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Masterful Narrative Scenes in Novels

Show, don’t tell. Yeah, we know that’s the rule. But there are times when scenes can be masterfully told by the POV character. Sometimes a character is telling a story, relating a memory, and if done well, it’s just as gripping as if the scene were played out in cinematic fashion.

I haven’t seen much written on the “narrative” scene, but this is a technique that suspense writer Lisa Gardner excels at. While narrative scenes can be in first or third person, the most effective ones I’ve read are in first person. What makes for great narrative scenes is the character voice.

In fact, the lack of that voice would risk boring readers. To me, openings of many best sellers (which we’ve examined in many of the First Pages of Best Sellers series on this blog), which are mostly narrative, are plain boring. And that’s because they lack a strong POV character voice.

We looked at some excerpts from Ron Hansen’s novel The Assassination of Jesse James and noted how his writing style or author “voice” made the narrative riveting (at least to me).

These are two different things. You may have an overall writing style like Hansen’s that infiltrates every page such that the only times you really get the “character voice” is in the dialogue. The storytelling voice can be consistent throughout a novel and set a specific tone or patina over the story. Hansen’s book, as I noted, reads like a biography, and I believe his choice of this stylistic voice was deliberate, to give this effect. Continue Reading…

Masterful Setting Description Part 3

Masterful setting description teaches us an important lesson: writers need to take the time to paint enough of a sensory-rich picture in order for readers to feel they are there—or at very least, get a glimpse of how the setting feels and looks to the POV character.

As we’ve discussed in many of these posts on masterful description, all details presented in description is the POV character’s observation. When you are in POV and you describe a tree, you are not giving dry statistics about that tree; you are sharing what that character notices when looking at that tree. And the way that tree is described has to

  1. fit the character’s personality, vocabulary, background, and education (you can’t have an educated character describe the tree the way a botanist would);
  2. fit the character’s mood at that moment (the choice of phrasing and adjectives, as well as the aspects of the tree noticed, has to reveal, mirror, or imply the mind-set);
  3. and help set the tone of the scene.

That description could do much more than what I stated above. It could act as a metaphor in some way, or a motif. Spindly bare arms could signify bareness, for example, and while the character may not be standing in front of the tree thinking, “Gee, this tree is like me: barren,” you could masterfully describe the tree in a way that the reader gets the subtext, the unspoken thoughts, that are often more powerful than the outward descriptions. Continue Reading…

Masterful Setting Description Part 2

Setting description in most novels is the weakest element. As with character description, many writers don’t want to bother describing the setting. Or they don’t understand how vitally important it is, in order to paint a sensory picture of where characters are so that readers can feel as if they are right there with them, experiencing the action alongside them.

That’s hard to do if there is no setting; in many scenes I critique, the characters seem to be floating in a black void of nothingness. Which would be fine if that were the intent of the author. But, sad to say, the writer is probably assuming her readers are picturing the setting via some ESP into the author’s mind.

Probably the most prevalent reason for not writing great setting description is the author doesn’t know how. And yet . . . there are countless novels with beautiful setting descriptions. The whole key to becoming a masterful writer is to study masters of writing. And that’s what we’ve been doing in this series. Continue Reading…

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