I happen to teach a fiction class at UCLA Extension called "The Writer's Workout," where over a mere eight weeks, I hope to start people into a habit. People take classes in UCLA Extension's Writing Program because they've been harboring a desire to write, often for years, and are finally acting on it.
I have my students not only write a lot in and out of class, but also read. That's why it's a workout. We read short fiction as well as a book about writing that matches what I've learned over thirty years of pushing and tinkering, always in the search of the secret, "How do you write a good story?"
For me, storytelling is about writing the truth--small truths, large truths--as clearly and honestly as possible. These truths are slipped in within the experience of my characters. You, the writer, must deliver experience. "Show, don't tell," goes the saying, but understanding this may guide you in how to create scenes. "Heather was a happy person" is telling not showing. It's a sentence that may deliver intellectually but not emotionally. In contrast, if you show Heather in action doing positive things, the reader can think to herself, "Heather's a happy person." The reader becomes involved.
Thus, you write in scenes. The book I use is The Scene Book by Sandra Scofield who demonstrates how scenes are the pulse of your story. She offers insight on how to write effective scenes and gives tools for when a scene feels muddy.
I mention all this to get to a favorite passage of mine within this book. It's when she's discussing "pulse" and says, "The best way I know to grasp the concept of pulse is to reread a story or a scene in a novel that has moved you, something that you remember and go back to. Then articulate for yourself what it is that is driving the scene and making it memorable."
I happened to read and finish last week The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. I'd resisted reading it before because the movie was so good that I expected to imagine Jody Foster and Anthony Hopkins and not get beyond that. I was wrong. The book's fantastic and reminded me what a page-turning novel is all about. The psychology behind the characters is masterful, and I was often surprised how lyrical the writing was, too.
In particular was chapter forty-five, where FBI section chief Jack Crawford is at the bedside of his wife, Bella, who he's loved many years. Bella is dying, and it's when her breath changes, that he takes notice. He sits up and takes her hand.
Harris writes, She took a deep breath and let it out. Her eyes were open for the first time in days. Crawford put his face close before hers, but he didn't think she could see him.
Crawford tells her he loves her and puts his ear to her chest. Then:
He heard a soft beat, a flutter, and then her heart stopped. There was nothing to hear, and there was only a curious cool rushing. He didn't know if the sound was in her chest or only in his ears.
Shortly thereafter, with no transition, Harris writes, When she came in from the garden, her hands smelled like thyme. And there's another leap: "Think about it like egg white on your fingers," the girls at school had counseled Bella about sex. She and Crawford had joked about it in bed, years ago, years later, last year.
The way the scene is delivered, with its leaps, makes emotional sense. The whole two-page chapter stunned me. While Crawford is on the edges of the story, and the dialogue between FBI agent-in-training Clarice Starling and the deeply insightful, gentlemanly Dr. Lecter, "Hanibal the Cannibal," constantly sizzles, this scene with Crawford and his wife makes sense on another level. It stands in contrast to the brutal murders discovered by Starling. It's a scene of love.
People who write fiction often do so because they've been moved as readers and want to be a part of a conversation. They want to create stories that prod, outrage, or comfort others. A good story delivers emotion. If there are books you love, it's worth rereading them to learn why they are so strong, the way a carpenter can look at a house and see the framing through the walls.
Is there any scene from a novel that stands out for you? Why is it so powerful?
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