Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Writing scenes with Tom Huang

Today I sat in on a webinar with Tom Huang, Assistant Managing Editor for Sunday and Enterprise at The Dallas Morning News and Ethics and Diversity Fellow at The Poynter Institute.

Tom talked about reporting and writing scenes. While the focus of this seminar was non-fiction, I think many of my fiction writer friends will find what he had to say helpful.

Here are some bullet points.

·    Scenes are the building blocks of dramatic storytelling
·    A story is a string of pearls, think of it as a sequence of dramatic scenes
·    Scenes involve strong characters, action and dialogue
·    Think about turning points, moments of discovery. Bring protagonist face to face with a dilemma. Know what the complication or main obstacle is
·    Scenes can help develop a story’s larger theme
·    Scenes reveal aspects of a protagonist’s character (ie, motives)
·    Scenes come to life with details that transport us into the stories. Writers use sights, sounds, smells, tastes to bring people into this world.
·    Show don’t tell
·    Evoke emotions, stir memories
·    Using details in a very spare way allows reader to add some of their own experiences
·    Action is comprised of strong verbs and active voice
·    What we gain from the scene is not information but experience
·    Scenes help readers feel what it might have been like to be in that situation

Elements of a scene
·    Characters
·    Actions
·    Dialogue
·    Sense of place
·    Details
·    Emotion
·    A range of views, from wide angle to close-up

·    People want to read about people. They want to hear their voices, see them, etc. Ask yourself if your characters grab the reader in some way.
·   Keep narrative “camera” on your main character for most of the story

·   Don’t pack the story or scene with too many characters
·   Show protagonist’s physical details, mannerisms, movement, let reader  “hear” protagonist’s voice

·    Wants and needs of character drive plot forward
·    Use strong verbs
·    Use active voice
·    Start scene in middle of the action
·    Pay attention to how characters move and interact

·    Dialogue advances narrative while quotes delay it. When you read a quote, you step out of the narrative flow. Dialogue happens within the narrative flow.

Sense of place
·    Story needs to have a geographical heart
·    You want to leave a sense of place, not just a laundry list of details
·    Allow time to roam around a place to get to know it better
·    Research history of the place
·    One suggestion if reporting from a place is to stay in a locally owned place (think bed and breakfast) as opposed to a national chain.

·    Be highly selective
·    Use details that reveal something important about your character or moves the plot forward. Also, details that are important to the larger theme
·    Spare details stimulates memories
·    Show don’t tell
·    Use spare, simple language
·    Reveal person’s emotions through their action

How to select which scenes to include
·    Which scenes have the most dramatic potential
·    Watch for turning points (ie. successes, failures, etc.)
·    Start with a scene that has main character in it
·    Good scene causes subsequent scene to occur


  1. Wow, that was a super helpful list of reminders. I'm going to print this out and keep it by my computer for revising. Thank you!