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Make Your Scenes Work Harder

by Don McClaire

Years ago, while my wife and I were dining with her parents, her father said something that changed my whole approach to writing.

Bill Hadley was an award-winning school superintendent, known throughout the teaching profession for his staff's high quality. On this occasion we were discussing education in general, and I asked him how he achieved that sterling quality.

He smiled. "Well, it's how I select my teachers. Most employers select a new staff member to fill a single job. Me? I make sure they have at least two talents I can use. The one I'm actually hiring them for, and at least one other I can use as a bonus."

I pressed him for details, and he gave the example of hiring an English teacher. Several applicants may be qualified to teach English, but one or more may have additional skills. So he hires the one who also likes to direct school plays, or oversee a school newspaper or yearbook.

Multiply hiring for this one position by the number of teaching slots on his staff, and one can easily see that the parts definitely add up to more than the whole.

I thought about that conversation many times since that evening, and realized his hiring technique could be used in many fields. It seemed to be a Universal Truth. One day, while I was writing a scene for a new novel, the power of his technique hit me. Why, scenes were just like those teachers! If writers made every scene do at least two things instead of one they would have a more powerful manuscript. I applied that thinking to my writing, and saw it take on a new life.

I think using the technique will make you a better writer, too. All your scenes should provide the reader information . That's the first talent. The second talent should be to move the story along.

Readers need certain information so they can follow the story. Some fiction writers provide it, in part, by having two people discuss the information in an early scene. Often this takes place in the heroine's apartment (or its equivalent). Nothing else happens in the scene.

This approach is deadly. Readers sometimes feel they're forced to sit on a couch in this cramped apartment and listen as the heroine and her sidekick discuss these pertinent must-have facts, perhaps glancing at the readers occasionally to see if they are picking up what the author is putting down. A much better way to pass that information is to do it as something else is happening.

A good example is a first chapter I read not long ago about a Manhattan girl going to a Texas dude ranch. One option the author had was to sit me down on that apartment couch and feed me a scripted message about why she is going to that ranch. This author, however, found a better way. She took me with her to the airport.

The chapter opened with the three of us - myself, the heroine, and her sister - arriving at LaGuardia. We looked around, and I began enjoying the outing. I watched people hurry by, heard the throaty announcements of departing flights, felt air gush from the air conditioners as we walked under them - the author presented all that information in a way that let me experience the trip. At the scene's end I boarded that plane with the main character (I don't know how that worked, since I had no boarding pass), and we searched for our seats.

It occurred to me, while I was anticipating my free peanuts and staring out the window at the tarmac activity, that the author had tricked me. While I was enjoying myself in the terminal the main character and her sister discussed the reasons for the trip. Sitting there in that airplane waiting to take off, I knew all those reasons. But I hadn't been forced to sit in a smoky apartment to learn them. I swear I absorbed them by some form of osmosis while accompanying my two new friends.

You can - and should - take this same approach to your scene writing. Advance the story as you provide that information, and you'll take your reader on that fictional trip with you.

Hey, this is heady stuff!