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Writing Deep Scenes: Plotting Your Story through Action, Emotion, and Theme

Updated: Aug 30, 2022

Writing often feels like driving in uncharted territory. It doesn't matter how great your directions are or how many years you've been behind the wheel. If your tires are spinning in a rut or you run over your compass, you feel like you're traveling blind.

Writing Deep Scenes by Martha Alderson and Jordan Rosenfeld, thankfully, provides a road map.

The introduction defines how plot is affected by action and emotion, then delves into basic scene and story design. You've probably heard of three-act structure; here, the "middle" is divided in two. Alderson and Rosenfeld define what typically happens within these acts and what readers expect, and they embed four different types of "Energetic Markers" in each. Though the terminology sounds advanced, it’s an interesting perspective on what some consider turning points. For instance, the first Energetic Marker is the Point of No Return, the moment when the protagonist steps out of his comfort zone and into the meat of the narrative. The types of scenes they recommend at this juncture—such as suspense or escape, and the functions and effects they have—are explained in the next chapter.

Though some writer’s craft books prescribe an exact formula, Writing Deep Scenes suggests a more general approach, where these markers come around each quarter mark as opposed to a specific page. There are very few have tos and nevers that are common in other guides. Alderson and Rosenfeld describe what works best and why, instead of setting rigid mandates about what you shouldn't do.

What if you're writing literary fiction? Despite the strong focus on plot in the first section, this is not a guide primarily for writing novels loaded with twists and turns. The second section instructs how to inject emotion throughout the piece, so your reader can connect regardless of genre. The analogy about setting a fire spoke to me; after all, we all want our prose to burn in readers' memories long after they put it down:

"In the beginning, the kindling is laid, and in the emerging middle, the fire is lit. Now, in the deeper middle, the fire roars through activities, movement, dialogue, and external successes and failures. The flames are so intense that they burn off the dross of the character and reveal her inner gold. The final transformation, as the protagonist emerges a changed individual, is reserved for the final quarter of the story at the Triumph. But in the deeper middle, your job is to keep the heat on high."

The last section of Writing Deep Scenes delves into theme—a frequently ill-defined aspect of storytelling—advising how to infuse your novel with symbolism, foreshadowing, and intense description versus exposition. These points would also be valuable to flash fiction enthusiasts, where there’s no time for “telling” and resonance is key.

A craft book is nothing without examples, preferably not from the authors' own works. Lessons are great, but unless the techniques are demonstrated, I usually feel insecure about whether I’ve understood them correctly. The excerpts used to illustrate their points are from recent novels such as The Night Circus (Morgenstern), Geek Love (Dunn), and Winter's Bone (Woodrell), as well as classics like A Tale of Two Cities (Dickens).

Although the style of this book is a little on the repetitive side, it reminded me of a teacher drilling lessons into my head. The authors rehash the most important aspects so you don't have to backtrack or mark pages, but keep moving forward. Writing Deep Scenes is more of a study guide, and doesn’t provide a lot of quick answers to sift through.

I borrowed this book from the library and took so many notes, I should have stopped renewing it and bought a copy. I found myself checking the guidelines against my own work-in-progress to see if I had achieved any of the recommended milestones. It was a relief to feel like I might be on the right track. As a pantser, extra guidance and clarification is always welcome, and a little validation goes a long way.


About the author: Jennifer Worrell won second place overall in the 2016 Writer's Games, beating out 124 other writers overall. Her short stories are featured in the Writer's Games anthology (available in ebook and print on Amazon). You can follow her on twitter: @PieLadyChicago.


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