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Last time I described some of the tools I use when I’m outlining. I also included a list of ‘The W’s’ I got from my acting teacher many moons ago. For reference this week, I included them again:

WHAT has just happened? The Moment Before. The Characters’ emotional states.
WHAT is happening? The Apparent Event. Actions/Behavior
WHAT do you want? The Objective or Actual Event. Emotional need.
WHERE are you? The Environment. Create a setting.
WHO are you? The Characters and Relationships.
WHAT is the obstacle? The Conflict.

I came to this list as an actor, and it’s invaluable for breaking down a scene into bits an actor can use to create a believable performance. It’s also really great for a writer to get a handle on each character in a scene. In order to illustrate this point, I’ll break down one of the first scenes in Special Circumstances. From the first chapter, it’s where one of the main characters, Travis Lynch, goes to witness the execution of a man he tried to save from death row ten years earlier. While in the viewing room, he meets Christine Morton, the reporter who almost ruined his life, also ten years before.

For Travis:
The Moment BeforeTravis spent four hours driving through Texas in a car with no air conditioning in August to get to Huntsville, where the executions take place. On the way he was recognized from his disgrace ten years ago.
The Apparent EventTravis agreed to be a witness to the execution of Reilly Wayne Sutton, and act as a proxy for Sutton’s family, who will not attend.
The Actual EventTravis comes face to face with the reason for his estrangement from his brother, and with the instrument of his public disgrace, Christine Morton.
The Environmentthe viewing room on death row, where people watch the condemned die.
The Character and RelationshipsTravis has become the black sheep of his family because of his conscience and morality. He hates Morton because of the way she used his crisis ten years ago to make her career.
The ConflictTravis doesn’t want to be there, and is unprepared for the shock of watching another human being die. He also loathes Morton but needs her experience with this situation to hold it together until the end.

For Morton:
The Moment Beforeshe saw Travis Lynch walk into the one place she never thought she’d see him, the viewing room on death row. She considered leaving him alone, but her reporter’s instinct would not let her do that.
The Apparent Eventshe’s doing what she’s done many times before, being the media witness to a Texas execution.
The Actual Eventshe realizes Travis is in way over his head, and she helps him through the experience even though she knows he hates her.
The Environmentthe viewing room on death row, where people watch the condemned die.
The Character and RelationshipsMorton has the strength of her convictions behind her, and her ethic as a member of the Fourth Estate. She knows she rubs many people the wrong way, but she views her job as a public trust. She also wants to completely understand events from ten years ago, and Travis is the only one who can provide her closure on the remaining gaps. She needs to talk to him, but he’s clearly unwilling.
The ConflictTravis needs her help, though he doesn’t understand that at first and resists even looking at her. She wants to use this opportunity to cultivate Travis as a source. She also thinks she’s immune to the emotions of watching an execution, but she really isn’t.

That seems like a lot, doesn’t it? But it’s the skeleton on which I can hang the meat of the scene. This provides me relationship, tone, backstory, and conflict. I know where the scene begins and where it (sadly) ends. I know the middle part. I know how the characters are changed as a result of the scene, which then is ‘Moment Before’ for their next scenes.

These two are major characters in this story. You don’t need to go into quite so much detail with other characters. For instance, the condemned, Reilly Wayne Sutton, appears in this scene. It wasn’t necessary to define him with The W’s, because his role here is to provide emotional energy and some exposition, and then, ultimately, to die. One and done, as it were.

I hope you find this method as useful as I do. It takes guesswork and uncertainty out of things for me, and lets me focus on making the characters and their interactions as real as possible.
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Still no assignment from my publisher – it’s probably going to be after the New Year, I’m guessing – so I’m going to show you how I work. I promise, as soon as I get deeper into the publishing process you’ll be the first to know.

For the next part, reference the photo below. This is my kitchen table, one of the places I work. I go here when I need a solid surface, like when I’m doing my note cards. Note: do not attempt to adjust the picture, I’ve blurred the words on the note cards and my pad because I ‘m working on a sequel to the novel being published next year (spoilers, sweetie).  I’m not very far along, there are going to be a lot more of each type of card.

work_blurred

I use note cards in my plotting. Over the years I’ve found it’s easier to move things about, add, remove, and enhance. There is a method to this:

  • Red cards are definite actions, emotions, or events that drive the plot. These need to be in the story explicitly. For instance, the crime that sparks the plot, including all the details the reader discovers over the course of the story.
  • Green cards are character elements that are softer than the red cards. A character’s initial outlook, for example, or the change that the story provokes in them. These are not explicit in the story, but emerge out of it. The ‘show’ in ‘show, don’t tell.’
  • Blue cards are scene cards. The basic building block of a novel is the scene, at least the way I do it. There’s not enough room on a card to go into all the detail I need in a scene, these are really just detailed place holders. I can also tack these onto the cork board in my office so I can follow the flow of the narration. (see below for more on scenes)

The spiral note pad in the bottom left is a small pad I carry with me most places, where I write down whatever I’m thinking about the story. I do tend to repeat myself over time, so I re-read my notes probably once a week. The things that look like red, green, and blue Sharpie markers are exactly that. The black box is a note card holder. The round thing is a container of beer-themed coasters. The green things are cheap cloth place mats.

The Scene
A long time ago, in a foreign land (Los Angeles), I used to be a working actor. I didn’t get rich doing it, but I did buy a fancy convertible with the money I earned acting, so I’m ahead of 90% of working actors. I started acting because, in order to make my writing better, I wanted to know what actors did. I discovered I was a pretty decent actor, so I stuck with it, got an agent, landed some gigs, made some money. Much more important, though, was the scene breakdown I learned as an actor. It works so well I started using those elements in my writing, which got much tighter, and more emotional. It’s not a secret, so here’s how I break a scene down. From my acting teacher June Chandler*, who I’m sure got it from her teachers at her school, it’s called ‘The W’s.’ She even gave us a little business card with the W’s on it, which I still have and still refer to all the time.

WHAT has just happened? The MOMENT BEFORE. The Character’s emotional state.
WHAT is happening? The Apparent EVENT. Actions/Behavior
WHAT do you want? The OBJECTIVE or Actual Event. Emotional need.
WHERE are you? The ENVIRONMENT. Create a setting.
WHO are you? The CHARACTER and Relationships.
WHAT is the obstacle? The CONFLICT.

I’m sure any number of writing books give a similar breakdown or approach, but this one is specific to an actor navigating a scene as an individual. It’s a rubric for how an actor should break a scene down to digest it and turn those details into a performance. But, as it turns out, it’s also a very handy method for a writer to flesh out a scene, you just have to define the W’s for all characters in the scene.

Next time I’ll go through how I use The W’s to build up a scene in a novel.

* June’s amazing, and I love her a lot.  I’d take a bullet for her, and that’s not a metaphor.

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