Writing about an 'unseen scene'; manuscript formatting
Published: April 22, 2008
|I want to write a scene that my character didn't witness. She knows about it, but wasn't there. I don't want to switch into another character's perspective because I don't do that anywhere else. Should I have my character talk about this with a character who did witness it?|
You can certainly achieve this in dialogue, but you'll want to be careful that it stays true to natural dialogue. It's easy to lapse into narrative-like dialogue in an instance like this and that will feel inauthentic and forced:
"But what happened?" Mary asked.
"It was a Saturday afternoon. Dark clouds had rolled in front of the sun, so it felt closer to dusk. I was walking to the store three blocks from my house, my canvas totes ringed around my arm . . ."
See what I mean? People generally don't respond to questions with the level of detail one might include in a scene. So, if you use dialogue to convey this information, you might find it's more effective if you're only conveying parts of the situation:
"But what happened?" Mary asked.
"I'm still ticked off about it," Glenn said. "Who expects to go to the store and lose a pinky finger? The manager said the meat counter will never be the same. Can you believe it? He's mad at me."
While the moment isn't fleshed out fully, the reader gets some of the basic details. And the conversation might continue in this way in order to reveal more. Keep in mind that dialogue should stay true to the character's voice. It's conceivable that a character is more eloquent than the way I've written Glenn. But be careful not to go so far that the dialogue sounds like narrative.
Another option is to let your character imagine her way into the moment. If she knows about it, she's bound to picture it happening. If it's important to her or strikes her in some way, she may have thought about it quite extensively. So, you could reveal the story through her perspective with the understanding that she's imagined it in this way. F. Scott Fitzgerald does this in The Great Gatsby. Nick, the first person narrator, meets Gatsby long after Gatsby's first kiss with Daisy. Gatsby talks quite a bit about his past with Nick, so he's heard about this kiss. Nick then gives us that scene in his own words, a mix of what he's learned from Gatsby and his own imagination:
One autumn night, five years before, they had been walking down the street when the leaves were falling, and they came to a place where there were no trees and the sidewalk was white with moonlight. They stopped and turned toward each other. Now it was a cool night with that mysterious excitement in it which comes at the two changes of the year . . . His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy's white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her.
You don't have to break perspective in order to cover what your character hasn't experienced. It just takes a little bit of imagination and creativity to find ways to bring the moment to life.
In manuscripts, should I indent the first line of a paragraph or can I just skip a line and not indent the first line? Indenting looks so old fashioned.
The age of the Internet has certainly changed the way writing appears visually. Online, most writing is blocked, where the first lines of new paragraphs aren't indented, but are flush to the left like all the other text. White space indicates the movement to a new paragraph. This might be why indenting seems old fashioned to you. We don't often see it in the newer technology of the Internet. Much of the motivation behind this is visual. Online, an article can unfurl on a single long page, so the space isn't as limited as it is in printed matter. In a book, too much white space can look awkward.
Manuscript format is to indent the first line of each new paragraph (and to double space). Don't skip lines when doing this, unless you're indicating a larger break in the story. This is the industry standard, so editors and agents are expecting it. And following the standard communicates to the reader that you've taken the time to learn this format, which is one way to convey your professionalism.
|Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.|
Send your questions on the craft of creative writing to email@example.com.