Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Two Bird Minimum

In my Eli Monpress series, Eli, my charming degenerate of a main character, has a favorite saying - "My stones have a two bird minimum." Of course, since it's my book and Eli is my character, this is also one of my favorite sayings, and I try to apply it as often as possible. Especially in my writing, and especially when I'm planning out a scene.

For example, yesterday I was cooking dinner and thinking about this new scene I was going to add to my new novel (the one from my 12 Days of Glory post, for those of you playing along at home). My editor had requested a few changes, and I'd decided right off the bat that a new scene was needed. But while I had the perfect scene in mind, I had a problem. While this scene nicely solved the problem my editor (quite rightly) wanted addressed, it didn't do anything else. Since my scenes tend to run around 2k, I was reasonably sure this new addition would only fatten my novel by around that much. But, to make the scene work I'd have to move my characters to a new location, which would add another 1.5-2k words to get them there, describe things, and get them back. And then there'd be everyone else's reaction to the location change (the problem with an ensemble cast, all those story lines have to be taken into consideration), so that's another 1k spent covering my bases and 5k in total once everything was added in.

5k is a LOT in a 110k novel, almost a full chapter, and way too much space to dedicate to fixing one measly problem. But I liked the scene a lot, so, I decided to make it earn its keep in the novel and set about finding other work for it to do. If this scene was my stone, I was going to whack as many birds as possible with it by the time those five thousand words were done. 

As I've talked about in tiresome detail before, when I write a scene, I demand that it do three things - advance the story, reveal new information, and pull the reader forward. But the real secret I've found for scenes is that you can hit every one of these points from multiple angles at once, and the more angles you hit, the better the scene tends to get. 

Complexity in a novel isn't a matter of having lots of people doing lots of things, it's about how well those plots are revealed and well they fit together. When I plan a scene, I try to do at least two stories at once, preferably more. For example, if my main characters have to go to a space station to get information about the main plot, I'll put hints of a secondary character's secret past on that station as well, and then maybe use the stop over as an excuse to have my main couple get some down time to have a serious conversation. So, in this one scene, a stop at a space station, I've hit on three story lines: the main plot, the subplot, and the romantic plot. Any or all of these plots can hit the three scene hooks for me - the discoveries for the main plot can advance the story, the hints of the subplot reveal new information and pull the reader forward, and the growing romantic tension can pull the reader forward and advance the story and reveal new information, especially if we get a hint of the hero's mysterious past. The possibilities are endless!

Every time you add a scene, you're bulking up your novel. You're putting more words between your reader and the end of the story. The way I see it, it's up to me to make those words count. It's up to us, as writers, to make each scene necessary, interesting, and purposeful, to really make the scene work to earn its place in the book. To this end, whenever I write a scene, I'm constantly thinking "what else can it do?", what else can I make happen. Of course, you can go too far with this and overload a scene, but part of writing is learning how much is too much, too little, and just right.

In the end, my new scene did end up being right about 5k long, but rather than just solving the problem I'd created it to solve, the new location gave information about the world at large, offered a perfect set up for some foreshadowing of later events, got me some great character interaction, and turned into a really fun little interlude before the big battle. Many birds were hit, including some I didn't know were up there. Final verdict: Great success! I wish you many great successes as well. Keep writing!

- Rachel



  1. Awesome post...and you've given me a lot of food for thought. Am I accomplishing all that I can with my scenes? I'll have to go back and evaluate. :)

  2. Fantastic advice Rachel. Adding another scene to solve a problem is easy, but it's making the scene just as good as the rest of the book which is important.

    Can't wait until the next novel is out :)

  3. I'm so happy I found this blog -- now I have to get the Eli books -- and I wonder how the heck I wrote a scene before!

  4. Hi Rachel. I found your blog from a link on Anne K. Albert's "Piedmont Trilogy" blog that led to your post about going from 2K to 10K words per day. Thank you for sharing, not only your books, but your knowledge and experience!

  5. What's the difference between advancing the plot and pulling the reader forward?