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5 Active Scene Elements,
Plus One Other Thing (Okay, Two)
Once you’ve got your sense of honesty, a little organization goes a long way to helping readers along. You can look at the technicalities of experiential expression as about six empty boxes we can fill in, but that won’t matter if you don’t put things in them that matter to someone else.
Fiction creates a mental picture. Mere words have to compensate for all those things that occur wordlessly in the real world. But the toolkit isn’t very big. And of the few things we use, they divide fairly easily into internal and external components of experience.
The thing that doesn’t go over well with contemporary adult audiences is giving internal details from a non-viewpoint character’s perspective. But that’s entirely dependent on the readership. The younger the intended audience, the more narrative, the more overt explanations, and the more we include the perspectives of non-viewpoint characters, because kids don’t read implication. It’s a brain development thing. Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux illustrates this very well.
Even teen (especially early teen) brains don’t understand how to interpret facial expressions, and we cue them overtly on interpersonal interactions a lot more at that reading level. That may be partly why adults eschew it and react like the reading material is too basic or flat. It doesn’t leave enough room for the fully-fledged imagination.
Here are those five active scene elements. They’re considered active because they’re the tools we use to advance the character’s perspective and desires onward through the story.
The 5 active elements of fiction prose
It helps to start any new moment with a brief description. Just a few general reference points will do, like a sweep with a movie camera. Otherwise, when your characters begin speaking and doing things, they’ll be doing them with no surrounding setting or atmosphere.
Description is the special darling, because if you give it from the character’s viewpoint, as indirect internal monologue, it’s internal. If you give it using narrative summary (the author’s voice), it’s external. That makes it a great tool for controlling the “zoom” on the story lens. The author’s voice is more distant, and the character’s thinking is more intimate. Transitioning between the two controls the emotional scale and intensity.
It also helps, according to acclaimed author Nancy Kress, to include some dialogue as promptly as possible. In a workshop of hers that I attended several years back, she mentioned that her work began to get a lot more requests from publication editors when she did this. If you read her current fiction, which is amazingly skilled, her use of dialogue drops you right into the moment and anchors you to the character.
What if your character is alone? Kress outwits that problem beautifully in the opening of After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall.
Dialogue is external. This is important. Implication and nuance in dialogue often require that we combine it with an internal technique, so we can see intent, and also the contrast between what’s said and the real thoughts behind it. This is because most of our meaning isn’t conveyed through syntax. It’s given through vocal inflection and body language, and those are lost when words go into print.
Do we have to tell the reader how the character spoke or what gestures they made? That can be useful with non-viewpoint characters, but nonverbal semantics are perceived subjectively, not factually. They have the most impact when shown from the viewpoint character’s perception, which may not be accurate.
Action is external, rather obviously. It pairs well with dialogue or internal monologue, because those tend to express the character’s goals. Of course, we immediately want to see those goals acted upon, once we know them.
This is the part where everyone says to kill all the adverbs. Why? Because adverbs tell you how a thing was, not just what it was or did. They’re a summary tool.
Yes, that means you can quite properly adverbialize in narrative summary. You can also do it anytime the emotional tension or intensity is low, because generally we summarize that more and intense action receives more detail.
4. Internal monologue
This means the viewpoint character’s thoughts, so naturally, internal monologue is internal. There are two ways to express it: Exactly as the character thinks it (directly) in more of a silent-dialogue style, or by paraphrasing in more of a narrative style (indirectly).
5. Visceral emotion
This is the one you don’t want to use often, or there’ll be accusations of giving your characters some kind of dysentery. This is the maximum-intensity, “the adrenaline punched him in the gut” stuff. It’s really hard to do without resorting to cliches, and even harder to do without inventing really weird physiological analogies. It works best when used very, very rarely.
And a 6th: Narrative summary
Narrative summary is when the author talks for a bit (sometimes called authorial voice or authorial narrative), just to get you on to the next part, or to skim over something relatively boring but necessary. It doesn’t sound like the character’s vocabulary, but the author’s, and doesn’t suffer the restrictions of the character’s viewpoint. It’s a pariah in basic fiction instruction because, quite simply, it’s telling. It’s passive rather than active.
The Hunger Games trilogy is high in narrative summary compared to an adult novel, keeping in mind that Suzanne Collins had a lot of prior experience writing for even younger children. The author understands the psychology of communicating with kids. The distance of using authorial voice to step back from the character experience can shelter children and teens from the intense emotional impact the same story would have if told mostly with active scene elements. Alternately, that distance can be closed by telling the story in first-person point of view, which will also be narration-heavy.
And in terms of adult fiction, why write a whole scene to make one tiny point of detail? Actually, you shouldn’t. Scenes have a specific purpose in the story, and that’s not it. Sometimes telling is the right choice to get past the parts that don’t need more depth.
Very occasionally, authorial narrative can successfully be used to break point of view and carry the reader to a side event with another character, without changing scenes. As a writer from a time when authorial voice was more accepted, John LeCarre continues to achieve this very well in his later work, for example Single & Single.
Narrative as rough drafting tool
Many people draft their first run at a story with a lot of narrative summary. They’re telling the story to themselves. That’s a great way to get it all down and figure out what happens and why. Later on, it’s fine to go back and replace the summary with active scene elements where they communicate the emotional experience more effectively.
The red-headed stepchild: Flashbacks
The advice out there about flashbacks is weird. This is because, when embedded within an ongoing scene, it tends to subsist in an odd limbo between internal monologue and narrative summary, and because it’s so easy to end up in extensive narrative summary rather than using flashback as indirect internal monologue.
If a flashback has to go long, then it’s not a flashback, it’s achronological plotting. Again see Single & Single.
The short and simple is, if you learn to understand internal monologue and narrative summary, you won’t have a problem writing flashbacks. There’s nothing special, scary or mysterious about them. You likely have seen them done right and wrong, but if it’s hard to peg why, this way of looking at the elements of fiction prose may help clarify that.