Thursday, June 3, 2010

My Four One-Word Writing Prompts

Lately I've come up with a "cheat sheet" sticky note that I keep on my computer monitor to remind me of four basic concepts that I want to include in every scene of the book I'm working on. For my Work in Progress (WiP), the second book in the Rocky Mountain Adventure series, I'm editing chapters to submit to my critique group, then editing them again after I receive comments from the group. As I edit the scenes in each chapter, I look at my cheat sheet to make sure I have evaluated these four concepts in each one.

1. Emotion - Are all of the characters in the scene, especially the POV character, experiencing some kind of emotion, the stronger the better? Am I expressing that emotion in their gestures, actions, speech, tone of voice, facial expressions, etc.? Is there any way that I can increase the emotion in this scene? Can I better elicit emotion from the reader?

This usually means evoking the "show not tell" principle. Instead of saying that a character felt nauseated by the blood on the corpse, I have her swallow back the burning bile in her throat, tear her gaze from the body, put a hand to her roiling stomach, and finally involuntarily gag and bend over to splatter her breakfast on the ground below.

2. Conflict - Does the scene include a conflict, either within the POV character or between at least two characters in the scene? If not, how can I introduce conflict into the scene? How can I escalate the conflict if I already have one?

I recently attended a workshop by literary agent Donald Maass at a writers conference about adding micro-tension to scenes and have started to put that into practice. For example, at the beginning of a scene, I have Mandy Tanner, my whitewater river ranger sleuth, putting up her equipment and raft at the end of the day. Her boss comes out in the equipment yard to ask her if she's heard how the fly fishing tournament is going. She says no and suggests they walk over to the event registration area to find out. No conflict there, right? This is just the start of a scene where there's conflict later, but I thought I could add some here, too.

So, I changed the scene so that Mandy had a rough day, having to pick up muddy, rank-smelling trash along the river and she has to heave a heavy, wet trash bag into the dumpster which drips all over her, making her even dirtier and smellier. She wants nothing more than to go home and take a hot shower. But, when her boss asks her about the tournament, she sighs, delays her shower, and suggests they find out about it. More interesting, right?

3. Question - Am I planting a question in the reader's mind during this scene, especially at the end? Is the question strong enough to propel the reader forward and make him or her turn the page? If not, how can I plant a question, or leave out something that I'm explaining in this scene and explain it later?

Having spent years writing technical documentation and user's manuals in my former career as a software engineer, I had a firmly ingrained goal of making my writing clear and straight-forward and explaining everything in a step-by-step way so the reader doesn't become confused. This is exactly what a writer does NOT want to do in a mystery! What this often means is that I delete the last sentence or two from a scene, and many times replace them with a question, either in the POV character's thoughts or spoken aloud. Or my characters refuse to answer each others' questions or do so indirectly or incompletely. Or I describe only part of what my character sees or does.

4. Senses - Am I eliciting all of the reader's senses in this scene (sight, sound, touch, smell, taste, etc.)? If not, how can I add to the descriptions in the scene to evoke more senses?

For example, in the opening scene of my WiP, I kept reworking the description below until I had the characters, and the reader, feeling the heat, hearing the wind, seeing the trees, tasting water, and smelling...death.

Heat waves shimmered off the parched ground. Mandy followed Steve's lead, removing her PFD and lifting the end of her strawberry blond ponytail off the damp back of her neck. An early September Monday in Chaffee County, Colorado, this one was showing signs of being a record-breaking scorcher. While Steve took a long pull on his water bottle, Mandy shielded her eyes from the glare of the late morning sun and scanned the Vallie Bridge campground. From the tent sites she could see, it looked deserted.

With the raven now quiet, the only sound was the hot wind soughing through the grasses and nearby copse of stunted pine trees, bringing with it the scent of baking dry needles, and something else...

Mandy wrinkled her nose. "Something smells rank."

Do you have any "cheat sheets," notes, or other writing prompts stuck on your computer monitor to help you remember good writing concepts or avoid bad ones? What are they?


Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

No, I don't have any cheat sheets...but yours sounds like a good one to have, Beth! Good ideas here...I'm tweeting this.

J D Webb said...

Great list, Beth. Worth using up a sticky note.

Jill said...

Good idea to post these reminders where you'll see them! It's so eay to wander off in writing and having an 'in your face' prompt keeps you on the right path.

Marisa Birns said...

Followed Elizabeth here.

Great post about knowing and using these four prompts as touchstones for one's writing.

Will keep them near my computer!


Janel said...

I didn't have a cheat sheet, until I read this post! Great list. Thanks for posting it!

Annette said...

Excellent post, Beth. I'm printing this out and tacking it to my bulletin board of great writing advice.

Paulo Campos said...

Great post!

I don't have a cheat sheet proper but I keep a list of seven fairly simple concepts Kurt Vonnegut listed for short story writers. Like your prompts, the simpler the better.

When things get hazy they help me focus.

If anyone's interested, Vonnegut's list is here:

Beth Groundwater said...

Thanks for the link to Vonnegut's rules for short stories! I liked the one about being a sadist, and I had to laugh at the one saying "...Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on...", because I've always found his books to be confusing. :)

Darrell James said...

All important concepts, Beth. I don't have any cheat sheets like these. (I'm not an outliner either.)My one goal, when I'm writing, is to thrill myself as a reader. I write, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite until it has that "emotional and physical" feel that I'm looking for. This may not be the most efficient approach, I admit. Maybe if I had a prompt (or four) it would go a lot smoother. Thanks for a different take on it.

Pat Batta said...

I try to use your four prompts in all my writing, but having them right in front of me while going over each scene is a great idea. I also attended a Donald Maass workshop and intentionally adding conflict made a huge improvement in my writing.

M Pax said...

Great list. I envy you the workshop. I pick a word as 'mood' setting for a scene / chapter and stick that on my monitor sometimes.

Cricket McRae said...

Vital concepts, Beth. I have them in the back of my mind as I write a first draft, but don't use them to question every scene until I'm rewriting. A cheat sheet is a good idea -- how did we manage before post-its?

Rebecca @ Diary of a Virgin Novelist said...

This is great! Thanks for sharing your tips.

Jackie said...

What great suggestions. I especially like the mini-conflict idea. On my cheat sheet, I like to keep track of anything answered in the scene so I remember not to ponder something in a later scene that's no longer an issue. :)

Beth Groundwater said...

I really like M Pax's idea of picking one word to convey the desired mood/emotion for a scene and sticking that word on your monitor as a reminder while writing the scene.

I also do something similar to what Jackie suggests in my outlines. For every scene I list what's discovered AND I list what other major characters are doing at the same time off stage. That way I keep track of the clues and characters' actions.

Keep those ideas coming, folks! I'm sure other Inkspot readers besides myself are finding them useful.

Beth Groundwater said...

Comments from Facebook:

Great tips!! Thanks Beth

Read and copied for my own use, Beth. Thanks so much. One can know something--yet forget to utilize it. I will keep it handy.

Nice. I like the four "tests" you put your scenes through. And the examples were very good too. Thanks!

Great article. As usual!

Very helpful, Beth. I'll bet some more sticky notes are going up on computers now----

Great blog. Thanks for the helpful "cheat sheet" .

My response there:

I'm so glad you're finding it useful! Even though I've written five novel-length manuscripts now (four published or contracted for), I still find new techniques to learn every time I go to a writing conference or read a book about writing.

Writing Private said...

I remind myself of Scene-Sequel (goal, conflict, disaster, reaction, dilemma, decision). I'll often put these at the top of the scene (or sequel) I'm writing next, and identify what they are (which may change as I write the scene, but at least I've given myself direction).

Enjoyed your blog, Beth!

Best, Colleen

Jan Morrison said...

I do now! Yours. Thanks - this is very helpful as I approach deep scene work.

Lesley Diehl said...

Somewhere I knew all of that, but shoved it to the back of my mind. You jogged my memory, so now I have a cheat sheet identical to yours. Well, why tamper with success? If it's good, it's good.

ang klocke said...

I have a cheat sheet now. Thanks!

Chellesie B said...

Another great thing to post is your 'elevator pitch,' a '25 words or less' story concept.
If you don't already have one, write it now, so you keep your focus on who wants what and why she/he can't have it.
That way, as you layer in emotions and micro-tension, you don't forget that she's an 'ambitious animal trainer who needs to marry to get custody of her beloved baby elephant.' (no, that isn't my WIP! lol)