daunting?
Layering means to go through your scene as often as necessary to add pieces of “flesh” to it. From the bare bones you can construct something meaningful and evocative that also advances your plot, reveals character, creates conflict, and—even—suggests symbolism. And, most importantly, keeps your reader reading.

Helen C. Johannes writes award-winning fantasy romance inspired by the fairy tales she grew up reading and the amazing historical places she’s visited in England, Ireland, Scotland and Germany. She writes tales of adventure and romance in fully realized worlds sprung from pure imagination and a lifelong interest in history, culture, and literature. Warriors on horseback, women who refuse to sit idly at home, and passion that cannot be denied or outrun—that’s what readers will find in her books.

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Latest release: Lord of Druemarwin
In a world of lies and betrayal, can they trust each other?

Lady Raell can fight, ride, and argue politics as well as her brothers. Only being mistress of her father's household keeps her in skirts. In Naed, the new Lord of Druemarwin, she has found devotion, a kindred spirit, and a marriage promise. But when a forgotten and unwanted betrothal comes to light, she has no choice but to run.

Amidst sweeping revolution, Naed must rally his people, fend off assassination attempts, and fight against claims he's a traitor. Then he discovers everything about his lineage and family is a lie. And his beloved belongs to another.

With lives and a kingdom at stake, Raell and Naed must find a way to protect the innocent and save their love.

Click here to read an excerpt

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  1. Thanks for hosting me, Mary, and for your kind words. I hope my technique will prove useful for your followers.

    1. Thank you for being here, Helen Your words always inspire me, and I'm just thrilled other people will get that advantage today, too.

  2. I like this advice about layering. It is very clear and easy to follow. We often don't think about how much is involved in writing just one scene in a novel.

    1. Thanks, Andrea. Most of the time even writers don't have to think about it unless something seems off about a scene.

  3. Oh, excellent advice and I love the before and after example.

    1. Thanks, Jennifer. This advice grows out of years of contest judging and teaching.

  4. Hi, Helen! Great post. Your book sounds very good.

  5. Thanks so much for sharing this technique. It's great.

    1. Glad to be of help, Anna. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Great advice. Thanks, I'm going to use it when writing.
    D. V. 🦉

    1. Thanks, D.V. I use it most when a scene is twisting me into knots.

  7. Great advice Helen! The technique makes a whole world of difference. The reader can picture the scene. Love the example.

    1. Thank you. I personally love books that envelop me in the experience, so I keep trying to find ways to achieve that in my own work.

  8. Interesting Blog! Lots of great information. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, CB. I'm glad to share.