I read a novel recently where every scene was acutely, painfully authentic. I’ve met the writer, and he is warm and funny in person, but he does not spare his readers. I admire that, but I’m not eager to read such a relentless book again. For my own taste, there should be truth throughout and the story as a whole needs to be authentic, but it’s okay to have most of the book be entertaining and to have mercilessly truthful scenes in key moments. Like rhetorical devices, a little bit goes a long way.
Pivotal scenes often benefit from an adherence to honesty that may feel like an invasion of privacy. It must be set correctly. It can’t stand out as if it came from a different manuscript (or even a different author), but it should be memorable. In practice, you may write a whole novel without considering entertainment (or even the audience). Then, if you wish, you can revise to add fun later on. My preference is to write only select scenes—those that feel critical to me—with more attention to a heightened fidelity than to my perfect reader. And all of the scenes chosen matter greatly to one of the characters in the story.
To be clear, I am not saying there is a problem with writing with only entertainment in mind. Those stories have value, and they may be what you were made to write. And the writer may not always know where truth is hidden. Conan Doyle thought is other works were superior to Sherlock Holmes. A lot of readers would disagree.
So, how do you create an authentic scene? I don’t know. But I can share how I write and authentic scene and I hope that will provide some guidance.
Preparation—While sometimes these scenes sneak up on me, I generally take the notes on story events and highlight scenes that may need the authenticity treatment before much composition is done. I purposely choose too many, knowing I can tone down scenes knock the story out of balance later on. When it comes time to write the scene, I try to leave the perfect reader and the editor behind. I come armed with my research, my sense of story theme, and research that includes keen observations. I use music and method acting techniques to open myself up.
Often, I will write a first sentence for the scene the day before, and I try to write one that makes me uncomfortable without straying from what feel like the core truth of the scene. When I can do that, the next day is easier. I reserve the time to avoid interruptions and distractions (and this may mean that it is scheduled to be written out of sequence). I may jot down notes before I begin to compose, especially if I wrote the sentence the day before. Often, my brain will deliver a lot of material right after I wake up.
Composition—Once I sit down to write (or, better yet, dictate), the only interruption is pacing. I don’t look up any words or do any research. I don’t change anything once it’s written, though I may [bracket] a bit that I realize needs to be embedded in text that’s already written. I listen my characters unless they want me to be more polite or judicious. All the way through, I mangle sentence if it means more truth is captured. I offend myself if that’s where honesty takes me. I go where the scene must go, even if it disrupts the plot. I allow myself to be distressed and surprised.
The biggest danger in composing an authentic scene is composing one that pretends to be authentic. If it’s easy or a cliche, that’s a good sign that I’ve taken a wrong turn. If I drift into generalities, especially in dialogue, I probably am avoiding the hard work, pain, and discomfort that is often required for an authentic scene.
Revision—The temptation to revise prematurely is biggest with these scenes. In part, this is because they tend to be important and other parts of the story depend on them being right. I’ve learned, if they are mostly right, they won’t mess up the rest of the story for me. Rewriting right away isn’t really necessary, it just feels that way. And the urge to fix these scenes, in my experience, is not related to better writing. Instead, it’s about stepping back from the truth. So I leave it alone. Ideally, though I may make notes, I won’t even correct spelling until the whole manuscript is done and has had a chance to cool down (for about a month, if I can do that).
As with any scene, things can go wrong, and these can undercut even the most honest scenes. It can be unclear. It must have a goal. It must have a beginning, middle, and end. The logic can fail, or a fact may be wrong. Luck can only go in the antagonist’s favor (no jammed guns for villains). A development may violate something readers “know.”
These scenes need a fresh look in terms of how they fit in, and that may need special attention to the language and the mood. Some of these scenes end up in the wrong place or must be so close to another authentic scene that I need to shift them more into the entertainment space (or into a different story). The perfect reader who lives in my head is brought back in to help, followed by the editor in my head.
Authentic scenes in particular need to play out. In general, this means there will be three to five turns or beats (which generally indicate power changes, often through revelations). While it can be effective to have shorts scenes (I’ve read great one sentence scenes) elsewhere, these scenes need to be given their due.
In revision of these scenes, I like to include emotional validation. This is when the viewpoint character (usually) response in a way that indicates the emotion the reader is intended to feel. It doesn’t always work, but when it does it can lock the scene in the reader’s mind.
Authentic scenes are fresh, so I always ask if it it feels too familiar. Have I seen this before?
Authentic scenes are especially vulnerable to any part where the character acts “out of character.” I think this is because if it seems as if the characters are being manipulated, especially in a scene that may create discomfort, the readers will suspect they are being manipulated. That is a sure way to destroy authenticity.
I have one more thing to check at this point. Was this scene earned? Did I pay a price for its authenticity? Will the reader sacrifice (at least comfort) to gain its truth?
Next week, we’ll look at how to make characters more authentic. With a character who comes alive and has his/her own reality, a lot of scenes approached as entertainment will automatically be deeper, more memorable, and more authentic.