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Shea Berkley Tells How to Layer Your Scene

Posted by: Louise Bergin on Oct 16 2017, 9:22 am

(This content was taken from the blog of Louise Bergin. For more information click here.)

My writing chapter was fortunate to have adult/young adult paranormal and fantasy author Shea Berkley as our program speaker for October. She talked about her layering process to write a scene, which I think is a unique approach. After all, a writer needs a collection of scenes put together to tell a story. (Yes, a short story can be told in only one scene.)

But first what is a scene?

Ms. Berkley had an excellent definition. A scene is an event that occurs in a slice of time that creates change. Authors write about change, which can be such things as revelation of character or an additional obstacle. I thought this brilliantly clarified what the purpose of a scene is.

Ms. Berkley writes her books in scenes, viewing them as though they were a movie playing before her. She has five steps to writing or “layering” the scenes in her creative process. The first step is to get the dialogue down as quickly as possible. That’s all she writes. No tags as to who is speaking or what they might be doing. Just the dialogue.

Next she rewatches the scene and writes all the action. The characters must be doing something, even if it’s just eating breakfast.  If action isn’t put into the story, only talking heads would exist. Yes, Orson Scott Card started Ender’s Game with just two people talking dialogue, but even he didn’t write the whole book that way. Eventually, something must happen on the page.

Description follows on her third pass. It’s not a catalog of the setting, but what important details does the point of view character notice and why. How does that detail resonate with the character’s backstory, goals, or other pieces of who he is? What emotional response does the description invoke in the character? And remember, description can be about more than the setting. Also include the other people present in the scene when writing description.

Thought comes through with description, but Ms. Berkley makes it have its own pass. If she didn’t include thought as part of the emotional response to the description, she makes sure it’s written now. Readers like to know how someone else thinks. This forges a stronger emotional bond between character and reader, but be careful not to compose too much thought. After all, thought means thinking and not action, which slows the pacing and the forward thrust of the story.

Lastly, Ms. Berkley adds exposition, which she considers the backstory. This piece should be very lightly sprinkled into a writer’s prose because backstory means the author is referencing something that happened in the past, which once again, will slow the story from moving forward. Ms. Berkley was not talking about flashbacks which are scenes (an event in the past time line) vividly lived on the page. She meant during the story’s present, do not slow the dialogue/action/etc. for more than a brief phrase or sentence of backstory. Knowing the character’s past helps the reader understand why the character acts/believes the way he does. His motivation. Just no wallowing.

After explaining these five steps of layering (dialogue, action, description, thought, and exposition) Ms. Berkley gave us an example of a scene she’d written for the workshop. Starting with dialogue that the class originally didn’t realize contained three characters instead of two, she showed us how a her process works. Although I don’t write quite this way, I can see adapting this approach to reviewing my scenes will make certain they are fully developed. Thank you, Ms. Berkley for giving us another tool to adapt and use.

Shea Berkley

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