Write great scenes

by M.J. Hearle

I’m not a big Tumblr guy. It’s nothing personal, I just feel with Facebook, Twitter and this blog, I spend enough time on social media without adding another platform to procrastinate with. There are a few Tumblr accounts I keep tabs on, however, one of them being Joe Hill’s Thrills.

Cover of "Heart-Shaped Box"

Cover of Heart-Shaped Box

Joe Hill, for those who don’t know, is the incredibly talented author of the spookfest Heart-Shaped Box, the magical realist novel Horns (soon to be a major motion picture starring Daniel Radcliffe), and the upcoming NOS4R2. Say that last title aloud and if it makes you smile you’ll probably dig his stuff. Joe’s Tumblr page is a cornucopia of geekery – Doctor Who, Star Wars, Victorian book illustrations, and comic books feature heavily. He also uses his tumblr to answer fan questions and post writing advice.

One such response to a fan’s question really stuck with me. The question asked of Joe (I’m paraphrasing) was ‘should you spend two years writing a novel that might not potentially sell?’

Joe’s response:

The first is to stop thinking about writing a novel that’s going to take you two years. That’s too overwhelming. Instead, just focus on what you’re going to do today, which is write another great scene: a scene that does something unexpected and fun and is going to make people want to read on. Something that explores the characters in a way that’s real but surprising. Don’t write about someone waking up, unless they’re waking up to find a dead body next to them. Don’t write about someone making breakfast unless there’s a head in the fridge… or his wife is going to call halfway through his eggs to tell him she’s leaving his drunk and lazy ass for an alligator wrestler and part-time evangelical preacher. That would be a great scene to write and that’s all the job comes down to. Your job is to write one great scene… and then write another great scene. When you have a whole stack of them, it’s a short story, or a novel.

The whole ‘Your job is to write one great scene…and then write another great scene.’  might seem obvious but it hit me with the force of an epiphany. You see, I’ve never approached my writing like this. Instead, I’ve focused on writing a great story. The individual scenes were less important than the whole overarching narrative. Pick-up Winter’s Shadow and you’ll see, particularly towards the beginning of the novel, plenty of, what I call, ‘bridging scenes’. These are scenes where nothing particularly interesting happens but they’re necessary to move the story forward. Most of the scenes of Winter at home, listening to music, brooding etc fall under this category. I don’t enjoy writing bridging scenes and try to add flavour when I can but sometimes it’s impossible. Or so I thought.

After considering Joe’s advice I’ve come to the conclusion that these bridging scenes might have been unnecessary. Ill-planned. I should have approached every scene with the same goal – make it great. Make it dramatic, unique, quirky. Make it pop. When I was going through the editorial process with my agent and publisher the critical feedback I consistently received was that the first half of Winter’s Shadow lagged. I could never figure out why or how to rectify this problem. Now, I think I can. There were too few great scenes and too many bridging scenes. I’m just about to start writing my third book and Joe’s advice will be at the forefront of my thoughts. Write great scenes and trust that a great story will follow.

M.J.

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