07 August 2006

Engineering for Writers

"The engineer's first problem in any design situation is to discover what the problem really is."

I found this in a file of quotes I've collected over the years. It applies equally well to the craft of writing as it does to engineering. Problem: I spent the weekend struggling to get a scene down on paper. Transitional scenes at times can give me fits. I know what I wanted to write, I even knew what I wanted to bring out about the character. I just couldn't get it done. Not in under 5000 words. 5000 words seemed awfully long just to show how my main character can make the tough decisions when he has to.

I wrote. I rewrote. I changed characters in the scene. I showed what led to my main character's decision, the effect his decision had on others, and the problems it raised for the main character internally. Then I put it away, but the scene bothered me all evening. Was there a better way to show what I wanted to show about my main character?

It finally dawned on me. If the reader wasn't sure of the main character by this point, and what his course of action should be, then I had done something wrong with the initial introduction of my main character. Midway through the book, we should know him, and know his reactions. My engineering problem wasn't with the structure of the scene, it was that I didn't need the scene at all.

The scene was tense, there was action, plenty of dialogue, it was a good scene. But it was unnecessary. Better to chop it now, than edit it out later, or worse, be told to edit it out. I should know these things by now. I was so caught up in what my character wanted to tell, I forgot to take charge and tell him, "No." At first I was miffed I just wasted the entire weekend writing a useless scene, until I realized I had the scene in my head now, and the aftereffects on his friends and colleagues could still be played out with just a throwaway paragraph about my hero's character building episode. Hopefully, I can start examining scenes I plan to write with a more critical eye.

"Is this scene totally necessary?"
"Will this scene keep the story moving forward?"
"Is this scene just character ego gratification?"
"If I chop this scene, will it leave a gap in my novel?"

Brewer's 3rd Rule of Combat Engineer Writing. Figure out the real problem with a scene before you write it.

Engineering. It's not just for bridges anymore.

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