Brian Henry workshop, Sudbury, March 22, 2014


Brian HenryThis afternoon, I attended my fifth Brian Henry workshop.

This one, the third held in Sudbury and hosted by the Sudbury Writers’ Guild, was on “How to make your stories dramatic.”

These workshops are Brian’s bread and butter, so without giving too much of the content away, here are my notes:

  • The scene is the basic building block of your story.
  • There are two kinds: the dialogue-based scene, and the action-based scene.
  • Every scene must have a plot-related point. It must answer the question, “so what?”
  • Push and pull. The push is the point of view (POV) character’s need. The pull is what the pursuit of the need leads to (promise, twist, decision, new threat, etc.).
  • Your characters must be interesting. They should be unique, have their own interests, passions, a quirk, backstory (dole it out gradually). If two characters are similar, shoot one.
  • Readers, sadly, do not remember names.
  • Your protagonist should be a good “tour guide.”
  • Every character has her or his own agenda (the scene’s push). It’s better if they are at odds with one another.
  • Pick your scenes carefully. Show the important stuff. Tell the rest.
  • Don’t get to the point too quickly.
  • Scene = hook, hook, and hook.
  • Ford Madox Ford, “No speech of a character should reply directly to another character.”
  • Dialogue shouldn’t be smooth.
  • An action scene consists of set up, action, and wind down.
  • Set up = setting, background, tone, suspense.
  • Action = plot, character, relationships.
  • Wind down = the result, new information, what is gained or lost.
  • Dialogue is important, even in action scenes.
  • Make sure it feels exotic (most people don’t spend a lot of time fighting, in chase scenes, etc.)
  • Use internal monologue to your scene’s best advantage. No long-winded explanations.
  • You need to have some kind of surprise.
  • Have more than one thing going on at any one time.

We went through a few examples of dramatic scenes, one from Lawrence Block, one from George R. R. Martin, and one from Bernard Cornwell to look at the variations and interplay of action and dialogue. We also completed a writing exercise, for which I chose a scene (to that point unwritten) from Gerod and the Lions.

Since I’m always trying to learn and improve upon my craft, the workshop brought up a number of bits and pieces that I’ve learned over the years.

Emily Dickenson wrote, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.”

Last fall at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference, I attended a Diana Gabaldon session where she shared her technique of driving a scene forward by raising questions in the reader, but delaying the answers for as long as possible.

I just finished reading Victoria A. Mixon’s The Art and Craft of Story, in which she describes “holographic structure.” This takes the basic three act structure of hook, development, and climax and breaks it down.

The hook consists of the hook and the first conflict, the development includes (at least) two more conflicts, and the climax consists of the faux resolution and climax.

In fact, breaking it down even further, each of these six elements contains its own six elements.

Thus, the hook part of the hook section contains its own hook, (at least) three conflicts, faux resolution, and climax, as does each of the remaining parts.

If this seems confusing, please read Victoria’s book. She explains it at much more length and much more clearly than I do.

Suffice it to say that the ultimate breakdown is at the scene level, and each scene, in keeping with its overall purpose within the story, has its own hook, three conflicts, faux resolution, and climax.

That’s all the insightful I have for you today, my writerly peeps.

Until next time.

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5 thoughts on “Brian Henry workshop, Sudbury, March 22, 2014

  1. I’d say that was insight aplenty! I don’t think I can hear good writing craft tips too many times. Eventually, I’m hoping it just seeps into my marrow and then bleeds onto the page.

    Can’t wait for next Saturday’s offering!

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  2. Melanie, I loved reading this today. I’ve been working on revision to a novel draft that I’ve been away from long enough to read with fresh eyes , and am at that point of recognizing and resolving issues with structure. In lots of cases, I’ve written more scenes than I need and the information you’ve shared helped get me thinking about how I’ll make decisions moving forward. Thanks!

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    • Excellent! I’d actually recommend Victoria’s book for you then too. I didn’t do a great job of explaining it, but her holographic structure is great. For revision, she recommends a reverse engineering approach in which you start at the end and work back to the beginning to ensure that everything you need is in the plot.

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