Not So Fast
Oh, to be the kind of writer that just sits down and starts writing, letting the fingers take me wherever they want. I am not that kind of writer, and I wonder how others, especially mystery writers like me, can pull it off. I need to know how the story's going to end, which is why I write a complete synopsis of the book before I start writing. That way I know what clues and red herrings to salt throughout the text as I go along. But that's not what I want to discuss here.
Books are made up of scenes, and each scene has to have a purpose. If I haven't focused on the purpose or purposes of that scene, I shouldn't start writing it. If I do try to start without thinking it out, that's when I end up staring at the screen, or worse yet writing something that eventually gets zapped by the delete button. So what should a scene do, exactly?
For me there are three functions of any scene. The big one is of course to move the plot along, developing the action so that the reader gets drawn into, or continues to be held by, the story. I wish I had a nickel for every book I put down after ten or twenty pages because I didn't couldn't get into it. You don't want that to happen when someone's reading your book.
But equally important is developing the characters, since they are – and this should not be a surprise – more important than the plot. What is it in Dick's past that makes him act this way? Will Jane accept his flaws? How did Spot get that lame name? That kind of stuff. Always keep in mind that it will be the characters, not the plot, that readers will most likely remember about your book. Many, if not most of those books I put down were ones in which I just didn't care about the characters.
The third general function is description of the setting, the canvas on which the plot and characters are painted. This one may be a bit more important to my books since they take place in Italy and one of their running themes is Italian culture, history, and of course food. But as much as I love to describe those things, and my dual-national protagonists musings about them, I must force myself to stick to the big two, plot and character.
So before writing a scene I have to ask myself: What will be the purpose of this one? What do I want to accomplish here? Once I answer that the sentences flow easier, and before I know it that scene is finished and I'm asking the same question for the next one. Of course as you write each scene you'll come up with new ideas, taking the characters in some different direction and adding some nuance to the plot, but that will have to be the subject of another blog.
David P. Wagner is the author of Cold Tuscan Stone, the first Rick Montoya Italian Mystery. While serving in the diplomatic service he spent nine years in Italy where he learned to love things Italian, many of which appear in his writing. He and his wife live in New Mexico.